The grimpeur of the pavé

With his third win in Paris-Roubaix this year, Tom Boonen joined some illustrious company in the three-time winner club, including Rik van Looy, Eddy Merckx, and Francesco Moser. He is now only one victory short of equalling ‘Mr Paris-Roubaix’ himself, Roger De Vlaeminck, but perhaps five wins is beyond even ‘Tornado Tom’.

The first three-time winner, though, was Octave Lapize who won in 1909, 1910, and 1911. Defying the idea that maturity and experience are essential on the cobbles, his win in 1909 was in his first race and he was aged just 21 years.

The glorious, must-have book ‘Paris-Roubaix: A Journey Through Hell’ (Velo Press) gives a great sketch of his character and his victories, made all the more entertaining by the translation from French that appears to preserve much of the evocative and romantic language no doubt found in the original, in the great tradition of myth-making French writing on cycling.

“In the peloton he always seemed to be where there was neither flint nor wind. Which is not to say the Lapize was a cheat or a wheel sucker. He simply made his rounds carrying a few trump cards. A graduate of the school of hard knocks, he was tough – a perfect candidate to win Paris-Roubaix.”

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Triumph for Lapize in 1909.

Lapize won in all conditions. In 1910 he had to overcome “two falls, a blowout, a broken saddle, and a twisted handlebar” and had one bike change. There were four challengers in the velodrome but he took the sprint to win. In 1911, his victory was more dominant: a “solitary romp” for the last 15 kilometres after the Belgian favourite, Van Hauwaert, suffered an untimely puncture.

‘A Journey Through Hell’ has journalist Alphonse Steines saying: “One can win Paris-Roubaix once by luck, maybe even twice at the most, but three lucky wins are impossible.” Prophetic words indeed!

As readers of this blog will know, Octave Lapize also won the Tour de France in 1910, probably the best year of his career. That edition of the Tour was the first one to take on the Pyrenees, with Steines having investigated possible routes for Henri Desgrange just that year.

And, as we know, Lapize was responsible for those most famous words, Vous êtes des assassins!, directed to Desgrange’s assistant, Victor Breyer, as Lapize struggled over the Col d’Aubisque.

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PR-winning legs and a big gear (Horton Collection)

Lapize went on to other wins, but was never on the podium for Paris-Roubaix or the Tour after 1911. Charles Crupelandt drafted behind him in the 1912 Paris-Roubaix to catch the leader, Gustave Garrigou (Crupelandt also won in 1914 and was the winner of stage 1 of the 1910 Tour that was actually from Paris to Roubaix). In 1911 it had been Garrigou, in winning the Tour that year, who prevented Lapize from another double win of Paris-Roubaix and the Tour de France.

He was not the first rider to win the double in one year, that honour going to French rider Louis Trousselier in 1905. And like many of his contemporaries (but not Garrigou and Crupelandt), Lapize did not survive World War 1; having joined the air force he was shot down over eastern France on, perhaps fittingly, July 14 – Bastille Day – in 1917.

But Lapize, described as “a mass of muscle, 1.65 metres tall and just 65 kilos [143 lbs]”, proved that he was a master of both the cobbles and the mountains – and can be remembered as the grimpeur of the pavé.

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No bookshelf should be absent this book.