Vignettes

Selected vignettes from some of your author’s favourite cycling authors and books.

“For the stake of the combat is not to know who will defeat the other, destroy the other, but who will be subjugate the third common enemy: nature. Heat, cold, it is these excesses, and worse still their opposites, which the racer must confront with and even, inflexible movement; it is Earth’s resistance he must add to the resistance of objects…

“The severest ordeal that nature imposes on the racer is the mountain. The mountain: weight. Now to conquer the slopes and the weight of things is to allow that man can possess the entire physical universe. But this conquest is so arduous that a moral man must commit himself to it altogether; that is way – and the whole country knows this – the mountain stages are key to the Tour: not only because they determine the winner, but because they openly manifest the nature of the stake, the meaning of the combat, the virtues of the combatant.

“The end of the mountain stage is therefore the a condensation of the entire human adventure: there are winners… there are the unlucky ones… there is despair. There is self-control.

“Muscle does not make the sport: that is the evidence of the Tour de France. Muscle, however, precious, is never more than raw material. It is not muscle that wins. What wins is a certain idea of man and of the world, of man in the world. This is the idea that man is fully defined by his action, and man’s action is not to dominate other men, it is to dominate things.”

— Roland Barthes, What Is Sport?, 1960.

“Although Barthes wrote as a fascinated outsider, the Tour had just acquired the greatest of all its chroniclers from the inside. Antoine Blondin was a dazzlingly gifted writer, as can be seen in novels like Un singe un hiver (A Monkey in Winter), a sardonic reactionary contemptuous of the leftist domination of French intellectual life, a self-destructive boozer, and a passionate devotee of the Tour. His dispatches for the Equipe from 1954 to 1982, apart from showing how well a man can write even when half drunk half the time, are an uncommon example of truly fine sports writing.”

— Geoffrey Wheatcroft, Le Tour: A History of the Tour de France, 2003.

“During the Tour I met the writer Antoine Blondin at several receptions. He never interviews anybody, but just records his impressions of what he’s seen and what he feels. Sometimes René Fallet was with him. They both love the Tour and, in simple language, they turn it into a modern epic, a troubador’s song, a crusade, as they describe its beauty. The most banal event becomes significant to Blondin: he has only to see it and write about it. He raised the status of the Tour by giving it his own cachet; it became a myth to be renewed every year. No matter how predictable the race he could maintain the interest in it.

“The only thing I won [at the Classico RCN in Colombia in 1986] was the time trial in which, over 2,600 metres up, I was delighted when I beat Herrera. The Colombians excel in such conditions but when it came to the Tour de France and the return match it was my turn to lay down the law. The same riders who had beaten me in the mountains were crucified on the flat. When they reached the Pyrenees and the Alps they had no strength left. We made them ride against the wind without letting them shelter so, when they reached the passes, they’d lost their strength in battles they weren’t used to. When they were worn out I took my revenge. Being an excellent climber isn’t enough to win the Tour. You need to stay with the pace on the flat and to survive the time trials. Perhaps a Colombian will win the Tour one day, just as Martin Ramirez won the 1984 Dauphiné to become the first Colombian winner of a European stage race. When it happens I shall be very happy for the winner and for Colombia.”

— Bernard Hinault, Memories of the Peloton, 1989.

“Not everybody was pleased with the way Laurent Fignon had mocked Bernard Hinault after the climb to L’Alpe-d’Huez, but Fignon seemed to believe that if you couldn’t kick a man when he was down, when could you kick him? Even while he talked offhandedly and modestly about himself, he was unable to skip an opportunity to needle his rival. “I don’t know if I’m becoming one of the great riders,” he told an interviewer, “but I do know that it all ends one day. Look at Bernard. Two years ago they called him unbeatable.

“Nobody was will to confirm it, but the rumor said that as the pack began to climb the 2,640-metre high Col du Galibier, the struggling Hinault had been jeered by riders who recalled with bitterness his breakaways on the road to Bordeaux, to Blagnac, and to L’Alpe-d’Huez. Another version of the rumor went that they had not so much mocked him as tried to shame him into not attacking and allowing the pack to have a paced, uneventful day.

“Nobody need have worried on the way up. Hinault was in trouble, reaching the top in fortieth place, 3 minutes 50 seconds behind the leaders, including Fignon, who was having another splendid day. He climbed like a sightseer, he said later, taking time to admire the grand view across the top of the Alpine world. In a car following the riders, all the clichés were uttered: The Pyrenees are lovely mountains, human in their scale, but the Alps are truly majestic, dominating, forcing man to feel insignificant.”

— Samuel Abt, Breakaway: On the Road with the Tour de France, 1985.

“On the first mountain stage of 1976, finishing at Alpe d’Huez, Zoetemelk and Poulidor used a double chain wheel of 42-53 and six rear sprockets of from thirteen to twenty-three teeth. Van Impe and Romero, on the other hand, had chain wheels of 44-52, and when Romero made his attack to chase the leaders he used a ratio of 44×21, or 44×19 in the harder sections. I’m not suggesting that I counted the teeth as I passed; this information was contained in an advertisement by Maillard, maker of the most fashionable freewheel in the Tour. (Freewheels are compulsory; if a fixed rear wheel were used the pedals might touch the ground in cornering and cause dreadful carnage.) Nor do I think in themselves the gear ratios are of any interest except to a specialist. But to the kind of person who just rides a bike to get somewhere, it might come as a surprise that cycling can even be considered in these terms.

“In fact the racing bike, for all that it has retained the basic simplicity of Starley’s design, is an instrument of high refinement: a single lens reflex compared with the box cameras most of us grew up with. For all that its chief fascination remains, that it’s the only form of transport with an engine that can think for itself, act on impulse, show courage and alarm and suffer from loss of morale.”

–Geoffrey Nicholson, The Great Bike Race, 1978.

“The sport I saw took place in a social backwater, in a landscape of industrial blight. And it was the notion of that sub-proletariat, that class of the forgotten-about, the dispossessed, that gave cycling its charm, its coherence. Seem from within the ghetto, the racers had something epic, colossal, about them. They were “giants of the road”, men who on their fantasy bicycles transcended the great mountains. And the mountains, as everyone knew, were not far from the abyss with all its temptations, it criminality. It was a sport in which scandal and achievement were constantly mixed. There was this fine line and we all watched, fascinated, by how each in turn negotiated it.

“This ghetto base did not keep cycling from being a sport created by writers from the sporting tabloids; people who knew their “Iliad”, their classical mythology. And with the freest of brushes they painted a sport that was truly like nothing else, based as it was on sheer hyperbole. But there was a challenge it it as well. Either a race flabbergasted our imaginations, or it didn’t. Those that did, like the Tour, or Paris-Roubaix, survived. And many did, enough to sustain and eight-month season.

“It was this ghetto base and the heady verbal mix that went with it that drew us. And it was why the sport came into its own in the mountains. Here was racing that we could actually see, for an hour or so as one then another struggling member of the peloton passed us, the living myth, cartoon reality at its richest, its most haggard. And it is what I believe has changed most in recent years. The television camera cannot show the steepness of the road, what it means to be dragging your carcass uphill, against all that gravity. And it’s no accident that the Tours keep being decided in time trials, on the flat, and which keep getting longer. It makes for riveting television watching. But it is not quite the same as being up there yourself, stoned, with a picnic basket, weeping, taking it all in: the melting roads, the snow, the frantic figures with their hoses and buckets and merciful hands, and the poor, gaunt, blasted figures themselves, who have ridden up into this hell, this paradise.”

— Robin Magowan, Tour de France: The Historic 1978 Event, 1979.