A Sunday in Hell

It is by riding a bicycle that you learn the contours of a country best, since you have to sweat up the hills and coast down them …” – Ernest Hemingway.

There was a time when films depicted realism, a time when newspapers were printed with “hot-metal” linotype, a time when bicycles were made of steel, of strength, psyche and style, a trial of truth. There was a time when workers came out on the streets to air their grievance against the boss.

Here is a great Danish/BBC documentary film directed by Jørgen Leth about one of the toughest bike races in the world, the Paris-Roubaix. Leth also made the epic ‘Stars and Watercarriers‘ which features the same gritty style about the Giro d’Italia. You can hear the gears changing and the chains rattle as the bikes whistle by.

A Sunday in Hell features the workers of Paris printshops demonstrating against one of the sponsors of the race, Le Parisien libéré . The commentator explains:

“This is where the race is to be let loose, with the chateau of Chantilly providing the backdrop. But something’s holding up the start, something unforeseen and probably highly irregular.


 ” Something’s blocking the road and delaying departure. An obstacle which is not included in the race programme. It’s a demonstration.

Sous les pavés, la plage! – Bernard Cousin
May ’68

They’re demonstrating against one of the sponsors of the race, the newspaper Le Parisien Libere, and they are protesting against the redundancies of the operators on linotype as a result of automation. It’s a long-standing labour conflict – and the organisers of the race are not entirely unprepared.

In May 1975, Émilien Amaury, boss of the Le Parisien libéré, one of the biggest newspapers in France, locked out workers from his printing works on the rue d’Enghien in Paris. His goal was to get rid of union workers (a chapter of CGT, a big workers federation). Like Murdoch in the Battle of Wapping in England in 1986, Amaury chose confrontation with the unions. The workers, innovative and growing, chose to delay the Paris-Roubaix, a classic bike race. They put solidarity stickers on the backs of riders and shone a light on their dispute over technological change in the printing industry.

Paris, June 12, 1975: Unionists from the CGT and the CFDT march from the Republic to Bastille to support the demands of the workers of the Book and workers of ‘Le Parisien libéré‘.- L’humanite

The Unions fought back by organising ‘rodeos‘. Secretary of the General Union of Books and Written Communication (CGT), Marc Norguez, explains:

“The struggle is hard, but it is not sad. The Parisian printing works were occupied for long months, from March 4, 1975 to December 5, 1976. Bernard Dubois, a young photoengraver, was in charge of making newspapers and organizing spectacular initiatives. He tells. “At the July 14 celebration, there was Leny Escudero, Georges Moustaki, Colette Magny, Catherine Ribeiro, Francesca Solleville. All came for free, it was the biggest ball in Paris, in the rue d’Enghien. It was believed that the street would explode. Catherine Ribeiro, an extraordinary woman, came with her daughter and spent evenings with us. Each time she made a gala, she gave us a large sum. “

– former secretary of the General Union of Books and Written Communication (CGT) Marc Norguez

Le Paris-Roubaix (1976)

The film follows the French Paris-Roubaix spring classic, notorious for the hellish paves or cobbled roads of the north “which are no longer used for traffic but only for transporting cattle – and for cycle races“.

We are there from the dawn preparations and rituals on the outskirts of Paris and through the rigours of the race with special focus on a number of prominent cyclists to the final outcome on the Roubaix cycle track – followed by the filthy riders taking their showers.

Workers protest sponsor of Paris_Roubaix, Le Parisien libéré

There is also an eye for life among the spectators and the media event as such. The film alternates among different kinds of shot with a view to establishing the most suitable view of the narrative: shots from motorcycles, which are able to convey the motion of the race and provide close ups of the riders in the style of television cycle race reporting; fixed cameras stationed at strategically important points along the route, where viewers can watch riders passing in real time and thus gain a clear overview of the distance between the leaders and the main field: and the Olympian eye of the helicopter shots.

Ian Curr
18 May 2020