Editor’s note: The days are long and for some, the exploits that come this time of year are longer, and perhaps a little crazy, too. And there’s the itch for the start of the Tour de France. If there’s a man who knows crazy in cycling, it’s Les Woodland. The following is an excerpt from Woodland’s book “Cycling’s 50 Craziest Stories” (McGann Publishing).
The French word canicule means oppressive, stifling heat when the air is thick and refuses to move and dogs can’t raise the energy to scratch themselves. There was just such a day in the Tour de France of 1935, when the riders faced a long hot 17th day from Pau to Bordeaux. The speed was as low just 13 mph as their spirits. Men just rode without talking, their legs as dead and listless as their minds.
And then, like men in a desert, they saw an unbelievable sight: ahead of them, waving to them temptingly, were rows of spectators behind tables laden with cool beer. In adventure films the mirage disappears and the oasis turns out to be no more than more burning, featureless sand. But this time the cold drink didn’t shimmer into thin air. It stayed on the tables. Or rather, it passed into the spectators’ offering hands and from them to the reaching hands of the grateful riders. The slow-bicycle race of the Tour de France had come to a complete and unscheduled halt as riders downed drinks and some loaded the pockets of their thick woolen jerseys with more.
Only one rider decided he wasn’t thirsty enough to stop. His name was Julien Moineau, which means “sparrow” in French. The bunch had forgotten about him in the clammy heat and the misery of their jobs but if anyone had cared to remember he would have recalled that Moineau had been the centre of both interest and ridicule at the start of the day. He had turned up with a 52-tooth chainring, common these days but unheard of then. Seeing the other riders stop for beer, he pulled on his gear lever, shifted his chain on to this monstrosity, turned it as hard as he could and won the stage by 15:33. He even stood by the finish line to toast the bunch with a beer as it followed him in.
As well he might. He had organised the stunt himself. The generous beer people with their roadside table were all his friends and he’d asked other friends in the bunch to help delay the race as much as possible. He wasn’t a total no-hoper because he came second in Bordeaux–Paris in May 1935 and third the previous year and fourth the year before that. But his beer-stained win in the Tour de France was the highlight of his career. He died in 1980 when he was 69.