For years Belgian champion Roger de Vlaeminck has held the moniker “Mr. Paris-Roubaix.” And as the first four-time winner of the great “Hell of the North,” such a title is justified.
But in many ways, an unassuming Frenchman could make equal claims to the title.
Born and raised in Roubaix, cycling historian and collector Pascal Sergent is undoubtedly the race’s biggest fan. He is a walking encyclopedia of the sport, and in particular, of this unique race. And today he boasts one of the most enviable collections of cycling memorabilia from the event.
“My dad first took me to see the finish of Paris-Roubaix back in 1966,” Sergent remembered. “It was pouring down rain, just freezing. Felice Gimondi won that day and you can even see me in some of the images at the finish. But I didn’t know anything about cycling.
“It was the first bicycle race I’d ever attended and I didn’t know what I was seeing, really. But I was hooked immediately by the ambiance, the sounds, the speaker, just everything. From that day on I was reading everything I could about the sport. When other kids were reading comics strips, I was reading about riders like Antonin Magne, Roger Lapébie, you name it.”
Today, Sergent, who works in the offices of the new Roubaix velodrome as president of the northern committee of the FFC, has written over 30 books on the sport and curates one of the country’s great collections.
He is not boasting when he says, “I have every edition of L’Équipe. It takes up so much room I have to keep it in my house in Normandy because there simply is no more space here.” He is simply stating a fact. And as one visits Sergent at his house on the outskirts of Roubaix it is immediately clear that virtually every shelf and every wall at his house is already full.
Sergent is first a lover of cycling, and his collection is rich with yellow jerseys from Eddy Merckx and Bernard Hinault. But it is clear that Paris-Roubaix stands out.
Three original Roubaix bikes are displayed in his attic, one from Gilbert Duclos-Lassalle, winner in 1992 and 1993, one from Andrei Tchmil, winner in 1994, and one from Frank Vandenbroucke, one of his sentimental heroes. Meanwhile, his office wall is lined with framed Roubaix jerseys, several with the number of the winner still pinned on them.
“One of my most cherished jerseys is that of Duclos-Lassalle,” he recalled. “I had known Gilbert for years and went to see him after his first victory in 1992. He told me that he had already promised the jersey to his mechanic, but he told me to come back next year and if he won again he would give me that one. I only half-believed him, but then he won again. I went to congratulate him and I didn’t even have to ask for the jersey, he just told me to wait a minute, and then he came back and gave it to me!”
While Duclos-Lassalle’s Roubaix-worn GAN jersey has a special place in his heart, it is far from the only jewel in his collection as others worn by Johan Museeuw, Tom Boonen, and Franco Ballerini are also prominently displayed.
While Sergent does not consider himself a fan, he is appreciated by the cyclists themselves for the numerous books he has written on the sport and its champions. And more many of champions have donated to his collection as a sign of their appreciation for Sergent’s knowledge and passion for the sport, as well as the humility he displays when in their presence.
“I have gotten to know many of the riders,” he says. “Andrei Tchmil lived around Roubaix when he was starting out as a professional and he is a friend. Like Roger de Vlaeminck, he is relatively closed. But once you have found the key, the door is wide open. Franco Ballerini was also a personal friend. When I would go down to Italy he would pick me up at the airport.
“I’ll never foret the day he won his second Roubaix. I was on the infield when he won and after he passed the line he stopped by me and gave me the biggest huge. That was an unforgettable moment, and when I learned thathe died I was just floored [Ballernini was killed in a rally car accident in 2010 –ed]. And even today, it is still hard for me to talk about.”
And while he has more vintage jerseys than he could possibly count, one stands out in particular. And it is not from a rider he knew or from his beloved Roubaix race. Ironically is the white and blue Bianchi jersey from Fausto Coppi. “For me, Coppi was simply the greatest,” Sergent said without hesitation. “Sure Merckx won more races, but Coppi did so with such style and with such flare. He just had exceptional class. No I didn’t know him, but to have his jersey is nothing short the Holy Grail for me.”