The first accounts I ever read of Stephen Roche’s win at the ’87 Giro d’Italia painted him as a champion unjustly marginalized by his team, a stallion who triumphed despite an effort to cage him. Bill McGann’s account of the ’87 Giro, I think, corrects what has been a misperception regarding the first win by an English-speaking rider at Italy’s national tour. The quote, “History is written by the victors”, often credited to Winston Churchill, seems to resonate with Roche’s victory. It seems a noble quote until you understand that Macchiavelli wrote it nearly 500 years before Churchill came to power. Here is the tale of Roche’s mutiny, properly told.—Padraig
Before the 1987 Giro started it was thought that this edition was going to be a battle between Roberto Visentini and Giambattista Baronchelli. This Giro was in fact contested by Visentini, the 1986 Giro champion, and Stephen Roche, both members of Boifava’s Carrera team. It is strange that such a vicious intra-team rivalry was allowed to occur just after the 1985–1986 La Vie Claire bloodletting between Greg LeMond and Bernard Hinault that made those Tours de France such soap operas.
Roche had suffered his ups and downs. In 1981, not long after winning Paris–Nice, a blood disorder stalled his career. As he was starting to hit his stride, he crashed in the 1985 Paris Six-Day, badly injuring his knee. His 1986 was forgettable (probably not to the people paying his salary), prompting him to have knee surgery. The repaired Stephen Roche was a new man. In early 1987 he showed good form with firsts in the Tours of Valencia and Romandie and seconds in Liège–Bastogne–Liège and the Critérium International.
Visentini was the returning Giro champion but had attained no notable successes that spring. Writer Beppe Conti observed that the two riders were much alike, terrific in time trials and on the climbs and both difficult to manage. Roche in particular didn’t get along with his directors and he didn’t get along with Visentini. Visentini reciprocated the Irishman’s dislike.
The official line from the team was that Carrera had two leaders and that team support would go to the rider most worthy of help. As far as Visentini was concerned, the team had only one leader and that was Roberto. Roche was resentful of what he saw as a loaded deck of cards. He was supposed to be available to support Visentini, but during that spring, Visentini had never turned a pedal to help Roche. Roche felt this arrangement was unfair because he was riding wonderfully well, bringing in high-value wins and placings for Carrera while Visentini so far had nothing to show for the season.
Visentini argued that Roche was focusing on the Tour and that he would be happy to help Roche win in France in July. But…Visentini had already booked a July vacation and Roche knew it. Roche had no plans to sacrifice his own chances to help a man who refused to reciprocate. Furthermore, Visentini hated riding the Tour.
The air was poisonous even before the race began. Visentini let it be known that if necessary to win the Giro, he would attack Roche. Now let’s be fair. Visentini was the reigning Giro champion returning to defend his title and fully expected to have a unified team help him. He certainly had every right to that expectation. The failing was Carrera’s in creating this dilemma.
Roche was almost completely isolated on the team, having his dedicated Belgian friend and gregario Eddy Schepers and mechanic Patrick Valcke as his only trustworthy support.
Visentini drew the first blood by winning the 4-kilometer prologue in San Remo. The next day Erik Breukink won the 31-kilometer half-stage, a ride from San Remo up to San Romolo, beating the pack by 19 seconds. Breukink was now in pink. That afternoon Roche won the 8-kilometer downhill San Remo time trial, beating Breukink by 6 seconds and Visentini by 7. Breukink remained the leader with a 14-second lead over Roche.
The Giro headed south via the Ligurian coast. At Lido di Camaiore, the Carrera team showed that they had the most horsepower when they won the 43-kilometer team time trial, beating second-place Del Tongo by 54 seconds. Baronchelli crashed near the end of the event, finishing well after his team, putting him out of contention.
After stage three the General Classification stood thus:
1. Stephen Roche
2. Roberto Visentini @ 15 seconds
3. Davide Cassani @ 52 seconds
4. Erik Breukink @ 53 seconds
The race continued its southward march with Roche in the lead. According to Roche, rather than acting as a loyal teammate, Visentini just rode on Roche’s wheel, highlighting the adversarial relationship. In the rush to Montalcino in Tuscany, the Irishman was able to pad his lead a little, to 32 seconds.
By stage nine, the race had reached its southernmost point, Bari, and still it was Roche in the lead with Visentini at 32 seconds. Scottish climbing ace Robert Millar, riding for Panasonic, with Breukink and Phil Anderson for teammates, had been first over the majority of the rated climbs, earning him the green climber’s jersey.
In three leaps the race made it to Rimini on the Adriatic coast for the first big event in the drama, an individual time trial up Monte Titano to San Marino. Visentini won the 46-kilometer event and took the lead. Roche’s ride was dreadful. Blaming race jitters and a crash three days before, he came in twelfth, losing 2 minutes 47 seconds.
The new General Classification:
1. Roberto Visentini
2. Stephen Roche @ 2 minutes 42 seconds
3. Tony Rominger @ 3 minutes 12 seconds
4. Erik Breukink @ 3 minutes 30 seconds
5. Robert Millar @ 4 minutes 55 seconds
At this point everyone except Roche and Eddy Schepers thought the Carrera family fight, if not the Giro itself, was over. Visentini again announced that he would work for Roche in the Tour de France.
Roche, an intensely driven man, was burning with indignation and ambition and with Schepers he planned his revolt. They picked stage fifteen to put their plan into action, the first mountain stage with its three major ascents: Monte Rest, Sella Valcalda and a finish at the top of the Cima Sappada.
The story of the Sappada stage is one of the most famous in the modern history of the Giro. An aggressive descent of Monte Rest allowed Roche to separate himself from the pack, taking along Ennio Salvador and Jean-Claude Bagot (whose loyalty had been purchased earlier when Schepers helped him win a stage). Boifava knew immediately what Roche was up to and was having none of it. He drove alongside the fleeing Irishman and told him to stop the attack. Roche refused, telling Boifava that if the other teams didn’t mount a chase, he would win the stage by ten minutes and Carrera would win the Giro. Boifava was unmoved and ordered the Carrera team to bridge up to Roche. The Carrera squad buried itself working to close the gap and Visentini, a high-strung rider, seemed to be having an off-day and suffered badly during the pursuit.
The team chased like fiends, and finally, exhausted, they dropped out of the chase while Roche kept his escape going, leaving Visentini alone to try to salvage his jersey. Eventually a small group caught Roche, but Visentini was not among them. Phil Anderson and Jean-François Bernard were among those who did make the connection, then unsuccessfully tried to get away.
Johan Van der Velde won the stage with Roche in the second chase group, 46 seconds behind. A broken Visentini came in 58th, 6 minutes 50 seconds after Van der Velde. Roche now had a slender 5-second lead over neo-pro Tony Rominger while Visentini was sitting in seventh place, 3 minutes 12 seconds down.
All Italy erupted with fury. The Italian papers blared what they believed was Roche’s betrayal of a teammate who was in pink and who had deserved the unstinting support of all members of the Carrera team. Moreover, Roche had been insubordinate. He had been given a direct order by his director to stop the break and Roche had refused. Carrera management was furious and threatened to keep Roche out of the Tour if he insisted upon winning the Giro. That evening team director Boifava, beside himself with anger over Roche’s buccaneering, reminded Roche that before the stage, Carrera had a five-minute lead on Rominger, now they had only five seconds (thanks in no small part to Boifava’s chasing the Roche break).
Visentini told the papers that someone (meaning Roche) was going home that evening and Boifava ordered Roche not to speak to the press. Roche ignored the command, feeling that if he didn’t speak, no one else would present his case.
Roche’s taking the Pink Jersey so enraged the tifosi that Roche was given police protection. He even went on television to plead for sanity. He later wrote that he was frightened as the fans spit on him and even hit him. Because of the inflamed passions, that day after the Sappada stage is called the “Marmolada Massacre”. It had five big climbs, the final one being the Marmolada, also called the Passo Fedaia. Visentini tried to get away, but Roche marked his every move. While Roche was obviously protecting his lead, another day of what appeared to the Italians of riding against his teammate cost Roche dearly in the eyes of the Italian fans. Second place Rominger lost time that day, but there was no other serious change to the standings.
On the big climbs that followed the Sappada stage, Millar stayed with Roche, riding at his side to protect him from assault while Eddy Schepers did the same. Visentini tried to make Schepers crash, even boasting about his attempted mayhem. The feelings on both sides were raw.
Stage seventeen was the last day in the Dolomites and again, the situation was unchanged. Heading to the Alps and the final time trial, the General Classification stood thus:
1. Stephen Roche
2. Erik Breukink @ 33 seconds
3. Robert Millar @ 2 minutes 8 seconds
4. Flavio Giupponi @ 2 minutes 45 seconds
5. Marco Giovannetti @ 3 minutes 8 seconds
6. Marino Lejarreta @ 3 minutes 12 seconds
7. Roberto Visentini @ 3 minutes 24 seconds
During this Carrera family fight, Torriani and the Giro management were reasonably impartial. Roche said the Giro boss whispered encouragement to him when they would meet. In any case, the incredible drama was selling papers and riveting everyone’s attention to his race. Torriani probably couldn’t believe his good fortune.
The equilibrium remained over the Alpine climbs of stage nineteen and Roche’s slim lead held. It was the twenty-first stage to Pila that Roche showed he was deserving of the maglia rosa when he, Robert Millar and Marino Lejarreta broke clear and arrived in Pila over two minutes ahead of the first group of chasers. This moved Millar into second place. Visentini, suffering a terrible loss of morale, lost another six minutes.
The 1987 Giro ended with a 32-kilometer time trial. Visentini didn’t start, having broken his wrist in a fall in the penultimate stage. Roche won it, cementing his ownership of the lead. While his Carrera team had been deeply divided, especially after Roche’s attack on the Sappada stage, the squad slowly came around to the fact that he would probably win the Giro and therefore yield a good payday for all of them. Roche says that in the final stages he had plenty of support from the team.
But he didn’t get it from the tifosi. To this day the Italians speak bitterly of Roche’s betrayal of Visentini.
Final 1987 Giro d’Italia General Classification:
1. Stephen Roche (Carrera) 105 hours 39 minutes 40 seconds
2. Robert Millar (Panasonic) @ 3 minutes 40 seconds
3. Erik Breukink (Panasonic) @ 4 minutes 17 seconds
4. Marino Lejarreta (Orbea-Caja Rural) @ 5 minutes 11 seconds
5. Flavio Giupponi (Del Tongo-Colnago) @ 7 minutes 42 seconds
1. Robert Millar: (Panasonic) 97 points
2. Jean-Claude Bagot (Fagor): 53
3. Johan Van der Velde (Gis Gelati): 32
1. Johan Van der Velde (Gis Gelati): 175 points
2. Paolo Rosola (Gewiss-Bianchi): 171
3. Stephen Roche (Carrera): 153
Visentini began his racing career by going from one triumph to another, including being Amateur Italian Road Champion and Amateur World Time Trial Champion, his promise being fulfilled with his 1986 Giro win. After the Sappada stage he never again won an important race. He retired to run the family funeral home in 1990 and has had little contact with the cycling world ever since.
Roche, on the other hand, had a brilliant 1987. For all of his trouble with Carrera, Roche, with grudging and equivocal support from his team, was the leader of their Tour de France contingent and raced to a brilliant win. He capped the Giro/Tour double with victory at the World Championships. He joined Merckx as the second rider in cycling history to win the Giro, Tour and World Championship in the same year.
Early the next year he re-injured his knee and from that point he was never a contender for overall victory in Grand Tours. He won several important shorter stage races before retiring in 1993.
Image: Fotoreporter Sirotti
I’d say he’s a few pounds heavier than when he stopped racing. The seventies were always an odd era, with flares and tank tops and silly sunglasses and long hair and Janssen is no less embarrassed about it than anyone else. He smiles wryly at a picture of himself looking like George Best. He ticks off riders like Robert Millar and Phil Anderson with their long hair now.
I forgot for a moment that he’d ever been world champion. He never mentioned it except in passing. I think it’s the Tour rather than the championship which holds the sweetest memories. Not surprising, really.
“The Tour is the biggest race, the most beautiful race you can win,” he said. But he won it at the last moment, as an afterthought. Surely, I asked, he’d rather have won with strength instead, instead of taking it on the final day without having once led the journey?
“But it was much more exciting that way, wasn’t it? We saw it when LeMond and Fignon decided it on the last day as well, with people crowding round the television or the radio, and the last day’s a sort of climax. And it was like that for me as well.
“And I don’t think I would have wanted to hold the yellow jersey longer. Right on the last day, nobody knew who would win the Tour, and that was my tactic. We had a team with three riders—Dolman, Beugels and Arie Den Hertog—and that was my team. And I was the fourth. I couldn’t do anything with a team that small, could I? The other riders had packed and gone home.
“So what could I do? I had to be very smart to win the Tour and the only chance was to do it in the time-trial.”
Two decades have passed, but those sensations that LeMond and Fignon must have known are still fresh to him. It took Janssen only a second to remember the gap between Bracke, van Springel and himself, and none at all to recall the number of seconds that put him in yellow.
It’s a back-to-front margin, to win the world’s biggest race with the smallest ever margin. And now he can’t even boast that.
“Records are made to be broken,” he said. “Ja.” He puffed again and stubbed out the remains.
“I was in Paris for LeMond and Fignon. I stood along the Champs Elysées. That’s not where we finished, of course, but it brought back the wonderful memories for me, that Tour de France. It has changed technically over the years, but the Tour is still the greatest sporting event in the world, and if you manage to win it, then you’ve achieved the most beautiful thing that the sport has to offer.”
It was the last year the Tour was public property. For the next four years it went to Eddy Merckx and the sport moved from a number of big-hitters to just one. I suggested that the game in Janssen’s era was more exciting. Not to my surprise, he agreed.
“I’ll go along with that. In my time, a lot of riders could have won. In the time of Merckx, Hinault, Coppi, it was a lot more predictable. You knew in advance who was going to win. Merckx was in the yellow jersey from the second day and the others couldn’t touch him. And for the public, the people who follow the sport on television and radio, that was less spectacular.
“When I rode the Tour, there were 10, 15 good riders. First one would win and then the next and then the next. But in the Merckx era, the Hinault era, the races were the same. So the public got fed up. Now, of course, there aren’t any big names such as Merckx. You’ve got very good riders, but…”
“Nobody as good as Jan Janssen?” I prompted.
“Who am I to say that?”
And then, as his son left to busy himself around the warehouse, I asked Janssen whether he had been born too soon, whether he would rather be his son’s age.
“It’s certainly changed now, that’s for sure. It’s more commercial, and the generation before me, van Est’s generation, they say it as well—we were born too early. There’s much more money to be earned.”
And that made it easier for him?
“Not easier. We had to be good all the time, from the first of February until the end of October. Because it was my duty to make the most of my sponsor’s name, to get publicity. I mean, there were other good riders in the team, but it was 80 per cent on my shoulders to get that publicity. And if you had an off-day, well, you were letting your sponsors down.”
So why, I wanted to know, is there more money now if in his own estimation the races aren’t so exciting?
“Because the whole sponsorship of the sport has taken off. It’s become so interesting to a company because a company that wants to get its name known, you can buy a good team, with good management, good public relations, and you can get all the big names.
“But it didn’t use to be like that, because the television in our time… Well; it was covered but not like now. Direct coverage for an hour and a half they have. Naturally, that is very interesting for the public.
“We got very good money, of course. And to be truthful, the French franc was worth a lot more than now. But I think the motivation has changed with the professionals as well. You get riders like Rooks and Theunisse saying after the Tour they’re stopping at home because they can’t be bothered with criteriums, and that’s not so attractive to the public. I don’t think you’re serving the sport doing that, because the more popular cycling is, the better it is for every one of the riders.
“It’s good that they’re well paid now, of course, but they have to give everything they’ve got. And now there are a load of riders who say ‘I only want to ride the classics in the spring and no Tour de France, no Giro d’Italia and no Tour of Spain, because it’s too hot there and there are too many mountains, and there’s this and there’s that.’
“And there are riders who say they’re not going to ride Paris–Roubaix over the bad roads, and no Tour of Flanders in the snow and rain. They pick and choose their races. Well, it didn’t use to be that way. You got a list of races from your team manager and you had to ride them.
“You can’t have a new Merckx or Hinault every couple of years, because people like that are rare, but what I would say is that the general level of top riders has gone down a bit. There are a number of good riders but no big-hitters any more. The whole sport has changed. They aren’t hungry any more. There’s so much money to earn now, even for a third-rate rider. Twenty-five years ago, a third-class rider didn’t get jam on his bread. So if they got 50 guilders for a criterium, they rode. But now every rider is well paid, so they don’t do so much for it. They say ‘Oh, I’ve got a good contract from the firm, I’m okay.’
“The hunger to ride well, to succeed and only then to earn money is over.”
He’s not bitter, I sense. Despairing perhaps, but realistic would be a better word. In 1967, by the way, Janssen nearly won the world championship for a second time. But he was, in two ways, just that little too late. To start with, he was half a wheel too late. But mainly, he had left it too late because he was now a mature man and with him was a youthful Eddy Merckx—just three years after the Belgian had won the world amateur race.
On the second lap at Heerlen, where Graham Webb and Beryl Burton had already won, there was an attack by Gianni Motta. So Merckx, the Spaniard Saez, and Holland’s van der Vleuten went with him. Merckx wrote later: “There was also an unknown Briton called Addy, who never took his turn and disappeared quickly.”
Bob Addy was a tall, home-based professional in the Holdsworth domestic team. How easily are one man’s dream moments dispelled!
Motta had been given excruciating distances to ride in training by a guru, half-doctor, half-svengali, and he was at that stage where fitness risked topping into exhaustion. Eventually guru De Donato would attract the attentions of the police, but for the moment he had Motta in peak condition.
You can judge how confident he felt by the fact that there were still 250 kilometers to go. The bunch wondered at his foolhardiness for a while; then, after the break had gained three minutes in 60 kilometers, began wondering again. There was a flurry of concern and the motorcycle blackboard man brought the news that Janssen had decided to chase.
That was bad news. Janssen was a brilliant sprinter—he beat Merckx on the line in Ghent–Wevelgem—and, what’s more, he’d proved in the Tour de France that he had the time-trialling ability to close a gap.
Motta turned to the blackboard man again and saw the numbers of the break, then a horizontal line with Janssen’s number below it. And, below Janssen, a large oval to indicate the bunch.
“Who’s with him?” Motta shouted. There were numbers missing, surely?
“Nobody,” the motorcyclist yelled back. “He’s by himself.”
The Italian turned to Merckx and called on him to work with him to stay away. Merckx wrote later in Eddy Merckx, Coureur Cycliste that Janssen was one of the few he considered “a true athlete.” But he wasn’t going to work to stop him.
Instead, he calculated that Janssen would be weakened by the chase but still strong enough to work to keep the group clear. More than that, the Dutch team—usually better organized than the Belgians, whom nobody could guarantee wouldn’t chase Merckx for their own purposes—would ease off if Janssen stood a chance. So too might anyone in Janssen’s circle interested in a contract for the following year. What’s more, van der Vleuten was already in the break.
In fact Peter Post did chase, but then equally Janssen did work with van der Vleuten. The Dutch figured that they alone had two in the break.
Before winning the amateur championship, according to a Dutch author, Merckx told his mother in Brussels that he would shake his legs on a downhill stretch to indicate that he felt fresh in the closing miles. He shook his legs and Mrs. Merckx was delighted. Young Eddy said later that he had done it because they were tired.
This time he remembered the wigging he got. As the bell rang for the last 13 kilometer lap, he winked at the television camera. It was the message to the folk back home.
But afterwards he admitted: “It looked confident but, frankly, I wasn’t that certain.”
Motta jumped on the last descent but failed. Janssen waited for the last 100 meters to sprint and Merckx leaped first. Through his arms, Merckx could see the Dutchman coming up on him inch by inch. Five meters before the line, he was alongside. Desperately, Merckx flung his bike forward beneath him and won by half a wheel.
Jan Janssen had to face his home crowd disappointed.
Les Woodland climbed aboard his old Carlton bike to take a nostalgia trip across Belgium and Holland to visit some of cycling’s greatest riders. Cycling Heroes: The Golden Years tells the story of that journey he took in the early 1990s and the time he spent with some of the finest riders from the 1950s, ’60s and ’70s. Among those he visited were Rik van Steenbergen, Rik van Looy, Hennie Kuiper, Peter Post and the great Jan Janssen.
When Franco Bitossi was asked his impression of Jan Janssen, he was succinct: “Un artista della bicicletta, he could do what he wanted with his bike.”
Janssen’s palmarès is eloquent. Here are the high points:
1962 Championship of Zurich, 1964 World Pro Road Champion, 1964 Paris–Nice (GC and points), 1965 Tour of The Netherlands, 1964 and 1965 TDF points, 1966 Bordeaux– Paris, 2nd 1966 Tour de France, 1967 Paris–Roubaix, 1967 Vuelta a España (again GC and points), 1967 Super Prestige Pernod, 1968 Tour de France GC, plus a couple of 6-Days. He could beat you anywhere, any time, single-day, stage race or track.
Here’s Les’ telling of his visit with Jan Janssen from Cycling Heroes: The Golden Years.—Bill McGann
JAN JANSSEN (1940– )
I never sensed I’d have difficulty with Jan Janssen. It’s funny how much you go by appearances. I remembered this open-faced chap who never looked angry but always wore sunglasses. You never saw him quoted as saying very much, but then that was probably because most cycling reporters were French and Belgian and Janssen was one of the few Dutchmen.
The French must have felt odd about him, anyway, because he made such a point of riding in French teams. He won for them, but he also kept good honest Frenchmen out of the limelight. That is difficult to resolve in France.
He wasn’t at home when I rang. His wife answered and said he’d be in Germany when I suggested visiting, but he’d be back if I could leave it to the afternoon. He’d be delighted to see me. I thought my judgments about him were coming true.
I knew Putte because it was where I went for my supermarket shopping when I lived in a neighboring village. The border runs through the middle, so south of what used to be the customs check and lorry park you’ll see a mishmash of pubs, shops and houses, and on the northern end the buildings have the eerie conformity of Holland.
Town planning is something that came late to Belgium, but it suits both nations’ characters to have things as they are—the happy-go-lucky, haphazard Belgians and the more worrying, better organized Dutch. The last pro race of the lowland season, the Sluitingsprijs, is in the southern half. You’ll see the village listed as Putte-Kapellen, which is what the Belgians call it. There’s no race at the Dutch end but when they have a carnival, the fun fair takes over the whole village.
I rode through what remained of Belgium through sandy heaths and small villages as far as Kalmthout. I rode a circuit past my old house for old time’s sake and noted that the current residents are better gardeners than I ever was. Then I turned down through a little place called Heide to cross into Holland. Only a change in car number plates gave the border away.
I reached Putte alongside the Wip Er In sex shops (“Pop in”, it means, but it looks better in Dutch), turned right past one of the ubiquitous Albert Heijn supermarkets, and rode up through the herring stalls, poffertje makers (a small sweet pancake) and on to a road on the right called Postlaan. And there, several hundred yards on the left, is the factory where Jan Janssen makes bikes. He’s parted with the company since my visit, but that’s all that’s changed since he won the Tour de France. He looks barely different. And until Greg LeMond’s tussle with Laurent Fignon in Paris in 1989, this trim, bespectacled, blond-haired Dutchman held the record for the closest victory of all.
Jan Janssen moved to Putte at the start of 1969, from Ossendrecht further up the road. His baby, also Jan, had just been born. Jan Janssen is the equivalent of John Smith in England or Paddy Murphy in Ireland. His house is called Mon Repos, recognizing that Janssen was always the most French of the Dutch riders—Pelforth, Bic, all French.
In 1968, it was surprising that he was having lunch at Melun. There was nearly no Tour de France at all that year. The Americans were bombing Saigon, Martin Luther King was shot dead and President De Gaulle flew home from an interrupted tour of Romania to deal with student rioting on the streets of Paris.
That riot, one of several around the world as young people struggled against their governments, were against the central and stifling authority of the French state, which controlled not just the radio and television stations but much else that could encourage progressive thinking. Cobble stones flew and the dead and injured were transferred hourly to hospital by the dozen.
For a while it seemed all France might flare up. There were secondary riots in provincial towns of what was then the most centralized of states. And the greatest symbol outside the government of the Old Way, the traditional of the mighty against the freethinking, was the Tour de France—“that gaudy monument to capitalism,” as the communist L’Humanité called it.
Astonishingly, the riots stopped to allow the peloton to pass. And then they resumed.
At Melun, just before Paris, Janssen was 16 seconds back from Herman van Springel, the maillot jaune. He, Janssen and another Belgian, Ferdi Bracke, were all within three minutes. Just the time-trial into the capital remained. Bracke, a man capable of the world hour record, should have won. But the Gray Eminence, so called because of his prematurely lightened hair, tended to stage fright, flopping on the big occasion. Success wasn’t predictable. By contrast Janssen had the calmness of Dutch tradition. A nation saved by a small boy’s finger in a sea wall (an American story, incidentally, little known in Holland) doesn’t panic at a 30-mile time trial.
Janssen was one of the last three to start. The also-rans were showered and changed in Paris and had returned in their suits or tracksuits to watch the play-off of the biggest drama the postwar Tour had known.
It took 54,600 meters to make the decision. At the end, Janssen had 54 seconds on van Springel, still more on Bracke. He had won the Tour de France. That final yellow jersey was the only one he had worn. His 38 seconds were the smallest winning margin until Greg LeMond.
Even so, Janssen was a winner whom Geoffrey Nicholson called among “the more forgettable”, along with Lucien Aimar and Roger Pingeon. But Nicholson, a fair judge of men, was comparing him to Anquetil. And certainly, if the manner of his success was not crushing in the way of Anquetil or Coppi, then at least he left the race in suspense and not the foregone conclusion that so often visited it when Eddy Merckx or Miguel Indurain was riding.
It also began a happy sequence in which, every 21 years, the Tour put on a show. In 1947, no bookmakers would take bets on Pierre Brambilla winning, so secure were his chances on the last day. More than that, tradition demanded the maillot jaune was allowed his glory, undisturbed by petty attacks. But under his nose, the Breton Jean Robic—“like a little old man in glasses with a helmet like half a dozen sausages on his head”—bobbed off on a hill out of Rouen and got enough of a lead to stand on the uppermost level of the podium at the finish.
Twenty-one years after Janssen also won on the last day, LeMond fitted his aerodynamic tribars to ride to Paris and beat Fignon.
But for Janssen even those memories aren’t enough. Nor is his rainbow jersey from 1964, won by beating Vittorio Adorni and Raymond Poulidor in a sprint at Sallanches. There is sadness in his voice. “In 1969, I said I shall ride for another three or four years at most.” He was 29 then. “I want to quit when I’m on top. It will never be a question of my giving up when I can no longer hang on. I know when to call it a day.”
There is sadness because that day came more quickly than he believed. Maybe he told me this because he was tired from the journey back from Germany, or maybe he just felt it anyway. But he said it all the same.
“To be honest, I had no more ambitions. It was all traveling, racing, and the results weren’t as good any more. And the older you are, the more you have to prepare—train further, train more, look after yourself more, and I couldn’t face all that.
“And then in ’71, I was already doing a bit less—criteriums, smaller races, no Tour de France, which I found a bitter blow—and then, ja, I decided to give up. I was just another of the hundred or so nameless riders in the peloton. And then one day I was in the Tour of Luxembourg, in 1972, and I heard on the radio from one of the motorbike marshals: ‘Winner of the stage…’ I forget the name now…‘With the peloton at 15 minutes, with Jan Janssen’ and so on. And I can’t tell you what a blow that was. Jan Janssen, at 15 minutes? Winner of the Tour de France, former world champion, winner of Paris–Roubaix, winner of Paris–Nice, all the big races? That couldn’t be. And there and then I decided to do a couple more and then hup, I was done.”
We sat in the small works canteen next to the workshop. Staff came and went, among them his teenage son, who races in the black and white stripes of the Zuidwest Hoek club (“southwest corner”) in Bergen-op-Zoom. The three of us laughed and chatted for a moment and spoke of mutual friends. Janssen puffed on a cigarette, just as he did when he was racing. It’s only away from the European mainland that cycling was seen as a route to health; on the Continent it has never been more than a route to money. Janssen smokes, van Est smokes, and Eddy Merckx made an income advertising packets of Belga.
Janssen confessed it must be difficult for his son, a young bike rider with a famous father. But while Janssen zoon might try to overlook his father, Janssen papa likes being recognized. Not bigheaded, really, but he likes being recognized as Jan Janssen when he goes out with the trimmers, the keep-fit riders. He turns up on television around Tour de France time and the bike on which he rode from Melun to Paris is now part of a traveling show—he uses the English word.
The Tour’s current status as a wealthy, far-reaching business enterprise that is the heart of the professional racing calender is huge reversal of fortune. There are teams who argue that without a trip to the Tour their sponsors will abandon them. It wasn’t always so. In the 1970s there was talk that because of its precarious financial position, the Tour might have to be nationalized and teams sometimes had to be begged to enter the Tour. Félix Lévitan, who was then responsible for the financial side of the Tour, used many small sponsors to pay the Tour’s expenses. Prizes were sometimes in kind rather than cash. At one point there were twelve classifications the riders could compete for and the awards ceremonies were endless. It was all a bit tawdry. In the 1990s Jean-Marie Leblanc cut the number of sponsors in order to make the race “comprehensible”. The result was a gusher of money for the Tour and its current prosperity. In spite of this fabulous success, there is reason to be concerned.
The question of the Tour’s importance, cost and relevance is one Les Woodland dealt with in the concluding chapter of Tourmen: The Men Who Made the Tour de France.—Bill McGann
The most serious of Sunday papers is Le Journal du Dimanche, which means “The Sunday Paper.” It began, like L’Équipe, after the war. Since then its analytical approach has earned it a place in serious-thinking France. Its opinion surveys are conducted by Ifop, the Institut Français d’Opinion Publique, founded after a professor at the Sorbonne in Paris met the pollster George Gallup in the USA. Ifop has become the heavyweight of French polling organizations and its assessments of politicians and policies are taken seriously. This underlines the worth of the survey in 2007, for the Journal du Dimanche, of how the French view their Tour. And the French, it seemed, line the road with few illusions. The paper summarized: “78 percent of them doubt the honesty of a victory, whether it’s in the Tour de France or any other race.”
Do you, personally, like the Tour de France?
|Total (%)||Men (%)||Women (%)|
Today, when a rider wins a stage of the Tour de France or another cycling race, do you doubt the honesty of the victory?
Which of these opinions fits you better?
|The fight against doping in cycling should be conducted even more severely and cheats should be excluded from races, even if they are stars||80|
|Doping is now widespread in cycling; that should be recognized and it should be handled medically||19|
The Journal du Dimanche said the worry was that “only 36 percent of those younger than 35 say they like the Tour; it is older people who have kept their affection: 64 percent of those older than 50, 70 percent of those aged more than 65. Probably because this generation grew interested before the era of suspicion, whether it was individual (Pedro Delgado, contested winner in 1988) or generalized (starting with the Festina affair in 1998). Perhaps, too, because you have to go back two decades to find the last French riders in yellow in Paris, Laurent Fignon (1983) and Bernard Hinault (1985).”
Why? What does this mean? What else is there?
• • •
Graeme Fife spoke of divisions of cycle racing: “The men who concentrate on the Tour and nothing else and the real pros who honor the tradition of the sport.” The last great stars to ride a whole season, with heart as well as legs, were Eddy Merckx and Bernard Hinault. The first not to, he reckoned, was Greg LeMond. And he was speaking before Lance Armstrong, Jan Ullrich and others.
The result of specialization parallels Mario Cipollini. He rode a seven-day Tour when everyone else rode a month. Those who concentrate on the Tour ride the same race but a different season. They hardly start from the same place. More than that, they force others to do the same, for there’s no point in starting if you don’t hope to win or have your leader win. The result is that even classics are becoming preparation for the Tour. And more and more specialists aren’t riding those either.
The specialization rumbles more disastrously further down. The classics and Tours make up the visible part of the year. It would be disastrous if the classics lost their luster. But padding out the calendar and therefore the living of professionals in general are the little races, the Tours of this-that-and-the-other put on by clubs which every year scrape together the money. The more the stars, the more easily can be collected the money. But there are standing costs and a minimum prize list and so the price doesn’t fall proportionately with the quality of the field. When sponsors lose interest in minnows, they keep their money in their wallet or choose another sport.
In France, the best of the rest are banded into a season-long competition called the Coupe de France. The hope is to create excitement and maintain interest. But, for all that the races are open to everyone, the field is almost all French with a handful from across the border if the race is near Belgium and a sprinkling of foreigners obliged to ride because they are in French teams. They are good races but…who cares?
Some of it is that no French rider has won the Tour de France in decades. The last was Bernard Hinault in 1986, ending a period in which Frenchmen won 20 of the 39 Tours since the war. An immediate fall from a success rate of almost 50 percent to exactly zero doesn’t go unquestioned. And France asks the question over and over.
If you’re not French, of course, it doesn’t matter. You don’t notice it. But there are concerns for all. The more Americans have won the Tour, the more the sport has succeeded in America. Belgium never had more new riders than when Eddy Merckx won five Tours. Even Britain, never better than fourth, was wonderfully happy when it happened, and its success on the track—including what one French commentator called un holdup at the Olympics—turned the British Cycling Federation from a damp rag to an organization with more members than ever.
Success breeds success. And defeat encourages defeat. Hinault’s club in Yffiniac, brimming in his day, has half a dozen members now. Jacques Anquetil’s club at Sotteville, across the river from Rouen, all but vanished when he vanished. French cycling is in a dreadful state. And while we may not know the reason, the consequences could be worrying.
The Tour takes place on public roads. It is subsidized at public expense. It pays for police to escort it but there is local expense as towns and cities lay on start and finish lines. There is no guarantee they will make a profit and, when they do, it can only be guessed how much business the race has brought. Along the way, a hundred communities a day are disrupted by having their thoroughfare closed, access to shops and bars and filling stations with it, not just while the riders pass but for hours before it. People can’t get in and out of where they live. Nobody can drive across what becomes a wall across the country, moving on a little each day. It’s all very well knowing that Gaston in the village bar is selling more beer than usual but that counts little when you’re stopped from your daily life without recompense.
On Mont Ventoux, taxpayers pay to have eight tons of litter shifted every summer, most, says the mayor, from cyclists and their followers. The Tour is an expense to many more towns and communes than it is a profit for others. Sponsorship may cover the main costs but they overlook all the incidental ones: the disruption, litter, damage, loss of trade, minor road improvements, signposting of road closures, expenses for planning meetings, medical care and much else.
The crowds for the Tour grow year by year, sometimes dropping, always making up what they lost. Nobody knows for sure because they can’t be counted—claims for places like the Alpe d’Huez are preposterous because there just isn’t that much room beside the road—but nobody denies they are a lot. The crowds turn the Tour into a national occasion, a month-long street party. But…
What happens when a politician questions, as one will, what right the sport has to clog up the roads of France in summer when only foreigners win? The logic isn’t complete but the sentiment appeals. And it appeals to the many, as the Journal du Dimanche’s survey showed, who have no interest in the Tour. For the moment nobody has said it. But it would take only an analysis of the cost of disruption to start the questioning.
To question the Tour would be politically risky. Not everyone in France is a Tour fan—most are no more than generally interested—but there are enough that they’re best left unprovoked when votes are at stake. To call off the Tour, therefore, is improbable. But what would it take for the government to say “Gentlemen, we lend you the roads of France at the expense of the French, but we get little back in national pride. You run a commercial company and you exist to make a profit. Perhaps the time has come to give back to France some of what it has given you. You can’t, we know, guarantee a French winner. But let’s say that we will give you the roads again each summer if you at least give us a French team. Please, go away, do what Henri Desgrange did in 1930 and give us something to cheer for.”
Old Dezzie must be chuckling in his slumber.
Author’s note: Padraig asked me if I thought there was a previous Tour edition that might have similarities to the 2011 Tour and if a look at the older race might give some insight as to what this year’s race might bring.
The 2011 Tour is a victim of Tour boss Prudhomme’s war on time trialing. With four summit finishes, yet only 42.6 km of individual time trialing and no white-road or pavé stage to lend balance to the race, it is effectively a climbing championship.
That brings to mind the 1976 Tour with it’s back-to-back eight stages of climbing plus a Puy de Dôme hilltop finish. Yes, there were 89 km of individual time trialing in 1976, but that year the mountains overwhelmed everything. Also, it featured a war between the era’s two best climbers, Joop Zoetemelk and Lucien van Impe. Perhaps there is a parallel to 1976’s brutal war in the mountains in the coming match between 2011’s most prominent contenders Andy Schleck and Alberto Contador.
Zoetemelk, the better climber that year, lost the race because of a profound tactical failure in the face of Cyrille Guimard’s brilliant management of van Impe. The only major errors that I can remember Contador committing (I’m sure RKP’s readers will remind me of others) involved his dallying in the back of the peloton and missing important moves. I doubt his new director, Bjarne Riis, will let the Spaniard sleep at the wheel in this Tour.
It may come down to a series of drag races up France’s steepest slopes, but I’m betting that given the likely even match between the two, it will be like 1976 and again come down to the rider with the greater strategic savvy. I believe that plays to Contador’s advantage.
Like Tour father Henri Desgrange wrote, it’s head and legs.
Eddy Merckx started 1976 by winning Milan–San Remo for a seventh time. He also won the Catalonian week. But that was it for Merckx in the win column for spring in 1976. He managed a second place in the Tirreno–Adriatico stage race, but only sixth place in Paris–Roubaix and Liège–Bastogne–Liège. In the Giro, he came in eighth. Not able to find his usual form and needing surgery for saddle-sores, he did not enter the 1976 Tour. There would be no rematch between Bernard Thévenet and Eddy Merckx that year.
There were plenty of other fine young cannibals, however. Bernard Thévenet went to the Tour fresh off a win in the Dauphiné Libéré. Luis Ocaña, looking for another shot at glory, had come in second in the Vuelta and fourth in Paris–Nice.
Joop Zoetemelk was the odds-on favorite. He won Flèche Wallonne and had high placings in the Dauphiné Libéré, Amstel Gold and the Tour of the Mediterranean. He had been second in the Tour in 1970 and 1971 and had never finished worse than fifth.
Every Tour is different. Each year the cast of players changes slightly as older racers retire and new young men with fresh ambitions arrive. The route changes each year as well and with differing emphasis on flat roads, time trials or mountains, different racers can find some years suit their talents more than others. The 1976 Tour was clockwise, starting on France’s west coast, circling north up to Belgium before heading south for the Alps. There the 1976 Tour departed from tradition. Normally after one of the 2 major mountain ranges is ridden there are several transition stages before the hard climbing resumes. This year there were 5 days of climbing in the east, starting in the Vosges in stage 7 and ending in stage 11. Then there was a rest day before 3 very hard days in the Pyrenees. That was 8 days in a row of mountains. If that weren’t enough, stage 20 finished at the top of the Puy de Dôme. Importantly, 5 of the mountain stages ended with hilltop finishes. This is a huge advantage to smaller riders who don’t have the power to maintain a time advantage gained on a climb through a long descent and flat roll-in to a distant finish line. No wonder Lucien van Impe announced that he would be riding this Tour for the overall win, not his usual King of the Mountains title. Van Impe’s changed circumstances involved more than just having a race itinerary that matched his talents. His previous manager was Jean Stablinski who is often credited with having one of the finer tactical minds in cycling. Stablinski was replaced with Cyrille Guimard who had mounted a real threat to Merckx in the 1972 Tour. Guimard was so recently retired that he was still the 1976 French Cyclocross Champion. In taking over the Gitane-Campagnolo team he remade the squad so that van Impe would have better support. As we’ll see in unfolding years, Guimard not only knew how to ride and win his own race, he knew how to get others to ride and win for him.
There was a new comet in the heavens. Belgian racer Freddy Maertens turned professional in 1972. His fantastic sprinting, time trialing and overall strength let him win all but the steepest races. In 1976, the first year he rode the Tour, he won 54 races including the World Pro Road Championships and the Belgian Road Championships. His erratic career was at its peak in 1976 and 1977 before it fell off to almost nothing. Then, in an astonishing act of will, he rebuilt his career and won the 1981 World Championship.
Maertens did not disappoint Belgian fans who were unhappy with the absence of Merckx. From the gun he was on fire. He won the Prologue time trial thumping a monstrous 55 x 12 gear, and then the first stage. Then he won the stage 3 time trial, beating such accomplished chrono men as Ferdi Bracke by 2 minutes, 23 seconds, Raymond Poulidor by almost 3 minutes and Bernard Thévenet by 3 minutes, 32 seconds. When the Tour entered the Vosges mountains he won stage 7. In stage 8, he managed only second to Peugeot’s ace sprinter Jacques Esclassan.
With the riders poised to begin their days in the Alps in stage 9, the General Classification stood thus:
1. Freddy Maertens
2. Michel Pollentier @ 2 minutes 4 seconds
3. Hennie Kuiper @ 3 minutes 16 seconds
4. Jean-Pierre Danguillaume @ 3 minutes 23 seconds
5. Raymond Poulidor @ 3 minutes 31 seconds
Van Impe, Zoetemelk and Thévenet were sitting at about 4 minutes behind Maertens.
Stage 9 was 258 kilometers that had the pack ascend the Luitel before finishing at the top of l’Alpe d’Huez, the first hilltop finish there since 1952. Even sprinter Freddy Maertens made it over the Luitel with the good climbers. But when Peugeot rider Raymond Delisle opened the hostilities on the Alpe, Maertens was tossed. From then on Zoetemelk and van Impe attacked and counter-attacked each other all the way to the top with Zoetemelk getting the win by 3 seconds. Poulidor, Thévenet, Baronchelli, Kuiper and the others were what a modern military man would call “collateral damage”. They were incidental victims of a relentless shooting war between the 2 best climbers of the time. The result of the day’s brawl was that van Impe was in Yellow with Zoetemelk trailing by only 8 seconds. Maertens was third, down about a minute.
The next day was another mano-a-mano climbing fight between the 2 leaders. After ascending the Lautaret, the Izoard, and the Montgenèvre, Zoetemelk was again only able to beat van Impe and Thévenet by 1 second. Zoetemelk now trailed van Impe by only 7 seconds in the Overall. The pace was so hard 7 riders were eliminated for failing to finish within the time limit.
The third mountain stage was one of those races in which the peloton just doesn’t feel like racing. They let José-Luis Viejo ride away without being chased. His final margin of victory, 22 minutes, 50 seconds, was the Tour’s largest postwar solo winning margin. The peloton was content to rest their tired legs. Indicative of the slower pace, sprinters Gerben Karstens and Freddy Maertens took second and third places.
With the Alpine stages completed, here was the General Classification:
1. Lucien van Impe
2. Joop Zoetemelk @ 7 seconds
3. Raymond Poulidor @ 1 minute 36 seconds
4. Bernard Thévenet @ 1 minute 48 seconds
The first stage in the Pyrenees, the fourth mountain stage, was another odd day. Van Impe and Zoetemelk were only worried about each other. They kept an eye on each other and let Raymond Delisle, an excellent but slightly aging racer, get away. Delisle was eighth in General Classification when the stage started. When it was over, Delisle was in Yellow and van Impe and Zoetemelk were almost 3 minutes behind.
The next stage didn’t affect the standings. The big guns held their fire. The only notable event was that stage winner Regis Ovion failed his drug test and his name was stricken from the record of that stage. Willy Teirlinck was awarded the stage.
It was stage 14, the fifth of these mountain stages, that made history.
In previous Tours, van Impe had won 3 of his eventual 6 Polka-Dot Climber’s Jerseys, in the same fashion as modern riders Laurent Jalabert or Richard Virenque have done it. They would go out early on a mountain stage and scoop up the points in all the early mountains, not always worrying about getting caught and dropped on the final climb by the men seeking overall victory. The Polka-Dot Jersey was generally van Impe’s entire ambition. In later years he has said that he regrets those years in which he turned to trying for the overall victory. He thinks he might have had 10 Climbers’ Jerseys instead of his 6.
There were 4 major climbs that day. On the second, the Portillon, Luis Ocaña attacked. Ocaña was no longer the dominating rider he had been in the early 1970s, but he was not to be ignored. Cyrille Guimard, van Impe’s director, told van Impe to go after him. Van Impe was reluctant: Guimard and van Impe did not completely agree on tactics and goals that year. Guimard told van Impe that if he didn’t go after Ocaña, he would run him off the road with his car.
Van Impe took off and caught Ocaña on the Peyresourde, the day’s penultimate climb.
Zoetemelk didn’t chase him. He may have thought van Impe was chasing some Climbers’ points and not really going after the overall lead. And surely by now Ocaña was nothing more than a shell of his former self. Instead Zoetemelk sat on the wheel of the man whose Yellow Jersey was threatened by the attack, Raymond Delisle. Normally this would be an astute strategy, forcing the leader to defend his position. It would have been astute except that Delisle could not close the gap. In fact, Delisle was exhausted and eventually lost over 12 minutes that day. Up the road, van Impe and Ocaña were flying.
Ocaña did the hard work on the flat road leading to the final climb, towing van Impe. Ocaña remembered that Zoetemelk had never helped him in his struggles with Merckx. This was a tough bit of pay-back.
On the final climb, the Pla d’Adet up to St.-Lary-Soulan, van Impe jumped away from Ocaña and won the stage and the Yellow Jersey. Zoetemelk came flying up the hill, going faster than van Impe, but it wasn’t good enough. He was 3 minutes, 12 seconds too late.
The Ocaña/van Impe/Zoetemelk attacks shattered the peloton. 45 of the remaining 93 riders finished outside the time limit. Peter Post, the manager of the Raleigh team asked on behalf of the riders that the Tour management waive the elimination rule for the stage. They did.
The new General Classification with van Impe back in Yellow:
1. Lucien van Impe
2. Joop Zoetemelk @ 3 minutes 18 seconds
3. Raymond Delisle @ 9 minutes 27 seconds
4. Walter Riccomi @ 10 minutes 22 seconds
5. Raymond Poulidor @ 11 minutes 42 seconds
The final day in the Pyrenees, even with the Aspin, Tourmalet and the Aubisque, didn’t change the top of the standings. The lions had to digest their kill.
The stage 17 time trial showed that van Impe was a more rounded rider than one might expect. Ferdi Bracke won it but van Impe was able to beat Zoetemelk by more than a minute. That put Zoetemelk 4½ minutes behind the Belgian climber with only one more chance to take the Tour leadership, the stage 20 climb to the top of Puy de Dôme. Zoetemelk won the stage, beating van Impe by an unimportant 12 seconds. Impressive, but to no real effect. That moment of careful, conservative calculation on the road to St.-Lary-Soulan cost him the Tour. Zoetemelk was the better climber that year, but van Impe had the tactical genius of Guimard to give him the needed push.
Thévenet had been losing time and at stage 19 he finally abandoned, weakened by hepatitis.
Lucien van Impe won the Tour, beating Zoetemelk by 4 minutes, 14 seconds. It was his only Tour victory and he remains the last Belgian to win the Tour. To this day, he is troubled by Guimard’s remarks that van Impe would not have won the Tour without his encouragement and threats. Van Impe says that Guimard talked to him as if he were a child, and after the 1976 season, van Impe changed teams.
Freddy Maertens won 8 stages in the 1976 tour, equaling the record set by Charles Pélissier in 1930 and Merckx in 1970 and 1974.
And Raymond Poulidor? He finished third, 12 minutes, 8 seconds behind winner van Impe. This was the fourteenth and final Tour de France for the 40-year old Poulidor. He abandoned only twice and finished with 3 second and 5 third places. In all those years of riding the Tour from 1961 to 1976 he never spent a single day in Yellow, not one. Poulidor’s 8 times on the podium is a record. Zoetemelk, Hinault, Ullrich and Armstrong each accumulated 7, and Anquetil, Merckx and Garrigou 6.
Celestino Vercelli, riding with G.B. Baronchelli, Walter Riccomi and Wladimiro Panizza on the SCIC-Fiat team, talked to us about the 1976 Tour: “This was the year the Cannibal Eddy Merckx stayed home. This Tour was won by van Impe. Every stage of this Tour was very, very hard. Just to get an idea of the difficulties we faced, in Bordeaux, in incredibly hot weather, we raced 3 stages the same day. In the evening in the hotel (hotel is a big word for the place we stayed), we slept in big rooms together. I was running a high temperature, I was very tired and hot. I don’t have words for that day on the bike.
“When we were riding the Pyrenean stages, the asphalt melted. You can imagine the huge difficulties we faced riding in the mountains in the soft asphalt. In the descent the situation was better with the tires holding the soft road very well. The big problem was the difficulty in removing the asphalt from our legs in the evening.”
Final 1976 Tour de France General Classification:
1. Lucien van Impe (Gitane-Campagnolo): 116 hours 22 minutes 23 seconds
2. Joop Zoetemelk (Gan-Mercier) @ 4 minutes 14 seconds
3. Raymond Poulidor (Gan-Mercier) @ 12 minutes 8 seconds
4. Raymond Delisle (Peugeot) @ 12 minutes 17 seconds
5. Walter Riccomi (SCIC) @ 12 minutes 39 seconds
1. Giancarlo Bellini: 170 points
2. Lucien van Impe: 169 points
3. Joop Zoetemelk: 119 points
1. Freddy Maertens: 293 points
2. Pierino Gavazzi: 140 points
3. Jacques Esclassan: 128 points
Excerpted from Bill and Carol McGann’s The Story of the Tour de France, Volume II. You can find both volumes here.
Image: John Pierce, Photosport International
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.
[Editor's note: Bill and Carol McGann recently published the first in their two-volume history of the Giro d'Italia. I haven't had time to actually read it yet, but I recall from previous conversations Bill's assertion that the Giro has been a consistently surprising race though its history. He's given us the opportunity to run an excerpt here, and for those of you unfamiliar with his previous work, this is a terrific example of his ability to connect dots to paint a portrait of the time. Herewith, we present you with the 1967 Giro in less than 3000 words.]
1967. What a field assembled for the fiftieth Giro d’Italia! After years of being an Italian race, the Giro was once again an international competition. There was Motta with Rudi Altig and Franco Balmamion as gregari; there were Anquetil, Bitossi, Taccone, Francisco Gabica, Eddy Merckx, Ferdi Bracke, van Looy, Adorni, Gimondi (who suffered a terrible spring and had real doubts about his condition), Wladimiro Panizza, Silvano Schiavon, Zilioli, José Pérez-Francés, Vicente López-Carril and Roger Pingeon to name some of the outstanding stage racers of this or any age who assembled to start at Treviglio, south of Bergamo. There were past and future world champions Marino Basso, Jean Stablinski, van Looy, Merckx, Harm Ottenbros, and Gimondi, and future World Hour Record holders Ole Ritter, Ferdi Bracke, and Merckx.
Belgian Eddy Merckx was riding his first Grand Tour. He turned pro in 1965, just short of his twentieth birthday. He had already won 80 amateur races, including the World Road Championship (at nineteen). His first year as a pro riding for Solo-Superia with the imperious and difficult Rik van Looy was an unhappy one and in 1966 he switched to Peugeot where he would spend two years. It was in the black-and-white-checked kit of Peugeot that Merckx entered the Giro, riding with Ferdi Bracke and Roger Pingeon. Merckx’s spring was simply wonderful with wins in Milan–San Remo, Gent–Wevelgem and the Flèche Wallonne.
In 1967 Anquetil didn’t have to deal with the poisonous relations between Ford France and Ford Italy since Bic, which at that time made only pens, now sponsored him and his core of capable domestiques.
At 3,572 kilometers, the 1967 Giro was the shortest since 1960. It had 23 stages (two half stages crammed into the last day) for an average stage length of 155 kilometers, close to current Giro lengths.
Torriani had planned to kick off the Giro with a nighttime race through Milan but the stage had to be cancelled when anti-Vietnam war protestors filled the streets.
After five stages of good hard racing, the Giro arrived at Naples for a transfer to Sicily. Michele Dancelli was the leader with Pérez-Francés second at thirteen seconds. So far the best riders were sitting towards the top of the standings but no large gaps had appeared.
Stage seven, ending atop Mount Etna, broke the peloton into bits for the first time. Climbing and sprinting ace Franco Bitossi was first to the top of the volcano. Coming in about 20 seconds later, Motta was the first of the contenders, followed by Merckx, Gimondi, Zilioli, Pérez-Francés, Adorni and Pingeon. Anquetil, Altig and Balmamion were a further twenty seconds back. Dancelli remained in pink for another day.
Racing resumed on the mainland the next day, where the mountainous roads of Calabria were too much for Dancelli. He lost over five minutes, making Pérez-Francés the Pink Jersey with Aldo Moser second at just three seconds. Just three seconds, that’s gotta hurt.
The next test was the hilly stage twelve, starting at Caserta and finishing with a climb to Block Haus, an old German fortification sitting over 2,000 meters high in Abruzzo. At this point Pérez-Francés was still the leader with everyone who mattered but Anquetil within 73 seconds of the Spaniard.
At the start of the Block Haus climb the riders had already spent almost seven hours in the saddle with the Macerone, Rionero Sannitico and Roccaraso ascents behind them. The leaders were together and ascended the steep climb at a good pace. With two kilometers to go, Zilioli unleashed a devastating attack that only one rider could match, young Merckx. For Merckx, this was unknown territory. He was reaching the end of two weeks of nearly continuous racing and faced yet another week to go. Was Merckx a man for the Grand Tours or a single-day rider in van Looy’s mold? The world was learning. He said about that moment, “I still felt good. I hadn’t ridden many mountains before so I kept following, but when Italo Zilioli attacked with two kilometers to go, I felt good enough to chase.”
Yes he did. After sitting on Zilioli’s wheel for a kilometer he lit the jets and bounded for the summit with such power and speed that Merckx’s win at Block Haus in the 1967 Giro became one of the enduring legends of the Giro. It was Merckx’s first Grand Tour stage win.
Zilioli wasn’t left far behind, though. He came in at 10 seconds, Pérez-Francés (still in pink after Block Haus) at 20 and Anquetil at 23.
Merckx’s brilliant ride moved him up to third place, 30 seconds down.
For all the hard racing that had occurred, going into the 45-kilometer stage sixteen individual time trial at Verona the gaps between the riders at the top of the standings remained razor-thin:
1. José Pérez-Francés
2. Aldo Moser @ 18 seconds
3. Eddy Merckx @ 50 seconds
4. Silvano Schiavon @ 53 seconds
5. Italo Zilioli @ 1 minute 3 seconds
6. Gianni Motta @ 1 minute 13 seconds
The time trial, ridden on a cold and rainy day, was won by Danish neo-pro Ole Ritter. Ritter’s performance left Anquetil incredulous. He said that Ritter’s pace of 47.3 kilometers per hour would have been good enough to break the World Hour Record.
Indeed. Ritter would go on to break the Ferdi Bracke’s World Hour Record in 1972 and then Merckx would break Ritter’s record later that year.
The results of the stage:
1. Ole Ritter: 56 minutes 59 seconds
2. Rudi Altig @ 1 second
3. Ferdi Bracke @ 2 seconds
4. Jacques Anquetil @ 6 seconds
5. Felice Gimondi @ 38 seconds
There were three notable poor performances: Adorni was about two minutes slower than Ritter on a course that a couple of years ago would have been just right for him to crush the opposition. Merckx lost 2 minutes 49 seconds and Motta gave up 3 minutes 17 seconds. Merckx was a freshman who had never before faced the third week of a stage race and was not yet a complete rider. But Motta was the defending Giro champion and was now out of the top 10.
The new General Classification:
1. Jacques Anquetil
2. Felice Gimondi @ 53 seconds
3. Vittorio Adorni @ 1 minute 59 seconds
4. Eddy Merckx @ 2 minutes 4 seconds
5. José Pérez-Francés @ 2 minutes 16 seconds
There were two major consequences of this time trial. Anquetil was now in pink, and Motta’s Molteni team bosses decided to break Balmamion’s chains of servitude to the faltering Motta. Balmamion was now free to race on his own account.
The next stage came after a rest day. Balmamion got into the winning break that included Silvano Schiavon, Gabica, Panizza and Massignan. The 3 minutes 43 seconds they carved out of the peloton put Schiavon in the lead and moved Balmamion up to fifth place, only 2 minutes 29 seconds behind. He had done more with less in past Giri.
Stage nineteen left Udine for a hilltop finish at the top of the difficult Tre Cime di Lavaredo climb. The weather was dreadful that day with rain, snow and fog. At the beginning of the ascent Wladimiro Panizza was three minutes ahead of the field and he looked to be headed for the win. His director, fearing a stiff fine, did all he could to keep the tifosi from pushing the diminutive climber up the hill. Just as he closed in on the summit, Panizza was suddenly passed by a slew of riders, most of whom possessed only a fraction of his climbing skills.
How did this happen? With two kilometers to go, the chasers were struggling in miserable weather on the stiffest part of the climb. The gradient at that point was almost fourteen percent. The riders had, in a moment of collective moral failure, grabbed on to the team cars and were towed up to Panizza. Gimondi was first across the line because, as sportswriter René de Latour noted, “he had the fastest car”. Outraged, a furious Torriani wouldn’t let the fraudulent result stand and annulled the stage. La Gazzetta writer Bruno Raschi called it “le montagne del disonore”.
Bic, Anquetil’s sponsor, decided that they weren’t interested in winning the Giro. Believable reasons don’t seem to be forthcoming; non-believable ones abound. Anquetil says that his domestiques stopped getting their paychecks and understandably, most of them abandoned. Denson says that he was told that the riders were being pulled from the Giro to save them for races later in the season. Since the Tour was to be contested by national teams in 1967, this excuse really makes no sense. Another hypothesis is that this was a move to allow Anquetil to have an excuse for losing. But Anquetil wasn’t giving up, so this seems illogical as well. Nonetheless, Anquetil raced for Bic until the end of his career in 1969 which says to me that there was something terribly complicated going on behind the scenes and Anquetil took the explanation to his grave.
By the start of stage twenty Anquetil was down to only two helpers, Lucien Aimar and Jean Milesi. Fending off the combined attacks of the Italians with just these two gregari would be an extreme physical challenge. Realizing the necessity of having more legs on his side he tried to form an alliance (that means paying them money) with some of the Spanish riders. He failed, blaming it on his sponsor’s parsimony. In fact, the Spaniards had already allied themselves with the Italians, making Anquetil’s situation even more difficult.
Stage twenty was the tappone, going from Cortina d’Ampezzo to Trent taking the riders over the Falzarego, Pordoi, Rolle and Brocon ascents.
Anquetil had bad luck early in the stage, getting two flats. Next, on the descent of the Brocon, Merckx, Gimondi, Adorni and Motta got away from him. After a desperate and impressive chase (look who he was trying to catch!) he finally regained contact. Further up the road Adorni, Gimondi, Michelotto, Balmamion and Pérez-Francés managed to put about a half-minute between themselves and Merckx/Anquetil group. Still, Anquetil had done more than stave off catastrophe, he had recaptured the lead. It was a brutal day and Anquetil had gone very deep.
With two stages to go the race was still extremely tight and the General Classification now stood thus:
1. Jacques Anquetil
2. Felice Gimondi @ 34 seconds
3. Franco Balmamion @ 47 seconds
4. Vittorio Adorni @ 1 minute 40 seconds
5. José Pérez-Francés @ 1 minute 55 seconds
6. Eddy Merckx @ 2 minutes 4 seconds
Stage 21 was hilly with a major climb, the Tonale. Originally the Stelvio was the stage’s planned ascent but bad weather forced the organizers to look elsewhere. The Gavia was proposed as a replacement but it too was snowed in. The Tonale was pronounced usable and put into the race route, though the riders would still have to contend with an energy-sapping cold rain. Gimondi’s powerful team set a high pace during the ascent, and near the top, Motta and Gimondi attacked, dropping Anquetil and Merckx, now paying for his youthful expenditure of energy during the first two weeks. With the aid of teammate Aimar, one of the sport’s finest-ever descenders, Anquetil regained contact. It was here, after the Tonale, that the 1967 Giro was decided.
Marcello Mugnaini attacked and escaped first. Then Gimondi, who had Anquetil right behind him, stormed off. The Frenchman couldn’t hold his wheel. Having drawn down his reserves too far the day before, Anquetil didn’t have the strength to go with Gimondi’s powerful move.
Mugnaini won the stage, finishing in Tirano with a couple of other riders who weren’t in contention. As Mugnaini was almost a half-hour down in the General Classification, his win and time gain had no effect upon the standings.
But 62 seconds later Gimondi crossed the line, alone. It was 4 minutes 9 seconds before Willy Planckaert led in the Anquetil group. Gimondi remains proud of that masterful attack and sustained escape. It earned him the maglia rosa and pushed Anquetil into second at 3 minutes 35 seconds. The question that has been asked over the years is, why didn’t the other Italians give chase? That Anquetil was out of gas and had almost no one to help him is well understood. But why not Balmamion, who was one of the outstanding riders of the day, and given his excellent time trial in stage sixteen, was in excellent condition?
He and the other riders who were on Gimondi’s level seem to have let the man from Bergamo simply ride away with the Giro. They just let him go.
A photographer was there to catch that moment when Gimondi jumped away. There is a grim-faced Anquetil five yards off his wheel with Balmamion just behind Anquetil with Adorni to his right and Motta close by and another ten or so riders all in a small pack sitting on Anquetil and Adorni. The explanation usually given is a deal was hatched among the Italians to make sure one of their countrymen won the race and Gimondi was the chosen beneficiary of this plot. Advocates of this view also say that Anquetil was paid a significant sum of money to let someone else win. There are still whispers in Italy of a briefcase with fifty million lire used to buy the acquiescence of the santa alleanza degli italiani (holy alliance of Italians). We’ll never know.
Anquetil’s situation was catastrophic. What could he do now? The final stage was split into two half-stages. In the morning the Giro would climb to the Madonna del Ghisallo, the shrine of cycling, just north of Milan. It was impossible to believe an exhausted Anquetil could take four minutes out of Gimondi with his powerful Salvarani team protecting him during those 140 kilometers. In fact, it went the other way. Balmamion rode beautifully to get second place in the stage, dropping all but Aurelio González. He gained enough time to take second place in the Overall away from Anquetil.
Anquetil had said it would be 100 riders against 1. It wasn’t quite true, but with no team to defend him, he was helpless.
And long after many observers had written off Balmamion’s chances, the double Giro winner had turned in a sterling performance and might have won the race. Did he agree to let Gimondi win? Was there an agreement? Who knows? Balmamion was third in the Tour that July and became Italian Road Champion.
Merckx went on to win the World Road Championship that fall.
Final 1967 Giro d’Italia General Classification:
1. Felice Gimondi (Salvarani) 101 hours 5 minutes 34 seconds
2. Franco Balmamion (Molteni) @ 3 minutes 36 seconds
3. Jacques Anquetil (Bic) @ 3 minutes 45 seconds
4. Vittorio Adorni (Salamini-Luxor) @ 4 minutes 33 seconds
5. José Pérez-Francés (KAS) @ 5 minutes 17 seconds
6. Gianni Motta (Molteni) @ 6 minutes 21 seconds
9. Eddy Merckx (Peugeot) @ 11 minutes 41 seconds
1. Aurelio Gonzales (KAS): 630 points
2. Vittorio Adorni (Salamini-Luxor): 150
3. Wladimiro Panizza (Vittadello): 140
1. Dino Zandegù (Salvarani): 200 Points
2. Eddy Merckx (Peugeot): 178
3. Willy Planckaert (Romeo Smiths): 176
Reflecting on the 1967 Giro, Gimondi recalled, “The 1967 Giro started badly for me because I was suffering from bronchitis. At first, I had trouble staying with the main challengers, but later in the race I grew stronger. I had a great duel with Jacques Anquetil and managed to eventually drop him on the mountainous stage to Aprica [stage 21 that continued on to Tirano, the Aprica being the final major difficulty] and took the maglia rosa. It was a great Giro because of the rivalry between me and Jacques.”
About the race-fixing stories, Zilioli said, “I heard about those rumors, but as far as I know there was no pro-Gimondi alliance. I think instead that Balmamion, who was in good shape, was not careful enough. He could have followed Gimondi more closely during the race.
“Anquetil ‘played the dead rider’ and perhaps Balmamion did not sense the race strategies as they were unfolding. On the other side I also think he was not helped to become the new Italian Champion. He was never favored and he never favored anyone in his career.”
That fall Anquetil went to Milan’s Vigorelli velodrome and beat Roger Rivière’s eleven-year-old World Hour Record by 150 meters. He would have brought it to 47.493 kilometers, but he refused to submit to a drug test, so the ride was never certified by the UCI. The 1967 Giro was Anquetil’s last Grand Tour ride and he would only have two more major wins, the 1968 Baracchi Trophy with Gimondi and the 1969 Tour of the Basque Country. For fourteen years he had, like the other professionals of his era, raced about 235 days a year. It was a magnificent career in which he was the first five-time Tour winner, the first French winner of the Giro and the first man to win all three Grand Tours.
I like Tom Simpson’s explanation as to why Anquetil was such a prolific winner, “Jacques simply tries harder than anyone I have met. In a time trial you can hear him catching you, you don’t have to look round, there is this hoarse sound of breath being drawn in gulps, and then he’s past you. Then it’s like being in a thunderstorm, with the sweat simply pouring off him as he goes by.”
Back in July, Team Astana was clearly not only the strongest team in the 2009 Tour de France peloton, but also one of the most powerful teams that had been put together in recent years. La Gazzetta dello Sport called it “Fortress Astana”. This caused Padraig to ponder about which team might be the best Tour de France squad of all time. He suggested the 1986 La Vie Claire team of Bernard Hinault, Greg LeMond, Andy Hampsten, Steve Bauer and Jean-François Bernard as the greatest.
I offered the 1908 Peugeot squad, which won all 14 stages in the 1908 Tour and took the top four GC places as the finest Tour de France team ever. I still hold by that view.
So who is number two on my list? Team France between 1930 and 1934.
Until 1930, the Tour as contested by trade teams, as it is today. Alcyon-Dunlop, Alleluia-Wolber and Lucifer-Hutchinson were the Cofidis’, Columbia-HTCs and Garmin-Transitions of their time. But, not surprisingly, loyalties could cross trade team lines and riders from a country could unite to help a fellow compatriot. Also, trade teams could combine to try to bring about an outcome that had been decided in a hotel room. Of course, this still goes on today.
At that time the Tour was run by its founder, an iron-fisted dictator named Henri Desgrange, who wanted his race to be a pure test of an athlete’s will and power. He made the race stupefyingly hard, even forcing the riders to perform their own repairs. As late as 1929 riders still had to fix their own flat tires. Desgrange loathed trade teams and felt they corrupted his race. Since the race’s inception he had tried to negate the effect of teams and domestiques (a term Desgrange invented) but in the end he had to surrender to the fact that massed-start bicycle road racing is a sport contested by teams and won by individuals.
It all came to a head in the 1929 Tour. Maurice Dewaele took the Yellow Jersey after the 323-kilometer stage 10 trip through the Pyrenees. His lead of nearly 15 minutes looked nearly unassailable. But as the Alps loomed, Dewaele fell ill. He was so sick that at one point he couldn’t eat solid food. He was pushed and dragged over the remaining stages by his teammates. More importantly, it seemed that a fix was in. Dewaele in his fragile state was extremely vulnerable to the attacks that never came. Astonishingly, he arrived in Paris still in yellow.
“A corpse has won,” lamented a miserable Desgrange who was convinced that something had to be done to protect the fundamental honesty of the Tour.
What he did was extraordinary. He dispensed with the detested trade teams and instead, put the riders in national squads. There was a French team, an Italian team, one for Belgium, etc. Since the bike makers had a 3-week publicity blackout, they refused to pay the substantial expenses of housing, feeding and transporting the riders. Again, Desgrange did the unexpected. He came up with the publicity caravan. Companies would pay the Tour for the privilege of driving their logo’d trucks and cars in front of the race. The national teams are gone, but the publicity caravan remains.
The effect of this realignment was huge. Instead of being scattered among many teams, the best French riders were now on one team. In 1930, the best stage racers in the world were the French, with the Belgians and Italians formidable but on a slightly lower level.
The early 1930s Team France has to be considered one of the greatest sports dynasties in history. They won 5 straight Tours with 3 different riders. That is a bench with depth. In 1930, the national team format’s first year, they not only won the Tour, they put 6 riders in the top ten in the overall, and team member Charles Pélissier won 8 stages.
Here’s the core of the team:
André Leducq: He won 5 stages in the 1929 Tour and went on to win a total of 25 stages. That remained the record until Merckx won 34. He won the Tour in 1930 and 1932. This was a man with talent. He had been world amateur champion and had won Paris-Roubaix in 1928 and would take Paris-Tours in 1931.
Antonin Magne: He won the tour in 1931 and 1934. Magne was the world pro road champion in 1936 and won the Grand Prix des Nations, then the unofficial world time trial championship, in 1934, ’35, an ’36.
Charles Pélissier: Charles was brother to 1923 Tour winner Henri and the capable but not outstanding Francis (who found later that he was a far better team manager than racer). Pélissier won those 8 stages in the 1930 Tour, which included the final 4 legs of the race. In 1931 he won 4 stages. Pélissier wasn’t part of the 1932 team (he would return in 1933) but Georges Speicher was. Speicher won the Tour and the world road championship in 1933 as well as the 1936 Paris-Roubaix. Also a member of the 1932 squad was Roger Lapébie. He won 5 stages in the 1934 Tour before going of to win the 1937 edition.
We can’t forget some of the other French team members:
Maurice Archambaud: magnificent against the clock but too heavy to win the Tour. He wore yellow but could never seal the deal, losing too much time in the high mountains. Nevertheless, he was an important contributor to the team’s success.
René Vietto: His story of giving up his wheel to allow Magne to win in 1934 when Vietto might very well have won the race himself is one of the legends of the Tour. This was a team that acted as one for a common goal. Vietto ended up wearing Yellow more than any man who didn’t win the Tour. He was one of the greatest climbers in the history of the sport, but both his knees and his time trialing would let him down when it mattered.
The French team was not only talented, it had a magnificent esprit de corps. When Leducq crashed descending the Galibier and thought his chances of winning the 1930 Tour were over, they rallied his spirits and dragged him up to the leaders and led him out for the stage win.
1934 was Team France’s last year of glory when it won 19 of the 23 stages. That is dominance writ large.
Cycling historian Jean-Paul Ollivier thinks the 1933 French team was the greatest assemblage of pre-war cycling talent ever. I think one could pick any or all of the 1930’s Tour teams as the best, and with the exception of the 1908 Peugeot team, one could hardly go wrong.
And then the magic ended. In 1935 Magne crashed out of the Tour and although Pélissier raced the 1935 edition, it was as an independent rider, not part of Team France. With the absence of the leadership these two riders gave the team, the magnificent cohesion that had allowed the French to steamroller their opposition evaporated. Romain Maes of Belgium mercilessly took the French and the rest of the peloton apart. Second-place Ambrogio Morelli of Italy finished almost 18 minutes behind. The best-placed French rider was Speicher, at 54 minutes and 29 seconds.
The only time the French would win the Tour again before the war was in 1937, and the tainted officiating in favor of the French and Lapébie still smells.
The French would come back to dominate the Tour de France during golden age of racing, the 1950s (and beyond), with Louison Bobet ( winner in 1953, ’54, ’55), Roger Walkowiak (1956) and Jacques Anquetil (1957, ’61, ’62, ’63 and ’64).
Image: John Pierce, Photosport International
Bill McGann is best known to the cycling world as the former proprietor of Torelli Imports. These days he spends his time writing about cycling and has two excellent volumes on the Tour de France to his credit.
Discussions of the strength of the 2009 Astana squad regularly bring up mention of the great teams of the past. The most commonly cited “greatest team ever” is the 1986 La Vie Claire team of Bernard Hinault and Greg LeMond. Padraig put forward a strong case for this argument.
But hold on. Let’s not forget the LeMonds and Hinaults of the more distant past. I would like to submit 2 Tour teams for consideration for the “Greatest Ever” trophy.
The sport was different then. The bikes were fixed-gear, lugged, mild-steel affairs with terrible brakes. The stages were staggeringly long, sometime approaching 400 kilometers. This put an emphasis on endurance rather than speed. Stages would start before sunrise because they could take 13 or more hours to complete. There was another joker in the deck. Early Tour riders had to perform their own repairs. Broke a spoke? Replace it yourself. Got a flat tire? Repair it yourself. Broke a fork? Go to a blacksmith’s shop and fix the fork yourself. And don’t you dare let anyone help you, even by working the bellows, or you’ll be penalized.
Yet, for all those differences, they were the same as us. Riders then were dedicated athletes who trained hard and rode at the very limits of their abilities. They were revered and idolized by sports fans. The crowds along the roads then, like now, were huge. In 1908 there was one team that stood above all others of the time, and perhaps above all others for all time, Peugeot.
On that team was the 1907 Tour winner, Lucien Petit-Breton. I believe he is the most complete rider of the pre-World War One era, often labeled by cycle historians as the “heroic” or “pioneer” era. He could sprint, climb, descend and roll along the flat for hours. He was the first racer to win the Tour de France twice.
Also on the 1908 Peugeot team:
François Faber (1909 Tour and 1913 Paris-Roubaix winner),
Georges Passerieu (2nd 1906 Tour, 1st 1907 Paris–Roubaix),
Emile Georget (won 6 stages in the 1907 Tour, but only came in third that year because he was penalized for an illegal bike change),
Henri Cornet (awarded victory in the 1904 Tour after a great cheating scandal resulted in the disqualification of the 4 riders ahead of him),
Hippolyte Aucouturier (winner of 1903 and 1904 Paris–Roubaix, 2nd in the 1905 Tour de France and owner of the finest handlebar mustache in cycling history),
Jean-Baptiste Dortignacq (3rd in the 1905 Tour and the first foreign winner of a stage in the Giro),
Gustave Garrigou (2nd in 1907 and 1908 Tours de France and Tour winner in 1911), and
Georges Paulmier (would go on to win 2 stages in the Tour).
Nearly all of the riders on the Peugeot team were outright champions, men who today would command their own teams.
What did this outstanding group of men accomplish in the 1908 Tour de France?
They won every single stage. All 14 of them.
Peugeot also took the first 4 places in the General Classification, plus 6th and 8th place.
They weren’t racing against a bunch of chumps. Among the other superb riders contesting the 1908 Tour, Italy’s finest were entered: Luigi Ganna, (1909 Giro winner), Giovanni Cuniolo, Luigi Chiodi, Giovanni Gerbi and Giovanni Rossignoli. Forgotten today, they were magnificent athletes. Peugeot’s beating them all was no small accomplishment.
No team has ever equaled that record. I daresay no team has ever come close.
Coming, the French National team of the early 1930s.
Image: John Pierce, Photosport International