Tuesdays With Wilcockson #1


The typewriter … and other machines

The French reporter was sweating profusely as he pushed the telephone into an acoustic coupler, one of those slow-speed, low-tech contraptions we used to transmit stories before sleek laptops and Wi-Fi were developed. He hit the “go” button over and over, but nothing was passing through the modem to his newspaper in Paris. It looked like his story on Jeannie Longo’s silver medal at the 1992 Olympics was going to miss its deadline.

As he let forth a stream of “merde, alors” and “mon dieu”s, he tweaked the cables and forced the old-fashioned phone harder and harder into the coupler’s rubber receptacles, hoping the line would eventually stay clear long enough to work. His curses didn’t bother us, the few writers left in the makeshift pressroom at a Spanish elementary school; we’d all had similar experiences with inefficient technology. After countless tries, the French scribe’s rudimentary computer finally gave a satisfying “ping” to signal that the transmission was successful. He wiped his brow and breathed a sigh of relief.

The stories I was writing that day had later deadlines, but even back at the Olympic press village, my Tandy word processor and the Spanish phone lines had a connectivity problem. The words would slowly flow across the Tandy’s tiny screen and then cut off, only partway through the transmission. After a couple of hours of trying I gave up for the time being, and thought to myself: “I wish I had a typewriter.”

In the first 25 years of my writing career, I loved using a typewriter. There was something inspiring about winding a clean piece of paper onto the platen, the black cylinder at the heart of the machine, banging down on indestructible keys and seeing your story grow line by line in printed form. In fact, filmmaker Woody Allen likes the typewriter so much that he still writes on the same German-built Olympia portable he bought when he was in high school.

Before I discovered the charms of typewriters, journalists had been using them for a century. And coincidentally, the world’s first viable typewriter was invented the same year, 1868, that the first velocipede races were held in Paris and the world’s first cycling magazine, Vélocipède, was founded in eastern France.

It was on the typewriter that cycling journalists began writing dramatic tales of races that excited the public and brought the sport alive, at a time when newspapers were the only source of mass communication. The first long-distance bike races, initially for amateurs only, were Bordeaux-Paris and Paris-Brest-Paris in 1891, followed by Liège-Bastogne-Liège in 1892 and Paris-Roubaix in 1896. Some were organized by cycling magazines, giving their readers an inside feel for the races and the athletes.

New sports publications proliferated in that era, especially in France, where a turf battle between the two leading titles gave birth to the Tour de France in 1903. The first director of the Tour, Henri Desgrange, was also the editor of L’Auto, as was his successor Jacques Goddet. Their stories helped L’Auto (whose title was changed to L’Équipe after World War II) become the world’s biggest sports newspaper; and their daily opinion pieces during the Tour, along with the reports and feature stories of their contemporaries, helped create a rich fabric of cycling history.

During my early years in the Tour pressroom, I often sat next to two legendary French writers: L’Équipe’s senior cycling correspondent Pierre Chany and the novelist Antoine Blondin. They traveled together, almost always stopping for an extended lunch and a bottle or two of wine before driving to the finish, while listening to Radio Tour as they discussed the strategies for their respective stories.

Chany was the specialist. He not only analyzed tactics better than most journalists, but he also established a close relationship with the riders, notably Jacques Anquetil, and that enabled him to bring extra weight to his pieces (this was before the era of post-stage press conferences). Chany worked hard at crafting his daily report, gently striking the keys of his typewriter, usually under a plume of tobacco smoke, with a pack of Gitanes at his side.

Blondin, a friend of philosopher Jean-Paul Sartre, wrote a short, literary column for L’Équipe, starting with a title that was almost always a play on words. He contemplated every phrase before slowly setting pen to paper in perfect script. No, Blondin didn’t use a typewriter, but he was the exception that proved the rule.

Sometimes, I broke that rule too. At the 1978 world road championships in Germany’s Nürburgring, the early deadline I had for The Sunday Times coincided with the estimated finish time of the amateur road race. After dictating the early part of my report, written on the typewriter, to the copy-taker in London, I stayed on the phone, looked through a doorway toward the finish and ad-libbed the end of my piece as the racers sprinted for the line — headed by Gilbert Glaus of Switzerland.

A half-dozen years later, at the Tour, I had a little longer to write my piece after Scottish climber Robert Millar scored a stage win at Guzet-Neige in the Pyrénées. But the pressroom (and a telephone!) was 40km away in St. Girons. I sat in the back of our press car tapping away on the typewriter — but there were so many twists on the mountain road that I’d find myself typing on the same spot of paper as each turn sent the platen shooting from one side of the machine to the other. Still, with persistence, the story of Millar’s big victory did get written and dictated on time.

Now and then I would follow races by bike, with my portable typewriter tucked away in the panniers. One spring, I followed Paris-Nice that way (using trains to overcome long transfers between stages), and arrived at the pressroom each day in time to watch the finish, get some quotes and write my newspaper story. Since I had official press accreditation, I didn’t have a problem riding my bike along the race route — except once, at St. Etienne.

I was descending into the city about a half-hour ahead of the race, moving at a fair clip, when an over-zealous gendarme spotted me coming toward him. Assuming I had no right to be on the course, he dived out from the roadside to wrestle me and my bike to the ground, as if he were a rugby player making a game-saving tackle.

I was bruised and grazed, but more concerned about the health of my typewriter. Luckily, its case just cracked a little; there was nothing wrong with the keys. And no, I didn’t get arrested. The gendarme escorted me to his capitaine, who inspected my press credential and admonished his subordinate before sending me on my way.

Typewriters are sturdy machines, and I’d still be using one if Wi-Fi hadn’t taken us out of the dark ages in transmitting copy. Nonetheless, I keep my old Olympia Traveller de luxe portable in a closet, just in case an outage ever puts my laptop out of commission. That typewriter weighs 11½ pounds, more than twice the weight of my Apple MacBook, and it still works perfectly. Computers need replacing every few years, unlike the typewriter — as Woody Allen well knows.

Another retro wordsmith is Italian sportswriter Gianni Mura. Just as Blondin was an anomaly in the 1960s and’70s, navigating with a pen in a sea of typewriters, so Mura is a 21st century hold-out. The clip-clop of his 1960s Olivetti Lettera 32 often drowns out the quieter clatter of computer keys in our Tour pressrooms. And because he’s a smoker, like Chany and Blondin, Mura usually sets up shop outdoors. “I can concentrate better out here,” he tells you. Yet even Mura bows to modern technology: When he calls his copy through to La Repubblica in Milan, he uses a mobile phone.

Before cell phones came into general use, we used to search for payphones when driving between stage towns. You’d think that was a pretty safe method of communicating with our editors back in the office. Not always. One day at a Tour in the late-’80s, Gilles Goetghebuer of Cyclisme Internationale was standing in an all-glass French phone booth talking to his office when the line suddenly went dead. The reason? A passing car lost control and smashed into the phone booth, knocking it over, along with Gilles!

In today’s instant world, when we can watch live images of nearly every major bike race on laptops, tablets or smart phones, it’s easy to forget that for most of its history, cycling was reported on the typewriter. And there are days — say, my computer crashes or there’s no Internet access or I’m just feeling nostalgic — when, like that cursing French reporter at the ’92 Olympics, I wish the pre-laptop days of Anquetil, Blondin and Chany were still here.


Images of Robert Millar: John Pierce, Photosport International

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  1. chad

    Thanks for the behind-the-reportage vignettes, I find this kind of depth really adds substance to (at least my) perception of our sport. As for typewriters – I quite enjoy breaking out my ancient Remington portable from time to time, to dash off a bit of correspondence. It is satisfying in a tactile way that a computer keyboard simply can’t match.

  2. James

    Having gone to a small college in the 70’s that required mid term papers, research papers and essays I can say without a shred of nostalgia that I’m glad the typewriter is dead! i can’t tell you how many times I had to retype pages because of an error or because I wanted to change something. Cut and past, spell check and print preview are among the most wonderful things ever invented! I’m not sure if I have my old Adler portable anymore… I think I gave it away.

    I loved this article though! I really enjoy hearing about how things used to be done. Thanks and I look forward to many more postings by Mr. Wilcockson.

  3. Doug Page

    Being somewhat of an anachronism myself, I couldn’t help but appreciate this post. I vividly remember a clip of the Colombian journalist reciting his Tour coverage into the telephone, his staccato Spanish full of emotion as he recounted the hill-climbing exploits of his countryman. Thanks for the image of the press room at l’Equipe. Bienvenue et Bonne Chance!

  4. Steve Fry

    Thanks for giving us sometime to read besides the latest doping a-hole. Great piece, keep bringing the John Pierce photos as well.

  5. Sam Findley

    Lovely recollections. As I wrote my ph.d. diss. longhand, with a fountain pen, you seem to have used awfully advanced technology, back in the stone ages.

  6. LD

    Tapping away on those wonderful old machines is liking closing the door on an old Mercedes. Solid yet with a hint of character and in the tangible results of the finished paper, a fistful of soul.

  7. Mike

    I would like to share James’ earlier sentiments. Nostalgia for older technology oftentimes may allow us to have fond memories for a time or event in the past that may not have been all that we remember. Much like the car I drove in high school that I treasured dearly even though it was more difficult to steer, brake and keep in tune than those we drive today.

    Having said this, I must confess that I am also very fond of the cycling era of the 70’s and 80’s – the period in which I began my love affair with this greatest sport on earth. I am also a fan of Mr. Wilcockson and eagerly look forward to his next installment.

  8. S

    I bet John has never been the sort to duck out of any type of scrum without at least poking a couple of his opponents in the eye first. Posting two pictures of David Millar in one article?…your first article on the blog no less… merely days after being labeled a card carrying Anglophile by bloggers on this very site? I gotta hand it to you John…you’ve got moxy… IMHO a little misguided at times…but I like that.

    1. Padraig

      S: You should know that there is, in fact, an editor here. We won’t force John to fly blind. The choice to run two images of Robert Millar was mine. He asked for an image of Millar on his way to winning at Guzet-Neige in ’84. I received a selection of images from that and other days from that Tour. I loved those two images and am wholly responsible for the decision to run them both.

  9. Brcire

    That was wonderful – Tte image of you on a mountain road, crammed in the back of a car, trying to write your story as the platen shoots back and forth, the deadline looming, the distance. Dare I say it might have been epic for you?

    What I seek are those old stories in English translation. Where can I find them? It seems in this day and age, the instant, real time results have taken away from the story of the race, the story is reported with little details – a few quotes here and there, but the drama that unfolds on a team, among riders, and individuals during a stage/race,the decisive moment where the race was won or lost is missing. I love to read the stories that put me in the race.

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