Click photo to enlargeON 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
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