The Tour de France is bigger than any racer.

Paris-Roubaix is ​​bigger than any racer.

Such sentences sound meaningful, they please the organizers.

But they are only half the truth.

Because all really big sporting events, all really big bike races have only become big because of special people, extraordinary athletes.

They are the sum of the achievements of these people.

At Paris-Roubaix, one of the toughest and oldest cycling races (the first edition was held in 1896), there have been many racers over the decades who have worked on its monument.

One of them is Jean Stablinski.

He is the racer whose life and endurance more than anything else illustrates the essence of this legendary race.

A passage that takes your breath away

Born in Thun-Saint-Amand in 1932 to Polish immigrants, Stablinski grew up in the coalfields of northern France.

After the death of his father, he had to earn the money to support the family.

He worked from the age of fourteen.

First in a galvanizing plant, then as a miner underground in the Wallers-Arenberg colliery.

Years later, he was to lead the forest of Arenberg to eerie fame.

The British writer and cycling enthusiast Graeme Fife described the dangerous and badly paid work in the mines of the Nord department with the words: "Deep under the earth, under the dark forests and the old cobbled Roman roads, Caesar's legions as the territory of the Belgae knew one of the toughest fighters they had ever faced, the men chopped out the black diamonds.” On the few days off, Stablinski earned a few extra francs as an accordion player and, to his mother’s displeasure, used the proceeds to buy a racing bike.

He raced up hill and dale up the climbs, all joined in jagged pain in the Arenberg forest, a brutal pavement that is now one of the symbols of Paris-Roubaix.

As a teenager, Stablinski had cycled the route countless times on his way to work.

As someone who was used to far greater drudgery underground, he engraved the ethos of suffering into the memorial of this race.

Graeme Fife quotes him as saying: “If you went five hundred meters down in the cage, you never knew for sure if you would come up again.

But that's nothing to think about.

Like the Arenberg.

It's best if you don't allow the fear in the first place.” Only the suffering.

Stablinski rode away from the miner's fate on his racing bike, it was his ticket for a different kind of drudgery, no longer in the dark of the colliery, but up in the light.

At 16 he rode his first bicycle race, at 21 he got his first professional contract.

He was French champion four times, won 105 races as a professional between 1952 and 1968, and became road world champion in 1962.

For years he was the main helper of the great Jacques Anquetil, who won the Tour de France five times.

But Paris-Roubaix, the “Hell of the North”, is the race that shaped Stablinski.

He drove it eight times.

His best finishes were two fifth places in 1956 and 1957.

In 1968, Stablinski gave his race the Arenberg.

Jacques Goddet, then director of the Tour de France and Paris-Roubaix, had been looking for new cobblestone passages, and when Stablinski suggested the climb in the Arenberg forest, Goddet is said to have been speechless.

Even he had never seen such a passage.

A 2.4 km long aisle, rising and straight as a die, three meters wide full of coarse rock.

A path laid out in Napoleon's time.

Against the Arenberg, even an unforgiving pavé sector like the Chemin des Abattoirs, the slaughterhouse path near the village of Orchies, seems like an invitation to a pleasant country ride.

This Sunday, the Arenberg-Passage in the 119th edition of Paris-Roubaix with around 95 kilometers to go will end all the dreams of a good result for many drivers.

The Wallers mine has eaten its way under the aisle.

Stablinski was the only driver who knew both the brutal work underground and the struggle on the pavé.

Since 2008, one year after his death, there has been a memorial stone at the entrance to the Arenberg forest.

It commemorates a racer who did much to make this race one of the five monuments of cycling.

A race that the German pro Jonasutsch, eleventh last year, recommends as an unsurpassed challenge "for the tough guys".

If you want to surpass yourself as a racing driver, he says, you will find the right terrain here.

And with the aisle from Arenberg also the entrance to the "Hell of the North".