‘If this uncouth forest yield anything savage, I will either be food for it or bring it for food to thee.’ – Orlando to Adam in As You Like It, Act 2, Scene 6. Just the name of the Forest of Arenberg has that Shakespearian ring to it, and, just like As You Like It’s Forest of Arden, it has the capacity to give with one hand and take away with the other.
‘You can’t win Roubaix there, but you can lose it,’ 2016 Roubaix winner Mat Hayman tells Cyclist.
We’d dismiss his assessment as just another sporting cliché were it not so true. The Arenberg section of cobbles has the capacity to ruin not just races, but careers.
‘It’s a nervous time for everyone; you just want to get through there unscathed,’ Hayman adds. This long, straight section of cobbles, 2.3km in length, is also known as the Trouée d’Arenberg (the Arenberg Trench). It makes its way through the forest, flanked on one side by a barrier to hold back the baying crowd and on the other by an often wet and muddy strip of grass that cruelly tempts riders to escape the rattle and danger of the cobbles, only for them to succumb to a different kind of fall, albeit onto a slightly more forgiving surface.
This year, the famous stretch of cobbles has been polished and perfected by goats. As a form of eco-grazing, many of the animals have been seen munching on grass between cobblestones before the men’s peloton arrives on Sunday 9th April.
‘You ride through there and you think, “This is just ridiculous”,’ says Hayman, now a sport director at Team Jayco-AlUla. ‘Your bike feels as though it’s about to fall apart at any moment. You don’t know how carbon fibre can even take that kind of shock. Anybody who’s gone over there – including those who’ve done the sportive – will understand. It’s by far the worst section of cobbles in the race, and if there’s any kind of moisture in the air, you know it’s going to be slippery.’
It may make its appearance almost 100km from the finish in Roubaix, but the almighty scrap to get to the front before hitting that stretch of cobbles, as Hayman points out, is about ensuring as clear a path as possible for yourself. If you crash here, not only might it put your race in jeopardy, but also your season, or even your career.
Two of the most infamous accidents happened here to Johan Museeuw and the late Philippe Gaumont, in 1998 and 2001 respectively. Gaumont’s horror crash broke his femur, while Museeuw shattered his kneecap, with the resulting gangrene infection almost costing him his leg. But he would return to win a second Roubaix in 2000, to add to his 1996 victory, and then add a third in 2002.
When Hayman won in 2016, his then-Orica-GreenEDGE teammate Mitch Docker endured a high-speed crash at the entrance of the forest. With a broken cheekbone and broken nose, he suffered such severe facial injuries that it was unsure if Docker would lose sight in one eye, but fortunately made a full recovery.
‘It really is a nerve-wracking part of the race, and you’re pretty happy once you’re through,’ says Hayman. ‘But there really are no winners in the Arenberg.’
Notably this section is still not included in the women’s version of the race, Paris-Roubaix Femmes, which takes place on Saturday 8th April 2023.
Read our full guide for course details, start lists and more on the Paris-Roubaix races.