When Kiwi cyclists Jack Bauer and Tom Scully take to the start line of the most feared and revered one-day bike race tomorrow, they will carry in their hearts the memory of nearly 60 New Zealanders who lie in the ground beneath.

Just as the Tour de France is the pinnacle of stage racing in the sport, every cyclist who turns professional looks to Paris Roubaix as the ultimate test of ability over a single day, and the one which carries the most honour.

To stand on the winner's podium in the Roubaix velodrome on the Belgian border, holding aloft a mounted cobblestone from the route's cruel surface is to enter the pantheon of cycling royalty.

Bauer and Scully will be riding in support of the leaders of their respective Mitchelton-Scott and EF Drapac teams teams, so don't expect to see them on the podium in 2018. Yet their participation will be no less heroic. The winding, 260km route traverses many old, narrow farm roads covered in rough cobblestones that frequently cause catastrophic crashes, especially in wet weather. Connoisseurs of the race study the weather forecast ahead of time, hoping for miserable conditions and rain. A day out from this year's edition, the skies look to be dry but lingering mud and waterlogged cobbled sections guarantee another year of carnage.


Many think the cobblestone roads are the reason Paris Roubaix is also known as "The Hell of the North". But the nickname is a reference to the fact the route threads through terrain that endured four years of shelling and trench warfare 100 years ago. That is the historic link between the young Kiwis going out to do battle on their bikes tomorrow and an earlier generation of their cycling forefathers who fought and died here.

The New Zealand Cycling Corps arrived on the Western Front in July 1916 and were attached, in separate units, to the British army. Around 60 died during the war, and many are buried in the British cemeteries at Marfaux and Messines, where they saw some of their heaviest fighting at the battle of Kemmelberg.

The Kemmelberg, a cobbled hill just over the French-Belgian border from Roubaix, is an iconic feature of last week's Gent-Wevelgem, which kicked off the week of cobbled racing which ends tomorrow.

Roger Dungan, the newly installed deputy ambassador to the OECD at the New Zealand Embassy in Paris, came across the obscured history of the cycling corps and initiated a programme of remembrance that came to its climax this year.

Dungan's first step, with the assistance of several local and New Zealand organisations, was to retrieve one of the cobbles from the Kemmelberg. He had it mounted on wood from a World War I trench to create a perpetual trophy for the winner of the New Zealand under-23 national road race.

Bauer, who assisted in the effort to create it, said the trophy was special.

"To think 100 years is not that long ago, but that there were guys like me travelling from as far away as New Zealand to fight over here, which says so much about New Zealanders," Bauer said.

James Fouche was the first winner of the mounted cobblestone under-23 national trophy in Napier in January.


Two wreath-laying ceremonies and a plaque unveiling were held in the past week at Messines and Marfaux, at which Dungan was accompanied by a New Zealand Defence attache from the embassy, a representative of Cycling NZ and more than 30 cycle tourists from New Zealand, including a nephew and grandchildren of members of the cycling corps. Today, the group will take part in the cyclosportif version of Paris Roubaix, riding part of the route, to experience some of the challenges confronting the cyclists.

Tomorrow, it's the professionals' turn. All the sport's biggest names will be there, including world champion Peter Sagan and Nicki Terpstra, winner of last Sunday's other big race in the series, The Tour of Flanders.

Seven years ago, I watched Paris Roubaix from a support car, alongside the cobbled sections and in the finishing velodrome. In terms of sporting drama, it has it all: incredible endurance, feats of athleticism, hair-raising spills and attacking racing.

It's one of those races that never finishes in a bunch, but usually in shattered dribs and drabs of survivors who've made it to the velodrome - often riding caked in mud, bleeding and jarred to the bone. There can't be a better way for Bauer and Scully to pay tribute to the men of the New Zealand Cycling Corps.