Icons of cycling: La Trouée d’Arenberg, Paris-Roubaix’s toughest cobbles

We sing the praises of Paris-Roubaix’s slice of cobbled hell

Its wicked surface mocks the weak and favours the strong, and it’s a major talent filter in Paris-Roubaix. It’s called La Trouée d’Arenberg, or the Arenberg Trench, and it’s the most famous cobbled road in the world.

The road is actually called La Drève des Boules d’Hérin. It runs through the Forêt de Raismes-St-Amand-Wallers, connecting the mining village of Arenberg with similar villages to the north.

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“The forest is Paris-Roubaix" - Franco Ballerini, Paris-Roubaix winner 1998. Photo: Graham Watson

“The forest is Paris-Roubaix”. Photo: Graham Watson

It’s a farm track that preceded the pits, and is normally used as a short cut by locals.
Only locals were aware of it before 1968, but pretty soon the whole cycling world knew it because of one of those locals.

>>> 12 pictures that show just how tough the Paris-Roubaix cobbles are

He was Jean Stablinski, the 1962 road race world champion who had been a coal miner at Arenberg pit before he became a professional cyclist.

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Road resurfacing in the 1960s meant Paris-Roubaix lost a lot of its cobbles, so the race director asked Stablinski to help.

He gave the race Arenberg and many of the cobbled sections used today. Stablinski died in 2007, and in 2008 a memorial stone was unveiled at the entrance to Arenberg, dedicated to the only man who ever raced over these cobbles and worked beneath them.

High speed hazard

Sean Kelly tackling the Arenberg in 1984: Photo: Graham Watson

Sean Kelly tackling the Arenberg in 1984. Photo: Graham Watson

La Trouée d’Arenberg is 2.4 kilometres long. It’s rated five stars, the highest for severity in Paris-Roubaix, and it is only ever used in that race.

On average Arenberg comes 94 kilometres before the finish. Usually after 10 cobbled sections have been ridden with 17 to go. It’s often the first major selection in Paris-Roubaix.

There are two races to Arenberg; the first to get there, and the second to get across it. Get behind a crash here and the race could be over. Teams ride like it’s the finale of a sprint stage in the Tour de France. They hammer through Arenberg, bounce over a level crossing then hit the stones at anything up to 70kph.

The surface is bad now, but it was once far worse. As approach speeds increased crashes were frequent. In 1998 there was a massive one, and although others were smaller the injuries were terrible; broken legs, fractured hips and shattered knees. Something had to be done.

The Trench was can be unrideable. Photo: Graham Watson

The Trench was can be unrideable. Photo: Graham Watson

Arenberg was taken out of Paris-Roubaix in 2005, and the cobbles relaid to make them more uniform. Some say this removed some of their sting, but it had to be done; racing had become too fast for the cobbles as they were.

Arenberg is a thrilling part of an incredible race now, a place of pilgrimage for cyclists, and still a shortcut for locals when the race is not in town.