The towns and villages surrounding the Arenberg Forest are home to the mining communities of Northern France. Here, through the years, men young and old and wiry lads like Jean Stablinski, would descend deep mine shafts each day to earn their bread. At the end of a long days graft Stablinksi and his friends would grab their bikes and ride out into the forests, away from the blackness of the mines to relax in the sunlight.
Stablinski escaped the mines to sit in the saddle as a professional racer, much of the time as a lieutenant to Jacques Antiquil. More than a coincidence perhaps that Antiquil, when asked why he seemed to hold no great love for the bicycle - the machine which brought him fame and fortune - used to always reply: "Show me a miner that loves his pick". No coincidence either that the Arenberg, one of the toughest stretches of pavé on any race route, became known to locals and the cyclists competing in Paris-Roubaix as The Trench.
The Arenberg cobbles are irregular, angular, sharp. Through the centuries wagons, tractors and even tanks have gnawed the edges of the track, making the camber uneven with high crests and low sides. In the wet, the surface of each stone is turned to glass. The riders approach the forest with more than 150km in their legs and fatigue in their minds. If a racer enters the Arenberg outside the top 30, he has probably already lost.
Stablinksi, the only man to have worked the tunnels beneath the trench and raced on its broken surface, made this stark comparison:
"When you went down in the cage, five hundred metres, you never knew for sure whether you would be coming up again. Not something to dwell on. Like the Arenberg. Best not even to let the fear in"