2km from nowhere.

Roubaix: Anatomy Of A Shithole

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One of the best, most memorable (and repeated) lines from the movie In Bruges is “it’s a shithole”. Of course this isn’t true; Bruges (or Brugge in the local parlance) is a beautiful city with many a charm to captivate the senses. On my third visit to the city during Keepers Tour 2015, the shithole line became a mantra that would be repeated every time another quaint Belgian or French village was encountered. Brussels? Shithole. Cassel? Shithole. Roubaix? Definitely a shithole. Even the locals agreed on that one.

The mystique of Roubaix is owed sqaurely to the race that finishes in the storied velodrome every April. That a town that is plainer than unsalted crisps can hold such a venerated place in the fabric of Cycling mythology isn’t really a mystery though. It owes everything to the race, and nothing to the flat landscape, rows of nondescript brick buildings and dark and dirty streets that make up its veneer. Driving through these foreboding laneways dotted with the occasional kebabery or tabac outlet, one gets the sense that the locals loitering outside aren’t there to happily offer directions to see you safely on your way to the opera. Empty corner lots framed with wire fencing in various phases of neglect are inhabited by teenagers kicking worn footballs, their gritty faces already looking every bit as hard as Peter van Petegem and sporting as much 5 o’clock shadow as the Black-eyed Man from Brakel after a week on the tiles. This is the face of Roubaix that mainstream media either dares not document, or simply doesn’t know exists.

Our trustworthy partners Alex and William know how to keep a KT full of diverse and interesting side shows in the rare times we are not on our bikes. In 2013 Alex ferried us through the back blocks of Roubaix to a little space tucked away at the end of a corridor of an old factory of some sort for a pre-race gathering. The bar cum gallery was festooned with old team jerseys, bikes, memorabilia and a bevy of beautiful women sporting some of those same jerseys. We weren’t exactly sure what was going on, but we enjoyed the look into how the locals celebrated the biggest event of the year for the town. This year we found ourselves once again on our way to the same space, this time with the promise of a cycling-themed band to entertain us after a hard day on the cobbles. William was sceptical as to the entertainment value of the evening, but Alex assured us that we would most definitely be entertained. He was right, as always.

That same little alleyway was sporting much the same decorations and many of the same patrons as our visit two years earlier, but there were more people milling around and partaking in the French national pastimes of smoking, chatting and exuding copious quantities of Casual Deliberation. No matter how hard one tries (or smokes) this cannot be replicated by a bunch of middle-aged Western Cyclists. We stood out like dog’s balls. My limited grasp of the basics of the local dialect gained me just two cigarettes and a dozen blank stares. My Merci Roubaix tee-shirt did start a conversation with a couple of guys drinking Malteni at the bar though, and luckily their grasp of English was far more substantial than mine of French. One of the chaps turned out to be a former stagiaire for the Cofidis team in the early 2000s, but it was his tale of his father’s exploits which really got my attention. Didier Vanoverschelde raced in the 70s and 80s and was a teammate of Laurent Fignon and Paul Sherwen on the La Redoute team, riding four Tours and most of the Classics including Roubaix. His son (whose name escaped me in a cloud of smoke and beer) proudly told of often sitting in the front seat of the family car between dad and Le Professeur on their way home from a race, and Sherwen regularly staying at their home during the Tour. By the time I went and fetched Frank to be regaled with such awesome stories, the son had disappeared into one of the frequent conga lines that punctuated the night. C’est la vie.

A particularly cordial mademoiselle decked out in a sweet Motobecane jersey told me that the surrounding area was “like 95% of Roubaix is”, which I took to mean not very glamourous. I also got the impression that every Cycling fan in town was assembled in this tiny enclave on the night, and that this kind of entertainment wasn’t typical of what you’d find on any other Thursday night in town. The band was unlike any other you’d find anywhere, ever. Les Chattes Patates (a ‘plow potato‘) were a cross between Monty Python, the Raleigh TI team of the 70s and Weird Al Yankovich. On acid. With instruments and tiny bicycles. There was definitely a sense of “what the fuck” among our crew, we couldn’t understand anything that was being said or sung, but we spoke the universal language of Cycling, guitars, punk rock riffs and Ramones-esque posturing. Every now and then I’d pick up a shouted “Loison Bobet”, “Le Blaireau” or “Pou Pou Poulidor” and sang along accordingly. All the while the band was churning out yet another rapidfire rhythm, a poor sod dubbed “Monsieur Sir Weegins” turned the pedals of a bike with a too-low seat on a home trainer for reasons still unknown.

Once the madness on stage and the conga lines had subsided, the entertainment turned to the four-way stationary-bike races. With a raft of drunken, loud coaxing from the KT crew (well, Frank) each of us took our place on the rickety singlespeeds mounted on even more rickety trainers to see who could move the little coloured bikes in the middle of a giant wheel the furthest. Vo2 maxes were pushed to levels not seen all week on the cobbles, and legs that were only hours earlier crying for mercy were now being subjected to 180rpm three-minute intervals by brains that were operating at levels well below normal capacity. When Ms Motobecane saddled up and demanded some competition, those who were reluctant to punish themselves just minutes before were now fighting for the last too-small or too-big bike with renewed vigour. Hearts raced and brows became beaded with sweat, and that was before a pedal was turned in some vestige of enthusiasm, as much as could be summoned at 11pm in a drunken haze.

As we reluctantly stumbled back down the corridor at the behest of Alex, gleaning one last cigarette from Ms Motobecane and almost forgetting to gather the V-Flag from the corner, I pulled back the lapels of my jacket and proudly revealed my tee-shirt a final time. Merci Roubaix. For you may be a shithole on the outside, but deep within beats a Cycling heart that few can match.

// Awesome French Guys // Keepers Tour // Reverence

  1. Sounds like you ran into Monsieur Paris-Roubaix…refreshing madness http://cyclingtips.com.au/2015/04/monsieur-paris-roubaix/

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  2. Looks like you hated every minute off it. As @ClydesdaleChris said

    That looks ridiculous. . Can I have a go?
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  3. ” of “

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  4. @the Engine

    Fear and Loathing on the Road to Roubaix I tell ya

    Was it “when the going gets weird, the weird turn pro”you had in mind? Very pro. For further reading on shitholes of northern France, read Germinal. It’s been that way tres longtemps.

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  5. Frank’s machine had moved so that the back wheel was rubbing on the frame. We told him after.

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  6. @Harminator HYSTERICAL

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  7. Alas, Sir Wiggins didn’t make the cut onto the band’s cover photo.

    Le grand entrance!

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  8. @ChrisO

    @the Engine

    Fear and Loathing on the Road to Roubaix I tell ya

    Was it “when the going gets weird, the weird turn pro”you had in mind?

    I thought about getting that quote on the toptube of my Jaegher. But didn’t.

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  9. Wasn’t “Les Chasse Patates” the local slang for the group of cyclists stuck forever between the break and the peloton?

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  10. I am deeply, deeply envious. What an experience.

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  11. @the Engine

    …better still Brett is the only guy in the world apart from me and (presumably) Michael Palin who has memorised chunks of “Ripping Yarns” (he has it on video) and William turned out to be a Father Ted aficionado from Limerick – blank looks from Frank et al as he yelled “don’t you Len me you little gobshite” at me over the cobbles. I was in heaven. There was some cycling too I believe…

    Much discussion of rain gauges or the blackness of shovels ?

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  12. @PT

    @the Engine

    …better still Brett is the only guy in the world apart from me and (presumably) Michael Palin who has memorised chunks of “Ripping Yarns” (he has it on video) and William turned out to be a Father Ted aficionado from Limerick – blank looks from Frank et al as he yelled “don’t you Len me you little gobshite” at me over the cobbles. I was in heaven. There was some cycling too I believe…

    Much discussion of rain gauges or the blackness of shovels ?

    Spear and Jackson No. 3s were discussed, yes…

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  13. It’s like Terry Gilliam directed a remake of the Triplets of Belleville. Seriously good time had by all by the looks of it. Our local “newspaper” did an article on the Cheesehead Roubaix. Journalism of the worst kind. First of all, the “journalist” wrote that Roubaix was pronounced roo-bye and then these gems “Dating back to the early 1800s, those European races took cyclists through a long route on some of the most ancient roads on the continent. The unique thing about the roubaix is that riders cycled over many cobblestone, unpaved sections of roads.” Early 1800s? I need to re-read my cycling history books. And it was on the front page. Apparently the newspaper doesn’t have the internet and the ability to do basis searches. Or call the local bike shop. The New York times it ain’t.

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  14. @asyax You are correct: English (google) translation below: Chasse-Patate (Potato-hunt) L’expression est régulièrement utilisée par les commentateurs sportifs, parfois à tort et à travers. Un coureur qui est en chasse-patate est dans une situation inconfortable. Pris entre deux groupes (en général entre le peloton et une échappée), il ne parvient pas à refaire son retard sur ceux qu’il poursuit. Souvent, il se fait même rattraper par le peloton avant la ligne d’arrivée. Cette expression a été inventée lors de la course des Six jours de Paris, qui se déroulait au Vélodrome d’hiver. Après les ravitaillements, les “chasses” (sprints pour rattraper les coureurs de devant) étaient plus lentes que d’habitude, digestion oblige ! Ces sprints au ralenti étaient surnommés “chasse-patate”.

    The term is often used by sports commentators, sometimes indiscriminately. A rider who is [in a] potato [hunt or hunted potato?] is in an uncomfortable situation. Caught between two groups (usually between the pack and a breakaway), it is unable to make up ground on those he continues. Often it is even up by the peloton before the finish line. This phrase was coined during the Six Day race in Paris, held at the Winter Velodrome. After refueling, the “hunting” (sprints to catch the front runners) were slower than usual (digestion obliges)! These sprints idling were nicknamed “plow potato”.
    Btw: I think plow is an incorrect translation by Google, which is why I changed about into “hunt” or “hunted” but I stand to be corrigé.

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  15. Great article about what looks like a wicked night, but it’s throw your hat in the ring, not your head.

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  16. And: the potatoes should be hunted a bit more to adhere to Rule #33

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  17. @wiscot

    It’s like Terry Gilliam directed a remake of the Triplets of Belleville. Seriously good time had by all by the looks of it. Our local “newspaper” did an article on the Cheesehead Roubaix. Journalism of the worst kind. First of all, the “journalist” wrote that Roubaix was pronounced roo-bye and then these gems “Dating back to the early 1800s, those European races took cyclists through a long route on some of the most ancient roads on the continent. The unique thing about the roubaix is that riders cycled over many cobblestone, unpaved sections of roads.” Early 1800s? I need to re-read my cycling history books. And it was on the front page. Apparently the newspaper doesn’t have the internet and the ability to do basis searches. Or call the local bike shop. The New York times it ain’t.

    Well, it is West Bend after all.

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  18. @KW Tell me about it. Just last week the front page had a big article (with picture) of a local woman who had believed herself to be constipated. Seeking relief, she went to the bathroom to alleviate her discomfort only to be shocked – shocked! – that she birthed a baby right into the crapper. “I had no idea I was pregnant” said she. Said article has caused undue amounts of mirth and eye rolling from my female colleagues.

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  19. @wiscot

    @KW Tell me about it. Just last week the front page had a big article (with picture) of a local woman who had believed herself to be constipated. Seeking relief, she went to the bathroom to alleviate her discomfort only to be shocked – shocked! – that she birthed a baby right into the crapper. “I had no idea I was pregnant” said she. Said article has caused undue amounts of mirth and eye rolling from my female colleagues.

    Oh dear god. From one non-native Wisconsinite to another, sometimes this state really scares me.

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  20. “We stood out like dog’s balls” I have long been a vocal advocate that all male dogs still roaming “intact” should have to wear around tightey whiteys. Nobody needs to see the fruit basket slanging and slapping. Lots of places are shitholes. It just forces you to be more creative in how you have your fun. My undergraduate college town was an also-ran, didn’t stop me from having four years of fun. Sports, cheap beer, and wimmin’, I was happy.

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  21. @KW

    @wiscot

    @KW Tell me about it. Just last week the front page had a big article (with picture) of a local woman who had believed herself to be constipated. Seeking relief, she went to the bathroom to alleviate her discomfort only to be shocked – shocked! – that she birthed a baby right into the crapper. “I had no idea I was pregnant” said she. Said article has caused undue amounts of mirth and eye rolling from my female colleagues.

    Oh dear god. From one non-native Wisconsinite to another, sometimes this state really scares me.

    Don’t feel so bad, the average intelligence of the entire nation is piss poor. So long as you can have any type of gun you want in your pocket at all times, that’s what matters. “Idiocracy” is looking like the truth more and more each day.

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  22. Damn. @brett that looks like an absolutely awesome night out. I’m just surprised that any of you were in a state to walk out of there. You need to rerecord Obey the Rules with Les Chasse-Patate.

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  23. @KW

    @wiscot

    @KW Tell me about it. Just last week the front page had a big article (with picture) of a local woman who had believed herself to be constipated. Seeking relief, she went to the bathroom to alleviate her discomfort only to be shocked – shocked! – that she birthed a baby right into the crapper. “I had no idea I was pregnant” said she. Said article has caused undue amounts of mirth and eye rolling from my female colleagues.

    Oh dear god. From one non-native Wisconsinite to another, sometimes this state really scares me.

    Did anyone check for new stars in the sky?

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  24. The band has a Facebook page and although it is in French, you can tell that they are a funny bunch of maniacs. One look through their pics and you’ll instantly love or hate these guys.

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  25. @PT

    @the Engine

    …better still Brett is the only guy in the world apart from me and (presumably) Michael Palin who has memorised chunks of “Ripping Yarns” (he has it on video) and William turned out to be a Father Ted aficionado from Limerick – blank looks from Frank et al as he yelled “don’t you Len me you little gobshite” at me over the cobbles. I was in heaven. There was some cycling too I believe…

    Much discussion of rain gauges or the blackness of shovels ?

    Black pudding I think you mean. So black, even the white bits are black.

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  26. Lots of talk about Ms. Motobecane, but no one got a decent picture with her? C’est la vie I suppose.

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  27. @Oli

    Great article about what looks like a wicked night, but it’s throw your hat in the ring, not your head.

    I love it when you don’t get my jokes and point them out as errors. That’s actually a reference to what was at the time perhaps my favorite TV show because the premise of aliens living as humans is so obvious but funny nevertheless. They’d always screw up their expressions like that because they were aliens. http://www.imdb.com/title/tt0115082/

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  28. @oldensteel

    The band has a Facebook page and although it is in French, you can tell that they are a funny bunch of maniacs. One look through their pics and you’ll instantly love or hate these guys.

    I spent the first 10 minutes wondering how they could possibly be such idiots. Then I realized it was a pisstake and realized I was the idiot. They were full-on ska-punk and actually not terrible at all.

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  29. Speaking as somebody who has been in a band that dressed up like Evel Knievel to play surf music, I can tell you that they’re doing it right. Also, the helmets ARE necessary. Wearing a helmet on stage saved my life more than on the bike.

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  30. @AJ

    Lots of talk about Ms. Motobecane, but no one got a decent picture with her? C’est la vie I suppose.

    Agreed. We need proof of her existence. She could be the new Assos girl for all we know!

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  31. @Teocalli

    @KW

    @wiscot

    @KW Tell me about it. Just last week the front page had a big article (with picture) of a local woman who had believed herself to be constipated. Seeking relief, she went to the bathroom to alleviate her discomfort only to be shocked – shocked! – that she birthed a baby right into the crapper. “I had no idea I was pregnant” said she. Said article has caused undue amounts of mirth and eye rolling from my female colleagues.

    Oh dear god. From one non-native Wisconsinite to another, sometimes this state really scares me.

    Did anyone check for new stars in the sky?

    I did, but it was just a satellite falling out of orbit and crashing to earth. Quite prophetic I think . . .

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  32. That looks like my sort of night. Rollapaluza look and learn!

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  33. I really like the title of this article. (The content is okay, too.)

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  34. @frank

    @Oli

    Great article about what looks like a wicked night, but it’s throw your hat in the ring, not your head.

    I love it when you don’t get my jokes and point them out as errors. That’s actually a reference to what was at the time perhaps my favorite TV show because the premise of aliens living as humans is so obvious but funny nevertheless. They’d always screw up their expressions like that because they were aliens. http://www.imdb.com/title/tt0115082/

    Ah. I’ll get my coat…

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  35. Anyway, I thought I was hassling Brett not you.

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  36. @Oli

    Anyway, I thought I was hassling Brett not you.

    Unlucky mate. Frank did the photo album and captions for me. You’ll have to save it for another time!

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  37. You never let me have any fun…

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  38. @wiscot

    @AJ

    Lots of talk about Ms. Motobecane, but no one got a decent picture with her? C’est la vie I suppose.

    Agreed. We need proof of her existence. She could be the new Assos girl for all we know!

    Photo taken from Cycling Tips story… maybe someone else has one of her (on right of photo)

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  39. @brett I thought we were talking Miss white & red – re lascivious photo of Brett in photo #18. Need to study up on vintage jerseys!

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  40. @Oli

    @frank

    @Oli

    Great article about what looks like a wicked night, but it’s throw your hat in the ring, not your head.

    I love it when you don’t get my jokes and point them out as errors. That’s actually a reference to what was at the time perhaps my favorite TV show because the premise of aliens living as humans is so obvious but funny nevertheless. They’d always screw up their expressions like that because they were aliens. http://www.imdb.com/title/tt0115082/

    Ah. I’ll get my coat…

    You have to admit that throwing your head in the ring is a lot bigger of a commitment than just tossing your hat in there!

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  41. @Oli

    Anyway, I thought I was hassling Brett not you.

    I was flying incognito as the photo caption editor.

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  42. @frank

    @Oli

    @frank

    @Oli

    Great article about what looks like a wicked night, but it’s throw your hat in the ring, not your head.

    I love it when you don’t get my jokes and point them out as errors. That’s actually a reference to what was at the time perhaps my favorite TV show because the premise of aliens living as humans is so obvious but funny nevertheless. They’d always screw up their expressions like that because they were aliens. http://www.imdb.com/title/tt0115082/

    Ah. I’ll get my coat…

    You have to admit that throwing your head in the ring is a lot bigger of a commitment than just tossing your hat in there!

    or his coat for that matter.

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  43. @asyax

    @brett I thought we were talking Miss white & red – re lascivious photo of Brett in photo #18. Need to study up on vintage jerseys!

    Miss White and Red was pretty special…

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  44. There is something extra special about fetching women in cycling jerseys and/or on a bicycle.

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  45. @Harminator

    Frank’s machine had moved so that the back wheel was rubbing on the frame. We told him after.

    Sheeeit, that whole night looks awesome. Bless Alex and William for taking everyone to suck a bizarre cyclo event. And good to see the three sprinting Malteni men battling it out. Roubaix can’t be so bad if things like this happen. And the beer is good in Northern France too. Thanks for reporting it too Brett. We need to know about these things on the KT.

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  46. @Gianni

    Thanks for reporting it too Brett. We need to know about these things on the KT.

    Well if you came along…

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  47. It was wet

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  48. Only time I’ve visited Bruge we cocked up and visited the day the museums we wanted to visit were closed – it was a Monday morning in winter, had been pissing rain, the streets were muddy and deserted, and me and my travelling buddy are wandering around a tad lost wondering what to do. 2 women in their fifties, on Dutch bikes, impeccable make up, hair, heels, and full length fur coats, rode past us looking at us like we were mentally deficient fish that had managed to flop out of the nearby canal. We could barely walk down the street without looking like muddy hobos, I have no idea how they managed to ride and look absolutely pristine.

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  49. @ChrisO

    @PT

    @the Engine

    …better still Brett is the only guy in the world apart from me and (presumably) Michael Palin who has memorised chunks of “Ripping Yarns” (he has it on video) and William turned out to be a Father Ted aficionado from Limerick – blank looks from Frank et al as he yelled “don’t you Len me you little gobshite” at me over the cobbles. I was in heaven. There was some cycling too I believe…

    Much discussion of rain gauges or the blackness of shovels ?

    Black pudding I think you mean. So black, even the white bits are black.

    I must be getting old, could swear it was shovels. Of course, black pudding featured too. Speaking of which, this is almost the same era as the tales of ecky thump…which definitely involved a black pudding. http://youtu.be/TJxGi8bizEg

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  50. @brett

    @asyax

    @brett I thought we were talking Miss white & red – re lascivious photo of Brett in photo #18. Need to study up on vintage jerseys!

    Miss White and Red was pretty special…

    Yeah… @asyax got where I was going. I was fishing for pictures of Miss White and Red. haha. At the same time I wouldn’t fault anyone for sharing a smoke with Miss Motobecane.

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