Theatres of Cross: Roubaix

It used to be that the famous Vélodrome Roubaix only truly came alive for one day a year, when the gladiators of the Queen of the Classics arrived – caked in mud and dust – from Compiegne. During the winter months, only modest crowds visited the velodrome to be entertained by the grunts and shoves of Rugby Club de Roubaix, stamping their feet for warmth.

But another cycling spectacle was added to Roubaix’s calendar when the World Cup cyclocross circus arrived for the first time in January, 2009. Starting and finishing in front of the velodrome’s large but perfunctory 1930s grandstand, three-quarters of the famous track is incorporated into its twisting three kilometre parcours. Utilising the steep ups and downs of the earthen banking surrounding the velodrome, one of the most frantic and atmospheric courses of the season – and occasionally the muddiest – is conjured up.

The French have other World Cup cross venues, but it’s Roubaix’s closeness to the Belgian border, just five kilometres away, that helps to bring in the crowds. It’s also close to the notoriously tough races of the Flemish Ardennes, such as Koppenbergcross. Going back many centuries the area was known as the County of Flanders, when the medieval kingdom of France reached as far east as the Scheldt estuary at Antwerp.

Formally regulated cyclocross racing was born in France. The Paris suburbs were the cradle of the sport at the turn of the twentieth century and the Criterium International cross race served as an unofficial world-title race from 1924 until the inaugural championship in 1950.

The first velodrome in these parts, built in 1895 in nearby Croix, had been the idea of a pair of industrialists and racers, Theodore Vienne and Maurice Perez, and their acumen led them to establishing a road race that would start in Paris and end at the track. Other attractions at the velodrome proved even more sadistic – bull fighting was hosted in the velodrome until the ‘fun’ was interrupted by the Great War. A new wooden track surface that had been laid in 1910 was steadily stripped bare as collecting firewood to stay warm in the wartime winters took priority over bicycle racing.

The current outdoor track, which was completed in 1936, became the focus for an extensive sports complex, all at the service of the local community. The surrounding streets are filled with modest suburban and social housing, with many current residents taking the short tram ride into the nearby city centre of Lille for work.

That wasn’t always the case. Roubaix was once a thriving economic centre in it’s own right, powered by the textile industry. In 1839 it was referred to as the ‘French Manchester’, and even claimed that its production surpassed that of the English textile powerhouse. Like in the north of England, the industry has now largely disappeared. One of the more obscure clues to Roubaix’s past is that the town is twinned with Bradford in West Yorkshire – once a centre of the British wool trade.

Many of Roubaix’s streets are still lined with industrial mills, now empty, alongside weaving sheds, the odd factory chimney, and a canal that would have once transported finished goods weaves it way silently through back streets. One of the town’s largest textile mills – on the broad Avenue Alfred Motte that beckons the cobbled classics’ riders towards the velodrome – has successfully reinvented itself as a factory outlet for clothing brands, but most are shuttered and unused.

Roubaix’s neighbor, Lille, avoided such a decline due to its attractive Grand Place and street cafes, attracting the English and Belgians – and their spending power – for weekend breaks on the Eurostar. Roubaix remains just outside the prosperous tourist trail, a slightly faded part of France’s industrial north.

Roubaix has been fighting the effects of post-industrial decline for decades, with 75% of the town given “sensitive urban zone” status by the French Government, for its high unemployment, high levels of social housing, and low rate of school finishers.

With the completion of a neighbouring indoor velodrome in 2012, Roubaix is finally trying to make use of its iconic status within the world of cycling. The new velodrome is named ‘Stab’ in honour of 1962 World road race champion Jean Stablinski – the local French rider (of Polish descent) – who is famously the only cyclist to work both across the cobbles (finishing 7th in the 1964 Paris-Roubaix) and below them in the Bellaing coal mine. It was also Stablinski who first suggested that the Paris-Roubaix race should pass through the notorious Arenberg forest secteur.

The new indoor velodrome, and adjoining BMX track, are important projects to strengthen Roubaix’s new identity and restore some much-deserved pride. The venue was awarded a round of the UCI cyclocross World Cup this season, but local organisers had to withdraw their bid. Perhaps Roubaix, and this peripheral corner of France, is not quite out of the financial woods yet, but renaissance is hopefully not far up the road.

Konrad Manning is the editor of