The Hell of the North

A Visual History of Paris-Roubaix

Of the one-day races, Paris-Roubaix is perhaps the most notorious, arching between infamy and legend. Riders, caked in mud, overcoming flats and crashes and eager to hold position, sprint for each section of cobble only to ride straight into the jagged stones that barely pass for roadway. If bike races are story generators, The Hell of the North is nearly Shakespearean, subjecting its actors to brutal pain, underdog victories... the rise, and inevitable fall, of cycling dynasties.

Bernaurd Hinault crashing into a dog, and somehow winning the race in pure rage. Greg Lemond’s face, unrecognizable behind the dirt and dust. Fausto Coppi and André Mahé: officially tied, unofficially feuding for decades over who really took first. Mathew Hayman, a 37-year-old career domestique, out-sprinting the race favorites, unable to believe he had actually won.

Paris-Roubaix is the last test of madness that the sport of cycling puts before its participants…A hardship approaching the threshold of cruelty.
– Jacques Goddet, Race Director (1968)


The 115 year evolution of Paris-Roubaix evolves with the sport: the bikes get lighter, the riders stronger, and accordingly, the races trend faster. But, it also tracks along the history of Europe–no races during the World Wars. Post WWI, in 1919 the still-recovering competition performs at its slowest. The course destroyed, and previous winners (Octave Lapize and Francois Faber) lost to the war, a pre-race recon of the route bestows Paris-Roubaix with its nickname, The Hell of the North.

“We enter into the center of the battlefield. There’s not a tree. Everything is flattened! There’s not a square metre that has not been hurled upside down. There’s one shell hole after another. The only things standing out in the churned earth are the crosses with their ribbons in blue, white and red. It is hell!”
– Victor Breyer, L’Auto

It may have been the beginning of what would become a celebration of struggle. The fastest ride, Peter Post’s victory in 1964, is largely attributed to changes in the course that took it over mostly fresh paved roads. Race organizers were quick to correct the mistake and retain the cobbles, Paris-Roubaix’s notorious source of pain and character.

Paris-Roubaix AVERAGE SPEEDS, 1886-2016

The Greats

The Queen of the Classics, like all of the monuments, is a legend maker, but its distinct character rewards a certain type of racer above others: unconventional and harsh, the cobbles require expertise. Two-time winner Marc Madiot speaks of the race like generals speak of war: "If you did not properly prepare for your campaign, you cannot win. You must think, live, eat, and sleep Paris-Roubaix. It must become obsessive.”

Below, you’ll find the top 10% winningest riders, according to the UCI’s point system. Of the 325 professionals charted, the top twenty-five are highlighted by name.

While Merckx is still the undisputed master of the monuments, De Vlaeminck (or Monsieur Paris-Roubaix) is the king of this classic. A cyclocross champion, he had a true edge over his competition and came to every race believing he would win. Of 13 attempts, De Vlaeminck never finished below 7th place, a feat no other rider comes close to achieving. Boonen, a legend in his own right and nearest to De Vlaeminck with four first-place finishes, can’t quite match his consistency, with a single 24th-place finish in 2003...but perhaps Boonen will tighten the gap this year, in what he claims will be the last race of his career.

The Top 10% Paris-Roubaix Cyclists