Champion of Champions – special edition!

Hi, and welcome to my free, special edition chapter based on my children’s cycling book – ‘Champion of Champions’.

Champion of Champions – being used to inspire young writers

Whilst so many pupils are currently at home, I thought I’d just provide a quick, fun comprehension option either for parents to print off and use at home or for teachers who are looking after the children of key workers to use in school.

All I’ve done is re-written a key part of my novel, and added a new element to the story that doesn’t appear in the book. Once your child or pupil has read the story, print off the comprehension that follows it and answer the questions. I’ve not given the answers, but I’m sure you mums and dads can figure them out easily enough if you read through the story with your children…I hope you enjoy it!

I’ve ended the story on a bit of a cliff hanger, so that gives you an extra option of challenging your child or pupil to provide their own ending to the story, I hope they do!

Just a little background to the passage which will help with the comprehension without giving too much away from the story that is told in ‘Champion of Champions’.

Ok. The story is about Daniel, a 14 year old boy from Swansea in South Wales who has a dream to become a professional road cyclist. In the pursuit of his dream, Daniel has to travel to Italy with his father who was born there. When he is there, Daniel meets his Italian grandfather for the first time in his life. Daniel’s grandfather insists on calling Daniel by his Italian name – Danilo.

Daniel’s grandfather is a man of many secrets and one of them is that he used to be a successful cyclist in the 1950’s and was a member of the team of the greatest cyclist in Italian history – Fausto Coppi.

In this special story, Daniel’s grandfather tells Daniel the story of competing in the toughest one day race in professional cycling – the Paris – Roubaix race…also known as ‘The Hell of the North’.

I hope you enjoy it!!

Champion of Champions special edition story – The Hell of The North

Why is the race called ‘The Hell of the North’?” I asked.

“The cobbles,” my grandfather replied, “They provide the hell. The race is properly known as the Paris to Roubaix, the most demanding of all the races I ever took part in, but also one of the most prestigious in which to compete. The race began in Paris, then would run northwards to Roubaix which was close to the Belgian border. After the war, most of the roads out of Paris were not tarmac as they are today, but what the French call “pave” which means cobblestones, which in turn translates to pain! You must wonder about my teeth, Danilo,” my grandfather said, laughing, before giving me his fullest smile which showed how wonky and how many gaps he had in his teeth. 

“Before I started the ‘Hell of the North’, my teeth were perfect and full – look what those cobblestones did to me, so much did they shake me to the bone!” Again he laughed out loud. 

“We had to cover about 150 miles on those painful cobbles, cycling north through the old industrial areas of France, which meant another thing to add to your teeth being shaken out of your head – dirt, and lots of it. You learn to get used to everything as a cyclist, Danilo, but the filth, mud, ash and grit that we would suffer in an inevitably wet April each year was torture. Give me a long steep mountain in the heat any day. I just shudder when I remember this gruelling race.”

“You see, there was another problem”, continued my grandfather, “the wind. Even though there were no hills as such to worry about, those roads were so open, with no trees to protect us, that the wind would just whistle through. It was sometimes like a brick wall stopping us!” He shook his head as if remembering the strength of the energy sapping wind.

“To combat it, Danilo, I used to ride in the deep gutter at the side of the road. This could be dangerous if the water gathered there in puddles, in which case I’d swerve back onto the cobbles, but just by riding a bit lower, kept me out of the worst of the wind. Yet as always, there was a price to pay, and that was the mud!”

“Mud?” I asked, “How can you have a cycle race in mud, isn’t that dangerous?”

“Yes!” he replied, with excitement in his voice, I noticed, rather than fear of any kind.

“That’s what made us feel so alive! You see, Danilo, we knew the race was dangerous – for so many reasons – but in a very odd way that made it even more attractive to us. Ordinarily, you would avoid mud, for obvious reasons, but the roads were so bad during poor weather, that it became practically impossible, which meant just one thing.”

“What’s that, grandpa,” I asked.

“Crashes,” he replied instantly.

Then my grandfather beckoned me forward and pointed to an area just above his left eye. I hadn’t noticed it before, but now it became clear. It was a scar that ran all the way above his left eyebrow. It was about two inches long, and had clearly been a deep wound. The pink ridge of skin that showed where it had healed stood proud of the surface of his face. Either side of the scar I could see little pin pricks in his skin. Stiches.

“Wow, grandpa, that’s a big cut, how did it happen?”

“Mud,” he replied instantly.

“I remember it so well. Our Patron – team leader – Fausto Coppi, was desperate to win it. It was 1950 and the weather was awful. Fausto knew that the men to beat were the Belgian, Rik Van Steenbergen – a tough as teak rider who had won the race two years earlier – and our fellow Italian, Fiorenzi Magni, whose best form was always found in the worst conditions. Fausto handpicked his team to help him win the race, and I was lucky to be one of them.”

“Wow, that’s so fantastic, grandpa” I exclaimed, but my grandfather ignored me, it was if he was in another place, another time, and he kept on telling the story as if I wasn’t even there.

“My job was so simple, I just had to get to the front of our group for the first fifty or sixty kilometres and keep everyone out of trouble. If I hit the first hole in the cobblestones, tough, I just pointed it out to those behind. If I hit the first puddle, tough, I just sped through it, clearing it for my teammates. If I hit the mud, then I just carried though and pointed to my team to avoid it.”

My grandfather paused, as if recalling a painful memory.

“It all went well until I had to make a sharp turn just before the town of Troisvilles. I could see the mud, but it was deeper than I thought and the bend much tighter. I slowed to take the corner, but my front wheel never moved an inch when I turned the handlebars to my left. As a result, I just ploughed straight on and fell.”

“Is that when you cut your eye, grandpa?” 

He looked up at me as if suddenly remembering that I was there.

“Eh? The fall? Oh no, that’s not what did for me, we fell all the time and that was something that I knew how to do well, I was used to it! No, it was not the fall, it was the getting up from it and it was all my own stupid fault!”

He rubbed the scar above his eye, as if the memories had somehow started to make it itch.

“You see, Danilo, I’d fallen head first over the handlebars, and even before I’d crashed into those horrible cobbles, all I could think about was getting up. The mistake I’d made was not realising that my teammates behind would have taken the corner wider, to avoid the mud – unlike the fool that I was!”

He laughed again as he spoke.

“Anyway, as I sprang up, I completely ignored the fact that riders were behind me, and as I pushed myself up from the cobbles, I heard a scream “Attenzione! Attenzione!”

“I recognised the voice straight away, even amongst the total confusion, it was the great Fausto! His voice was so close, I swear I could feel his breath on my face. Terrified that I might bring him down, I just threw myself back on the floor, and as I did, his right pedal came around and caught my face.”

“Oh no!” I screamed, putting my hands over my eyes in horror, “It must have killed!!

“Not at all!” Laughed my grandfather, “I didn’t feel a thing! I just did what I was trained to do, I just jumped back up on my bike, got my speed up as quick as I could, and eventually got back on the end of our little train, and settled in behind Fausto, just resting until I was called back to the front. I was annoyed that the mud I’d fallen in to was sticking to my face, and had got in my eye, and was trying to wipe it away, but it was getting worse. It was only when Fausto glanced back and shouted at me, “Sangue, sangue!” that I realised I had a problem.”

“What does ‘sangue’ mean then, grandpa?”

“Blood, Danilo. Blood.”  

Okay, I really hope you enjoyed the story- now here’s the comprehension – have fun and good luck! Best wishes, Dave.

Comprehension Questions – The Hell of the North.

1. Why is the race called the Hell of the North?

Answer: A) The weather B) The cobbles C) The wheels D) The mud

2. Where does the race begin?

Answer: A) Roubaix B) Paris C) Belgium D) Wales

3. Which direction did the race run?

Answer:  A) North B) South C) East D) West

4. What French word meant “cobblestones”?

Answer:  A) Cobbles B) Tarmac C) Roads D) Pave

5. How many miles did the race cover?

Answer:  A) About 130 B) About 140 C) About 150 D) About 160 

6. Which of the following words did the grandfather NOT use to describe the dirt?

Answer:  A) Filth B) Grit C) Mud D) Soil

7. In what month did the race always take place?

Answer:  A) March B) April C) May D) June

8. What did the grandfather say happened when he remembered the gruelling race?

Answer:  A) He would cry B) He would laugh C) He would shake D) He would shudder

9. What was the other problem for the cyclists?


10. What was not around to protect cyclists from the wind?

Answer:  A) Buildings B) Bridges C) Trees D) Walls

11. What phrase does the grandfather use to emphasise the strength of the wind?


12.  Why was cycling in the gutter dangerous?

Answer: A) The mud B) The wind C) The cobbles D) The puddles

13. Please give three reasons why ‘The Hell of the North’ was a difficult race. 


14. The grandfather and the other racers knew that the race was dangerous, but how did it make them feel?


15. In the story, it says that the grandfather ‘beckoned’ Daniel/Danilo forward. What does ‘beckoned’ mean?


16. What was the one word the grandfather gave as the reason for the scar over his eye?


17. Rik Van Steenbergen was as ‘tough as teak’. What is ‘teak’? 

Answer: A) Stone B) Wood C) Steel D) Leather

18. What did the grandfather do when he reached a puddle?

Answer: A) Fell off B) Pointed it out C) Avoided it D) Sped through it

19. What was the name of the town where the grandfather fell off his bike?


20. What did Daniel/Danilo think that the memories of the crash did to his scar?

Answer: A) Make it throb B) Make it swell C) Make it itch D) Make it bleed

21. Who shouted ‘Attenzione! Attenzione!’ at the grandfather?


22. What was the grandfather trained to do after a crash?

Answer: A) Get straight back on B) Wait until he checked his bike C) Quit the race D) Get a check up with the doctor

23. What does the Italian word ‘sangue’ mean?


24. Finish the story! Write your ending to the story. Does Fausto win the race? Does the grandfather carry on? Does the grandfather win? What would you do? Imagine you are the grandfather – put yourself in his position. Remember to use your five senses in your writing – sight, touch, smell, hearing and taste – this is called writing with imagery. 

But above all, write from the heart, tell your own story, remember to describe your emotions and feel free to introduce a new character or two.

If you want to find more information about the Paris – Roubaix race for research:–Roubaix

If you want to find more information about Fausto Coppi –

If you want to order a copy of Champions of Champions –

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