Thursday, 15 December 2011

Daily Cycling Facts 15.12.11

John Murphy (image credit: Jejecam CC BY-SA 3.0)
John Murphy, the BMC rider who became US National Criterium Champion in 2009, was born in Jacksonville, Florida on this day in 1984. His best results in 2011 have been 6th place finishes in the Skoda Velothon Berlin and Omloop van het Houtland.

On this day in 1928, Canterbury Velodrome in Sydney opened for training. It was the only board track in Australia and, with a pitch of 40 degrees, the steepest track in the country. Financial problems caused the track to close down in 1937 and it has been long since demolished.

Charles Holland
Charles Holland, who died on this day in 1989 at the age of 81, has been criminally almost forgotten except among cycling historians and the few fans left who were fortunate enough to have seen him race. He deserves much more because, with Bill Burl, he was the first British rider to ride in a Tour de France, competing in 1937.

Considering the thinly (and sometimes, not at all) veiled dislike the French organisers and fans often displayed towards foreign riders, Holland and Burl were welcomed with open arms - Holland still remembered how he had received a polite and warm response to his application to ride and that the organisers offered to pay all of their costs when he was interviewed towards the end of his life. But then, it almost didn't happen: in June, he caught his foot in a rabbit hole and fell, snapping a collar bone that had only recently healed following a crash at a track in Wembley earlier in the year. News of his accident reached France and were misunderstood, the two riders being somewhat to surprised to read in L'Auto just a fortnight before the race was to begin that neither of them would now be riding. They contacted Henri Desgrange for clarification and must have been very relieved the next day when he sent a telegram informing them that he was very happy to confirm their places.

When they arrived in France, things immediately took a turn for the worse. Neither man had ever met Pierre Gachon, a French-Canadian who would be riding with them to form a British Empire team before and neither man thought much of him when they did, finding him amateurish and, in Holland's opinion, unlikely to do well in "a second-class British event," never mind an undertaking such as the Tour. As a result, it might not have seemed particularly disastrous at the time when he abandoned during the first day. On Stage 2, a far greater disaster: Burl crashed and broke his own collarbone, forcing him to also abandon. Holland decided to continue alone.

He probably wouldn't have made it much further were it not for his considerable will and determination and, perhaps most of all, more French support. The French team (this was during the days of national teams rather than trade teams) understood that road racing had been banned by the British cycling federation and that Holland was inexperienced as a result, so they adopted him as a sort of mascot and let him stay with them in their hotels, fed him and even managed to provide him with mechanical assistance from their support van. It seems that the organisers no longer viewed him as favourably as they had, however - he revealed later that he had been left with the impression that they wanted him out of the race. We'll never know if this was because they had begun to fear he might do better than expected and make a hero of himself in the process or if it was down to Desgrange's pathological dislike of riders receiving assistance during the race because of what happened next.

On Stage 14c (the last of three stages on that one day), he punctured and, when he'd fitted his replacement tubular tyre, discovered that the seal in his pump had perished in the hot sun and left him unable to pressurise the tyre more than halfway, so he had to keep his speed low. Soon, he had two more punctures. He remembered that a crowd of spectators, peasants, crowded around him and tried to cheer him on but none could help further than that. The local priest brought him a bottle of cold beer which he gladly accepted and drank, assuming that his Tour was over. Then, a miracle - somebody showed up with a  tyre for him, but when he fitted it he was in such a hurry to inflate it that he bent the piston rod of his pump, rendering it useless. The peasants managed to find another one and the tyre was eventually inflated, but turned out to be such a loose fit on the wheel that the bike could not be ridden. Once again the peasants brought salvation, finding another tyre which turned out to be a better fit and he could finally set off - but he knew that he was now so far behind that he stood little chance of doing well. He recalled flagging down a press vehicle and asking for a lift to the finish, but they tried to persuade him from giving up and grabbed his jersey to pull him along. "I did not wish to finish this great race unless it was by my own efforts," he later said and finally, having ridden more than 3,200km, he called it a day and abandoned the race. No other British riders would enter for almost two decades.

The Second World War brought the Tour and most European events to a temporary close and, by the time it was over, Holland was both too old to continue as a professional and prevented by the arcane rules of the day to return to amateur competition. He used the money he had won as a rider to set himself up as a newsagent, started playing golf, at which he became quite successful, and rarely, if ever, mentioned his previous career. His two daughters, Nina and Frances, had seen some of his trophies but had no idea who their father had once been until 1962 when they attended a function at the Royal Albert Hall and he was invited up onto the stage to stand alongside Louison Bobet, Jacques Goddet and Brian Robinson, the man who had become the first British rider to win a Tour stage in 1958. in 2007, 18 years after he had died, they discovered a suitcase in the loft. Inside it were letters from fans, photographs and articles clipped from newspapers and magazines, medals and the jerseys from the Olympic Games in 1932 (when he won a bronze) and in 1936 (when he once saw Hitler pass underneath in an open-topped Mercedes as he rode over, musing in later life that had he only have had a brick he could have altered the course of history) and, most poignant of all, the jersey he wore in his Tour de France.

Jacques Goddet
The memorial to Jacques Goddet, high up on
Jacques Goddet, the second director of the Tour de France after a prostate operation and illness left Henri Desgrange too sick to continue (he would die four years after Goddet took over), died on this day in 2000. Goddet is credited with modernising and developing the race from its quaint beginnings to the world's largest sporting event (one of his first changes was to permit the use of derailleur gears which became standard on all bikes two years later after the Tour was won for the first time on a bike fitted with one), but even a brief history of the man cannot be complete without a look at his wartime activities. While he permitted the L'Auto presses to be used to produce pro-Resistance materal and pamphlets, his anti-Nazi credentials come under serious doubt: firstly, he seems to have personally supported Philippe Pétain who would become Chief Marshall of Vichy France (and who was sentenced to death after the war for treason and collaborating with the Nazis, though the sentence was reduced to life imprisonment on account of age) and produced some 1,200 articles in support of him.

Of course, Goddet may have been effectively signing his own death warrant had he have refused permission for this to happen; it has also been argued that a controlling interest in L'Auto's shares was owned by a consortium of German businessmen, in which case Goddet would have had very little say in the paper's editorial direction and might not in fact have personally supported Pétain at all. Far more damning meanwhile is the fact that before the war he had hired out his Vélodrome d'Hiver to be used for fascist meetings and then, when France was occupied, permitted it to be used by the Nazis for the temporary imprisonment of 13,000 French Jews who remained there in horrible conditions before being transferred to concentration camps - only 300 of them survived the war. It is possible that his hand was forced by those German businessmen, of course. It's also possible that he was not a Nazi sympathiser but was an antisemite; the two do not necessarily go hand-in-hand (there have been many left-wing antisemites in history and it works both ways - Oskar Schindler saved 1,200 Jewish lives, but he was a supporter of other Nazi policies and joined the party of his own free will).  After the war, L'Auto (which, incidentally, had been established as an anti-Drefus paper after the Army captain - who was Jewish - had been falsely convicted of trumped-up charges fueled at least partly by the rampant antisemitism of the times) was forced to close for continuing to publish during the Occupation, as were many other newspapers and magazines. Goddet responded by creating L'Equip, the paper that is still printed today and is one of the first points of call for Tour-related news, but due to his association with L'Auto could not be listed as being a part of it even though he had an office at the paper's headquarters until the final years of his life.

Jacques Marinelli
Jacques Marinelli, born on this day in Blanc-Mesnil in 1925. In adulthood, he stood just 1.62m tall and as a child, he had been so thin that his mother tried to persuade him to take up the accordion rather than cycling. Luckily, like good teenagers everywhere, he took no heed of parental advice and got a bike.

Marinelli was once decribed as "...a pygmy. His body is no thicker than a propelling pencil, his legs no thicker than runner beans. And his head is like a fist." The general population would feel sorry for a man with such an appearance, but cyclists think, "Hmm - good form. Climber?"

He rode in six Tours de France, but failed to finish four, his greatest moment coming during his second in 1949 when he mounted near-constant attacks during the first few days, wearing down the opposition so that by Stage 4 he was leading a peloton that included riders such as Coppi. Seeing him in the yellow jersey inspired Jacques Goddet to write "Our budgerigar has become a canary" in reference to his size, and while Marinelli would probably have far rather he'd become known as "The Canary," the nickname "Budgie" was the one that stayed with him. Competing against a field that included Coppi, Bartali and Magni would of course mean that Marinelli would be forced to give up the leadership sooner or later, as proved to be the case  when Magni took over in Stage 10, but he wore yellow for six days in a row - the longest any rider held it during that year's race. He also managed to come 3rd overall - an extremely impressive result, given the inevitability of the top places going to Coppi and Bartali.

In 1952, he completed another Tour; this time coming 31st overall. Realising that his best days were gone, he gracefully bowed out of the sport and went to run a bike shop in 1954, later taking on an electronics shop. Unlike many retired cyclists, he demonstrated a canny ability to make something of himself outside the world of racing, becoming a director of a chain of furniture stores and then setting up his own company named Marinelli Connexion with a fleet of delivery vehicles painted the same colour as the maillot jaune, his success being recognised when he received an award given to retired sportspeople who manage to make a good life for themselves in retirement. In 1989, he was elected mayor of Melun, a commune in Seine-et-Marne, serving two terms and ensuring his popularity by bringing the Tour to the town in 1991 and 1998. Now in his mid-80s, he still has his yellow jersey but says moths have left it looking a little worse for wear.

Other births: Hayden Godfrey (New Zealand, 1978); Raul Hellberg (Finland, 1900) died 1985); Colin Sturgess (Great Britain, 1968); Silvia Rovira (Spain, 1967); Michele Orecchia (Italy, 1903, died 1981); Jock Stewart (Great Britain, 1883, died 1950); Guremu Demboba (Ethiopia, 1934); Martens (Belgium, 1931); Helge Törn (Finland, 1928); Pleimling (Luxembourg, 1938); Samuel Kibamba (Congo, 1949).

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