The wind beneath my wings
We all remember when we were kids discovering the joys of riding a bicycle. Sometimes, with friends, we’d whistle a tune or sing songs as we pedaled along. Later, when I got into racing, I found that music was a helpful ally. In a race called The Circuit of Glyndebourne, held on a rolling course through the Sussex countryside on a bright spring day, I found myself humming The Four Seasons hit, “Rag Doll.” I began pushing my pedals to the tune’s metronomic beat, which continued to pound through my head as I went on a solo break. I was pumped, and I barely felt the pain that I should have been feeling.
Music has always played a big role in European bike racing. When I first saw the Tour de France, in 1963, I was watching from a hillside in Normandy when the leading vehicle in the publicity caravan arrived. It was a box-like Peugeot van, and sitting on the roof was the iconic French accordionist, Yvette Horner, playing romantic melodies for spectators at their picnic tables — Paris café music at its best. To this Englishman, it was all so appealingly French!
Horner played her accordion at the Tour for more than a dozen years; she also presented the yellow jersey at most of the finishes before performing at evening concerts in the stage towns. I was reminded of her a few years ago at a Tour stage in the Massif Central when we watched an outdoor screening of “Les Triplettes de Belleville,” the quirky animated film that features a 1950s’ Tour and accordion music by Roberte Rivette, a Horner caricature.
Today, the Tour’s publicity caravan is filled with piped pop music and disco dancers, while the brass band that performs on one of the custom floats is not actually using its trombones and trumpets — they’re just lip-synching. But a real oom-pah band does come from the Netherlands every year, jazzing the crowds at places like Dutch Corner on L’Alpe d’Huez. That band, made up of true cycling fans, also travels to events like the road and cyclocross world championships, where they help establish the party atmosphere that plays such a defining role in this sport.
In the 1970s and ’80s, opera was an integral part of cycling in Italy. RAI television used to open its Giro d’Italia coverage with an inspirational aria, perhaps Pavarotti singing Nessun Dorma from Puccini’s “Turandot,” while showing sepia scenes of Coppi and Bartali battling over cloud-covered mountains. And the Italian version of Radio Tour would play classical music for long stretches of races when there was no real action. During quieter moments of the Tour, one of my press-car colleagues, a passionate Catalan journalist from Barcelona, Miguel Utrillo, would entertain us with his own operatic outbursts, his favorite being a made-up song about a Pyrenean stage town: “Oooo-ooh, Saint Lary!”
Another indelible memory is Sean Kelly’s phenomenal time trial between his hometown of Carrick-on-Suir and Clonmel that won him the 1985 Nissan Classic; the video of his record-setting ride was later set to the hit song “Wind Beneath My Wings,” sung by Sheena Easton. The lyrics well described how the Irish regarded their Sean: “Did you ever know that you’re my hero … I could fly higher than an eagle, ’cause you are the wind beneath my wings.”
There’s also something truly uplifting about the dramatic fanfare-style refrain played before every single presentation at the Tour de France, bringing pomp and dignity to those jersey-awarding ceremonies. But the Tour’s most stirring moments come in Paris, when a military band regularly plays the winner’s national anthem.
After listening mostly to “La Marseillaise” or “La Brabançonne” through the late-1960s, ’70s and early-’80s, it was emotionally moving to hear “The Star-Spangled Banner” ring out for the first time in 1986, with Greg LeMond on the top step of the podium. Ironically, there have been no more French or Belgian winners since then, replaced by 10 victories for both the Americans and Spanish, and single breakthroughs for Ireland, Denmark, Germany and Italy. And then, last year for Cadel Evans, we heard the first rendition of “Advance Australia Fair”, unusually and joyfully performed by Aussie singing star Tina Arena.
What does the near-future hold? Maybe Andy Schleck will rightfully bring us Luxembourg’s “Ons Heemecht” for the first time since his countryman Charly Gaul won the Tour in 1958. Or perhaps there will be the first-ever win for a rider from eastern Europe, Africa, Asia or South America. I know that my personal collection won’t be complete until I hear the noble strains of Britain’s national anthem, “God Save The Queen,” echoing off the cobblestones of the Champs-Élysées.
Did anyone say Bradley Wiggins?
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Images: John Pierce, Photosport International
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!