The Tour de France’s promotional caravan has been part of the race’s spectacle longer than most of us have been alive. In an age when terms like “leverage” and “ROI” had yet to be invented, the promotional caravan gave the Tour’s organizers a way to “monetize” the race and generate revenue from more than just the sale of newspapers.
For more than 10 years in the 1950s and ’60s, one of the Tour’s most distinctive attractions was an accordion-playing woman named Yvette Horner. The Serbian immigrant serenaded the bystanders and played at the podium presentation following each stage.
During the 2010 Tour the Amaury Sport Organization resurrected her Peugeot van that ferried her through each stage. The van was turned into a monument to her. Inside there are photos of her with Tour greats as well as shots of her playing her accordion while wearing the sombrero that became the trademark of her look.
Taped to the dash of the Peugeot is a shot of Horner with Louison Bobet.
Horner is said to have been a particular favorite of Bobet’s; there are numerous photographs of them together. She saw 11 Tours, from ’52 to ’64.
The shot above is from 1961 and Horner is present as the Tour’s father, Jacques Goddet, congratulates Jean Gainche, the wearer of the green jersey for most of the ’61 Tour, though Andre Darrigade would wear the jersey in Paris.
Before the Peugeot van was commissioned, Horner was ferried in a Citroen Traction Avant, seen above. Here presence was initially sponsored by Calor, a maker of electric irons, hair dryers, space heaters and other household appliances. Later, she was sponsored by Suze, a bitter aperitif.
For those who appreciated the pastiche elements of “The Triplets of Belleville,” Horner was immortalized in the accordioniste Rosie Riviere (a play on “Rosie the Riveter”), and Citroen’s Traction Avant was the basis for the car the gangsters drove during Madame Souza and Champion’s great escape. The Traction Avant was a front-wheel drive car, which is the basis for the joke of why the cars lost traction and flipped over backward on the steep hills of Belleville.
And while it might seem that Horner should have faded from both memory and history, CDs of her albums can be found on Amazon. She could play!
Cycling provides all the big lessons in life: humility, pride, greed, discipline, grappling with ego, and learning what your will is and when to apply it and how to apply it.
It has been said often, to the point of being cliché that if anything is worth doing, it is worth doing well. Perhaps it is also worthy to consider it this way, when we take on a commitment, it merits doing with all your will and all the might that lies within. For the most part I believe we do this. For example, when we look at commitments to profession, we consider the obligations involved. When we look at having children and a family, we regard the time it will take and weigh within the balance its value. When we look at little things like what we eat, we take into account fine details. However, all too often and interestingly, this same truth does not necessarily hold true for cycling, something held so near and dear to us.
One reason I believe we become removed from a true consideration of the discipline of cycling is partly due to something inherent to the bike itself, we generally start when we are children. When I started cycling more than 30 years ago, I thought so very little about it. It seemed so natural to ride. I knew nothing else; after all, I was just 8 years old at the time. It was love at first ride—and every—ride. Then as I grew up, I thought no more about it. It was my freedom and it gave me a sense of the world around me. Everything about the bike was given to me, so expense meant nothing. But, just a few years later this would all change.
As a college freshman, now riding a Peugeot which I hand picked, I then bought a few items at a time, being constrained by the budget of a college freshman. Then a new wife, new family, and the price I could afford at this time meant pursuing good deals, slightly used items and basement deals on the side that fueled my infatuation. And the fact remains that I never really considered the cost of my pursuit nor the sacrifice of being a cyclist. I bought only based on the cost, and only cheap. My clothing at the time was to be abhorred, my shoes were disgusting, my helmet simply atrocious. I had no sense of style not to mention dedication to the sport, and admittedly, most of my riding compatriots were the same. But this one thing was true, we sometimes would witness an occasional rider who rode among us that instantly drew some respect; simply by the gear he chose, it stated without hesitation that he was a cyclist. They were committed cyclists and we would joke amongst ourselves and ask ‘how much that must have run him?’
Then I bought my first Giordana bib shorts, and instantly recognized that there really was something different about them. After my first century in them, and no ‘monkey butt’, I swore I was never going back. Then my first Assos jersey, then my first good helmet and similarly my experience was equally impressive of the simplicity for which it flawlessly performed the task it was designed for. I then stepped up a level w/the grouppo, moving from downtube shifting to an STi grouppo, which seemed like a leap of faith. Despite my hesitations, I was impressed with the new grouppo’s function. I regretted not getting it sooner. Each time then that I donned that jersey, each time I threw a leg over the bike and slipped through the gears I was reminded why I bought the ‘better’ quality item.
One would think I would have matured by this time, and that this experience would bring about an appreciation for the discipline of cycling for which I admired. But it did not. I was still yet at a neophyte’s level. I still had no sense of sacrifice. For me, the sport was like a girl I had once dated—and liked—but never would fully commit to. I was holding back for some reason. I truly believe we appreciate a little more those items in our lives that we sacrifice for and entirely commit to. Each time we use those items, we remember their value to us. And because for years I would scout out ‘good deals’ and would only bargain for goodies, I lacked an appreciation for the true value of something I held dearly. Cycling was the girlfriend waiting for me to grow up.
Then just a couple of years ago, I had a total mindset change. This was prompted after something I took notice of, and it hit me with the subtlety of a gorilla wielding sledge-hammer across my forehead. I commute nearly every day and as you know, gas a couple of years ago was very expensive. The price of gas was nearly $4 per gallon. Commuting by bike was becoming quite popular as a very economic way to go back and forth to work, and because of that ‘cost savings’ I saved perhaps a few hundred dollars that summer, no doubt. Nearly everyday as I conducted business, people would say ‘boy, you sure must save a lot riding by bike’. I responded affirmatively, that indeed it did. Then it hit me, is that why I ride? Am I a cyclist to only save money? Is that the purpose of cycling? I ride all the time and nearly everyday, but commuting simply brought this out for me, should it even save me money?
Then I started thinking, and I started to ask myself very fundamental questions. Have I counted the cost of my discipleship to cycling? Do I sacrifice? Do I return to cycling the respect it deserves or is it a cheap date I am on? I asked myself, have I truly counted what must be forfeited for the love of my life, or have I only calculated in the arbitrary value of dollars what a price tag reads? I found this to hold a critical difference. I was then logically led to ask what I would do if cycling asked of me far more to ride than even driving a car, what if it was 10 times as expensive? Would I still be a cyclist?
Well, answering in the affirmative, I then had to make a change in my attitude and my entire frame of mind. I had to stop dealing with cycling like I had in the past and I had to throw out my cheap date attitude. I started truly pouring myself out when it was about the bike, thus recognizing the true value it holds in my life. I stopped looking at the price of everything I bought and I began simply working to the ends of obtaining what I need to cycle. I buy the best I can because my girl deserves it.
Bill McGann is best known to the cycling world as the former proprietor of Torelli Imports. These days he spends his time writing about cycling and has two excellent volumes on the Tour de France to his credit.
Discussions of the strength of the 2009 Astana squad regularly bring up mention of the great teams of the past. The most commonly cited “greatest team ever” is the 1986 La Vie Claire team of Bernard Hinault and Greg LeMond. Padraig put forward a strong case for this argument.
But hold on. Let’s not forget the LeMonds and Hinaults of the more distant past. I would like to submit 2 Tour teams for consideration for the “Greatest Ever” trophy.
The sport was different then. The bikes were fixed-gear, lugged, mild-steel affairs with terrible brakes. The stages were staggeringly long, sometime approaching 400 kilometers. This put an emphasis on endurance rather than speed. Stages would start before sunrise because they could take 13 or more hours to complete. There was another joker in the deck. Early Tour riders had to perform their own repairs. Broke a spoke? Replace it yourself. Got a flat tire? Repair it yourself. Broke a fork? Go to a blacksmith’s shop and fix the fork yourself. And don’t you dare let anyone help you, even by working the bellows, or you’ll be penalized.
Yet, for all those differences, they were the same as us. Riders then were dedicated athletes who trained hard and rode at the very limits of their abilities. They were revered and idolized by sports fans. The crowds along the roads then, like now, were huge. In 1908 there was one team that stood above all others of the time, and perhaps above all others for all time, Peugeot.
On that team was the 1907 Tour winner, Lucien Petit-Breton. I believe he is the most complete rider of the pre-World War One era, often labeled by cycle historians as the “heroic” or “pioneer” era. He could sprint, climb, descend and roll along the flat for hours. He was the first racer to win the Tour de France twice.
Also on the 1908 Peugeot team:
François Faber (1909 Tour and 1913 Paris-Roubaix winner),
Georges Passerieu (2nd 1906 Tour, 1st 1907 Paris–Roubaix),
Emile Georget (won 6 stages in the 1907 Tour, but only came in third that year because he was penalized for an illegal bike change),
Henri Cornet (awarded victory in the 1904 Tour after a great cheating scandal resulted in the disqualification of the 4 riders ahead of him),
Hippolyte Aucouturier (winner of 1903 and 1904 Paris–Roubaix, 2nd in the 1905 Tour de France and owner of the finest handlebar mustache in cycling history),
Jean-Baptiste Dortignacq (3rd in the 1905 Tour and the first foreign winner of a stage in the Giro),
Gustave Garrigou (2nd in 1907 and 1908 Tours de France and Tour winner in 1911), and
Georges Paulmier (would go on to win 2 stages in the Tour).
Nearly all of the riders on the Peugeot team were outright champions, men who today would command their own teams.
What did this outstanding group of men accomplish in the 1908 Tour de France?
They won every single stage. All 14 of them.
Peugeot also took the first 4 places in the General Classification, plus 6th and 8th place.
They weren’t racing against a bunch of chumps. Among the other superb riders contesting the 1908 Tour, Italy’s finest were entered: Luigi Ganna, (1909 Giro winner), Giovanni Cuniolo, Luigi Chiodi, Giovanni Gerbi and Giovanni Rossignoli. Forgotten today, they were magnificent athletes. Peugeot’s beating them all was no small accomplishment.
No team has ever equaled that record. I daresay no team has ever come close.
Coming, the French National team of the early 1930s.
Image: John Pierce, Photosport International