Tuesdays With Wilcockson #5

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?


Follow me on Twitter: @johnwilcockson

Images: John Pierce, Photosport International

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  1. Jesus from Cancun

    This brings to mind a video mix made by TVAzteca a few years ago, the Sunday the Tour was over. It was made with shots of the drama and greatest moments of the first Tour Contador won, to the tune of Aerosmith’s ‘Dream On’.
    Got goosebumps back then.

    And also, when RAI began their daily transmisions of the Giro with a blend of vintage shots and modern helicopter scenic views, then some dramatic face close ups, and ending with a 360 of my favorite trophy ever, all along with Pavarotti…

    When the best emotions that sport and art give are blended together, we can reach Nirvana.

  2. Troutdreams

    The accordion seems to have lost it’s place or welcome sometime late in the last century. But pop music and dancers frankly sound annoying. I say bring back the squeeze box…and add a monkey marching alongside some local high school brass band playing live music. That’s a festival.

  3. juanjo

    What’s this got to do with anything?
    Surely something more relevant or meaningful can sping forth from the keyboards of JW??!!!

  4. chris

    It sounds good especially through dope dramas of this weekend
    music is welcome to release our minds as well as good reads thanks sir

  5. P Poppenjay

    My friend Brian will see Philip Glass at the Kauffman Center in Kansas City this month. Brian, not a bicyclist, says he can imagine Glass’s music appropriate for cycling, given its cadence and building.
    Padraig may know.

    1. Padraig

      Glass’ Einstein on the Beach could either be time trial heaven or hell depending on how you’re riding. Listening to Koyaanisqatsi while on a long climb could similarly either motivate or destroy. If it worked out for your mood, it would be terrific, but the miscalculation would be worse than being fired from a job you loved.

  6. sterlingbbiking

    I had the opportunity to ride the Flanders amature ride in 07, and O yeah I sang some Garth Brooks in the pack I was with…sure was interesting to hear all the different languges and all as I was getting pounded to death on those wonderful, historic cobbles. Also, the Polka band before Ghent walveghem was awesome!

  7. Frank Discussion

    Mr. Wilcockson:

    Now that Jeannie Longo’s house has been raided and EPO found, have you changed your mind about how her results are the product of her amazing professionalism? I remember back in the days of the Coors Classic when she got on the juice. Everyone started calling her Johnie Longo. I think you need to address this issue in light of your past comments in support of Longo.

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