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
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.