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Sebastien Corne is described as a fascinating and eccentric character who loves everything about the race that takes place in his backyard every year – Paris-Roubaix. I’ve only had the pleasure of communicating with him over email and social media and was hoping to meet up with him last week, but it didn’t work out. Fortunately Séb’s good friend Jack Chevell was able to write a few words about him and share how the locals celebrate their race over this rich and vibrant weekend. –Wade Wallace
Roubaix is often maligned by visitors. Those coming from the significantly wealthier Flemish region just over the border will notice it’s humble industrial appearance immediately. When the mills closed, prosperity retreated from this region, leaving blackened bricks and empty factories behind it. The peeling wooden doors of one of these abandoned relics are open however, and a warm glow spills out into the street.
’Chez Rita’ is a gallery and studio space inside an old biscuit factory on the outskirts of Roubaix, and tonight is the night before Paris Roubaix. Strings of lights are wrapped around the girders and vintage jerseys, caps and bidons hang from the walls. Ancient black and white televisions are showing reruns of ancient bike races and the building is full of guests eating, drinking and chatting.
After a few rounds of a fairly ad hoc Rollapalooza and plenty of the locally brewed ‘Malteni’ beer, the evening’s entertainment arrives. The lights are dimmed, and in ride four grown men of varying athletic prowess on children’s racing bicycles. ‘Les Chasse Patates’ arrive and take up their instruments. Once moustaches have been twirled and caps adjusted, they launch into loud and energetic punk covers of traditional French folk songs.
Behind the band Sebastien, who has helped organise the evening, rides his Eddy Merckx on rollers set up in front of a painted countryside. A Paris Roubaix drama unfolds on the rollers, with the appearance of a cardboard team car, a grumpy Directeur Sportif, a musette of beer, even a minor crash. The whole performance is brilliantly funny and the jokes are knowledgeable. The fact that everyone gets them hints that the race is still loved here and relevant to people. I am most struck by the how accessible Séb and his friends make a sport which often takes itself rather too seriously.
All too soon the evening is over and I leave my warm little oasis, back through the street still singing along to my favourite of the evenings songs, ’Pou Pou Pou Pou Poulidor!’
Before it became too expensive to compete with foreign imports, the cotton industry made Roubaix rich and built the ornate Grand Place. After a cup of coffee to shake off my gueule de bois, I meet Séb there the next morning. He isn’t difficult to spot arriving in his mid 1970’s Peugeot 504 Estate. Inside the polished and much loved icon of French design, the leather interior is immaculate. This is no show car though, it’s Séb’s pride and joy, but it’s also expected to work. Today it will face the same broken and deformed cobbled roads the cyclists, and will be worked hard to make sure we reach each sector in time.
We will be visiting three sectors of pavé. The first will be Quiévy to Saint-Python, then Haveluy and the famous Mons-en-Pévèle. From there it’s a sprint to car to make the finish in Roubaix Velodrome. It’s a long drive down the Autoroute to the first sector. As we drive, Séb points out the sectors close to the highway as we pass them. He recognises each one and can name them all, these are his roads and he’s ridden them countless times.
Before the race arrives, it’s a pleasant wait in the sunshine. We have bread and cheese from a cool box in the back of the Peugeot. This crossroads is a popular place to begin the day following the race. Belgian fans flock over the nearby border and there’s plenty of enthusiastic drinking and dressing up, under the watchful eye of local gendarmerie. Once the race arrives, the pace of the day changes entirely. It’s a race back to the car and a horn blaring high speed drive to get clear of the crowds. Here, Monsieur Paris Roubaix’s local knowledge really becomes evident. Every time our progress is halted by the traffic rushing to get away, we dive into a turning and speed along winding unpaved narrow tracks, emerging ahead of the jam.
Today it is particularly important we don’t get delayed. A strong southerly wind is driving the race along at a tremendous pace. At one point, more that half an hour faster than the predicted schedule. We make it to Haveluy moments before the break of the day arrives, and as soon as the peloton passes ‘Allez Jack! We go.’ And it’s another jog across the fields and on to our final cobbled sector of the day, Mons-en-Pévèle.
The good weather has drawn a huge crowd, and there is an atmosphere of excitement and not a little chaos as the television helicopter hovers just metres above a nearby field. The crowds part as the race passes through, unlike some other sections, there are no barriers or tape. We’re parked in the best position to allow us a hasty escape, and after another run to the car, its the last leg to Roubaix.
We watch the finish from the VIP enclosure, which Séb has managed to get us access to. In Roubaix, it’s the French riders who get the biggest cheers regardless of where they finish. The field is split into many small groups and riders are still arriving thirty minutes after the winner. We cross the course and wander amongst the team buses and cars. After a long day of blaring horns, helicopters and cheering fans, the absence of noise is very apparent in the still evening. Suddenly Séb turns and starts jogging after a man who appears to be a mechanic. He’s carrying wheels and when we catch up to him, he looks very familiar. Séb takes a picture of the two of them together on his iPhone. ‘Erik Zabel, he was my favourite as a kid!’
The excitement and stress of Paris Roubaix is uniquely draining, and it’s not long before fatigue gets the better of us and we decide to head home. As we wander back to the car, there is a shout and a hand extends to shake his from the crowd, ‘Hey! Monsieur Paris Roubaix! Hey!’ Séb looks a little sheepish and modestly laughs off the greeting. But a smile lingers at the corner of his mouth and you can tell he’s pleased.