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
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.