Someone asked me the other day at the Tour de France what was my favorite climb of all in this phenomenally beautiful country. I said, they’re all great. But I do have a soft spot for the western slopes of the Col du Tourmalet, which this year’s peloton will tackle on Thursday’s stage from Pau to Luchon (and which the brave Rêve Tour women are riding as I write these words).
There are many reasons for my infatuation with the Tourmalet but the main one is: It was the first mountain pass I ever climbed. That would be on my first visit to France, in the summer of ’63, when I joined up with the Tour route in Normandy, saw Jacques Anquetil win the time trial at Angers, watched the peloton racing through the Landes pine forest south of Bordeaux and, after covering more than a thousand kilometers in five days, set up my tent in the dark at a campground near Tarbes.
I carried my tent, maps, clothes and tools in a full saddlebag, just as I did when climbing the hills of England, Scotland and Wales on previous cycle tours. British climbs are nearly always steep, with grades of between 10 and 30 percent, but they’re rarely longer than a mile or two, or more than a thousand feet in elevation. So I could only imagine what it would be like to ride the Tourmalet, which goes uphill for 33 kilometers and summits at 6,969 feet above sea level. That’s 2,500 feet higher than Ben Nevis, Britain’s highest mountain peak!
When I left the French campground on my way to the Tourmalet, a thick mist covered the cornfields and hid the Pyrénées. As I passed through the pilgrims’ city of Lourdes (where I’m tapping these words out today), I knew the mountains were ahead of me. But it was still foggy, and I didn’t know what to expect as I entered a deep canyon, the Gorge de Luz, at the village of Pierrefitte-Nestalas. With the opaque, fast-flowing waters of the Gave River to my right, and near-vertical thousand-foot cliffs to my left, I began the long ascent.
Partway up the gorge, where the cliffs eased back, the swirling mists suddenly parted, and as I looked up I saw an azure sky and, for the first time in my life, a chain of rugged, snow-tipped mountain peaks. It was a stunning snapshot, and one I can clearly recall almost a half-century later. Although it was still early morning, the road was closed to motor traffic because the Tour riders would be coming up this canyon later in the day, preceded by the publicity caravan. Thousands of fans who’d driven in overnight were already in place and it was nice to receive their applause as the gradients slowly got steeper.
I stopped in Luz-St. Sauveur to stock up with a baguette, local goat cheese, fresh apricots, water and the morning newspapers— which provided details of the Tour’s 10th stage. This valley town of white-stone houses with black-slate roofs is the official start of the Tourmalet’s 19 kilometers and 4,656 vertical feet of climbing at an average grade of 7.4 percent. Those harsh statistics don’t reveal just how tough a climb this is. In recent times, the road has been resurfaced and re-engineered in places, but in 1963 it was narrow, with a much rougher surface. Certainly not an easy climb.
I struggled on the steeper, 9- to 10-percent pitches before reaching the village of Barrèges, a third of the way up this “official” section. It was villagers from this remote community who, on a winter’s night in early 1910, went searching for Tour de France official Alphonse Steinès, who was scouting the Tourmalet to see if it was suitable for inclusion in the Tour for the first time. He’d been driven up the other side of the climb until his car was stopped by a blizzard some four kilometers from the top as night fell. Steinès, wearing town shoes and a formal top coat, trudged on through the snow on what was then a stony goat path.
His chauffeur retraced and looped back via Lourdes to drive up the western side of the Tourmalet as far as Barrèges. Here, he organized a search party, and they headed toward the summit, some 12 kilometers up the pass. The lanterns they carried helped guide Steinès to safety by 3 in the morning. The next day, the assistant sent a telegram to his boss in Paris, race director Henri Desgrange, saying: “Crossed Tourmalet. Very good road. Perfectly practicable. Steinès.”
Fifty-three years after Steinès’s epic walk, and a few hours before the 50th editions of the Tour reached the Tourmalet, I carried on riding as far as I could on my bottom gear of 44×24. But like the Tour men of 1910, who nearly all walked to the summit, I had to dismount and push my bike for a couple of kilometers before reaching the best spot to see the race. By coincidence, I met some friends from another English cycling club here. We picnicked together, sitting on a grassy slope, where the road doubled back on itself over the Pont de la Gaubie—a famous stone bridge that has recently been bypassed with a modern road leading to a new ski station.
Our reward for riding up to this point on what was now a hot, sunny afternoon, was seeing the decisive move of the 1963 Tour. At this point, nine kilometers from the top, four men rode away from the splintered peloton: French stars Anquetil and Raymond Poulidor and Spanish riders Federico Bahamontes and José Perez-Frances. As the 108 survivors continued to pass us over the next 25 minutes or so, we heard on my little transistor radio that Bahamontes, a fabulous climber, take the KoM. The four leaders regrouped on the descent to the finish in Bagnères-de-Bigorre, where Anquetil sprinted to the stage win.
After seeing those Giants of the Road battling on the Tourmalet, I was inspired to ride the rest of the col at a decent pace, climbing on a shelf road along a precipice and up to almost 7,000 feet. Then came the thrill of my first true mountain descent—aided by the weight of a packed saddlebag. I stayed that night in a youth hostel at Campan before seeing the Tour again the next day on the Col d’Aspin and before getting caught in a thundering rainstorm.
A week later, after riding from the Pyrénées to the Alps, I saw Anquetil win another mountain stage and take the yellow jersey after out-sprinting Bahamontes in the rain at Chamonix. Anquetil would arrive in Paris to take his fourth Tour victory, 3:35 ahead of Bahamontes, with Perez-Frances in third at 10:14.
Since then the Tourmalet has been climbed 37 more times during the Tour, including the first stage finish on the summit two years ago, which marked the centenary of the first crossing by the Tour—and by the intrepid Alphonse Steinès! So, yes, I have a soft spot for the Tourmalet. Besides being as challenging climb as you’ll ever make, it has one of the most beautiful panoramas you’ll ever see of snow-spiked peaks that I first saw on my memorable first adventure to La Route du Tour all those years ago.
Follow me on Twitter: @johnwilcockson
Image: John Pierce, Photosport International
I hadn’t planned on doing a second review of Rapha products right on the heels of my first, and it might not be fair to insert them into the current controversy with Lance Armstrong, but I suspect everyone knows which line of the sand they’re on.
If you be hatin’ on Tour winners who doped, hit the “back” button now.
If you’re over that and dig cool designs that draw their inspiration from the five most successful of the Tour de France champions, you gotta check these shirts out.
The creators-that-be at Rapha noticed a little something one day in discussing previous Tour champions. For each of the last five decades the rider who won the race in a year ending in the number two went on to win the race four other times … at least. Armstrong was the victor in ’02. Miguel Indurain was the man in ’92. Bernard Hinault takes the honors for ’82. In ’72 it was Eddy Merckx, of course, And ’62? That was the great Jacques Anquetil. The shirts, then, are dubbed the Cinq Decennies de Champions—the five decades of champions.
So will this year’s victor enjoy a similar streak? Who knows? We’re not going to settle that this month … or even this year.
The world is full of crappy T-shirts with barely more thought afforded to their design than the garden-variety reality show. These shirts are the West Wing of T-shirts. Witty, smart, insider and aimed at those invested in the whole series, each of the creations speaks to the history of the rider. The shirt colors evoke the designs of their best-recalled teams. Better yet, at the top of the back of each shirt, a small icon appears. The The icons recall details like Indurain’s legendarily low resting heart rate or, in the case of Merckx, a variation on the skull and crossbones to recall his nickname, the Cannibal. And in another stroke meant to speak to the cycling roots behind these designs, the shirts sport a pocket, only it’s not a breast pocket; it’s in back, practically on the hip.
Rapha claims that the shirts are constructed of an ultra-wicking cotton. I can’t really speak to how well it wicks as I never wore it in a sauna (or outside when I went back to Memphis). What I can tell you is that they travel well. I’m not wild about pulling a shirt from a suitcase only to realize it’s too wrinkled to wear. Even after a there-and-back I noticed the Merckx shirt was prêt á porter.
At $60 a pop, these are the most expensive T-shirts I’ve ever encountered. Kinda no other way to slice it, huh? The flip side of this is calling these shirts T-shirts is something of an insult. Never in my life have I owned a T-shirt made from such a fine cotton. And if I could source a shirt this nice for the RKP designs, believe me, I’d consider it. These things are likely to become heirlooms in my family.
Should you wish to go in for the full collection, there’s good news. You can get all five shirts plus a stylish (like it would be anything else) musette bag for the price of four shirts—$240.
I’ve always liked the passion behind Rapha products, but these shirts may be the best marriage of their passion, design work and concept of quality I’ve seen.
Hailstones, snowstorms and survivors
I was taken aback last week when I heard about a field of pro racers coming to a halt during the opening stage of Argentina’s Tour de San Luis. It wasn’t because they had to stop for a train rumbling through a rail crossing; no, they stopped to seek shelter from a storm, one of heavy rain and hail.
Wait, I thought, aren’t bike racers supposed to carry on whatever the conditions, rain or shine? Next, they’ll be stopping because it’s too hot, or too cold, or maybe too windy! It wasn’t always so….
In my first multi-day race, the Easter Three-day on the Isle of Wight in southern England, we raced through a violent hailstorm. Within 10 minutes of hailstones hitting our bare arms, legs and heads (we didn’t wear helmets back then), the intact pack was reduced to about a dozen. That was perhaps the most unusual way I’ve ever gotten into a breakaway!
A couple of years after that, I took my bike to Italy to report the Tour of Sardinia, an early-season race that Tour de France champions Jacques Anquetil, Lucien Aimar and Jan Janssen were riding. They would all survive a true winter tempest of lightning, rain, hail and snow on a mountainside of that sparsely beautiful Mediterranean island. British rider Derek Harrison told me the peloton was slowed when an intense part of the storm covered the road an inch deep in golf-ball-sized hailstones, and Tour winner Janssen stopped several times to wipe his glasses clean and another time to scrounge a pair of woolen gloves.
That day, I climbed just ahead of the race to the 4,000-foot summit of the Arcu Correboi pass, where a well-muffled spectator gave me two swigs from a flask of Cognac before the riders arrived. As the hail turned to snow, a white blanket covered the bumpy road. And after the peloton passed, I began the steep descent, where the wind-blown snow stung my face. In order to see, I had to close one eye, leave the other half open and screw my head around at an angle.
My feet, hands and face were slowly freezing when suddenly a great booming sound came from behind, and a high wall of metal loomed into my peripheral vision. It was a snowplow. The driver waved me over, stopped, put my bike in the back of his truck and helped me into the heated cab. He dropped me off 10 miles later in the remote mountain town of Fonni, where a group of villagers crowded around this still-shivering stranger, and one of them took me and my bike into a bar to treat me to another tot of brandy!
I had a more frightening snowstorm experience in the mid-1980s after reporting the Étoile de Bessèges, a February stage race in southern France — where rookie American pro Thurlow Rogers from Southern California was shocked one day when the water in his bottles turned to ice. I covered the race by bike. The next day, I headed east on a back road through the Cévennes. As I gained elevation, the light snow grew in intensity, and fell so deep on the road that I had to dismount and push my luggage-laden bike as best I could; I’d gone too far to turn back.
There were no houses on that desolate plateau, and I hadn’t seen any vehicles since early in the day. I was having trouble navigating in the whiteout, and I was getting colder and colder, despite putting on all the extra clothing I could find in my panniers. What should have been a pleasant two-hour ride was turning into a never-ending trudge … perhaps I wouldn’t even make it.
The snow kept falling. And when the road began dropping toward a far valley, I hopped onto one pedal, scooting the bike, in the hope of getting to a village before I collapsed with hypothermia—well, that’s what was going through my mind after all those hours of plodding alone in that bleak, silent, snow-covered landscape.
Just as I was despairing of ever reaching civilization I spotted a truck moving in the far distance. It didn’t come my way, but when I reached where it had been, I found the road had been partially plowed. I was able to start riding (very slowly) again … and I did reach a village, where I stuffed myself with cookies and hot tea before continuing to a real town. I checked into a small inn and soaked in a hot, deep bathtub. Bliss.
As for the most memorable day of bad-weather bike racing I’ve witnessed, that came in 1988 at the Giro d’Italia — and I don’t think anyone told the peloton to stop racing when heavy rain turned to snow on the Passo di Gavia. I know how cold it was because the French journalist I was traveling with stopped his car on the 8,600-foot summit. We stood in snow being driven horizontally by fierce crosswinds and watched the racers climbing laboriously, one by one, through the blizzard.
I’ve written about that (truly) epic day many times: how first-man-to-the-top Johan Van der Velde was so cold he stopped and climbed into his team car, and stayed there for many long minutes, warming up and changing into dry clothes before continuing; how second-man-to-the-summit Andy Hampsten donned ski gloves and a balaclava before tracking a solo path through snow and fog on the treacherous, dirt-road descent, risking frostbite, before claiming the leader’s maglia rosa in the valley; how several riders went hypothermic; and how only a handful actually quit the race.
Bob Roll, who was one of the survivors, wrote a piece titled “The Day the Big Men Cried” for one of his books. Those big men weren’t stopped by a little hailstorm — as their counterparts were last week in Argentina.
That’s a somewhat harsh verdict on today’s peloton, so I was pleased to see a couple of tweets this past Sunday from pros training on the Spanish island of Mallorca. Former U.S national champion Ben King of RadioShack-Nissan wrote: “Miserable training! 4 degrees C, windy, pouring rain and hail, 2 hrs was the max that [we] could face … and I’m still numb.” World champ Mark Cavendish of Team Sky added: “My cheeks are red and stinging from a hail storm….” Yes. But better that than red from embarrassment.
Follow me on Twitter: @johnwilcockson
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.
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.
[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
The British have given us this expression “Elephant in the room” (also, according to Wikipedia, “elephant in the sitting room”, “elephant in the living room”, “elephant in the parlor”, “elephant in the corner”, “elephant on the dinner table”, “elephant in the kitchen”, and “elephant on the coffee table”). And regardless of which room or on what piece of furniture the aforementioned pachyderm has chosen to rest his weary bones, the point is that the elephant is there, obvious, in plain sight. And yet, no one wants to talk about the elephant.
For a century, doping has been the elephant in cycling’s living room. In the early years of continental competition, riders were frequently charged with having cheated by drinking brandy during stages of grueling races. Later, amphetamines and cortisone crept in, and many of cycling’s greats were believed to be “doped” in these ways, including Fausto Coppi, Eddy Merckx and Jacques Anquetil. In the 1967 Tour de France, Tom Simpson died on the side of the road on Mont Ventoux, after mixing amphetamines with alcohol; his witches’ brew foreshadowed the even crazier concoctions such as pot belge that were to come. The sense that doping is a problem in modern cycling only is a misconception.
This elephant has always made himself comfortable, either on the chaise longue or perched happily next to the ottoman.
The British gave us the expression, and the Spanish have given us Alejandro Valverde, the top-ranked cyclist in the world last year by the UCI. Valverde is that rarest of riders, a strong climber who can time trial AND sprint. To earn his top UCI ranking, he won Liège-Bastogne-Liège, the 2008 Critérium du Dauphiné Libéré and the Spanish National Road Race Championship. He won Grand Tour Stages and the Vuelta a Murcia. In 2009, he won the Dauphiné again.
Valverde, at 29, is at the peak of his powers. He may well win the Vuelta a España, where he is, at time of writing, wearing the leader’s golden jersey. But what will it mean for the rider known as the Bala Verde(Green Bullet) if he does win? What will it mean for his team, Caisse d’Epargne? And what will it mean for pro cycling? There remains an elephant in the peloton.
What follows are facts: 1) Valverde rode for the Kelme team from 2002-2004. 2) During that time, Kelme’s riders were being cared for by Dr Eufemiano Fuentes. 3) In 2006, Fuentes was arrested after a large cache of blood bags, suspected to contain the blood of doped athletes, was found in his Madrid clinic. 4) The resulting scandal, known as Operación Puerto, implicated dozens of riders in the pro peloton. 5) In 2009, the Italian Olympic Committee professed to have linked one of the bags of blood, labelled “valv.piti” to Valverde, and subsequently brought the Spaniard to Italy to face doping charges. 6) Valverde maintained his innocence, but was banned from competing in Italy for two years anyway, which caused him to miss the Tour de France. 7) Valverde has filed an appeal to the Court of Arbitration of Sport with the hope of overturning his Italian ban and clearing his name. 8) A Spanish judge has sealed the evidence in the Operación Puerto case, preventing both Italian and cycling authorities from moving forward with prosecutions of any implicated riders.
Judge Antonio Serrano, who has presided in often controversial fashion over the Puerto case, has hewn closely to the letter of the Spanish law. It seems that at the time of the raid on Fuentes’ clinic, the substances allegedly found in only a handful of the blood samples, were not in fact illegal in Spain. Serrano has, for that reason, closed the case against Fuentes and his co-defendants repeatedly. That the alleged doping agents are illegal under the laws of the UCI doesn’t trouble Serrano in the least. The thinking is that, since no laws were broken prior to the collection of the evidence, the evidence was seized unlawfully. Further, the handling of the blood by authorities has been problematic in its own right. The Italian Olympic Committee claims it has a bag of blood from Fuentes’ clinic and has matched it to Valverde. Quite how they got that blood, how it was handled and what jurisdiction they have over a Spanish rider involved in a closed Spanish court case are all questions hanging heavy in the air.
We know the following for sure: 1) The case against Valverde is largely circumstantial, because the blood in the bag alleged to be his has not been matched to a DNA sample submitted by the rider, and whether you believe his denials or not, he continues to ride, confident that he can clear his name. 2) While the Italian Olympic Committe, who take an active role in doping investigations in Italy, have banned him, the Spaniard has challenged their jurisdiction over his case, as any offenses purportedly occurred in Spain.
What follows is conjecture: 1) The UCI is said to be disappointed that the Spanish courts have sealed the case records, but it is entirely possible that they simply want to appear disappointed, because if, as suspected, the number and caliber of riders (close to 50) involved were all suspended, it would decimate the ProTour. 2) It is possible that Valverde was storing blood with Fuentes without having used it. He may have done what Ivan Basso eventually admitted to in the same Puerto case, which is “intending to dope.” 3) By continuing to ride and be tested, Valverde may be building a case for his innocence based on “clean” wins, that is, wins without positive dope tests. 4) If the Italians had actual proof, i.e. a DNA sample they could match to the bag of blood, then they presumably would have turned that evidence over to the UCI, which would effectively end Valverde’s efforts to clear himself. That the Italians haven’t done so, implies that their case is, in fact, only circumstantial.
If Valverde wins the Vuelta, there are two possible scenarios that could play out, each with drastically different consequences. First, it’s possible that a Valverde win will force all of this to be rehashed in the press, and perhaps more pressure will mount on the Spanish courts to release the case material, which would, of course unleash pandemonium, a pandemonium that’s been hibernating since 2006. This chain of events would take us back to Floyd Landis being stripped of his Tour de France win, of Michael Rasmussen being kicked out of the Tour while wearing the yellow jersey. It would indict the sport anew and quite possibly end Caisse d’Epargne and Valverde all in one fell swoop. It might put paid to the idea that the current testing program is sufficient. If Valverde, a rider many believe to have doped, can win without a positive, in competition test, then it’s fair to ask how effective the testing regime really is. Regardless, this is not what pro cycling needs, in what all of us hope is a new era of transparency and fairness.
Or, perhaps winning a Grand Tour without testing positive for EPO or CERA or testosterone or excess Nutella, will convince both the authorities and the fans that digging into the Puerto vault serves no real purpose. Valverde’s taken his lumps. Maybe he can move on now. Maybe we can all move on, forgiving dopers their past and celebrating the techniques and results of the teams who have taken on programs built around racing clean.
To be sure, someone, somewhere, at some point, is going to have to comprehensively address this latest elephant in the room. It remains to be seen whether the elephant will stand up and make his own presence felt, or whether he’ll simply slink out the back door leaving nothing but a vague odor and a deep dent in the couch.
Image: John Pierce, Photosport International