The "Hell" of the title are the roads of the one-day Paris-Roubaix race, one of 'Monuments' of the "spring classics" on the professional cycling calendar. Paris-Roubaix is the most famous and usually the most dramatic of these races. Much of the latter portion of the race takes place over "pave": narrow, cobbled tracks that become choked with dust on dry days and treacherously slick and muddy on rainy days. For the riders it's a challenge simply to keep going without puncturing a tyre or crashing on the difficult cobbled roads.
The film succeeds in capturing not just the events of the 1976 edition of Paris-Roubaix, but also the whole atmosphere of a professional bicycle race. The film begins with the introduction of the major contenders for victory: Eddy Merckx, Roger De Vlaeminck (the previous year's winner), Freddy Maertens, and Francesco Moser, each with their supporting riders (domestiques) who are charged with helping their team leader to win this most prestigious of races.
The film sets the race in its many contexts - we get multiple views of the action: team director, protester (the race is halted for a while), spectator, mechanic, rider et al. As the Hell of the North is entered the selection process begins. Riders puncture, crash, make the wrong move - the race plays out. By the time the finish in the velodrome in Roubaix approaches only a few are in with a chance. The winner is a surprise, but that is only a small part of the film's appeal. It's all encompassing approach to the cultural context of the race makes this a film that can communicate to the cycling aficionado and neophyte alike.
Post-race the exhausted riders, mired in dirt, give interviews in the velodrome's ancient showers. They look like men who have been to hell and back.
"You can see every bead of sweat on the cyclists and every smashed-up ankle. It really makes you never want to get on a bike again. But it is an amazing film." - Nick Fraser, BBC Commissioning Editor
"Arguably the best film ever made about professional cycling" - Peter Cowie, International Film Guide