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.
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