The Late Laurent Fignon Looks Back

Laurent Fignon: When We Were Young And Carefree

By Laurent Fignon (Yellow Jersey Press/Random House/2010)

Translated from the French by William Fotheringham

Review by Jeffrey Morseburg

The late Laurent Fignon rarely gave journalists or their readers what they wanted.  In fact, in that fateful summer of ’89, Tour de France journalists gave him the “lemon award” for the most uncooperative cyclist.  It seems the ink-stained wretches didn’t appreciate his recalcitrance, his brusk manner or the fact that if provoked, he could shove or even spit on sportswriters.  However, in the book that Fignon finished just months before his untimely death from cancer, he begins with the story that virtually every cyclist wants to hear – the tale of his heartbreaking loss to Greg Lemond.  The story of the closest Tour de France in history serves as a prologue for the story of Laurent Fignon’s life and cycling career. Perhaps in the end Fignon has the last laugh, for those who only want to know how he felt to lose to Lemond in that final time trial stage of the Tour will simply read the beginning of the book and never get to know the real person and he will remain enigmatic as ever.


Fignon Would Always Be Reminded of that Fateful Stage of the 1989 Tour...


Fignon was born in Paris, but grew up in Tournan-et-Brie in the Marne countryside east of the city, where he could play in the forest every day.  He writes that other than reading, he had a difficult time sitting still as a youngster, a trait that defined him his entire life.  Fignon was not one for sitting in front of the television or at interminable family gatherings – he had to be active.  Another thing that defined him were his glasses.  He was shy and always stood out because of his thick spectacles, which clearly caused him to suffer some persecution as a youngster.  Perhaps a sense of grievance from being singled out for something so trivial helped to serve as fuel for his later triumphs.

Fignon was always enthusiastic about sports, but football (or soccer) was his first love.  His father was a blue-collar worker with a prodigious work ethic who had little time to follow sports. Because the Fignons lived in the countryside, cycling was a common form of recreation.  The blond rider began racing along the bike paths with his mates at fifteen and took out his first racing license the following year, in 1976.  Like a number of great champions, he showed immediate promise as a junior and was soon winning half his races. At eighteen, he tried college briefly, advanced to the senior ranks as a rider and then served in a special sporting unit to complete his compulsory military service.

Fignon On the Attack!

He was not destined to spend a long time as an amateur, for Fignon was as hyperactive in his cycling as he was in the rest of life. He drew notice for his victories as well as his aggressive, attacking style. He had problems with the “combines” that tend to rule French amateur racing and this is where we see his intransigence, his implacability, his “friend or foe” nature first come out.  When he would get into a breakaway, Fignon knew he was the strongest and so he wanted to win, or else he would get even my making sure the members of the combine didn’t emerge with a victory.

By his third senior season, Fignon was racing in the colors of the French National Team.  It was in the Tour of Corsica that he first met Cyrille Guimard and Bernanrd Hinault, two men who were to loom so large in his future.  This event, which took place through the rustic Corsican countryside, was open to amateur national teams as well as professional equipes.   Guimard was the director of the state-supported Renault-Elf-Gitane team and the cycling genius who had discovered and molded the young Hinault.  In the Corsica tour the wily manager immediately recognized Fignon’s potential.  He was one of the few amateurs who was able to ride with the top professionals in the mountains and Guimard told him that he would “keep an eye on him” that season.  During the tour Fignon was also able to observe the great Hinault up close and he irritated the older rider by following him closely in the race.


Fignon Showed Off His New Renault After Inking His First Contract


Guimard signed Fignon to a contract for the 1982 season, the rider happy to find that his best cycling friend Pascal Jules would be on the Renault team as well.   From his first days as a neo-pro, Laurent Fignon showed the personality traits that would make him one of the world’s best cyclists.  He showed up to the training camp with miles already in his legs so that he would be competitive from the first races of the season.  While he was impressed by how quickly Hinault burned off the winter fat as well as his confident control of “his” team, Fignon was not overawed by the veteran rider and had the temerity to give as well as he got in the dinner table repartee that is part of cycling. Cyrille Guimard, Renault’s director, could see he had a rare talent on his hands and showed confidence in Fignon by encouraging him to win the Grand Prix de Cannes and the Fleche Azureene, two early season events held on the Mediterranean coast.   He was assigned to ride the demanding Giro d’ Italia in support of Hinault and in his first national tour he wore the pink jersey as leader and then helped Hinault to victory through his tireless work in the mountains of Italy.


Ironically, After Cycling, Fignon Joined the Media, Becoming a Television Analyst n


In 1983, Fignon was assigned to help Hinault win the Vuelta de Espana, Spain’s national tour, which was then held early in the spring.  Hinault was having problems with his knee and rode the entire race in pain. For the first time in years, he was vulnerable and left behind by his rivals.  On the stage from Salamanca to Avila Fignon helped unleash the wounded but still dangerous “Badger,” and Hinault vanquished the other leaders with an epic eighty-kilometer attack that filled Fignon with awe. Because Guimard felt his charge was too young to do two of the arduous three-week national tours in the same season, Fignon was not scheduled to be on Renault’s team for the Tour de France. But when Hinault was diagnosed with tendonitis, he found himself in the hardest race of them all.  It was a real education and the lessons came quickly.  He ended up with badly blistered hands after putting a death grip on the bars in his first experience on the cobbles of Northern France. Then he “bonked” badly on the Team Time Trial.  On the team’s orders he had consumed only artificial food with a high glucose content on the morning of the TTT, which produced an overload of insulin.  During the first part of the ride he became hypoglycemic and he was only saved when his teammate Bernard Becaas gave him all the food he had in his pockets. As a result, Becaas was soon out of food himself and then dropped from the rotation on the time trial.   Such are the cruel lessons of cycling.

After the first mountain stage Fignon found himself second to Peugeot’s veteran Pascal Simon, who was four minutes clear, but it had become apparent to the bespectacled Renault rider that he was capable of winning a major tour, even though he was only twenty-two.   Guimard, however, wanted to hedge his bets with Renault’s Marc Madiot, and the lack of confidence drove Fignon to distraction.  Poor Simon broke his shoulder on the tenth stage, but continued to lead the race in a valiant display of courage that was on the cover of every paper.  In the 15th stage time trial, Fignon narrowed the gap between him and Simon to a minute and inherited the Maillot Jaune of race leader when Simon had to retire on the 17th stage.  Initially there was a feeling that Fignon was backing into the victory, but when he won the 21st stage time trial, his class was obvious. I was able to witness his Tour victory and when he rode into Paris, it was clear to all that a new champion had been discovered.  At the post-race celebration Hinault graciously congratulated him, but Fignon could see that all was not well between the Breton and Guimard.


Fignon, The Way He Would Have LIked to Be Remembered, in the Maillot Jaune of the Tour de France


By 1984, Bernard Hinault’s relationship with Cyrille Guimard had run its course and he teamed up with the brash entrepreneur Bernard Tapie and the innovative Swiss coach Paul Koechli to start a new team called La Vie Claire (“The Clean Life”).  Fignon’s emergence in the Tour de France probably hastened Hinualt’s decision to break with the man who had managed his career for ten years.  In any event, after only two years of professional cycling, Fignon now found himself the unchallenged leader of the Renault team and Guimard set an ambitious goal for him – to win the Giro d’ Italia and Tour de France in the same year, a task only great champions like Jacques Anquetil, Eddy Merckx and Bernard Hinault had achieved.


Fignon Felt He Was Robbed of Certain Victory in the 1984 Giro d'Italia


Unfortunately, in contrast to the Tour de France, the Giro always had the reputation as being a difficult race for a non-Italian to win.  The 1984 Giro d’Italia left a bitter taste in Fignon’s mouth that later victories never fully washed away.  Late in the race, when Francesco Moser, the Italian hero, was being distanced in the mountains, the organizers cancelled a high-altitude stage with five mountain passes “due to snow.” This left Moser in a close second and in the final time trial the organizers allowed a helicopter to fly in front of Fignon in the time trial, inhibiting his progress and providing a convenient tail wind for Moser, who started just ahead of him. Moser ended up winning by a little over a minute,  a pyrrhic victory at best.


Moser Triumphed in the Last, Disputed Stage


In spite of the Giro, 1984 was still Laurent Fignon’s year.  He won the French Professional Championship in the late spring so he started the Tour de France in the red, white and blue maillot of France. With Hinault back in decent form, the race ended up being a battle between the two former teamates.  Hinault won the short prologue time trial, but the powerful Renault team won the team time trial. A long escape left Fignon’s teammate Vincent Barteau in the yellow jersey, which he kept all the way through the Pyrenees. Fignon won the first two individual time trials and then answered every attack Hinault could make on the 17th stage, an epic run from Grenoble to the historic climb up the Alp d’Huez. The pony-tailed young rider had the confidence to counter attack and opened a gap on the fading Hinault, which put him solidly in yellow.  Riding like he had wings, which isn’t uncommon when a rider is wearing the maillot jaune, Fignon then won two stages in the Alps and then the final time trial, widening his victory margin to an exceptional ten minutes over Hinault.  By winning five stages, Laurent Fignon was a dominant winner of the Tour de France. Everything seemed to be coming up roses.


Fignon Dominated the 1984 Tour With Five Stage Victories


Like most tour winners he partied through the post-Tour criterium circuit, where much of the rider’s annual salary is still made.  The criteriums are an opportunity for fans all over Europe to see the Tour riders close to home. The races are a show the riders put on, with the local hero usually emerging triumphant. Looking back, Fignon is blunt and admits that all the sudden fame and adulation went to his head and that he became even more difficult after his tour victories. He had grown stronger mentally and was able to withstand the tremendous pressure of being in the spotlight, but he remained aloof and never had the likeable personality of Greg Lemond or some of his other rivals.

After the 1984 Tour de France he felt invincible and thought he could win a number of grand tours at a trot.  The harder and more difficult a race was, the more he enjoyed it. Unfortunately for Fignon, he was not destined to experience a long era at the top the way that his former teammate Bernard Hinault or Belgium’s Eddy Merckx did.  Instead, the 1985 season became a disaster for Fignon when he was diagnosed with a inflammation of his achilles tendon.  This necessitated an operation, which removed the tendon sheath.  Unfortunately, this was followed by a staph infection, another surgery and a long, painful rehabilitation.  Fignon recovered slowly, but never felt that his power output was the same.


Fignon and Guimard Signed Systeme U Supermarkets for a Four Year Deal. They Kept the Renault Colors for Their Kit and Added Raleigh as Bicycle Sponsor.


At the end of the aborted 1985 season, Renault shocked France by pulling out of all its sports sponsorships.  This led Fignon and Guimard to form a partnership, a sports promotion company to own and run the old Renault equipe, the first of the European teams that were set up in this manner. They signed the market chain Systeme U to a three year contract and everything seemed to be looking up for Fignon.  He made a good comeback early in 1986, stupidly losing Paris-Camembert to the Dane Kim Andersen and then soloing to victory on the Mur de Huy climb to win the Fleche-Wallonne classic.  Then it was a trip to sunny Spain for the Vuelta which turned into another disaster with a serious crash which inflicted knee and chest injuries on him, but he made the mistake of gutting it out and had a painful ride to 7th on the general classification.  Fignon started the 1986 Tour de France, which was billed as a race between Hinault of La Vie Claire, his teammate and heir apparent Greg Lemond and Laurent Fignon, the comeback kid.  This was not to be. Fignon was not fully recovered and pulled out during the Pyrenees stages with a infection.  He confides to the reader that he finished the season in the blackest of moods, full of anger at Guimard because of the shortcuts he was making with the team, because of course now any economizing could put francs in his own pocket.  Fignon also “cracked mentally” and was full of loathing for himself, not the best place to be for a sporting star.

By 1987, there were serious problems with the relationship between Fignon and Guimard, the team owners.  Fignon felt that while Guimard was the best strategist and trainer in the business, he was out of his depth when it came to administration. As far as Fignon, he was clearly battling depression, though he never puts a name to the malaise that plagued him for years.  He rode the Bremen Six Day to get in shape, struggling to keep up with the track specialists he felt were riding on adrenaline and amphetamines.

The 1987 Vuelta was a search for form, an up and down race for an up and down athlete. Fignon never really found his legs, but he won the demanding Avila stage and finished a credible – for anyone other than a former tour winner – third.  In his book he dishes out contempt for the Columbians who he claims paid Systeme U not to attack on the windy final stage so the German rider Raimund Dietzen would not overatke their climber, Luis Herrera.  Although Fignon is forthright about the drugs – amphetamines and cortisone –  that he admitted using in some events, he denies that he took anything when he was declared positive after the Grand Prix de Wallonie in May of 1987.  He blamed the dueling laboratories for the dark doings and in those days, there was no test of a “B” sample to confirm or refute the initial findings.  The riders knew there would be a test at the event, so he assures the reader that he would never have gone all out to win had he taken something.


After His Injuries and Accidents, Fignon Spent Years Searching for Form.


The 1987 Tour de France was another struggle and Fignon began to feel that the victories of 1983 and 1984 were from a different epoch.  How soon the fans and journalists seem to forget! He could not find any form, finishing a pathetic sixty-forth in the dramatic Mount Ventoux Time Trial. His son had been born the previous day and yet all he could do was weep.  This was the first Tour Fignon did with pulse monitors and after he threw his away, when the journalists had written him off, his legs came back and he finished sixth on Alpe d’Huez and won on the mountainous stage at La Plagne.  By Paris, he had salvaged some pride and finished seventh, with almost all his time lost in the time trials he used to win.


Laurent Fignon Won the 1988 Milan-San Remo Classic


In 1988 there were glimpses of the old Laurent Fignon.  He and his trainer Alain Gallopin cooked up a plan to target the early season Milan-San Remo Classic, one of the five “monuments” of single day racing.  They felt it suited Fignon, who found its 180-mile distance to his liking.  While the course is not difficult by professional standards, the famous Poggio climb comes late in the race and, if a rider is powerful enough, he can launch himself from the pack and occasionally, with a measure of luck and great fortitude, hold on for victory.  The hyperactive Fignon cooled his heels for most of the long race until his much-admired friend Sean Kelly, whom he had confided in, suggested that it was well time to move up through the huge peloton.  When they hit the right spot on the climb, Kelly, who was riding at the front, allowed a gap to open and Fignon got out of the saddle and shot away, though he soon discovered the Italian Maurizio Fonderiest was glued to his wheel.  Fortunately Fignon had enough power to easily dispatch the talented younger rider in the long sprint.  The season, however, soon turned difficult for the Frenchman, who was now sporting his famous pony-tail.  He struggled with the illnesses that habitually plagued him in the colder part of the season and then broke a bone in his hand in a massive crash in Belgium during Liege-Bastogne-Liege, a classic that he had always wanted to win and and that had eluded him.  The less said about Fignon’s ’88 Tour de France, the better.  From the start he was pedaling squares and his book has a memorable recounting of the cause of his troubles – an enormous tapeworm that made an auspicious debut – and he dropped out mid-way through the “new look” tour which was disaster, resulting in the sacking of the promotional team.

By 1989, Fignon’s relationship with Guimard was growing strained and the team was becoming less competitive.  Bjarne Riis joined the Systeme U equippe as a domestique, and Fignon praises the Dane’s cycling instincts and strength in his book. The veteran Pascal Simon also joined the squad.   With his pony tail flying in the breeze, Fignon opened his season with another win in Milan-San Remo.  In the 1989 edition of this epic race, he went before the Poggio climb and finished alone – “the only rider in the photograph” as the Europeans like to say.  Italy was finally welcoming for Laurent Fignon for whom the memories of the old Giro debacle were still so vivid!  The 1989 Giro d’Italia was a tough race, one that would bring out the best in the stronger riders. Fortunately, the Italian organizers resisted any urges they may have had to lighten the load. And, Systeme U’s team leader finally seemed to be back on form after so many dark episodes. Fignon was thrust into second on the general classification after Stage 13, where he trailed only the great Columbian climber “Lucho” Herrera up the mountain.  He then moved into the maglia rosa, the pink leader’s jersey, after the epic 14th Stage, where the riders battled the weather as much as themselves and the terrain. On that stage, Fignon attacked the leader, Erik Breukink of the Netherlands, on the classic Passo Campolongo climb. The cold weather finally turned warm for the last days of the race.  In 1989 Laurent Fignon was at least partially able to vanquish the uneasy ghost of the “stolen Giro” of 1984 as he collected the winner’s bouquet in the sunshine of Milano.

The see-saw battle of the 1989 Tour de France is the opening chapter in Fignon’s book and it is a well known story to cycling fans who are in their forties or older.  Greg Lemond had won the Tour de France in 1986, finally triumphing over Bernard Hinault, his proud, stubborn teammate and mentor. Then, incredibly, he was shot in a freak hunting accident the following spring.  It took two years to come back from the mishap and by the end of the 1989 Giro d’Italia, Lemond was just beginning to find some form.  So, when the Tour started, both of the major protagonists – Lemond and Fignon – were looking for redemption on the roads of France.  The other possible player in that fateful tour was the Spaniard Pedro Delgado, but he missed his start time for the prologue and his race and morale were finished before the race began.

In July of 1989, Laurent Fignon was then the world’s number one ranked rider. He was confident that his attacking style would see him come out on top once the race entered the great mountain stages.  Lemond, the American, was on ADR, a weak team, because in the typical “what did you do for me today” manner, almost everyone in European cycling had abandoned him after his accident.  Lemond took the maillot jaune after the Stage 5 Time Trial, only to lose it to Fignon after Stage 10 in the Pyrenees.  Despite Fignon’s attacks on Lemond’s conservative style in the press, the American minimized his loses in the mountains and then recaptured the leader’s jersey after the Stage 15 Time Trial.  Fignon rode aggressively again in the Alpine stages and took back the maillot jaune on the Alpe d’Huez.  Despite Lemond’s win on the 21st Stage from Villard-de-Lans to the Rhone Alps town of Aix-les-Bains, he trailed Fignon by fifty seconds with only one stage remaining.  The last stage of the 1989 Tour was not the usual informal procession into Paris, but a short, flat 25 kilometer (15.5 miles) time trial from historic Versailles into the French capitol, that finished on the Champs de Elysse.  While there was no doubt that Fignon’s once formidable time trailing skills were no longer a match for Lemond’s strength in this discipline, neither Guimard nor his rider Fignon felt that there was any danger because the distance was so short.   We all know that their confidence was misplaced, for Lemond’s determination and his choice of an aerodynamic helmet and triathlon bars helped him take 58 seconds out of his French rival.

The pictures of Fignon, despondent as the realization that he has lost the Tour de France hits him, were flashed around the world.  The American tried to congratulate and console his rival, but to no avail.  He was in state of shock. The oh-so-close loss to Lemond was the subject of great soul-searching by Fignon and the French cycling world.  This was the dawn of the aerodynamic era in cycling and equipment choices – disc wheels v.s. spoked wheels, smaller front wheels, triathlon handlebars v.s conventional or “cowhorn” bars – haunted all of us who raced or ran teams in the era.  Did a rider lose because he was slower or because he had chosen a front disc wheel on a day with cross winds?  Were the triathlon bars even legal?  Should Lemond have been allowed to start on them? Should Systeme U have protested the outcome or would that have damaged the credibility of the race? Did Fignon’s front disc give him some advantge over Lemond’s choice of a spoked front wheel?


The Uneasy 1989 Tour de France Podium


It is clear that Lemond’s choice of equipment did help him in that final stage, the race that came to define him. My friend John Pierce, the veteran cycling photographer, gave me some unforgettable shots of Lemond’s ride and you can see that he pulled out all the stops, leaning his bike over at perilous angles on the corners.  Lemond ended up as Sports Illustrated’s Man of the Year, one of the rare times a stick-and-ball athlete didn’t win.  Fueled by his need to prove the cycling world wrong, Lemond rode the fastest time trial in history, averaging 53.59 kilometers per hour (33.33 mph). However we can’t forget that Fignon did ride the time trial with the pride the maillot jaune should give a rider and was a credible third on the day. His ride also broke the old records for a road time trial.  For the rest of his life the proud Fignon would have to hear questions and jeers about July 23, 1989.  He was referred to as “Monsieur Eight Seconds.”   This wasn’t fair, because Fignon had ridden aggressively, taken the fight to his rival and only lost by the slimmest margin in history.  The 1989 Tour de France should be remembered for the great battle it was between two men who had each won the race twice and who were fighting to regain what they saw as their proper place atop the podium, but only one of whom could win.

After the epic 1989 Tour, there were fewer and fewer moments of cycling success for Laurent Fignon and many more dark days.  In the book he admits to occasional drug use and he says that when he was caught for amphetamines at the Grand Prix de la Liberation in Eindhoven, he was guilty and had actually used them a few days before the race, which he knew would be drug tested.  By 1990, the four year contract with Systeme U had run its course and he and Guimard had signed Castorama as their sponsor.  The cycling world was changing and this new sponsor expected the riders to serve as brand ambassadors as well as cyclists, a role that Fignon was uncomfortable with.  In 1990, wearing the new uniform, he was fourth in the early season Paris-Nice, the “Race to the Sun,” and then won the three-day Criterium International.  He dislocated his pelvis in a crash early in the Giro d’Italia. The tour was another disaster and he withdrew from the race.  In 1991 his relationship with Guimard, which had been getting worse, ruptured and the director began slagging his rider in the press.  He had to battle Luc Leblanc for supremacy on his own equipe and the Castorama team’s infighting was the subject of endless articles in the pages of l’Equipe and the cycling press during the Tour de France, where Fignon still managed a 6th place finish.   The year ended with he and Guimard splitting forever, dividing the assets of the team.


Laurent Fignon Racing for Gatorade in 1992


Fignon spent the last few years of his career riding in Italy, racing as joint leader of the Gatorade Team with the inconsistent Italian rider Gianni Bugno, who was the reigning World Champion.  The thought was that the older rider could win races and help steady Bugno, so he could fulfill his potential. Fignon found Italian fans more enthusiastic and the team support much better south of the Alps. Unlike the fair-weather French fans the Tifosi respected former champions, even ones who were in the twilight of their careers.  Fignon was becoming less and less motivated and saw many changes in the sport that were not to his liking.  The over-commercialization of the sport bothered him and he saw that an entirely new class of drugs was becoming more and more prevalent.  He rode the Tour de France in support of Bugno, who finished third, and Fignon managed to look like his old self on one long breakaway on the lengthy race between Strasbourg and Mulhouse, where he held off the charging peloton.   In 1993 he won his last major race, the demanding Ruta Mexico, which took place early in the season.  Increasingly discouraged by his lack of form, lack of motivation, troubled personal life and the spread of EPO and human growth hormone, Laurent Fignon dropped out of the Tour de France in 1993 and soon called it a career.

For the record, Laurent Fignon believed that there was a dramatic difference between doping in the 1980s and the spread of EPO in the 1990s.  He agreed with the “cycling at two speeds” theory that Greg Lemond and others have propagated.  While he was no choirboy himself, he felt that doping in the past could not make up for a lack of talent, a lack of training or a lack of motivation. Drug use was haphazard and inconsistent and perhaps often ineffective. However, once EPO spread through the peloton, riders of lesser talent who were more willing to take risks with their health were able to beat those who were more talented.  Fignon cites the case of Bjarne Riis, who he felt was a solid rider with a “big engine,” but not talented enough to win the Tour de France without the EPO he has admitted taking.  Like Lemond he feels the tremendous average speeds of the early 1990s peloton was evidence that something had fundamentally changed.  Now, in online discussions, I have seen others attempt to refute this evidence.  Others feel that the truth may be somewhere in the middle, that by the early 1990s, even though they were still relatively young, Lemond and Fignon were reaching the end of their careers and were hampered by serious injuries and a lack of motivation, while they attributed their decline to increased drug use.  Fignon is honest enough to say that he may have been tempted to use EPO himself had he been much younger when it began to make its presence felt in the early 1990s.


Fignon with his Second Wife, Valerie


Fignon clearly loved the sport of cycling and never left it.  He feels that the trend Greg Lemond started towared specialization damaged the grand old sport.  He didn’t like the modern way where riders race much less and train in private rather than racing themselves into condition.  Fignon liked to see the same faces, the big riders all year long. He disagreed with the shorter stages and reduced distances of the classics and semi-classics, feeling that the longer, more arduous events bring out the class in riders.  Fignon rejects the idea that the demanding races of old provided an excuse for doping, correctly pointing out that EPO use was becoming more rampant just as races were being scaled back.  He also lambasts the French Cycling Federations re-organization and lack of support for local clubs that were once the backbone of French cycling.


The Two Old Duelists: Fignon and Hinault


Fignon became a cycling analyst for French television and was known for being outspoken and blunt.  He is seldom less than honest in his book and despite the ugly way his relationship ended with Cyrille Guimard, he is fair enough to give the great manager his due.  Fignon is fair and respectful to Bernard Hinault, whom he criticizes for his impetuosity.  His critique of Lemond as too calculating is well known.   To Fignon, Lemond was always marking his rivals, seldom going on the attack, and he also felt that Lemond changed the orientation of the sport, to make it more commercial. However, other than these men, Fignon does not go into much detail about most of the riders from his era or assess many of the riders from more recent times.  His description of Lance Armstrong, when he was struggling with cancer and abandoned by almost everyone in cycling, is quite moving.  The French rider really knew how fickle the French cycling world could be. Fignon was famously private and his personal life is no more than alluded to in this volume.  We Were Young and Carefree is about his cycling life with a short epilogue about his experiences in promotion in retirement.  It is a well-written, honest and thoughtful book and William Fortheringham, a veteran cycling writer, makes the translation smooth and seamless.  It’s a great look back through the rear view mirror at 1980s cycling.

Rating: 5 Stars

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Mud, Sweat and Cobbles – Professional Racing in 1980s Belgium


As Good A Cycling Book as You'll Find...


A Dog in A Hat

By Joe Parkin (Velo Press, 2008)

Review by Jeffrey Morseburg

Joe Parkin’s book A Dog in a Hat is the best personal account of professional bicycle racing that I have read by an American cyclist.  It is a wry, honest and gritty view of life on the small, under-funded teams that used to make up most of the professional peloton.  Because Parkin’s name is known only to those who knew him on the European cycling circuit in the 1980s or from his days racing here in the United States a few years later, he is not a public figure with a carefully-crafted image to protect.  This allows him to tell his story without vanity and to be wryly honest about his experiences. Additionally, A Dog in a Hat is not one of those ghost written or “as told to” sort of books, so Parkin’s natural storytelling ability comes through.

Joe Parkin started racing as a Junior in Northern California and quickly fell in love with the beauty and history of the sport. Like American baseball, bicycle racing has a century and a half of tradition. It has a lore and language all its own.  This colorful history is one of the reasons some of us are attracted to cycling.  Like baseball, cycling has known beauty, sensation and yes, scandal.  And, like baseball, virtually all of the media attention is concentrated on the major leagues of the sport. The fascinating stories of men on their way up to the “show,” slipping down from the top ranks, or those who don’t have the talent or opportunity to get to the major leagues of cycling are rarely told.  A Dog in a Hat is a welcome exception.


Every Professional Had His "Hero" Post Card


Through the pages of the American and European cycling magazines young Joe Parkin became fascinated with the world of European professional racing. An adaptive young man whose family had moved frequently while he was growing up, in his late teens he finally ended up in Northern California, where there was a semblance of a good racing scene.  While Parkin had shown some talent as an under-18 year old junior cyclist, the United States Cycling Federation’s development program, based in Colorado Springs and run by eastern Europeans, held no interest for him.  Instead, he reasoned that if he wanted to become a professional bicycle racer he might as well move to Europe rather than knock around the domestic amateur circuit with its steady diet of round-the-block criteriums and occasional circuit races.

Fortuitously, he met Bob Roll, who was then one of the lesser-known members of the groundbreaking 7/11 Cycling Team.  The 7/11 boys, decked out in their indelibly distinctive Christmas colored jerseys, dominated domestic amateur racing in the two years leading up to the 1984 Los Angeles Olympic Games. Then they turned pro.  Southland Corporation, the parent company of 7/11, poured millions of dollars into cycling over a number of years, building the Olympic Velodrome in Carson and the track at the Olympic Training Center in Colorado Springs as well as funding the first professionally run road team that had ever been fielded in the United States.  When they came to town, the 7/11 riders rolled in custom painted vans rather than the collection of broken down cars and ancient, smoking VW Microbusses that were common in California. When veteran riders like Tom Schuler, who only knew the lean side of the sport, signed with 7/11, they probably thought they had died and gone to heaven, but the younger riders thought this was the way things were supposed to be.  They were kitted out in the finest Descente clothing, rode custom painted bicycles and had mechanics and masseurs to care for them.

Bob Roll didn’t seem like a typical 7/11 rider, but 7/11 director Jim Ochowicz probably realized that he was tough enough to handle European racing and could be the type of blue collar worker he needed on a team full of stateside stars.  His legendary antics also kept the team loose.  Roll was an unforgettable character, and even down in Southern California rumors about him abounded. Before he inked a contract with 7/11, it was said he lived in a car and ate out of trash dumpsters, riding night and day, rain and shine so that he could become a hardened racer. Even though Roll didn’t have any single outstanding quality as a rider, his ability to endure pain allowed him to become a professional domestique, as the worker-bees of cycling are known.  More than anything, Roll didn’t seem to care to conform and so he would be just the sort of mentor a young cyclist would have chosen.  In 1985, when Parkin asked him about how to go becoming a professional rider, Roll’s advice differed radically from what virtually any club officer or cycling official in the states would have given.  Roll didn’t tell Parkin how to become a coach’s pet in the land of the Olympic Training Center, with its prison-like dormitory housing, but to strike out for Europe on his own, to try his hand at the world of hard-bitten Belgian bicycle racing.


On Just the Right Day, Old Belgium Can Be Beautiful...


In the fall of 1985, young Joe Parkin informed his shocked parents he was going to postpone college and move to Belgium. While his father couldn’t understand his decision, his mother was supportive.  It takes a sense of adventure and a lot of determination to move to a foreign country to pursue a completely new life, but the young cyclist was “all in” and ready to roll the dice with his future.  Parkin began working three menial jobs in order to save enough money to give him a toehold on his dream, and by the late spring of 1986 he was ready.


Belgium is Usually Mossy and Damp...


At the time Joe Parkin moved to Europe to race bicycles, Americans were a rarity on the cycling scene, a bit of an exotic foreign species. Even the riders of the vaunted 7/11 Team, which had a number of successes in their first year of European racing, were not really living in Europe.  Instead they lived and trained in the United States and Canada and then parachuted into into Europe for extended swings.

Since the 1970s, there had only been a handful of riders from the United States who had actually lived and raced anywhere in Europe.  Roger Young and Mike Neel had raced in a number of amateur Six Days in 1972, and Neel returned to Europe and settled in Italy, where he later raced professionally. In the mid-1970s, Californian Tom Sneddon competed in “Stayer” events on the track and competed on the road for the Belgian Flandria team. Californians George Mount and Johnathan Boyer both rode as amateurs in Europe and were signed to professional contracts. And, in the early 1980s, a number of American riders including Mike Chylinski, Chris Carmicahel and Bob Roll had raced in amateur events in Belgium and Holland, gaining valuable experience in the hard-knocks world of Flemish cycling.


Slip, Sliding Away on the Ancient Cobbles


In 1986, when Joe Parkin moved to Europe, an American cyclist named Greg Lemond was the center of attention.  Lemond grew up in the Reno/Lake Tahoe area and began cycling to train for skiing, but soon discovered he had a tremendous talent for the two-wheeled sport. He quickly became a Junior National Champion, Junior World Champion and then an Olympian, whose dreams of his gold medal destiny were crushed by President Carter’s Olympic Boycott.  Lemond did well enough in a few amateur races in 1980 that he was signed to a contract by Renault-Gitane, the team led by the cycling strategist Cyrille Guimard and headed by Tour de France Champion Bernard Hinault. The young rider with the all-American looks soon set the European cycling world on fire, winning the Tour ‘Avenir, the Coors Classic the Dauphine-Libere and in 1983, the World Cycling Championships and the Super Prestige Pernod award for the world’s top professional cyclist.  Lemond rode his first Tour de France in 1984 in support of Hinault and finished 3rd; he was second in 1985, and in 1986, the year Parkin moved to Belgium, he was ready to ascend to the top step of the ladder.  While the Europeans were smart enough to understand that cyclists did not grow on trees in the United States, his success at least gave Americans a credibility and a marketability that they did not have before.

Parkin arrived in Belgium with little understanding of the country or the language; in fact he mistook the first Flemish he heard for Russian.  Now, the author of Dog in a Hat tells his story in a straightforward way without the meandering or asides that are typical of a many of British writers.  This has the advantage of bringing the reader into the story because he or she is discovering life along with the author, but it doesn’t provide any context or a back-story.  To many Americans, indeed, even some other Europeans, Belgium is known only as a tiny European country that Brussels is the capital of and Brussels is only recognized because it is the city where NATO and the European Union is based.


The Ronde van Vlaanderen, The Ultimate Day in the Life of Every Flemish Cyclist and Cycling Fan


My friends in Flanders laugh when I describe Belgium in a tongue-in-cheek way as “a country with no reason to be that serves as a model for a union that has no reason to exist,” but I think that sums things up.  Belgium is actually an interesting little nation that was formed in the wake of the Napoleonic Wars. It was designed to serve as a buffer between France on the South and the Netherlands on the North. The new Belgian nation, which was previously the southern provinces of the Netherlands, may have been initially happy to be clipped off from the Dutch union because the Dutch were mainly Calvinst and they were by contrast Catholic.  Unfortunately for Belgium, however, the little nation was riven by two linguistic and cultural groups.  In the South there are the landlocked-Walloons who once spoke the Walloon language (a romance language that evolved from Roman and was related to French) and now speak French.  In the North, there are the Flemings or Flemish who speak Vlaams, a language the Dutch, whose language it really is, will insist doesn’t exist.


The Flemish Symbol is the Lion, Which Shows You How the Riders See Themselves...


Now, as we will see, all this had an effect on bicycle racing in little Belgium.   From the beginning, it was difficult for Belgians to see themselves as a nation.  The French speakers in the south felt they were and should remain superior and worked to dominate the nation from Brussels, which is a French-speaking island located in the Northern half of the country where the Flemish language and culture predominate.   The Walloons made French the official language and attempted to reduce Vlaams to a local dialect.  As the industrial age dawned, virtually all of the economic development happened in Wallonia, making Flanders a poorer, agriculturally based society.  Throughout the 19th century the Flemings grew more and more resentful of the arranged marriage with the Walloons.   The Flemish grew up on tales of grievance, grievance at the hands of the Spanish overlords who had occupied the low countries for so long, the Dutch across the border, the French to the south and finally, their Walloon countrymen.  So, the Flemish were long brought up that they had something to prove, and for decades this came out with every stroke of the pedals on the cobbles.  Even when smooth paving took over the rest of the world, the rough-hewn cobbles themselves became a symbol of Flanders: the rest of the world can ride on smoothly paved roads, we can master the wet, mossy cobbles!


The Old Guild Houses Were Located Along the Canals of the Historic Flemish Cities - Ghent


Ironically, in that early age of globalization during the 14th through 16th centuries, it was not the cities in what is now Southern Belgium that reigned supreme, but the great Flemish “guild cities” on the waterways – Brugge, Antwerp and Ghent. They became famous throughout Europe as centers for arts, crafts and learning.  By the time the Germans decided to use Belgium as a convenient stomping ground for their left turns into France in the fateful summers of 1914 and 1940, the divide between the Flemish and the Walloons was so great that some of the Flemings sided with the hated Germans.  The one thing that all this adversity did to the Flemish was to create a hard-bitten sense of independence and toughness in them, and we should underline toughness.  Gradually, in the years after World War II, the Flemish began to demand equal treatment under the law and linguistic equality. The Flemish cities, located along the huge waterways and canals, gradually became more prosperous than the south, and the balance of power has steadily shifted.


A Face Just as Hard as the "Stones"...Alberic "Briek" Schotte, Who Rode Twenty Tours of Flanders and Was The Last of the Pre-War Men of Flandria


When bicycle racing started in the late 19th century, the bicycles were primitive, single-speed affairs, making the flat ground of Belgium ideal for the single day “classic” races that were just beginning.  In these spring events, often held in the rain or even snow flurries, the riders could pedal furiously across the cobbled roads, and when they came to the sharp, incredibly steep hills the Flemish call “walls,” they could dismount cyclo-cross style and carry their bike over whatever portion of the hill was too steep or slippery to ride up.  One of these events, Liege-Bastogne-Liege, the “Doyenne de les Classiques” was first run way back in 1894. It takes place in the heavily forested part of Belgium known as the Ardennes, in the beautiful Southeast of the country.  Its profile, with all the steep climbs, looks like a crocodile’s teeth.


Tour of Flanders - The Climbs Are Short, Steep and Often Muddy


While bicycle racing is popular in both the Flemish and French provinces of Belgium and Belgians are schooled in both languages, amateur riders prefer to race with what they see as their own people.  This linguistic divide between the Flemish and French speakers was so great that when Eddy Merckx – who is a Fleming – had part of his marriage ceremony performed in French, it was the object of controversy. Historically, most of the great Belgian road cyclists have been Flemish “hard men” like Eddy Merckx, Rik Van Steenbergen, Rik Van Looy, Briek Schotte, Alfons Schepers, Freddy Maertens, Herman Van Springel, Stan Ockers, Roger DeVlaeminck and Johan Museeuw.  The great Flemish classics include Het Volk, which is the traditional season opener, Ghent-Wevelgem and the Tour of Flanders (known in Flemish as the Ronde van Vlaanderen), which began in 1913.  When you watch the Ronde on television, you will see many of the spectators waving huge yellow flags with a stylized gothic lion on them.  This lion is the symbol of Flanders and the fans will be hoping, hoping not for a Belgian victory but for a Flemish win in the race that every rider from Flanders wants to win more than any single-day event.


In the Gutter - Bicycle Racing in Flanders, St. Niklaas, Summer, 1983, Jeffrey Morseburg Photograph


It was in the typical small Flemish village of Ursel that Joe Parkin found himself when he arrived in Belgium.  Roll had given him the name of a veteran cycling supporter named Albert Claeys, who had worked for the 7/11 and ran a small café. Fortunately, Claeys and his wife took the young American in and so he had someone who knew the Flemish cycling scene to help him adjust to a life that bore little relation to anything he had known before.  The little pub that the Claeys ran was a typical Belgian affair, located at a small crossroads, with a gas station and business on the ground floor and the family quarters upstairs.  Joe Parkin spent the next five years of his life living under the steeply pitched roof of the third floor of the Sportswereld Café.

Part Deux Coming Soon…

Rating: 5 Stars

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The Great Climbers and the Grand Tours

Uphill Battle: Cycling’s Great Climbers

By Owen Mulholland (Velo Press, 2003)

Review by Jeffrey Morseburg

In bicycle racing, the ability to climb mountains well is a relative thing. Thanks to the miracle of modern technology and the invention of the derailleur and freewheel decades ago, many reasonably fit and determined cyclists can ride over the mountain passes of the grand tours.  However, racing over them is quite a different story.  When fit and motivated, virtually every professional rider can make it over a series of foothills or the short, steep “walls” that are found in Flanders with the group at the front of the race. Riding in the slipstream of the peloton, men who are not classic “climbers” but who possess highly developed aerobic systems can even make it over high mountain passes with the group that is leading the race.  The fitness and ability to recover that develops from the undergoing the stresses of professional stage racing is difficult to overstate. After being tasked with doing incredibly difficult things time after time, a talented rider’s entire system becomes more and more efficient, and it reaches a sort of Nietzchen perfection.

I will never forget witnessing George Hincappie and Floyd Landis riding up to the La Mongie ski resort on Stage 12 of the 2004 Tour de France.  My friends and I were deep in the Pyrenees, in that terrain that is so different from the alpine scenery that would come in the later stages that year.  As leading domestiques, Hincappie and Landis had worked enormously hard in the day’s race. They rode “tempo” for Lance Armstrong for the better part of 160 kilometers, until the real climbing started with the famous Col d’Aspin, where they finished their stint by exterminating the breakaway that had escaped early in the race. Once the break was caught, accelerations began to blow the leading group apart.  As Hincappie and Landis passed the spot where my friends and I were sitting on the steep climb to La Mongie, they were winding down, their work done for the day.  The two workers were riding a steady tempo, sharing a coke and carrying on a brief conversation, still somewhere in the top thirty or forty on the day. It was a display of how strong the best of the support riders get from their tremendous workload, as stragglers were spread out over many miles of French countryside in their wake.

Some of the "Hard Men" of 1975. The Great Brit, Barry Hoban, Hennie Kuiper, Michael Pollentier, then Eddy's right-hand Man, "Vic" Van Schil, Roger de Vlaeminck is also there...


The strong men of the peloton just seem to have the ability to keep taking turns at the front for hours at a time. What recent top riders like Hincappie, Rolf Aldag or Jens Voight have in common with domestiques of the past like Victor Van Schil or Martin Van Den Bosche is that they become so strong, they can power themselves over a number of high altitude cols with the best climbers on earth.  However, it is after days of racing in a grand tour, when one mountain pass follows another and the pitches grow steep enough that momentum is lost, where things change in a hurry.  All of a sudden, what is left of the peloton or the lead group seems to implode and everything comes apart at the seams.  After the riders have been climbing for hours at a fast tempo, near their limit, or “on the rivet” in cycling parlance, this implosion can happen in a matter of seconds, from just one or two accelerations on top of what was already an infernal pace. It is then that a rider suddenly finds out his relative status in the world of climbers.   In the Alpine stages where every rider is racing by himself or with one or two other comrades of the road and dependant only on his own energy and abilities, he will soon discover whether he is a grimpeur, a rider who can really climb mountains, or not.

Along With Andy Hampsteen, Alexi Grewal belongs to the rare breed of American climbers. Photograph: Howard Morseburg III

Uphill Battle is a book that explores the history of the climber, featuring the stories of the great climbers in history and their cat and mouse battles with the men of the general classification, the all-arounders who worked so hard not to let the climbers ride away into the mist. The book is written by the veteran cycling journalist Owen Mulholland, who authored some of the first articles that I read on European racing back in the early 1970s.  I can still recall his accounts of the Bernard Thevenet victories in the Tour de France that put paid to the Eddy Merckx era.  Mulholland is a knowledgeable cycling historian with a clear appreciation for and an understanding of his subject, and while some of these tales have appeared a number of times, they are told again here with some elan.

Bernard Thevenet brought the Merckx era to a close

In the early years of the Tour de France, the first of the great national tours and the race this book concentrates on, no one was sure that riders could climb the major mountain passes on the heavy, rather crude bicycles of the day. The Tour de France was dreamed up as a promotional vehicle for a struggling sports daily named l’Auto, which eventually became l’Equipe.  The brainchild of a sports journalist named Geo Lefevre, the first six-day-long Tour de France was backed by his editor Henri Desgrange, who became the promoter and virtual dictator of the Tour de France. In the first years of the race, which began in 1903, there were no true mountain stages, but rather only hills.  It wasn’t until 1910 that the Pyrenees became part of the program. The following year, the Alps were added to the menu, creating the outlines of an event that would still be recognizable to modern fans.

Octave Lapize on the lower slopes of the Tourmalet in 1910

The early stages over the mountain passes were not so much races but survival contests.  At more than 200 miles, the stages were so long that the races started and often finished in darkness, and search parties with torches had to be sent out to look for stragglers.  Because the mountains didn’t have real roads, just rocky goat paths, the speeds up the passes in the early races were slow and the gaps between riders could be huge.  On the first ascent of the fabled Tourmalet in the Pyrenees, Breyer and Steines, the men who planned the climbing stages, were by the side of the road when the second placed rider on the road passed them, the future great Octave Lapize. As Lapize made his way up the steep incline on his single speed bicycle, he yelled an accusation at the planners:  “You are assassins, yes assassins.” Of course, he would be back for more the next year.  While Desgrange, the “father of the Tour de France,” was not sure about the mountain stages in the months leading up to the 1910 race, the peaks gave the race an epic quality that captured the public imagination like no other French sporting event.  So, despite the rider’s anger at the organizers, the high mountains were in the Tour de France to stay.

Now, lady luck always plays a role in the grand tours.  Even today, an untimely puncture can determine the outcome of a stage and an accident can ruin a rider’s entire race.  However, with the type of support modern riders receive, dame fortune takes a backseat to the many other factors that determine the outcome of a tour.  In the early years of the Tour de France, even the “broom wagon” that swept up the riders that were well off the pace could be hours late.  And, the bicycles of the day, with their crude rubber tires, suffered punctures frequently, and the frames were known to simply fall apart.  This would not have been a major problem if there were reliable support vehicles with spare parts, but in the early years of the tour the rider had to actually perform all the repairs himself.  Bicycle companies, who recognized a golden promotional opportunity when they saw one, sponsored all the early trade teams.  “Win on Sunday, Sell on Monday” is not just part of the NASCAR lexicon. The concept worked just as well in the France of the early 1900s.

Racing success helped sell bicycles

The early years of the Tour de France were a test of machine as well as the men, and one of the sad stories that Mulholland relates here is that of the great French rider Eugene Christophe. He was doing well in the 1913 race when his forks broke after a car hit him on the d’Aspin climb in the Pyrenees. This mishap necessitated a 14-kilometer hike to the nearest village, where the race officials watched like a hawk to insure that no one assisted him in repairing his bicycle. Christophe actually had to learn how to repair the forks from the local blacksmith, so he could make the welds himself, a long, difficult task that put him out of contention for the general classification, the first that would be figured on the rider’s overall elapsed time rather than points.  And to add insult to injury, the officials – who bear a striking resemblance to some their unreasonable modern brethren – then saw fit to penalize Christophe another minute for having the blacksmith’s son work the bellows while he welded his frame!  Poor Christophe – despite his class, he was never destined to win the tour.

Eugene Christophe: Misery on the goat tracks of the mountains

Mulholland relates the tale of the poor Italian stone mason Ottavio Bottecchia, who moved to France, where he would not be in the shadow of the veteran champion Constantine Girardengo and the young Alfredo Binda.  Instead, he rose to prominence on the team of the contentious Pelissier brothers, who were famous for their rows with tour director Henri Desgrange.  Bottecchia went on to win the Tour de France twice, and was the first Italian to wear the maillot jaune in Paris.  To refute Desrange’s poetic tale of the race, Plessier described the real agony of an Alpine stage in 1923:

I spent a long time on foot, at the side of Bottecchia under a burning sky, pushing the bike with one hand and with the other swigging from my bottle and sharing it with my companion who was worse off than I. There was no question, at the moment of the maillot jaune and victory, Monsieur Desgrange,  We struggled in a daze, like two soldiers lost in a desert, merely to survive, and if you would have passed our proximity, I, like anyone in my place would have treated you as a murderer!

There are chapters here on the Belgian hero Lucien Buysse, who won the Tour de France and proved that a rider could come from the low countries and a background in Six Day track racing and still be a climbing hero. There was the Italian Alfredo Binda, second of the Campionissimos (as the great champions are called by the Italian sportswriters), the man who won the Giro d’ Italia no less than five times and captured the World Championship three times.  There is a chapter on Victor Fontan, who grew up in the Pyrenees and started his first tour in 1928 at the age of thirty-six.  His was another epic story of bad luck, for his forks broke in a crash while he was wearing the yellow jersey. He walked to the next village and, borrowing a small touring bike, rode the following 145 kilometers through the Pyrenees carrying his original bicycle because the rules stated riders had to finish on their original machine.  Alas, he didn’t make the time limit and was out of the maillot jaune and the race!

Magne was a champion, mentor and manager.

Mulholland covers the stories of the other great pre-war climbers like Frenchman Andre Leducq and the Spaniard Vincente Trueba, the small, wiry  prototype for many of the great Spanish climbing machines. There was the introverted Antonin Magne, who was known for his careful preparation and rectitude.  Called “The Monk,”  he looms large in French cycling, not only because of his two tour victories, but because of his later role as mentor and team manager, the director sportif to later champions like Bobet and Poulidor. Then there is Magne’s rival, Rene Vietto, the stylish young rider from the French Riviera.  Afterward, there were the champion Italian climbers, Gino Bartali and the immortal Fausto Coppi, who were establishing themselves as war loomed.  When Italy joined the Axis, Bartali was already an established champion, but Coppi had just won his first Giro d’Italia, the 1940 edition. The war took away a number of each rider’s best seasons, and Coppi spent years in a North Afriacan P.O.W. camp.  Poor Bartali – he was 32 when racing resumed in 1946 and so only had a few remaining good seasons.

Ferdi Kubler won 400 races and lived to be 90

The post-war era is now seen as a “golden age” because there were a number of great champions who were capable of winning the grand tours, including the elegant Swiss star Hugo Koblet, his countryman Ferdi Kubler, who won four hundred races in his career, the three-time Tour de France champion Louison Bobet and the returning pre-war Italian champions, Bartali and Coppi.  These riders fought it out on the climbs of the Tour de France, the Giro d’ Italia and the Vuelta de Espana, which was just coming into its own as a major race.  There was also the eccentric Spanish climbing machine Federico Bahamontes, who could race for mountaintop victories or the overall title, depending on what type of mood he was in.  As the 1950s progressed, Luxembourg’s Charly Gaul emerged as cycling’s greatest climber; he could dance away from anyone on a given day.  Famous for his epic solo attacks,  in 1956 the “Angel of the Mountains” was the first foreign rider to triumph in the Giro d’Italia, which he again won in 1959.  In 1958 the quiet, 140-pound rider won the Tour de France as well.

Charly Gaul on the treacherous Gavia

Then, there was Jacques Anquetil, one of the most interesting personalities in the history of cycling.  A rider who made no bones about the fact that he was in it for the money, the calculating Anquetil tried to win with as narrow a margin as possible.  Although on a given day he could be impossible for even the best climbers to drop, the champagne-drinking Norman based his unprecedented five Tour de France victories on his ability to time trial, a discipline he dominated for more than ten years. Towards the end of Anquetil’s reign, the popular Raymond Poulidor emerged. He was a consistent climber who won many stages in the Alps and Pyrenees.  “Poupou,” as he is affectionately known in France, was born a peasant and in spite of the fact that he never won the Tour de France and was known as “the eternal second,” he was and remains a man of the people and France’s most beloved cyclist.

Anquetil and Poulidor at Paris-Nice

Poulidor’s career began late and bridged from Anquetil’s era of prominence to the complete domination of cycling by the greatest bicycle racer of them all: Eddy Merckx, the feared “Cannibal” of the peloton.  Merckx was not a classic climber, but rather an incredibly strong all-around rider who could power his way over the passes of the Alps or Pyrenees with the best of the smaller men because of the incredible pace he was capable of.   In great contrast to Anquetil, Merckx never sought to win by the narrowest margin, but by the widest. He won everything in sight, gobbling up no less than five editions of the Tour de France, five Giro d’Italia’s and even a Vuelta d’Espana, along with three World Road Championships and fistfuls of classic single-day races.  Winter Six Days, spring classics, summer tours and fall classics, Eddy Merckx raced so hard and so much that he seemed to just use himself up.  Because of his great strength, the barrel-chested Belgian rider seldom had to fear the climbers, but on occasion, pure climbers like the Spaniard Luis Ocana could out-duel him.  Ocana managed to best all his competitors once in the Tour de France, in 1973.

The Young Cannibal, Eddy Merckx

The Frenchman Bernard Thevenet ended the Merckx era for good. The square-jawed Peugeot trade-team leader won the race twice, in 1975 and 1977.  An exceptional climber, Thevenet was the great Gallic hope who finally vanquished Eddy Merckx on an epic day on the Col d’Izoard, on the French national holiday of Bastille Day no less.  His day in the sun was brief and so his list of victories was not long – the two tours, two Dauphines, the Tour of Romanie and a large number of lucrative criteriums.  Because he was caught for doping and felt steroid use contributed to his later health problems, Thevenet has never been one of the most admired riders, but he represented a changing of the guard.

Ironically, one of the most consistent climbers of the 1970s came from the flatlands of Flanders, the compact Belgian Lucien Van Impe. He was a true climber whose mentor was Ferderico Bahamnontes. However, because he was raised in bike-mad Flanders, Van Impe knew how to ride on the flats and in crosswinds, something many climbers had difficulty with. He won the Polka Dot jersey of the winner of the mountains classification of the Tour de France no less than six times and the mountain classification in the Giro d’ Italia twice.  Because he wasn’t powerful enough to be a great all-around rider, Van Impe focused on the mountains classification from early in his career and targeted the big tours to the exclusion of all else. Now, in recent times, the polka-dot jersey has often gone to a climber who is not in the first rank, someone who goes out early in a stage to collect little contested mountaintop points, but Van Impe was the real thing. He ended up high on general classification from time to time, but this was more of a by-product of his mountain obsession than by plan.  However, in 1976, while racing for the new director Cyrille Guimard’s Gitane-Campagnolo team and facing off against Joop Zoetemelk, he finally went for it.  The ‘76  Tour de France that had no less than seven mountain stages in a row, so it was a unique opportunity for a climber.  On a stage from Saint-Gaudens to Saint-Lary-Soulan in the Pyrenees, he attacked early and hard – only after Guimard claims to have threatened to run over him with the team car – and  he succeeded in taking the maillot jaune, which he wore the rest of the way to Paris.  The little Belgian ended up doing fifteen Tours, just one short of the all-time record.

Six-Time Tour de France King of the Mountains, Lucien Van Impe

The man who finished more editions of the Tour de France than any other rider was Joop Zoetemelk, Holland’s greatest cyclist and Van Impe’s 1976 rival, who started and finished sixteen incredible chapters of Le Grand Boucle.  “Joopie” as he was known to Dutch fans, does not have a chapter in Mulholland’s Uphill Battle, which is the single glaring exclusion of this excellent history of le grimpeurs (as climbers are known in French).  Because of his consistency, this Netherlander, who married a French woman and later settled outside Paris, should be known as “Monsieur Tour de France.”  Zoetemelk was the true “eternal second” who finished on the second step of the podium no less than six times and incredibly, had a career that bridged virtually all of the Merckx and Hinualt eras.  As a young rider he placed second to Merckx at the tour in 1970 and he came second one last time to Hinault in 1982, when he was an aging champion.  The criticism of Zoetemelk was that while he had great all-around skills, he was not an aggressive racer and when faced with a ruthless Hinault or Merckx, he couldn’t win.  He finally triumphed in 1980 when he joined Peter Post’s disciplined but always aggressive, on-the-attack TI-Raleigh squad, led by Gerrie Knetemann and Jan Raas.  The Raleigh men were a wrecking crew that year and won no less than eleven stages, and they drove an ailing Bernard Hinualt to retirement from the Tour de France, leaving the laurels to Zoetemelk. The Dutch rider, who eventually took French citizenship, also won a Vuelta de Espana, more confirmation of his status as an exceptional climber.

Zoetemelk finally won the Tour de France in 1980 in the TI-Raleigh Colors

Judged by his record of victories, Bernard Hinault is, after Merckx, the second greatest stage racer that ever lived. The Frenchman, who had a face of pure determination when he was racing, was the last great patron of the peloton, whose qualities and strong personality made him the dominant leader of his day.   Hinault was nicknamed Le Blaireau (the Badger) for his stubbornness and never-say-die spirit.  He won his first Tour de France in 1978 and the last of his five in 1985.  Hinault stood 5’8” inches tall and had a stocky build for a bicycle racer, so he was a compact powerhouse who powered up the climbs with the best of the small, lithe climbers. Hinault took a page from the Jacques Anquetil playbook and rarely extended himself for mountain stage victories in the Tour. He knew that all he needed to do was to distance his general classification rivals on the climbs.  As long as he kept close to the mountain specialists in the Alps and Pyrenees, he could then drop the hammer on them in the time trials, a disipline he was unchallenged at until his younger teammates Laurent Fignon and Greg Lemond began to mature.  In 1979, his best year, he obliterated the competition in the manner of Merckx with no less than seven stage wins.  In Uphill Battle, Owen Mulholland makes the point that Hinault was often a more aggressive in the mountains of the Giro d’Italia, which he won three times, and the Vuelta de Espana where he triumphed twice.   It was probably easier to ride with more elan when he was not in his home tour and subject to the constant criticisms of the French press.  In 1983 Hinault made up lost ground on two mountain stages in the waning days of the Vuelta, surprising the Spanish riders and press.  Incredible as it may seem, his last of five victories in the Tour de France was the last such achievement by a French rider, the reasons for which have been the grounds of endless speculation.

Bernard Hinault won the last of five Tours in 1985

Most top flight cyclists seem to have a five- or six-year period when they are at their best and capable of winning the biggest events.  For some riders this window comes early in their career, while others mature later and reach their peak – especially for the arduous three week national tours – in their mid to late twenties.  So the window for a talented rider to prove to the team’s management and his teammates – the support riders who are known as domestiques in the French cycling vernacular or as gregarios in Italian – that he is capable of being a team leader is short.  Some riders are thrust into a starring role because of an untimely injury, accident or collapse of their team leader and others show so much early promise that they are groomed for the role of leader.  The Frenchman Laurent Fignon is an example of the former and the American Greg Lemond the latter.  Unfortunately, they were almost the same age and by 1982 both were racing for the same Renault-Elf-Gitane team, so ultimately the team would not be big enough for both of them.  Fignon and Lemond’s career’s were both interrupted by misfortune that altered the trajectory of their lives and they were destined to be pitted against each other in the epic 1989 Tour de France.

Laurent Fignon came to cycling relatively late and only began to make his presence felt as a junior when he was seventeen and eighteen.  Thus he wasn’t selected for the Junior World Championships or the 1980 Moscow Olympics; these early selections are usually what brings notice to young riders.  Fignon was selected for the French National Team in 1981 and rode so well in the Tour de Corsica, an “open” race where the amateur national teams raced against professional teams, that Cyrille Guimard, the clever manager of the Renault-Elf-Gitane team, signed him up for the following season.   Fignon began winning professional races in the early spring of his first season when his team leader, Bernard Hinault was still getting rid of his winter fat.  In his first grand tour, the Giro d’Italia, he wore the Maglia Rosa and helped Hinault win the race.

Laurent Fignon turned pro in 1982 for Cyrille Guimard

In 1983 Fignon helped Hinault to the Vuelta title the following spring, and when Hinault injured his knee the young Frenchman started his first Tour de France. In spite of his inexperience, he rode confidently, and when Pascal Simon, the leader of the race was injured, Fignon was waiting in the wings and triumphed.  When Hinault switched to the new La Vie Claire team and came back in 1984, the two men faced off and Fignon dominated the Tour de France, showing his climbing chops by attacking in the Pyrenees and Alps and proving he could be the equal of the great Hinault, even in the highest mountains.  It was next Fignon’s turn to have a serious tendon injury, then crashes and illnesses, and so he experienced several years with many more downs than ups.

Le Equipe Renault-Elf-Gitane en 1982: Hinault, Lemond, Fignon, 10 victories in the Tour de France

Meanwhile, Greg Lemond was becoming American cycling’s golden child.  He began racing with his father as a method of staying in shape for free-style skiing, but once in became clear that he was a unique talent, he devoted his life to cycling. By the time he was fifteen and sixteen he was riding with the best seniors in the United States. Lemond was a member of the 1978 Junior Worlds Team and earned a Bronze Medal in the Team Time Trial.  The following year he captured a Silver Medal in the Individual Pursuit and won the Junior World Championship Road Race.  In the spring of 1980, as a member of the United States National Team, Lemond raced in France and won the Circuit de la Sarthe against professional competition at the precocious age of eighteen, marking him as a exceptional all-around talent.  When the United States boycotted the 1980 Olympic Games, Lemond finished out the season in France.  That fall, Renault’s Cyrille Guimard signed him to a professional contract.  Groomed for a leader’s role, Lemond gradually tackled more and more difficult races and in 1983 he won the Criterium du Dauphine Libere, France’s second most difficult race, as well as the World Professional Championship, where I had the chance to see him solo to victory on a demanding course in Switzerland.  He won the Prestige Pernod Award that year as the world’s top professional cyclist.  In 1984, he did his first grand tour, finishing a quiet third behind his teammate Laurent Fignon and his mentor Bernard Hinault.  Lemond won the Maillot Blanc of the best young rider and climbed well in the Alps and Pyrenees, but did not manage to keep up with the aggressive Fignon.

One great talent in the Maillot Blanc, the other in the Maillot Jaune

By 1985, Lemond had also switched to the La Vie Claire team, and when Fignon was injured before the race it made it a competition between the maturing Lemond and his teammate Hinault, who was somewhat diminished by a crash.  Lemond seemed to have the measure of the great Hinualt in the mountains, where he had to wait for his team leader, and despite Hinault’s superiority in the time trials, Lemond was less than two minutes in arrears in Paris.  In 1986 Hinualt promised to work for his younger teammate, but it seemed like the older rider could not resist the temptation of trying to be the first man to win six tours and he attacked repeatedly, cracking Fignon, who was not yet himself in the ’86 race and testing Lemond, who was able to rise to the challenge.  The American came into his own as a climber, winning in the classic Pyrenean stage from Pau to Superbagneres, taking the Maillot Jaune on the stage from Nimes to Gap and then climbing the Alp d’Huez alongside Hinault, which was the final signal that there was a changing of the guard.

By 1986 Greg Lemond was mature enough to withstand the "testing" Hinault dished out..

Unfortunately, Lemond was shot in a bizarre hunting accident the next spring and with the trauma of a life-threatening injury and the long recovery, he spent the 1987 and 1988 seasons in the wilderness at the same time Fignon was coming back from a passel of injuries and issues.  That set up a show down between two riders who were struggling for redemption in the 1989 Tour de France.  Fignon, still allied with Guimard in the colors of Systeme U, was coming of a great victory in the Giro d’Italia, but Lemond still seemed to be well short of presenting a challenge.

Fignon attacks, Lemond defends...

By 1989 the American was now filling Hinault’s shoes as a time trialist and so the Tour de France became a see-saw battle between Fignon’s shark-like attacks in the Pyrenees, where he took the yellow jersey, Lemond’s prowess in the time trial where he regained it once again, and then Fignon’s mountain prowess in the Alps.  While Lemond climbed well in the 1989 Tour de France, Fignon had his measure, but the advantage was slight enough that everything came down to the unusual final stage, a time trial into Paris, which Lemond won, giving him overall victory by 8 seconds, the narrowest margin in history.  Lemond returned to the Tour in 1990, but was not his best.  He kept the Italian rider Claudio Chiappucci in sight in the Alps and Pyrenees and then did well enough in the final time trial to overcome the deficit, winning his third and last Tour de France.


The final act of the Hinault-Fignon-Lemond wars...Imagine losing the Tour de France by 8 seconds on the last day

Rating: 4 Stars

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The Incredible Cycling Career and Scandalous Life of Jacques Anquetil

Sex, Lies and Handlebar Tape

By Paul Howard (Mainstream Publishing, 2008)

Review, History and Commentary by Jeffrey Morseburg

The first English language biography of the Tour de France champion Jacques Anquetil has now become available through Amazon, and the book reveals the incredible twists and turns that the French rider’s route took, not only in his cycling career, but also in his scandalous private life.  Written by the English journalist Paul Howard, the biography is a fulsome and fair account of what was an exciting, unconventional and short life, one that was full of great sporting triumphs, and private behavior that thumbed its nose at convention.

To new cycling fans, the name of the French rider Jacques Anquetil may be one that they have only seen in record books or in online discussions of the relative merits of the great champions of cycling.   Unfortunately, the French rider died of cancer in 1987 at the age of fifty-three, so only had a short reign as one of the sport’s elder statesmen.  Anquetil was the first man to win the Tour de France five times, and also won the other two Grand Tours, the Vuelta de Espana once and the Giro d’ Italia twice.  In 1963 he became the first rider to win both the Vuelta and the Tour in the same season, and he was the second man to win the Giro-Tour double, a feat he first accomplished in 1964.  Only the younger French champion Bernard Hinault, who had ten wins in the grand tours, and Belgium’s Eddy Merckx, with eleven, exceeded Anquetil’s eight grand tour victories.  Yet, in spite of his manifold accomplishments, many French fans never warmed to Anqueil and millions of adoring Frenchmen cheered instead for his longtime rival Raymond Poulidor, known as “the eternal second.”

To the French public, Poulidor had heart, le grand passion, while Anquetil was by nature calculating and always chose races that would add francs to his purse or contribute to his prestige, which again helped the bottom line. He spoke frankly and admitted that if it was not for the money he would have had no interest in riding a bike. Where Poulidor had the reputation for being accessible and never lost the common peasant’s touch, Anquetil had a taste for champagne, lobster and the finer things in life.  He was also world’s apart from the popular French champion Louison Bobet. He never gave in to the life of monk-like denial practiced by the latter, and as a result the two never got on.  Anquetil wanted his champagne lifestyle and to be a champion and, because of his unique abilities and enormous drive, he managed to have it all.  Still, he wept privately when spectators cursed him and spat on him on the roads of the Tour de France.  There is a part of the French character that loves the valiant loser, the lost cause, so if someone is too good, if he wins too handily, it can be hard for the French public to come to like him – as Lance Armstrong has discovered.

Jacques Anquetil, First Five-Time Winner of the Tour de France

Anquetil was one of the few great cyclists who became famous overnight. He came from a modest background and grew up on a strawberry farm in Normandy, close by the cathedral city of Rouen. He only started cycling at sixteen, while attending trade school.  In 1953, as a nineteen year-old “independent,” which was then an intermediate step between amateur and professional status, he became an instant sensation when he raced and won the prestigious Grand Prix des Nations, vanquishing Louison Bobet, the current Tour de France champion in the process.  The Grand Prix des Nations was an arduous 140-kilometer time trial, which served as the unofficial world championship for time specialists, men who raced “against the clock.” The French refer to the time trial as “La Course du la Verite,” or “the race of truth” as there is no pack, no drafting, only the rider against the wind, the chosen course and the sweeping hands of the clock. Until 1988, the Grand Prix des Nations was a major event on the fall cycling calendar.  The unheralded young strawberry picker with his slight carriage and bird legs not only won, he was dominant. The public wanted to know where all the power he used to push the huge gears he favored came from.  This great race autumnal race against the chronograph became Anquetil’s specialty; he entered the Grand Prix de Nations race nine times in his career and won each time.  It has been described as Anquetil’s masterpiece.

Anquetil First Won the Tour in 1957

In 1957, the first year that commercial advertising was allowed to appear on the rider’s clothing, Anquetil, racing for the French National Team, won his first Tour de France. This was the era when the Tour was contested by national teams rather than the trade teams that competed in the race before 1930. In 1957 there were national teams from Belgium, the Netherlands, Italy and Switzerland as well as a number of French regional squads. When the leading French rider of the day, Louison Bobet, who had won the 1953, 1954 and 1955 editions, declined to ride the tour, the French team was built around Anquetil, who was just emerging as a contender for the general classification.  The use of national teams in the tour gave the race a different complexion than we are familiar with today. Instead of a dozen or more trade teams, each with their own commercial interests, the national team format meant that the outstanding riders were concentrated on fewer teams and that nationalism sometimes outweighed other interests.

1957 was not only the year of Jacque Anquetil’s first tour victory, it was also the season that his life took a different turn and in which the first of the many controversies that marked his life and career emerged. Anquetil was always an unconventional cyclist. He insisted on doing things his own way, and even today, those who were around him are still not sure whether his unconventional approach made his career better or diminished him as a rider. Every sport has its conventions and hide-bound traditions and European cycling has more than its share. From early in his career, Anquetil seemed to thumb his nose at each and every fixture of life in the professional peloton. First and foremost, there was his relationship with Jeanine Boeda, who was known by the nickname of “Nanou,” who became French cycling’s “scarlet woman.” Married to Anquetil’s friend and doctor, Jeanine lived in Rouen with her husband and her two children. When she first met Anquetil, she thought the shy young man was a country bumpkin, but he was attracted to the curvy blond with film-star looks the first time they met.  Their affair began in 1957, when the rider was on the Riveria for Paris-Nice, the important early season stage race. Soon afterwards, Jeanine abandoned her husband and children to accompany Anquetil everywhere he went.

Jacques and Jeanine "Nanou" Anquetil

While affaires de couer were tolerated in French society, some discretion was expected of the participants.  So when France’s young sporting hero began to openly carry on an affair with his friend’s wife, including sharing rooms at races, tongues wagged and the affair became a hot topic in gossip columns and the sporting press.  What caused further controversy was that Jacques and Jeanine had violated cycling’s convention against wives or girlfriends traveling with the teams, a convention that still exists today. To the cycling world, the rider’s female companion’s role was to keep the home fires burning and, if she wanted to watch her husband race, there was always the television or the radio.  By tradition, a rider’s family only visited him on the rest day during the three weeks of the Tour de France.

In fact, cycling lore is full of stories of how women “ruined” riders, and over a dinner my friends and I will laugh about the ones that we used to hear in Belgium.  Fausto Coppi, the great Italian “Campionissimo,” carried on a torrid affair with a married woman and it sometimes seemed that every European coach was given a handbook where he was instructed to tell young riders how the immortal Coppi had fallen from grace.  To cycling coaches and managers, especially in Europe, results are everything, and anything that gets in the way of achieving those results is verboten. To them, a pretty blond, brunette or redhead can only be a distraction for the male cycliste, never a plus.  An assignation at the end of a race with a podium girl is one thing, but carrying on an affair was simply not done.

When Anquetil insisted on taking his married mistress on the road with him, it caused a scandal.  Jeanine, who was seven years older that her lover, was a nurse and a mother, though these were only two of the roles she played for her Jacques.  She drove him to the races, motorpaced him with their Mercedes, booked the rooms, carried the bags and even helped with the prize splits in the lucrative post-Tour de France criteriums.  Amazingly, at least to the cycling world, Anquetil’s career did not careen downhill after he met Jeanine.  In fact, she actually brought a new sense of order and purpose to her lover’s career and if anything, he was a better, more confident, more content rider because of her influence.  After all, he was a young man with little life experience when he met Jeanine.  Because this was Anquetil we are speaking of, his trade team’s leader and France’s great cycling hope, Jeanine’s constant presence was grudgingly accepted, especially after her divorce was finally granted and she and Jacques were married.

Anquetil came of age in an era where some of the great champions lived almost monk-like lives of deprivation, but early on he developed the reputation as a rider who hardly trained and liked to go out on the town. While there was some truth to his reputation for late nights and a lack of concentration, once he married Jeanine he spent time at home with his wife and with a small group of mates. He eschewed nightlife and didn’t like being recognized or signing autograph for fans. While Anquetil had a considerable ego and a large dose of Gallic pride, these found expression on the bike, not amongst adoring crowds.  He did hate to train, but then so did many of the riders in his era, who often raced themselves into shape with a hundred and fifty or two hundred days of competition each season.  Jeanine pushed him to train and so dutifully he did, but instead of the steady diet of day long rides recommended by coaches of the day, he preferred intense two or two-and-a-half hour sessions of motorpacing, riding behind the derny at speeds of fifty-five to sixty kilometers per hour.

In the first six decades of its history, the Tour de France was usually won by French riders as the Italians, who were often the only foreigners who could challenge the Gallic riders in the Alps and Pyrenees, preferred to race in Italy. However, because there was often more than one outstanding French rider, the team manager had to be as much a diplomat as a strategist and sometimes the strong egos and personalities of the riders on the team meant that none of them won. In the infamous 1959 tour, Anquetil and his younger rival Roger Riviere let the Spaniard climber Federico Bahamontes win so that their French rival Henry Anglade of the Centre-Midi team couldn’t. The subtext of this dramatic incident was that two different agents represented the three French riders. Riviere and Anquetil were with Daniel Dousset, the leading agent, and Anglade was with the younger Roger Piel, so the tussle was really over the spoils of the lucrative post-Tour criteriums, where the riders made most of their money. When Anquetil let a Spaniard who he knew would be hopeless on the tight turns of the criterium courses win rather than see a French rival emerge victorious, the French public was furious, and he was greeted with jeers when the Tour de France finished on the old Parc des Princes Velodrome.

The Eagle of Toledo, Federico Bahamontes

In 1960, Anquetil decided to concentrate on the Giro d’ Italia, abandoning the role of the great French hope for the Tour de France to Riviere, a former pursuiter and the only man who seemed to be able to challenge Anquetil him in long time trials. Anquetil won the Giro in dominant form, a task that was incredibly difficult for foreign riders to accomplish because of the nationalism of the Italian riders, fans and officials. In the 1960 tour, poor Riviere made the mistake of trying to keep up with the Italian climber Gastone Nenceni, who was just as fast downhill as he was when the terrain tipped up.  On one of the treacherous descents, Riviere went over the side of the cliff and broke his back, an accident that ended his career and made him an invalid. In the end Nenceni emerged victorious, winning the tour by more than five minutes.

Roger Riviere Never Raced Again.

In 1961, with the three-time winner Bobet retired and Riviere crippled, Anquetil asked the French team manager Marcel Bidot to build the national team around him, and the manager agreed. Buoyed by his growing list of triumphs and ready to assert himself as the leader or patron of the peloton, Anquetil decided to put his stamp on the Tour de France. He brashly announced his intention to lead the tour from beginning to end before the start of the race. In those days, the tour often had half stages, two stages on the same day, and after the first flat stage was won by his French teammate Andre Darrigade, Anquetil won the time trial and pulled on the malliot jaune of the leader of the Tour de France, which he was to wear all the way to Paris three weeks later. Unfortunately, his dominance was so great that it killed all suspense and once again, thousands of fans jeered him at the finish in Paris. Winning the race was not enough for the French fans, who cared deeply about the method used to win the Tour de France as well as the elan of the victor. To cap off a brilliant year, Anquetil he won the Grand Prix des Nations and in the fall was awarded the Super Prestige International Pernod award, which was given to the world’s top professional cyclist.

The Crafty, Voluble Director Rapael Geminiani

In 1962, the Tour de France was re-structured and one of the decisions the organizers made was to bring the trade teams back to the race after an absence of more than thirty years.  Six sponsored French teams lined up with fifty French cyclists in all and the Italians were represented by six squadras with fifty-two Italian riders between them. The rest of the riders on the teams were from Belgium, the Netherlands, Switzerland and Great Britian.   Anquetil and his teamates would contest the race for the ACBB team, wearing the colors of their sponsor St. Raphael. Raphael Geminiani, the crafty former star rider, now ran the ACBB team.  The agressive Geminiani, who Anquetil had initially sought to replace, built his team around Anqueil and together they would set the cycling world on fire.

The 1962 Tour was a seesaw battle – no less than seven riders wore the yellow jersey. The race was marred, however, when fourteen riders pulled out of the race after stage thirteen in the Alps. They claimed they had eaten bad fish, but others suspected tainted drugs were the cause of their withdrawal. In the late stages of the race, the outstanding Flemish rider Josef “Jef” Plankaert, who was having a career year, took the yellow jersey. The tour of ‘62 also marked the emergence of Raymond Poulidor, who attacked during the mountainous 19th stage and gained so much time that he was catapulted into third overall on the classification general.  As for Anquetil, he and Geminiani knew that with his prowess against the clock all he had to do was keep within striking distance of the top of the overall standings. The blond rider from Normandy was always at a slight disadvantage to the pure climbers on the steep climbs of the Alps and Pyrenees, so he employed a strategy of not following every attack, limiting his losses by climbing at his own pace and keeping something in reserve until he needed an all-out effort. True to plan, Anquetil captured the yellow jersey with a decisive victory in the Stage 20 time trial. He only wore it on the final two inconsequential stages that took the remaining riders to Paris, but all that mattered to him was that he had it at the finish.

In 1963 it seemed like the Tour organizers wanted to end Anquetil’s dominance, as they reduced the distance of the time trial stages to lessen the advantage he could build up over mere mortals in the races against the clock. This was also the 50th anniversary of the Tour de France and if Anquetil could win the silver edition of the race, he would be the first man to triumph more than three times.   Once the tour entered the mountains, it became a battle between Anquetil and the great Spanish climber Federico Bahmontes who pulled on the maillot jaune on the 15th stage.  On the next stage Anquetil was having a difficult time keeping the Spanish climbing machine in check, so on the leg to Chamonix, where Bahamontes had opened a gap, the French rider feigned a bicycle problem and switched from a lightweight climbing machine to a more stable bike for the long, fast descent, where he caught the man known as “The Eagle of Toledo.” The Spanish rider has always felt the Tour organizers had conspired to help Anquetil against him, to prevent a Spaniard from winning.   Once again, Anquetil triumphed a in the time trial, widening his lead to three and a half minutes at the finish.

The Beloved Mercier Star Raymond Poulidor, "The Eternal Second."

The 1964 Tour de France will always be remembered for the epic battle between Anquetil and Raymond Poulidor. Once again, the yellow jersey changed hands in the early stages between riders who had little chance of winning in the end, for the calculating Anquetil was only concerned with who wore the maillot jaune into Paris. He and his team director Geminiani had no interest in defending the yellow fleece any longer than necessary.  Poulidor was clearly superior in the mountains that year and on the rest day in the little Pyrenean tax haven of Andorra, between mountain stages, Anquetil made the mistake of attending a barbeque with his wife, where he ate some lamb that upset his system.  Thumbing his nose at convention, he also failed to ride on the rest day, something that riders always feel they need to do during the long stage races in order to keep their legs loose.  The next day’s race, Stage 14, went up the 26 kilometer Col de l’Envalira right away and because Anquetil had failed to warm up he was unable to answer the attacks that came right after the start. He was in such discomfort that he actually climbed off the bike at one point, but was shamed into starting to chase by his teammate Louis Rostollan.  Legend has it that Geminiani gave him some champagne to settle his stomach, but in any event, he began to recover and with 150 kilometers of descents and flats remaining in the stage, gradually reeled in the leaders, finally catching them before the finish in Toulouse and actually putting some time into Poulidor, who flatted late in the race.

Elbow-to-Elbow on the Puy-de-Dome, The Epic Stage 20 of the 1964 Tour de France

Despite stage wins by Poulodoir and Bahamontes in the mountains, Anquetil captured the maillot jaune after the time trial that finished in Bayonne, but his lead was less than a minute.  This set up a show down that all France was waiting for on the slopes of the volcanic peak known as the Puy-de-Dome. Stage twenty went down as one of the great races in the history of the tour, for Raymond Poulidor was determined to drop Anquetil on the slopes of the last significant climb of the 51st tour. Despite acceleration after acceleration, with handebar-to-handlebar racing on the steep climb, though, “Poupou” couldn’t seem to get a gap.  Between bluffing and sheer willpower, Anquetil managed to stay with crowd favorite Poupou until the last steep incline of the race.  In the rarefied air at the top of of the 4,642 foot mountain, at the flame rouge banner that marked one kilometer to go, Poulidor managed to finally get his opponent to crack and by the finish had opened a small gap.  As Anquetil collapsed after the finish he asked his director what his lead was now over  Poulidor and when he was told it was fourteen seconds he said “That’s one more than I need, I have thirteen in hand.”  So, because of Anquetil’s time trialing ability, the race was as good as finished.  Once again he won the final time trial, from Versailles to Paris, but at the finish in Paris, Anquetil was only 55 seconds ahead of Poulidor.

The 1964 TDF Podium - Anquetil, Poulidor, Bahamontes

Anquetil’s greatest and strangest triumph was the Dauphine-Libere-Bordeaux-Paris “double” of 1965.  In cycling, a double had come to mean racing and winning two of the major national tours in the same season, but Anquetil’s manager, the  gesturing, gesticulating, volatile Geminiani, had come up with a crazy new double, the concept of riding a stage race and a one day classic back-to-back.  The Dauphine Libere, which is named for the regional newspaper that sponsored it, is the second most prestigious French stage race after the Tour de France. In that era, the epic 370-mile Bordeaux-Paris, longest of the single-day “classics, started just hours after the Dauphine finished. To Geminiani, who was a tireless promoter, the idea of Anquetil riding and possibly winning these two events back to back would be a massive publicity coup for their new sponsor, Ford Motor Company, which was making a big push in Europe.  However, to his rider, the one who would actually have to race five hundred miles in two days, the idea was perfectly insane.  So, the manager and the rider’s wife conspired together and, when both expressed doubts as to whether even the great Anquetil was capable of riding and winning the Dauphine and Bordeaux-Paris back to back, poor Jacques declared he was all in.  Perhaps he could use the double to put some dent into the popularity of Poulidor, the French public’s favorite cycliste.

The Headline Says it All...The Extraordinary Exploit of Jacques Anquetil

Many years ago, when I had the opportunity to meet cyclists from the 1930s and 1940s, they would scoff at how “soft” cycling had become. They would say “in my day, one of us had to be on the track at all times during a six day track race.” Imagine one rider having to be on the track at all times for the 144 hours a six-day lasted!  They would show me albums of photos of epic stage races that no longer existed like the three-day Berlin-Copenhagen Runt of the late 1930s. The stage races of that era often had 250-mile stages that took ten or twelve hours to cover.  Unbelievable.  Just imagine riding them on single-speed bicycles and having to repair your own bike on the awful goat tracks that were the “roads” they raced – or survived – over in the Alps, Pyrenees or Dolomites. Is it a wonder why doping – mainly stimulants like strychnine – was part of cycling since its inception?  Now, even by the 1960s, the Bordeaux-Paris classic was a vestigial part of the earlier lost world of Pre-War cycling, so epic that it bordered on the ridiculous for riders who had to race and show the colors of the sponsor all the time.

Now, when I witnessed the life of the professional riders of the 1980s up close, I never felt their life was soft, that it was anything but backbreaking, especially for the winter track riders or those who raced for the small hand-to-mouth professional squads.  When I watched the pros race seven hours a night in the six day races and then climb in the car on the seventh day to drive to the next race, I would think ironically, “Oh, yes, what an easy life!”  I remember the carousing, combative Aussie professional Gary Wiggins, father of the current British Olympic champion, riding most of an entire six day season with a painful saddle boil – which is a nice way of describing a raging, infected abscess – that had to be drained every night.  Yet Wiggins had to keep racing because if you signed a contract with the six-day organizers, with what some of the riders called “the mafia,” you had better be on each and every starting line or you wouldn’t keep getting the invitations for the show.

Well, back to the crazy Dauphine-Libiere-Bordeaux-Paris double.  The Dauphine itself was epic that year, with stage after stage run in torrential spring rain, conditions that Anquetil never liked.  After a tremendous battle with his rival Poudoir, he triumphed in the Dauphine, winning the final time trial in Avignon to confirm the win.   It was a dominating performance, three stage victories, second in the points classification, second in the mountains competition and minutes clear of everyone else in the G.C. After the podium festivities were over, he ate a dinner of steak tartar, drank two beers and was flown from Nimes across France in a chartered plane, rumored to have been provided by now less an august figure than General de Gaulle, Monsieur le President.  He had time for a quick massage in the airport terminal and then tried to catch a few hours of fitful sleep in Bordeaux before a pre-race meal.

A Great Crowd Greeted Anquetil at Parc des Princes

While all of the single-day classics can be described as demanding races, at 370 miles, the now-extinct Bordeaux-Paris race was so long that it bordered on the inhuman. The race started at 2:00 in the morning, so the half-day long event would finish in prime time the next afternoon.  The conditions made the race one of the most dangerous on the schedule. To make the concept of Bordeaux-Paris even more difficult for non-Europeans to understand, the first half of the race was run under normal rules, with the usual pack of riders and breakaways. However, in the second half of the race, which fortunately began after it became light, each of the rider was picked up by a pacer on a small motorized cycle called a derny, at which point, with each combatant in the slipstream of the pacer, speeds in the race could reach more than forty miles an hour. There were a number of derny-paced events on the calendar in that era, but today, even on the velodrome, they are rare.

So, at 2:00, Anquetil dutifully pushed off into the cool, spring darkness with the rest of the pack.  As tired as he was after ten days of racing and little rest, he managed not only stay on his bike but remain with the lead pack.  Now, these were the days before extensive drug testing and Anquetil made no bones about the fact that he and the rest of the riders relied on stimulants to get themselves up for one infernal event after another. He later told interviewers that he could never have completed Bordeaux-Paris “on sugar water” and scoffed at riders who claimed to have won the Tour de France without any sort of aid for a bad day.  So, we have to assume that to push his body beyond what was reasonable, healthy or indeed even possible, he relied on some form of stimulants.  However, after racing almost three hundred miles in less than 24 hours, Anquetil was so exhausted, so spent, that he quit and climbed in the car before first light. His manager, Germiniani, ever the psychologist, called him a quitter – and things that I won’t repeat here – and then, in a fury, the already thin Frenchman, who now looked like a starving prisoner, re-mounted his steel steed and joined the hunt.  The derny portion of the race was an epic battle, where a number of the racers had to chase down Francois Mahe, who had built up a considerable lead after an early attack, but finally the pursuers caught him. Then Anquetil had to battle the British rider Tom Simpson in the last miles of the race, alternating attacks with his Ford-France teammate Jean Stablinski. Finally, the gutsy British rider cracked and Anquetil was able to ride into the Parc des Princes stadium to a rapturous welcome, the greatest of his career.

Rating: 5 Stars

Copyright Jeffrey Morseburg 2010. Not to be reproduced without prior written permission.

Posted in Bicycle Racers, Bicycle Racing, Bicycling History, Giro d'Italia, Tour de France, Uncategorized, Velodromes | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Classic French Cyclotouring Bicycles: Impetus for Two-Wheeled Innovation

The Golden Age of Handbuilt Biycles: Craftsmanship, Elegance and Function

Written by Jan Heine (Vintage Bicycle Press/Rizzoli, 2009)

Review by Jeffrey Morseburg

Historically, the sport of cycling has suffered from a poor press, especially in the English language.  Cycling books have tended to be either annuals devoted to a racing season, short biographies of famous cyclists, training manuals or modest picture books.  The mediocre quality of cycling books was probably due the sport’s modest roots.  Cycling was once a major sport in the United States, especially on the high banks of the indoor velodromes, where track races drew thousands of spectators to places like the original Madison Square Garden, which was actually constructed for cycling.  This period of popularity lasted from about the 1880s through the early 1930s. However, as cars became an affordable and efficient form of transportation and recreation, popular interest in cycling faded. Finally, it was the Great Depression that seemed to put the last nail in the sport’s coffin. Eventually, bicycles came to be thought of as children’s toys and bicycle racing was seen as an eccentric European sport; its deep roots in American culture were almost completely forgotten.

Despite the size of the United States’ book market, for many years there were few cycling books to choose from, and the offerings that did exist were modest efforts from specialized publishers. Interestingly, things were not a lot better for the literate cyclist abroad.  In Europe, there were sports like rowing, motor racing, horse racing and yachting for the upper crust, and so during the postwar years, football and cycling were seen as sports for lower-class participants.  Lavish books like those  produced for yachting or motor racing were rare or non-existent, even for continental cyclists.  Fortunately, the quality of cycling books is changing, both in the United States and Europe.  As cycling has become more attractive to the affluent, there has been an increasing market for well-produced cycling books. After all, an enthusiast who can afford a bicycle that costs as much as a good used car can afford a book that costs fifty or seventy-five dollars for the coffee table.

One of these beautiful new coffee table cycling books is The Golden Age of Handmade Bicycles, a stunning production devoted to the exquisite mounts of French Cyclotourists of the 1930s.   Even a veteran bicycle racing enthusiast with a solid knowledge of the sport will find some of the bicycles here a revelation!  This is because most of us whose knowledge and interest in cycling began with competitive cycling have never mixed a great deal with the touring crowd.  Historically, there was little overlap between the touring rider and the competitive cyclist.  To the racer, riding may be enjoyable, but ultimately, the countless miles on the bike serve a purpose, and that is to prepare for races.  Even after a competitive rider stops racing, his riding may have a social aspect, but he remains a competitive person. Riding still revolves around gaining or maintaining fitness rather than just seeing the countryside at a good clip.

This tourist/racer divide also existed in Europe, and the most interesting aspect of this division between cycling sportsmen was that racing bicycles and touring bicycles evolved and developed on parallel tracks, with the technology of touring bikes actually advancing more rapidly than that of racing bikes. This will be the major revelation from this book for racers… that the technical development of the bicycle did not begin with our patron Saint, Italy’s Tullio Campagnolo.  While most of us tend to think that it would be racing that would lead the way to superior materials, construction and components, this was not the case in Europe in the years following World War I.  It was actually cyclotourists, riders who rode great distances for pleasure, who pioneered many great advances in the development of the bicycle.  Racing-bicycle development was hindered by a retrograde mindset that is unfortunately still with us, the minimum weight for U.C.I. sanctioned races being just one sterling example.

In 1920s France, which was slowly recovering from the devastation of four years of war, automobiles were still relatively expensive to buy and, then as now, the petrol to run them didn’t come cheap.  At the same time, there was a growing lower-middle class who was beginning to enjoy their time off.  Even a factory or service workers could save up and buy a nice bicycle.  So, voila, the bicycle became the device that tens of thousands of French men, women and children used to explore their beautiful country.  Every summer, families packed their velos with tents, spare clothing and, because this is France, cooking implements, and pedaled off to a week or two of sweaty leisure.

By the time velo tourisme was hitting its stride, the “diamond” frame had already been the standard of bicycle construction for several decades.   Chain-driven and equipped with two wheels of the same diameter, which enabled the rider to carry spare tires and tubes of a single size, the diamond-framed bike enabled the rider to cover great distances efficiently.  Furthermore, it could be made on a small scale by custom builders or put into assembly line production, with both types of bike builders able to use interchangeable components, making bicycles affordable and replacement parts readily available.  The bicycle of the 1920s was relatively light, easy to ride, didn’t require much space to store and, once mounted, the rider was high enough to be visible to the automobiles and motorcycles he had to share the road with. All these qualities made the traditional diamond-framed bicycle the standard choice for cyclists of the early 1900s, as it remains today.

The transformation of the bicycle from a device for transportation and local recreational rides to a human-powered vehicle that could be ridden long distances over almost any terrain was in large part due to the efforts of a man named Paul de Vivie, the mustached Prometheus of the cyclo-touring movement. De Vivie became a cycling enthusiast in the 1880s, often riding hundreds of kilometers at a stretch, which gave him plenty of time to wish for improvements in the primitive single-speed bicycles of the day.  He soon began writing under the pen name Velocio and became a poetic advocate for paid vacations for all Frenchmen and the leading proponent of cyclotourism.  Something of an Anglophile, de Vivie was a member of the Cycling Tourists Club in Britain, imported mass-produced English bicycles to France and published the landmark French magazine Le Cycliste.  By 1889 de Vivie became a manufacturer, creating the La Gauloise brand and then, in search of a better method of climbing inclines through changing the gear ratio, he invented the “BI-Chain” system and created one of the first primitive derailleurs.  The philosophy of Velocio permeated the early years of cyclo-touringin France:

After a long day on my bicycle, I feel refreshed, cleansed, purified. I feel that I have established contact with my environment and that I am at peace. On days like that I am permeated with a profound gratitude for my bicycle. Even if I did not enjoy riding, I would still do it for my peace of mind. What a wonderful tonic to be exposed to bright sunshine, drenching rain, choking dust, dripping fog, rigid air, punishing winds! I will never forget the day I climbed the Puy Mary. There were two of us on a fine day in May. We started in the sunshine and stripped to the waist. Halfway, clouds enveloped us and the temperature tumbled. Gradually it got colder and wetter, but we did not notice it. In fact, it heightened our pleasure.

The Golden Age of Handbuilt Bicycles is a wonderful pictorial guide to dozens of French manufacturers of touring bicycles.  One was the mass-market company Hirondelle, which at its peak boasted 5,000 employees.  Their affordable Retro-Directe model, marketed from 1903 to 1939, used a primitive gear changing method that wound the chain in a figure eight around a set of two freewheels.  In contrast to the mass-produced bikes, there were also custom builders like the innovative Jacques Schultz, who anticipated monocoque construction with his single-backbone frame with a one large diameter tube.  He also created an early indexed derailleur system and his own pedals.

In 1934, a group of enthusiasts created the Groupe Montagnard Parisien, which translates to the Mountaineer Group of Paris. These were riders who were not interested in simply riding on flat or rolling terrain, but in climbing over the steep alpine passes. This organization created a “Concours de Machines,” or “Test of Machines,” which meant a series of technical trials that served as motivation for manufacturers to create lighter weight, more responsive bicycles that climbed more efficiently.  So, soon constructors like A.I. Reiss from Lyon were creating bicycles with full touring equipment – lights, fenders, pump – that weighed less than 25 pounds.  These lightweight bikes enabled riders to climb much faster and even featured improved brakes than could arrest the speed of a plunging bicycle more rapidly because there was less mass to stop.

In 1936, the French union movement achieved their goal of a 40 hour work week and two weeks of paid vacation and this led mass-market companies like Charles Longoni to create singles and tandems that were affordable for the growing movement of cyclotourists.  Unfortunately, World War II began in 1939 and it wasn’t until after another long conflict that cyclotouring could make a real comeback.  Some of the most beautiful bicycles in this book are ones made by the acclaimed builders Rene Herse, A. Faure and Alex Singer, all of whom created wonderfully detailed, hand-brazed frames with their own hand-crafted racks and lightweight components that were screwed into beautifully brazed-on mountings rather than clamped to the frame.  These bicycles, which could weigh less than twenty pounds, featured “drilled out” components, “engine turned” surfaces and frames which were often plated in stunning nickel alloy. The book concludes with a fascinating series of bikes from the 1950s and 1960s from the established custom builders that were created for specialized uses like commuting, deliveries and bicycle messenger services, and then finally with examples of the current French cyclotouring bicycles.

Some of the most stunning examples of the bicycle-builder’s art were produced for the Councours de Machines. A number of these bikes have survived in remarkable condition and are featured in The Golden Age of Handmade Bicycles. Each of the bicycles was shot by photographers Jean-Pierre Praderes and Eric Svoboda and have been reproduced on a white background. There is a great amount of detail in the medium-format photographs, detail that both enthusiasts and frame builders will enjoy. There are also a number of historic images that help illuminate the eras when the bicycles were produced.

These historic cyclotouring bikes have had a profound influence on a number of the artisans that are part of the new handmade bicycle movement.  Builders like Sacha White, Bruce Gordon, Robin Mater and Peter Weigle are not only crafting their own frames, but, like the French constructors before them, creating their own stems, handlebars, racks and other accessories, an assemblage of beautifully-formed function.  To the handmade movement, the humble bicycle is a vehicle for innovation and a means of self-expression.

The author of this 168-page book, Seattle-based writer Jan Heine, is the mover behind Bicycle Quarterly, which is the bible of the modern American cyclo-touring movement.  He originally published this book himself.  The Golden Age of Handbuilt Bicycles also features contributions from Neville and Helen March, who are prodigious Bordeaux-based collectors of historic bicycles and Raymond Henry, a cyclotourist who heads the Cultural Heritage Commission of the French Federation of Cyclotouring.  The writing is fine and clear, with just enough detail on each bicycle and builder and a chronological format which creates a narrative of bicycle development.

My only criticisms are that I would have liked to see technical data for each bicycle in an index, including the materials used, with the size and weight of the frame and the components.  Exact frame specifications would also be a good addition as I am sure this data would be welcomed by bicycle builders who would like to know the actual wheelbase, top tube length, rake and trail of each frame.  In conclusion, with The Golden Age of Handbuilt Bicycles, Heine and his contributors have created a stunning monument to the passionate enthusiasts and wonderful craftsmen who helped drive bicycle development and innovation.

Rating: 5 Stars

Copyright Jeffrey Morseburg 2010. Not to be reproduced without prior written permission.
Posted in Bicycle Design, Bicycle Frames, Bicycle Technology, Bicycle Touring, Bicycling History | Tagged , , , , , , , , , | 1 Comment

The Lost World of French Professional Cycling in the 1950s

Tomorrow We Ride

by Jean Bobet

Review by Jeffrey Morseburg

American cyclists tend to come from the ranks of the great middle class or even from affluent backgrounds.  Tour de France champion Greg Lemond grew up in the tony Lake Tahoe area, surrounded by wealth and natural beauty.  He began riding with his father so that they could keep in shape for ski season at the local Squaw Valley Resort.  The Lemonds – for Bob Lemond was also a very talented cyclist who quickly rose to the elite category – had the financial resources to buy expensive racing bikes and to travel the great distances it took to compete in bicycle racing in the western United States. They ventured from the Reno/Lake Tahoe area all the way down to the San Diego for the Willows Road Race, out to the high desert for our club’s famous Acton Road Race or to the rolling hills of the San Ynez Valley for Tour of Santa Ynez Road Race and the Solvang Criterium.  By contrast, even when Lemond began racing in the 1970s, European cycling was still a sport that was rooted in the peasantry.  Across Europe, most of the riders came from rural areas, from poor or working class backgrounds, and if they showed talent, a “supporter’s club” was formed to help them with equipment and expenses.

For the first eighty years of European cycling history, the sport was seen as a way to escape poverty or the drudgery of menial labor.  Cycling’s roots in poverty also created a lot of attitudes and traditions that are still part of European cycling culture today.  While tennis lore is full of stories of knightly chivalry – “I think that my ball was over the line good chap, so it’s your serve” – cycling has few tales of such Olympian sportsmanship.  Instead, when so many riders were scratching to get even a handhold in the middle class, there were always tales of fixed races, “combines” where riders from different teams worked together in a conspiracy and then split the purse, and of stories of ruthless managers who pocketed their rider’s appearance money and stipends.

An old friend from the Antipodes, who raced on one of the down-at-the-heels Belgian professional teams of the 1980s, used to tell wry laugh-before-you-cry stories of how their director pocketed their per-diem for road trips and had his wife make sandwiches – with stale bread of course. They were forced to steal team clothing from his house because he only gave them long-sleeved jerseys early in the year and then, when the weather turned warm, they were instructed to have their wives cut off and then hem the sleeves.  The reason many European bicycle and apparel companies were wary of sponsoring professional teams with bicycles or team clothing was because they were well aware of the grand tradition of what can be called velo graft – of the team giving precious little to the riders and then selling the majority of the goods out of the trunk of the team car, so they could pocket the proceeds.  After all, the sale of a single team bike would bring more than the monthly salary that a lowly paid mechanic or soigneur.

This is a long, roundabout way of describing the somewhat primitive roots of European cycling and the anti-intellectualism that took hold in the sport.  The rare educated rider was greeted with suspicion rather than esteem, for few serious riders had any formal education beyond the secondary level or seemed to even have any intellectual curiosity beyond reading L’Equipe.  This has gradually changed. Because of the ceaseless international travel, even the least intelligent of present day riders will become more worldly and gain some degree of insight no matter what their level of educational attainment.  But historically, the peloton did not always look kindly on riders with intellectual pretensions and this is why riders who wore glasses or who had even started college, like the late Laurent Fignon, could be nicknamed “Le Professeur.”

Among European coaches and team directors, there was one overarching idea – the notion that anything that distracted a rider from training and focusing on racing was not a good thing.  And there is probably a lot of truth to this, as some of the more intelligent or multi-faceted riders I have known have had a difficult time maintaining the single-minded zeal it takes to get to the top step of the cycling podium.  Even an out-of-season tan was a mark of suspicion that a rider didn’t have his priorities straight. Many coaches even found a young rider’s interest in reading training manuals repellant because the rider would undoubtedly waste time questioning their coach’s approach.   Now, with the advent of modern, professionally run-teams from Scandinavia and the United States, some of these old attitudes are falling away.

Louison Bobet, One of French Cycling's Immortals

This brings us to Jean Bobet, that rare educated man in the professional ranks of his day and now a retired sports journalist, who has written a memoir titled Tomorrow We Ride. At 80 years old, Bobet is one of the few survivors from the 1950s, that golden age of cycling history when courageous giants like Fausto Coppi, Gino Bartali, Ferdi Kupler, Hugo Koblet and Bobet’s older brother, Louison Bobet, raced over the cols of France, the cobbles of Belgium and the avenues of the Riviera.  Louison Bobet, who was five years older than Jean, was one of the greatest cyclists in French history.  He won the Tour de France three times as well as a number of the arduous spring and autumnal classics, and he wore the coveted rainbow jersey of World Road Champion.  Young Jean, who was an excellent amateur cyclist in his own right, turned professional only after he completed his Baccalaureate. Abandoning his dreams of teaching American literature, he became his older brother’s right hand man, his protector in the rough-and tumble professional peloton and his gatekeeper outside of it. Therefore, Jean Bobet’s perspective on his brother’s life and career was unique, and he had been asked many times to write his brother’s biography – something he steadfastly refused to do because to him, a man of a different time and value system, a warts-and-all biography would be a violation of his late brother’s trust.

Coppi Died from Malaria After a Trip to Africa with Bobet

Instead of a biography of his brother Louison, Jean Bobet has produced this wonderfully written memoir of the two brother’s lives together on the bike and off, which is insightful and interesting but never salacious or unkind.  Although the narrative is roughly chronological, the book is impressionistic, with Bobet covering topics like the despised race fixing “mafia” that remains part of the European amateur scene, soigneurs and doping, the hundreds of races the brother’s rode together and the attitude of the French public.

This is an excellent book that helps to explain the traditions of the peloton and the showmanship that is still part of the professional scene.  Here is but one example: While still an amateur, Jean took part in a track omnium (or series of races, each counting towards the overall result) at the large outdoor velodrome in Rennes. It was a France v.s. Italy event that pitted him and his older brother against the Italian Campionissimo Fausto Coppi and his younger brother Serse.   After they had defeated the Italians 4-0 and Jean was leading a subsequent mass-start event, he was shocked to see his brother come over the top and sweep past him, Fausto Coppi glued to his wheel. The great Italian then nipped Louison at the line.  The older Bobet had to explain to his crestfallen brother that it was important to help Coppi win, so the champion could leave the velodrome with dignity intact.

Serse and Fausto Coppi, Looking Older Than They Were

Now, from here the story takes a sad turn.  Serse Coppi was an excellent rider in his own right and he won the controversial 1949 Paris-Roubaix classic. However, the track races in Rennes were part of a comeback, for he spent almost two years out of racing recovering from a broken leg.  Just weeks after leaving France and days before he was to start of the Tour de France, the less fortunate Coppi brother’s luck really ran out.  Racing in the Giro de Peimonte, he was contesting the field sprint on the streets of Torino when his front wheel plunged into a gutter next to tram rail and he was thrown from the bike and suffered a head injury.  Coppi initially seemed to recover from the blow, but he soon collapsed and died from a cerebral hemorrhage.  The death of his brother took some of the wind out of Fausto Coppi’s sails, and he reproached himself.  For the French Bobet brothers and rest of the peloton, it was a grim reminder of the dangers of their chosen career.

Although the Bobet brothers came from the province of Brittany, from the same soil in which many of the toughest and best French riders were rooted, the pair seemed to be cut from different cloth than that of the typical French cyclist.  Although only the younger Jean went to the University, both of the brothers were bright and inquisitive.  Louis was the son of another Louis, thus he was given the diminutive nickname “Louison.”  The brothers grew up near Rennes, the capital of the province of Brittany.   Their father was a sports-mad baker and had his own shop in Saint Meen-le-Grand, so the two brothers and their sister grew up helping in the shop.  The father had Louison on his first little bicycle at the age of two and within months he could ride it several miles.

Louison began racing in local events during World War II and, like Jean Robic, he was said to have carried messages for le resistance.  After a short period of service in the French Army during the last months of the war, he began racing in earnest, turning professional after a single year as an amateur. Thus it was out of the frying pan and into the fire for the talented young Breton.  He had little experience in the mountains when he was thrown into his first Tour as part of the Stella team from his native Brittany in 1947, and he dropped out in the Alps, shocked at the severity of the climbs and pilloried in the press.  However, by the next year he was winning stages and wore the yellow jersey as leader of the Tour de France, ultimately finishing an outstanding fourth.

Meanwhile, young Jean Bobet competed throughout his studies at the University of Rennes, only taking a three-week break from cycling each year in order to prepare for exams.  Once he showed that he too had promise, his father, Louis, worried that his younger son’s studies were a distraction from his budding cycling career!  Jean won the World Collegiate Road Championship in Budapest, Hungary in 1949 and the French collegiate title a year later, career highlights that were a dubious distinction when he later jointed the professional peloton. Because Louison was five years the elder, the two brothers only got to know each deeply when they began to train together after Jean took out a professional license in 1951.  Jean felt the two communicated much better when they had their bicycles beneath them.

Louison Bobet on Mount Ventoux, 1955

Jean was with his brother through triumph and tragedy.   They shared the magical experience of Louison’s dominant 1954 Tour de France victory and the tremendous stress of defending the title while wearing the rainbow jersey of World Champion the following year. In the book you labor with Jean as he attacks on the false flats to set up his brother’s attack on the naked climb of Mount Ventoux. The reader feels his frustration in finding his father two kilometers from the summit, but without any water for his son.  He reaches the hotel in Avignon after Louison’s dominating victory on Ventoux and finds his brother in the darkened room,  suffering the pain of the saddle sore – an infected abscess actually – that plagued him, so knackered and discouraged that he hadn’t even taken his shoes off, convinced that he would be so tired the next day that he woouldn’t be able to answer his rival’s attacks.  That day on Ventoux, Louison Bobet “went beyond,” as the riders used to describe it when they really use themselves up.  This is why it isn’t hard to believe that riding at the top may take years off a rider’s life rather than add them.  For the rest of his life, Bobet never spoke of his triumph on that stage on Ventoux, only of his suffering, his martyrdom.  By the finish in Paris, poor Bobet could not even sit on the saddle, and of course there was no rest for the weary.  There followed a month of lucrative criteriums and after that race after race, with the long season only concluding with the Giro d’Lombardia on October 26th.

There is even a nice digression by Bobet on the story and sad fate of the Australian cyclist Russell Mockridge, one of the survivors from that terrible day on Mount Ventoux and the brutal 1955 Tour, where only 69 of 130 starters managed to finish.  Long considered the greatest Australian cyclist of all time, Mockridge was another one of those rare educated cyclists and he was probably the only rider who choose racing over the Anglican Priesthood. He won the Empire Games, two Olympic Gold Medals at the Helinski Velodrome, and the Paris Six Day. He then converted to the road, but before the advent of international trade teams, pickings were slim and he returned to Australia, where he became the dominant rider on road and track.  Unfortunately, Mockridge was another ill-fated cyclist and he was killed by a bus at an uncontrolled intersection during the Tour of Gippsland in Melbourne in 1958, months before he was scheduled to return to the European peloton.

Louison Bobet had surgery after the 1955 season to try to undo the damage done by years of painful infections in that narrow area of the body that bears all the weight when we sit on a bicycle.  Although he was fanatically hygienic, the champion still suffered from constant saddle sores, which often begin as nothing more than infected hair follicles, but with the pressure of the body’s weight and natural perspiration, well, one can imagine how easily things go awry.  Some riders never suffer from these infernal, ignominious infections, while they plague others.  Bobet rested over the winter months and then came back to win Paris-Roubaix in the spring of 1956, but he was really never the same.  He dropped out of the Vuelta de Espana, which was then held in the early spring. Meanwhile, sunny Spain agreed with his younger brother Jean, who could ride for himself for once, and he was lying 4th overall when he was called up by the French Army to help repel the Algerian insurrection.

It was during his six months in Algeria that Jean Bobet began to question his life in the peloton.  When he returned from Algiers on a brief mission to Paris, he was surprised by how little talk there was of the Algerian crisis and his own family could only worry about his brother’s racing, while men were fighting and dying in the Maghreb.  Jean Bobet saw that the riders and fans were so obsessed with cycling, with mere sport, so hermetically sealed in their own environment, that they seemed blithely unaware of the world around them.  While the simple personalities and lack of outside interests among his fellow cyclists had long bothered him, now their amusement at anyone who was intellectually curious began to really grate on him.

The 1957 Giro d’Italia was an epic race. It was one of the finest rides by the Bobet brothers and the French National Team.  The three-week race marked something of a comeback for Louison, who was in a seesaw battle with his rival, the climber Charly Gaul, and the Italian dark horse, Gastone Nencini.  The Giro featured an attack by the French team en bloc on Monte Bondone, after Gaul had told journalists that the race was already “in the bag” and the imprudent rider from Luxembourg cracked on the climb, finding himself eight minutes in arrears on the mountaintop.  However, Gaul had his revenge, “combining” with the Italians to thwart Louison Bobet, who lost the Giro to Nencini by 19 seconds, the second closest Giro in history.

It was during the race that Louison Bobet announced he was not going to do the Tour de France that year, which made him very unpopular with the French press and public, not to mention Bidot, the team manager.  Bobet’s absence opened the way for a young time-trial talent named Jacques Anquetil to emerge, not only to grasp the victor’s laurel in the Tour, but to replace Louison Bobet as the leading French cyclist.  In the meantime, Jean had his best tour and finished 15th overall, while writing an account of his race for L’Equipe.

Louison Bobet in the Epic Motor-Paced Classic Bordeaux-Paris

In 1958, Louison Bobet came back to finish a respectable 4th in the Giro, and he was 7th in the Tour de France, but his career was now on its downswing.  He won the motor-paced stage race Rome-Naples-Palermo in 1959 and then the epic 16-hour-long Paris-Tours classic, but these were the last major victories. As for his younger brother, Jean, he formed a union for French professional riders with Louison as President in 1958. The following spring he hung up his cleats and became a cycling journalist.  Louison Bobet’s last Tour was the 1959 edition, where he collapsed on the epic 18th stage. We can understand brother Jean’s despair when from the pillion seat of his press motorcycle he sees his brother with “the unbearable, despairing look of a drowning man.”  The great champion was “no longer feared but pitied.” This is how cycling careers often come to their end, with the old bear lacking the fitness or motivation to keep the pace.

A terrible car accident in 1960 left both brothers injured and ruined any hope Louison had of any more placings.  In order to recover, Louison became interested in thalassotherapy, where seawater is used to treat different ailments. This type of therapy was long popular in the Bobet’s native Brittany and Louison opened a popular therapy center in Quiberon that Jean later ran.  When Louison sold the thalassotherapy center off to a corporation and was forced out of the company he had founded, the brother’s relationship foundered, but eventually they reconciled and opened a new center in Biarritz.  Bobet became an elder statesman of French cycling, but he lost a long battle with cancer and died at fifty-eight.

Tomorrow We Ride is an exceptional, perhaps a unique book, because its author is an insightful and talented journalist who also lived the life of a professional rider, a competitor in one of the most interesting eras in cycling history.  It’s a wistful book because it’s a look back at a simpler place and time.  While the top riders – Louison Bobet from France, Coppi from Italy, Ferdi Kubler (b. 1919) and Hugo Koblet (1925-1964) from Switzerland  – were all stars, household names who made exceptional livings for their day, Bobet points out that they were still accessible to their fans, and he writes disparagingly about the vast buses with smoked glass that the riders huddle in today.

The Natty & Ill-Fated Hugo Koblet, A Friend in the Peloton

Even at the distance of fifty years, Jean Bobet’s contempt for “wheel suckers” who will not do their turn at the front is palpable; he calls them “rats.”  He remembers the colloquialisms, the unique slang of cycling, the universal language of the peloton – as crude as it remains – with fondness.  When riders quit and then later stage a comeback, he feel one of the reasons is that they miss the camaraderie of the team and the peloton.

Bobet has great admiration for the great riders of his era, each of which he felt had savoir fare. He has a special appreciation for Hugo Koblet, the immaculately put-together Swiss rider who was close to both Bobet brothers. This friend, rival and playboy was a true “knight of the road” and was given the title “Pedaleur de Charme” by the Parisian press. Jean Bobet movingly describes Fausto Coppi sweeping past him during a time trial stage in the Giro, a passage that –even in translation – retains some of the poetry of the French language:

With a deafening roar press cars and photographer’s motorcycles shot past me, sirens wailing.  He had arrived.  He passed me on the left.  He did not notice me. He was riding on a cushion of air.  His long legs were whirling around and his hands on top of the handlebars. He was sublime.  I strove desperately to keep him for a moment in my sights.  I saw his sky-blue Bianchi jersey, the sky-blue support car in which his mechanic, the faithful Pinella, balanced a spare bike over his shoulder. This image will never be erased.  One day, in a cloud of golden dust, I saw the sun riding a bicycle between Groseto and Follonica.

The Two Post-War Italian Greats: Gino Bartali and Fausto Coppi

Because Jean Bobet was on the inside, he can write about how the agents who arranged contracts for the Six Day races and post-Tour de France criteriums operated and how much more the riders earned in a few of these events than in their annual contracts.  One of the interesting revelations was how much poorer French cycling was than Italian cycling of the same era.  The Italians had much better support, better contracts, superior equipment and teams with much greater budgets.  The disparity was so great that French riders were allowed to have “dual contracts” where they rode for a French trade team north of the border and an Italian team for Italian events with the exception of the Giro d’Italia, which was still reserved for regional and national teams.

Louison Bobet was a prideful man who could be quite petulant, so much so that at times it damaged the morale of the French team that was tasked to work for him in the Tour de France. However, in Tomorrow We Ride, we only get a glimpse of this behavior.  Now, whether this is because Jean is still protecting his late older brother or whether because from his vantage point he saw and understood the tremendous pressures of being the star, the man that every Frenchman wanted to see in the Malliot Jaune, and therefore allows Louison some latitude, is difficult to know.  Bobet was a famous complainer and his brother always knew that he was ready to do something great on the bike because he would complain about how poorly he felt.

The brothers started to ride again after their retirement, but only on Sundays and then purely for pleasure.  It became a routine for them, something they alone shared.  In the 1970s, they began to re-ride some of the epic mountain stages of the tour during the summer, reliving past glories.  After their business problems, they rode alone until they passed each other one day, going in opposite directions and Louison wheeled around and announced to his brother, “tomorrow we ride.”  Even their rapprochement happened on the bike.  As his brother was dying of cancer, Jean Bobet arranged short, easy rides for his stiff and stricken older brother.

While we tend to look back on the 1950s through rose-colored glasses, it was a special time.  In Europe, it marked a return to normalcy after the devastation of the war – Reconstruction the French call it.  Because France was not anything close to the affluent nation it is now, most of the people were still poor, with few of the distractions that we have today.  So sports loomed much larger in public life and sports heroes were even larger figures than they are now.

Jean Bobet in the Final Period of His Professional Career

In cycling, there was a legion of great riders in the 1950s: the French peasant Jean Robic, the Belgains Ockers and Van Steenbergen, the Italians, Bartali and Coppi, Kubler and Koblet, the Swiss greats, Luxembourg’s climber, Charly Gaul, the Spanish mountain ace Federico Bahomontes, the young Jacques Anqueti,l and finally, the courageous Louison Bobet. Tomorrow We Ride is an imitate, reflective look back at this classic era of cycling history from the saddle of the bike, by someone with the intelligence and understanding to tell the story with great poignancy.  You won’t find a better cycling book.

Rating: 5 Stars

Copyright Jeffrey Morseburg 2010. Not to be reproduced without prior written permission.
Posted in Bicycle Racers, Bicycle Racing, Bicycle Track Racing, Bicycling History, Giro d'Italia, Tour de France, Velodromes | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Bicycle Craftsmanship Makes a Comeback

Bespoke: The Handbuilt Bicycle

By Julie Lasky (Lars Muller Publishers, 2010)

Review by Jeffrey Morseburg

This past spring, an exhibition titled “Bespoke: The Handbuilt Bicycle” opened at New York’s Museum of Art and Design. This is the ideal location for an exhibit with such a theme, because at their best, bicycles are a true marriage of form and function.  Now, as much as I love motorcycles and automobiles, I haven’t felt the exhibitions of Ralph Lauren’s automobiles at the Boston Museum of Fine Art, the show Curves of Steel at the Phoenix Museum, or the 1999 exhibition of motorcycles at the Guggenheim in New York were appropriate.  While cars, motorcycles and bicycles can certainly be built by artisans, they are objects that combine aesthetic qualities along with their functionality, so they really belong in a museum of design rather than an art museum.

This small exhibition developed from a dialog between Sacha White, one of today’s best young bicycle builders, and Michael Maharam, an entrepreneur and bicycle collector.  Because White, as a craftsman with a great eye for design, and Maharam, as an astute collector, recognized that the small world of custom, hand-made bicycles has become something of a hothouse, they felt it was an appropriate time to recognize a few of the enormously creative personalities in the movement.  They thus came up with the idea of assembling an exhibition with a number of bicycles built by a representative cross-section of contemporary frame builders, and then collaborated as curators.

White and Maharam showcased twenty different bicycles from six different craftsman, three from the east coast of the United States, two from the west coast and one from Italy.  Most of the builders here use traditional methods and materials – the classic brazing torch and steel – but one of them, Jeff Jones, likes to use space-age titanium to create unusual designs.  There were several of White’s classically updated designs, a pair of Jeff Jones’ wildly curvaceous bicycles in brushed titanium, several of the veteran Italian craftsman Dario Pegoretti’s unusually painted machine (which feature lightweight steel frames with the most modern hardware), some of Peter Weigle’s jewel-like cyclotouring rigs, the racing bicycles of the esteemed craftsman Richard Sachs, and then the re-imagined utilitarian bicycles of Mike Flanigan, which, as much as I liked some of the other bicycles in the show, were the designs I found most interesting.

This small-format catalog features a description of the show, then a dialog between author Julie Lasky and the curators in the first few pages, and then a short profile of the builders and a photo essay on each featured bicycle.  It is best described as a small coffee-table book because its not long on text or narrative and the images are nicely shot.  It’s not a bible of contemporary bike building, but an overview of a growing movement.  The bicycle is the most marvelously efficient device ever designed and it is every bit as valid today as it was a hundred years ago. Not everyone can afford a Ferrari or Lamborghini, but millions of people can afford to have a craftsman who takes pride in his work make a bicycle just for them, tailored specifically to the type of riding they will do.  They can have a bike that is light but strong, simple yet sophisticated and, if it comes from the right hands, breathtaking to look at, whether as an object of beauty or of design.  This is truly something to celebrate.

Rating: 4 Stars

Copyright Jeffrey Morseburg 2010. Not to be reproduced without prior written permission.
Posted in Bicycle Design, Bicycle Frames, Bicycle Technology, Bicycle Touring, Bicycle Track Racing, Mountain Bikes | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment