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Column: Paris-Roubaix, lunacy in tradition's name

A cyclist steers his bike on a cobblestone-paved section ahead of Sunday's 110th edition of the Paris-Roubaix cycling classic, in Baisieux , northern France, Thursday April 5, 2012. The 258 kilometer (160 mile) long race involves 51.5 kilometers (32 miles) of strenuous highly-feared cobblestone-paved roads. A cyclist steers his bike on a cobblestone-paved section ahead of Sunday's 110th edition of the Paris-Roubaix cycling classic, in Baisieux , northern France, Thursday April 5, 2012. The 258 kilometer (160 mile) long race involves 51.5 kilometers (32 miles) of strenuous highly-feared cobblestone-paved roads. (AP Photo/Michel Spingler)
By John Leicester
AP Sports Columnist / April 6, 2012
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ON THE ROUTE OF PARIS-ROUBAIX, France—A green jacket and a cobblestone. The beauty and the beast of trophies, alike only in the sense that both are tremendously coveted in their respective sports.

The jacket, of course, will be slipped onto the shoulders of golf's new Masters champion Sunday. A few hours before that, a continent away in the dour north of France, the cobblestone will be hoisted aloft by an exhausted cyclist caked in grime. The rider will have worked far harder than the golfer for his prize.

The winning check at the Masters is $1.4 million. Along with his cobblestone mounted on a marble base -- perhaps the weirdest trophy in world sports -- the rider will pocket $39,000 for winning the toughest one-day test of man and machine in cycling, the Paris-Roubaix. Life really isn't fair.

Only because it is even older than the Tour de France does Paris-Roubaix get away with inflicting such cruelty on its participants. Born in 1896, it can do this because it is a tradition and because cycling values its traditions, even when they're just plain mad. If Paris-Roubaix was a new race, being organized for the first time this Sunday, there would surely be outrage and an army of health and safety apparatchiks forbidding it.

"It's the only race other than the Tour de France that people talk to me about, outside of France," Christian Prudhomme, the Tour's director, said this week as we rode together by car along the Paris-Roubaix route.

Prudhomme and his colleague Jean-Francois Pescheux were inspecting the renowned cobblestone paths that make this race a bone-shaking, wheel-puncturing festival of mayhem. Along with the riders, the cobbles are the stars of this show and its bullies, too. They aren't the smooth stones one finds on the boulevards of Paris. These are roughly hewn granite rocks haphazardly laid into tracks through farmland, caked in mud and often hundreds of years of old.

Brutes. Barely fit for tractors let alone bicycles. Their bumps, crevasses and holes pound riders' forearms and hands and shake loose nuts and bolts. If there's rain, the stones will become as slippery as soap. If not, the riders will choke in clouds of dust. The 160-mile route is studded with 27 sections of cobblestones. They make this race as wearing as a day of hard climbing in the mountains on the Tour -- but with added pounding and bruising, "as though they're holding a jackhammer in their hands," Prudhomme said.

"You're in pain for the whole week that follows," said French ex-pro Thierry Gouvenou, who rode in 12 Paris-Roubaix.

American cyclist Chris Horner's verdict a few years back was especially memorable.

"The best I could do would be to describe it like this: They plowed a dirt road, flew over it with a helicopter and then just dropped a bunch of rocks out of the helicopter! That's Paris-Roubaix. It's that bad, it's ridiculous," he told dailypeloton.com.

For riders' mechanics like Geoff Brown, on the Garmin-Barracuda team, there is no tougher challenge. Paris-Roubaix is "the litmus test to see if you're any good at your job," Brown said.

Tires are wider and pumped to half the pressure than on the Tour so they better absorb bumps and don't fall into cracks between the cobbles. Every nut and bolt on Garmin's bikes is being glued into place so they don't shake loose, and double or triple layers of shock-absorbing tape are going on handlebars, Brown said.

Organizers' cars are reinforced underneath with metal sheets so the stones don't rip out their innards. Gouvenou said the atmosphere at the start in Compiegne, north of Paris, will be noticeably more apprehensive than at other races.

"There's a real fear of the unknown and that means everyone is tense," he said. Riders will be steeling themselves like boxers, "you have to prepare yourself for pain."

The founders 116 years ago were textile manufacturers Theodore Vienne and Maurice Perez, who wanted a race to the velodrome they had built to keep their workers happy and healthy in the industrial northern town of Roubaix, according to cycling historian Pascal Sergent.

Sergent recounts that a newspaper editor, Victor Breyer, was dispatched from Paris to trace a route. Breyer arrived in Roubaix covered in mud, drenched by rain, exhausted by cycling on the cobblestones and declaring that racing on them would be "diabolical" and dangerous. Luckily (unluckily?) for riders of yesteryear and today, Breyer changed his mind after a good night's sleep.

The first winner, Josef Fischer, was greeted with a rendition of "La Marseillaise" as he rode into the Roubaix velodrome and a glass of champagne after crossing the line on April 19, 1896.

The 1899 winner was Albert Champion, who moved to the United States and went into the spark-plug business, lending his initials to what is now ACDelco, the auto parts firm.

Paris-Roubaix's "Hell of the North" nickname is said to have been coined in 1919 by a journalist to describe the shelled and destroyed World War I wastelands the race picked its way through. It took that year's winner, Henri Pelissier, more than 12 hours to reach Roubaix -- twice as long as it took Garmin's Belgian rider Johan van Summeren to win last year.

Because the cobbles guarantee punctures, crashes and other drama, the race is also something of a lottery where the best don't always win. Tough for the best, great for the rest.

No winner of Paris-Roubaix can be called merely lucky and thus undeserving. But there are riders who perhaps deserved to win who have not.

Like George Hincapie, the big American who fought back tears in 2006 after his handlebars sheered off on the bumps, tossing him into the dirt. He and Frederic Guesdon of France will line up Sunday for their 17th Paris-Roubaix.

Or Thor Hushovd, the beefy Norwegian who misjudged his speed on a sharp bend in 2009, slamming off a barrier and onto the stones. He remains obsessed with winning this race "in which anything can happen."

Brave and mad, the lot of them.

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John Leicester is an international sports columnist for The Associated Press. Write to him at jleicester(at)ap.org or follow him at http://twitter.com/johnleicester

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