Thursday 8 December 2011

What's with... Louison Bobet?

Bobet on Izoard
(image credit: Dave's Bike Blog)
Louis Bobet, born on the 12th of March in 1925, shared his name with his father so the nickname Louison came about when his family needed to differentiate between them. In Brittany, Louison is a common boy's name but elsewhere in France it's more usually a girl's name; so when he first started racing he used Louis but Louison caught on later (as did "La Bobette," which he is said to have loathed), and was spread by other riders who made fun of him due to his habit of crying when he performed badly.

Bobet's father was a baker but seems to have had an interest in sports because he gave his son a bike when the boy was just two years old and immediately started teaching him to ride it - within six months, the toddler was apparently able to ride 6km - also encouraging Louison's sister to play table tennis and his brother Jean to play football (Jean also became a cyclist in the end, but didn't have Louison's talent). His Uncle Raymond, the president of a Paris cycling club, recognised promise in the boy and took over his training, persuading him and his parents that he might make a living on the bike. He came second in his first race in 1938, later making it through to unofficial Youth Championships of 1943 when he came sixth; the race being won by none other than Raphaël Géminiani who would go on to become one of the most successful riders of the 1940s and 1950s - the beginnings of the (sometimes friendly, sometimes not so friendly) rivalry that would persist even when the two men became team mates years later. Around this time, Bobet acted as a messenger for the Resistance, smuggling secret missives right under the noses of the Nazis - detection would almost certainly have led to execution, either summarily or very soon afterwards. After D-Day, he joined the newly-formed French Army and served in the east of the country, helping to drive the Nazis out of their alpine strongholds.

First Races
Having been demobilised in December 1945, Bobet applied for a racing licence and was accidentally sent one declaring him to be an Independent - the semi-professional class of riders that were then permitted to compete in major professional races (including the Tour de France) provided they met their own costs. We don't know if he originally planned to send it back and explain the mistake, but if he did he soon realised that it would allow him to compete in both professional and amateur events - and he was sure enough of his abilities to do so (in the future, several riders put their dislike of Bobet down to his tendency to consider himself a cut or two above the rest - whom he seems to have viewed as common oiks). Having won 2nd place in the Breton Championships, he rode in the Nationals and, having attacked a pair of experienced professionals who had broken away from the peloton, dropped one before beating the other in a final sprint (during that race, he also competed against 1929 Champion and Tour veteran Marcel Bidot, who would later become his manager).

(image credit: Polygoon Hollands Nieuws
 CC BY-SA 3.0)
With the National Champion title came a professional contract from Stella, a Nantes-based bike manufacturer. The team was little-known outside Brittany until Bobet and a team mate entered the Parisian Boucles de la Seine in 1947 and which he won, crossing the finish line alone with a six-minute gap between himself and the next rider. That was enough to get him an invite to join the national team in that year's Tour de France.

However, the Tour turned out to be vastly more difficult than Bobet had expected and he abandoned during Stage 9, the Alps reducing him to tears. The press savagely attacked him for his weakness and the public scorned him for being soft; rather unfairly since they'd made a hero of René Vietto in 1934 and continued treating him as such even when his apparent heroism turned out to be distinctly tarnished. Then, in 1948, the management of the Stella team was taken over by Maurice Archambaud. Archambaud, who had won a total of ten Tour stages and worn the yellow jersey fourteen times, was a man highly qualified to spot Tour promise in a rider and he spotted it in Bobet even when nobody else did. He decided that Bobet would benefit from his expertise, and he was right: that year, Bobet took the overall lead after Stage 3. He lost it the next day, but then took it back by winning Stage 6. At this point, he had a 20-minute advantage over 2nd place Gino Bartali. Bartali would win, after a superhuman effort aimed at preventing his country from descending into civil war that has become one of the most-told instances in the Tour mythos, but Bobet came 4th - an incredible feat from a man who had been written off a year before.

The 1949 Tour was a disaster and he dropped out in Stage 11 as soon as the race reached the mountains. The next year, he raced alongside Géminiani for the first time. Géminiani, who had a habit of creating nicknames for other riders by taking a syllable from their name, changing it and then repeating it, rechristened Bobet Zonzon - which he didn't like very much but decided he could live with. After all, it was better than "Crybaby," which had become his nickname in 1947. Besides, the two men had become friends despite frequent and sometimes fierce arguments - and Bobet was presumably well aware that he didn't have many friends. The pair had hoped one of them would be in with a chance of winning that year as Fausto Coppi was absent after breaking his pelvis earlier in the year at the Giro d'Italia, but they ended up spending much of the race vying with one another for second and third place as neither stood a hope of standing up to the wild, fire-breathing Ferdy Kübler. Stan Ockers got the better of them and took second place overall, but Bobet must have been pleased with third - especially since Géminiani was fourth. Better still - and strangely, in view of his previous history - Bobet won the King of the Mountains with little difficulty, taking the jersey in Stage 11 (the first for which it was awarded) and wearing it with the exception of one single day for the rest of the race.

Bobet had another off-year in 1951, cracking so badly in the mountains that new manager Marcel Bidot gave up on him and ordered the riders he'd commanded to assist him to help Géminiani instead. He was not entered the following year - yet, Bidot still saw promise and entered him for the Critérium International, Paris-Nice and the GP des Nations and Bobet won all three, along with a number of other races. Bidot explained his faith in the rider later:

"Bobet is a good climber and time-triallist who rides with authority and intelligence. He is careful with his preparation, careful with his efforts and totally serious. An outstanding rider but has a lack of confidence. He is extremely nervous, sensitive, worried and susceptible. But with experience he will overcome the problems. A charming friend, happy, often joking and with spirit, but some days he shuts himself off, wrapped in his worries."

He was back on the start line at the Tour in 1953.

Tour Success
That year, Bobet won Stage 18, one of the most remarkable stages of post-war Tour history and a classic, text book example of team tactics. His team mate Adolphe Deledda, who was out in front riding with a breakaway group, received the message that Bobet had dropped Jesus Lorono on the way down from the Col de Vars and was on his way. So, he left the group and took his time while Bobet caught up, then helped him all the way to the Col d'Izoard.

Memorial to Bobet and Coppi, Izoard
(image credit: Podium Cafe)
The landscape of Izoard is frequently compared to that of the Moon, and in those days the road was no better: merely a rough track made of loose stones picking its way between the boulders. Yet Bobet, having had chance to replenish his energy supplies while Deledda nursed him there, attacked it "as if he had wings," according to race historian Bill McGann. At the top, waiting to see the race go by, was Fausto Coppi with the Woman in White, his mistress Giulia Locatelli. Bobet, as we have noted, considered himself above the hoi-polloi; but he knew greatness when he saw it and thanked the Italian for coming as he sailed by.

When he reached Briançon, he had a five minute advantage - enough to retain the yellow jersey for the rest of the race. A perfect individual time trial in Stage 20 won him the race with an advantage of 14 minutes. When he crossed the finish line he was greeted by Maurice Garin, winner of the first Tour, there to celebrate the 50th.

It was not long after the race was over before his victory began to be picked apart. Coppi had not been there and Bartali, at 38, was not the man he had once been. Koblet, the winner in 1951, had abandoned following a crash in Stage 10 and Kübler hadn't entered. The general consensus was that while Bobet's Izoard win had been impressive, the opposition throughout the race had not been up to much. 1954 was a different matter entirely - the Italian team still hadn't replaced its greatest ever stars but the Belgians and the Dutch were formidable - and Kübler was back. Bobet took the yellow jersey in Stage 3, but lost it in Stage 7 to Wout Wagtmans who kept it for four days before Gilbert Bauvin took it in Stage 11. All the while, Bobet fought hard to get it back, eventually doing so in Stage 13 and keeping it to the end. Another perfect time trial gave him 15 minutes on Kübler - and this time, nobody could deny he'd won a hard race.

In 1955, Pierre Rolland appeared to be the strongest French rider and Bidot ordered Bobet to support him. However, Rolland's strength faded in the mountains, unable to withstand the sheer ferocity of repeated attacks on the unforgiving climbs by a young Luxembourgish rider named Charly Gaul. Bobet, though suffering from a saddle sore that would later lead to an oft-told tale in which he couldn't bring himself to describe the affected body parts when asked for details of the surgery he underwent after the race, completely bamboozling her by insisting that he had experienced problems with his pockets. Géminiani, who had been listening in, decided the time had come to end the lady's confusion. "Oh for heaven's sake, Zonzon," he interrupted, "tell her you've got bloody balls."

(image credit: Dave's Bike Blog)
Yet Bobet rode on, and suffered for it. The saddle sore led to necrosis and a large quantity of rotting flesh had to be cut away from his groin, in some cases stopping just short of important organs. He won that year - the first man to win three consecutive Tours, but in doing so he had destroyed his chances of winning again and he knew it. He entered again in 1958 but was visibly unwell throughout the race, suffering badly as he drove himself on and somehow finished in 7th place overall. He never finished another Tour after that.

The Man
Bobet, as we have noted, was not popular among other riders who found him stuck-up and distant. A large part of that perhaps needs to be reattributed to his being several years ahead of his time - the rest, meanwhile, can be put down to the fact that he genuinely was rather an obsequious little snob who believed himself to be the very pinnacle of sporting endeavour: as Géminiani (his friend, remember) said, "He really thought that, after him, there'd be no more cycling in France." When he refused point blank to wear the yellow jersey the frst time he won the right to do so, explaining that he wouldn't wear synthetic fibres, it wasn't because he considered the cheaper material not befitting his status; it was because as a man who had suffered saddle sores in the past he realised that natural fibres would allow sweat to wick away from his skin (any modern rider who has suffered the same affliction and been ordered to wear soft cotton underwear by a doctor knows this is the case). He acted like a Hollywood star, which was put down to self-importance; but could also be seen as an understanding that the cult of personality was going to be how he made his living once he retired, thus predating the boxers and footballers who make fortunes selling their image to the fashion industry today. When he attacked his country for its involvement with the war against Communist rebels in Indochina, it wasn't because he was unpatriotic or, as many claimed, himself a Marxist - he explained that he was simply a pacifist, thus anticipating the wider adoption of anti-war beliefs in the 1960s.

As might be expected of a man who was so concerned for his own health, Bobet refused to take drugs at a time when doping was beyond rampant in a sport not yet woken up by the death of amphetamine-addled Tom Simpson on Mont Ventoux. Whether or not he did take them is debatable - he may have believed he did not, but Jacques Anquetil and Eddy Merckx were reduced to paroxysms of laughter at a formal dinner organised by the Tour's organisers when Bobet, having informed them that he never doped, added that before races he had drunk small bottles of an unknown fluid prepared for him by his personal soigneur Raymond Le Bert (he was ahead of his time on that one, too - nobody else had ever employed a soigneur of their own).

Bobet also gave rise to what is now a Tour tradition - he was the first rider to divide up the money he won for the race and distribute it among his domestiques. However, he didn't do so out of pure altruism: he was so furious at what he saw as his team's treachery in helping Nello Lauredi (who shares a record three Critérium du Dauphiné victories with Charly Mottet, Luis Ocaña and Bernard Hinault, fact fans!) to win the sprint finish of Stage 13 in 1953 that he took the team to task at dinner that night. Tempers flared as the team took a one for all route and argued that they'd supported the rider most likely to win the stage while Bobet - unsurpringly, went down the all for one road and countered that since he was the team leader they should have supported him. Before too long, the team manager had a fight on his hands and before too long, the riders were refusing to support Bobet altogether. He had to think fast and came up with a solution - would they support him if he agreed to split the money he won with their help between them? Of course, they agreed - in this way, a humble domestique makes far more money than he otherwise would from a Tour - and so did Bobet, who was more than intelligent enough to realise that a Tour victor makes more money from his glory after the race than he does by winning it.

After the Glory
On Mont Ventoux
(image credit: Mariocipo.sportblog)
In retirement, Bobet became involved in a number of business ventures and used his fame to ensure they got attention. The best-known of these was his development and promotion of the distinctly scientifically-shaky alternative health treatment thelassotherapy, which was invented in Brittany in the 19th Century and claims to improve well-being through the absorption of beneficial minerals found in sea water (administered using a variety of methods including hot and cold showers, muscle rubs and going for a swim). He opened a thelassotherapy resort at Quiberon and, with his canny understanding of the power of celebrity, named it after himself. It's still in operation to this day, albeit under the new name Miramar Crouesty, and going by the numerous favourable reviews on independent French tourism websites is doing very well.

Bobet died of cancer on the day following his 58th birthday in 1983 and is buried in the cemetery at Saint-Méen-le-Grand, the town where he was born. In addition to his three General Classifaction and one King of the Mountains victories at the Tour, Bobet also won the Mountains Classification at the Giro d'Italia in 1951; the World Championship in 1954; the National Championship in 1950 and 1951; the Critérium des As (1949, 1950, 1953 and 1954); Milan-San Remo, the Giro di Lombardia and the Desgrange-Colombo Trophy in 1951; the Critérium International (1951 and 1952); the Tour of Flanders, the Critérium du Dauphiné and the Tour de Luxembourg (1955); Paris-Roubaix in 1956 and Bordeaux-Paris in 1959.

Not bad for a crybaby.


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