Looking forward to watching Pairs-Rubaix bike race tomorrow.
The race usually leaves riders caked in mud and grit, from the cobbled roads and rutted tracks of northern France’s former coal-mining region. However, this is not how this race earned the name l’enfer du Nord, or Hell of the North. The term was used to describe the route of the race after World War I. Organisers and journalists set off from Paris in 1919 to see how much of the route had survived four years of shelling and trench warfare. _Procycling_reported:
They knew little of the permanent effects of the war. Nine million had died and France lost more than any. But, as elsewhere, news was scant. Who even knew if there was still a road to Roubaix? If Roubaix was still there? The car of organisers and journalists made its way along the route those first riders had gone. And at first all looked well. There was destruction and there was poverty and there was a strange shortage of men. But France had survived. But then, as they neared the north, the air began to reek of broken drains, raw sewage and the stench of rotting cattle. Trees which had begun to look forward to spring became instead blackened, ragged stumps, their twisted branches pushed to the sky like the crippled arms of a dying man. Everywhere was mud. Nobody knows who first described it as ‘hell’, but there was no better word. And that’s how it appeared next day in the papers: that little party had seen ‘the hell of the north.’
The words in L’Auto were:
We enter into the centre of the battlefield. There’s not a tree, everything is flattened! Not a square metre that has not been hurled upside down. There’s one shell hole after another. The only things that stand out in this churned earth are the crosses with their ribbons in blue, white and red. It is hell! ’
“This wasn’t a race. It was a pilgrimage.” — Henri Pélissier, speaking of his 1919 victory