Thursday, 26 April 2012

Daily Cycling Facts 26.04.12

Tom Simpson, 1937-1967
The Ronde van Vlaanderen was held on this day in 1961 - the year that Tom Simpson became the first and only British rider to have ever won the race. Unfortunately for the legions of fans who idolise Simpson nearly half a century after his death on Mont Ventoux during the 1967 Tour de France, he almost certainly wouldn't have won had it not been for the powerful gale that blew throughout the day. Tom was out in front on his own as the finish line approached, but the Italian Nino Defilippis - who was a much faster sprinter than Tom - was catching up fast, overtaking him in the last section. Then to Simpson's delight, Defilippis stopped pushing: the wind had blown down the banner marking the finish and he wasn't sure where it was - so he grabbed his chance and powered back into the lead, crossing the line with a minute advantage.

The Italians complained, of course, feeling that their man should have won. However, both Defillipis and Simpson had completed two circuits and, since the organisers felt that this was more than adequate opportunity for everyone to have worked things out for themselves, the complaint was not upheld. Defillipis then approached Simpson and asked if he would be willing to ask the judges to declare the race a draw, pointing out that the last Italian to win a Classic had been in 1953. Simpson looked at him, then replied: "An Englishman hasn't won one since 1896!"

La Flèche Wallonne has also been held on this day - the 22nd edition, in 1958. It started in Charleroi and ended in Liège, as it had for the preceding ten years, following a 235km parcours in between. The winner was Rik Van Steenbergen, who had also won nine years earlier in 1949.

Jesús Loroño
The Vuelta a Espana began on this day in 1957, 1973, 1977 and 1993. 1957 covered 2,957km in - unusually - only 16 stages, the least since the first edition in 1935. Eagle of Toledo Federico Bahamontes won the King of the Mountains for the first time, adding it to the title he'd taken at the Giro d'Italia the previous year. Jesús Loroño was never quite as good as Bahamontes in the mountains, but he was the better rider on the flat stages and, as such, took the General Classification lead from him in Stage 9 and kept it to the end of the race.

1973 covered 3,061km in 21 stages and was won by Eddy Merckx who, having already won four Tours de France and three Giri d'Italia, became the third man (after Jacques Anquetil and Felice Gimondi) to have won all three Grand Tours during his career. Five days after the Vuelta ended, the Giro began - and when he won that too, he became the first man to win both races in a single year (winning the Tour de France as well was too much even for Merckx, who stayed away in 1973; to date, nobody has achieved what would be cycling's ultimate accolade). Luis Ocaña, who would win the Tour that year, took second place and Bernard Thévenet, who would win the Tour in 1975 and 1977 was third, while Merckx would win a fifth and final Tour, the Giro and the World Championship in 1974 - making the podium at the end of this edition of the race perhaps the highest concentration of professional cycling talent ever seen.

"Swiss Tony" Rominger
In 1977, the race covered 2,785km divided between a prologue and 19 stages. Merckx was still racing, but his best years were gone and he stayed away to concentrate on the Tour de France, which would be his last Grand Tour. Instead, Belgium's hopes passed on to Freddy Maertens, and he would not let the fans down - he led the General Classification from the beginning to the end of the race and the thirteen stages he won remains a record record 35 years later.

1993 brought the second of a record three consecutive wins for the Swiss Tony Rominger. By his side through much of the 3,605km (20 stage) parcours was Alex Zülle, seven years his junior and from a rival team but also Swiss, who appeared to be serving some sort of apprenticeship and finished only 29" behind him (third place Laudelino Cubino required another 8'54"). He learned well, going on to win two consecutive Vueltas of his own in 1996 and 1997; unfortunately, one of the skills he may have picked up from his master was the use of EPO - Rominger was never caught, but has long been under suspicion due to his association with the infamous Dr. Michele Ferrari. Zülle, meanwhile, found himself entangled in the Festina Affair of 1998 and confessed that he had used the drug.

Mont Ventoux
"Father of Humanism" Petrarch, accompanied by his brother, became the first man since antiquity to climb Mont Ventoux on this day in 1336 - the Gauls, who named in Vintur after their god of mountains, had been up it in ancient times and may have worshipped it as his domain. Modern cyclists worship Ventoux too: though not especially high nor steep, it's become infamous as one of the world's most difficult climbs and since the death of British rider Tom Simpson in the 1967 Tour de France, it's a place of pilgrimage. Simpson is not the only cyclist to have known Ventoux's wrath: it very nearly finished off Eddy Merckx three years later, and Jean Malléjac came close to death when the Tour climbed the mountain in 1995 - an event that inspired Antoine Blondin to write:
"There are few happy memories of this sorcerer's cauldron. We have seen riders reduced to madness under the effect of the heat or stimulants, some coming back down the hairpins they thought they were climbing, others brandishing their pumps and accusing us of murder... Falling men, tongues hanging out, selling their soul for a drop of water, a little shade..."
"Ventoux is not like any other col..."
That same day, Ferdy Kübler was warned to show his respects. "Watch put, Ferdi," Raphaël Géminiani told him, "Ventoux is not like any other col." Kubler, as full of himself as ever, replied "Ferdi is not like any other rider." He soon found out that to Vintur, a Tour de France winner is nothing when he fails to show his respects and, after trying to prove his supremacy by sprinting up, he was reduced to begging spectators to push him up. Having been overtaken again and again by riders less foolhardy than himself, he eventually reached the summit twenty minutes after the race leader and crashed several times on the way down before finding a bar and giving up. He never entered the Tour again.

In Petrarch's day, the mountain would have been very different to today as the extensive logging that from the 12th Century provided timber to the Toulon shipyards had not yet stripped away the trees, leaving the slopes bare and and with the weird, lunar appearance that makes it such an uncanny place today; though he'd doubtless have been keeping a careful eye open for the wolves and bears that lived up there in those days (or not - as Daniel Freibos points out, it's highly likely that Petrarch made it all up and never climbed the mountain at all). The heat and wind on Ventoux are remorseless, especially in those deforested sections where there is no shelter from either. The wind can be worse than the heat - meteorologists at the summit weather station have known it bend iron poles and burn out anemometers. In the 1970s, a car was blown off the road and wrecked. The man who was driving had gone for help and was blown over a wall but survived. His wife had left the car while he was gone - her body was found by soldiers stationed on the mountain a short while later, battered beyond recognition. The wind had stoned her to death.

(For the very best description of Ventoux, and what it's like to ride it, see William Fotheringham's "Put Me Back On My Bike - In Search of Tom Simpson," Yellow Jersey Press, 2002.)

Tommy Hall
Tommy Hall was born in Croydon but the exact date isn't known. Some sources say that he was born on the 4th of June 1880, which would be the right year if 72 - the age his gravestone says he was when he died on this day in 1949 - is correct; but the Birth Register says William Thomas Hall (his real name) he was born  between October and December in 1887. Meanwhile, the 1901 Census says that he was 24 and living with his parents at 104 Shepherd's Bush Road in London and was employed a a cycle maker - in which case, he'd have been born in 1877 or 1878. His father's occupation is given as furniture maker and he must have earned a good living, because the house still stands and is quite an imposing building.

Tommy Hall with motorpacer
Hall turned professional in 1900 (which suggests the 1887 birthdate is unlikely) and set a new World Motorpaced Hour Record in 1903 when he covered 87.391km. Following his retirement in 1914, he coached the British Olympic team as is revealed by a scan of his ID card from the 1924 Games which can be seen on a website devoted to him (which seems to no longer be updated, rather sadly) set up by a relative. He was buried in Stoke Newington where his gravestone, complete with a carved bicycle, can still be seen in Abney Park Cemetery.


Allan Peiper
According to a stereotype that has been around since the earliest days of the sport, male cyclists start out as skinny boys with hungry eyes who see racing as their only chance to escape grinding poverty (the same is very much not true with the women because no female cyclist, no matter how good she is, is ever going to retire rich unless the world achieves some much-needed changes. Most female riders discover the sport while at university). According to Lance Armstrong, one thing that many professional riders have in common is an absent of abusive father.

Like all stereotypes, both are only partially true: there have been many cyclists from financially comfortable and even wealthy backgrounds and for every hungry boy who learned to fear his father - or never knew him - there are at least four who owe everything they later achieved to their father's support and encouragment. Allan Peiper, meanwhile, is the embodiment of both. Those who knew him as a child say that he was bright but, like a lot of intelligent children, he absolutely loathed school and would show up for morning registration before sneaking out to go and ride his bike. His homelife was awful - his father was a violent drunk and his mother, who had to work herself to the point of illness to support her family, was rarely around to care for him.

As soon as he could, he left school and found a job in a factory which permitted him to save enough money to move to Belgium where he knew he'd have a better chance of making it as a cyclist - he made the journey when he was just 16 and found lodgings above a butcher's shop for a while before his excellent results brought him to the attention of Eddy Planckaert, who invited him to lodge with his family. The Planckaerts are probably the closest thing to a cycling dynasty: Eddy's brothers Willy and Walter were also highly successful professional cyclists, as is Eddy's son Francesco and his nephew (Willy's son) Jo, and a young cyclist trying to make his name thousands of miles from home could not have wished for a better home.

Benefiting from Planckaert mentorship, he became good enough by 1982 to follow so many foreign cyclists in joining the legendary Athletic Club de Boulogne Billencourt and, a year later, was offered a professional contract with Peugeot, racing alongside people such as Phil Anderson, Stephen Roche and Sean Yates and, with them, would go on to become one of the 1980s and 1990s' most successful riders from a country not traditionally known as a producer of great cyclists.

Peter Nelson
Professional cycling can be a cut-throat business, and while cyclists try to give the impression that they're never anything less than 100% sportsmanlike when there's any chance of a camera nearby they've been known to resort to distinctly unsportsmanlike behavour at other times. One who was far above all that was Australia's legendary champion Peter Nelson, born on this day in 1931.

When he was still a boy, Nelson's older brothers returned from fighting in the Second World War and he saw them as nothing less than heroes; copying them in everything they did - including sport. However, it soon became apparent that he was far better than them at any sport he tried: they would later remember that he was "someone who could take up any sport and excel at it." Before long, he was offered a place on the National Swimming Team - but he turned it down because he had decided to devote his life to cycling. After receiving an invitation from Olympian cyclist Jim Nestor, Nelson joined the Sturt CC and began riding 800km each week on the club's outdoor track, despite also working full time at a sports store.

In 1951, he earned a place on the Olympis squad after becoming state champion over 15, 25 and 50 miles and, while traveling to Helsinki to compete in the Games, he met the runner Marjorie Jackson. Following a two-year period in which they both enjoyed enormous success, Nelson and Jackson married; retiring from sport and taking over a almond farm.

Nelson was known for the kindness, compassion and care he showed towards other cyclists and would offer free board to any competing in races near to his Adelaide home. He died of leukaemia on the 2nd of February in 1977, when he was 45 years old.

Charly Wegelius
Charly Wegelius
(image credit: Ludovic Péron CC BY-SA 3.0)
Charly Wegelius was born in Finland on this day in 1977, the son of banker and showjumper Christopher Wegelius, but has spent most of his life in the United Kingdom where he was educated at Bootham in York, a prestigious public school that has produced numerous notable sportsmen, politicians and scientists.

His career was marked by injury and controversy. He was seriously injured before his professional career even got under way in a quad bike (ATV) accident that left him with a ruptured spleen - after removing the damaged organ, doctors told him he'd never be able to race again. He did, of course, and earned a trainee contract with the Linda McCartney team in 1999; and after revealing himself as an extremely useful domestique on mountain stages was offered a place with Mapei for 2000. Unusually for a climber, he could also ride well in a time trial and came 5th in the event at the 2002 Commonwealth Games.

In 2005, he refused to ride in support of his national team's leader Roger Hammond (Wegelius has British nationality and has always raced under a British licence) at the World Championships, instead assisting the leader of his Liquigas trade team (fellow British rider Tom Southwell did the same, assisting his Barloworld leader). He would later apologise and express regret, repaying in full the cost of his attendance at the event. Despite his apology and attempt to make good, he was never again selected for the national team.

However, this rebellious streak, combined with the appeal of a rider who returns from serious injury, is at least partially responsible for Wegelius' considerable popularity among British cycling fans; among whom he was held in far higher esteem than the majority of career-long domestiques could ever dream of being. He  repaid them in 2007 when he entered the Tour de France for the first time and came 45th overall - by far the best British rider (David Millar was 68th and Geraint Thomas 140th - one place above Lanterne Rouge superstar Wim Vansevenant), even if he was 1h41'05" behind winner Alberto Contador. He rode two more Tours: the first in 2009 when he came 60th after replacing Thomas Dekker who had been barred from entry a few days before the race began due to a sample that tested positive for EPO; then again in 2010 but was forced to abandon after picking up a virus. His account of how he made the decision to give up is moving.

Wegelius retired from competition in 2011 after competing in the first Giro di Padania, but remains popular among fans on Twitter.

Incidentally, his surname is pronounced "vay-gay-lee-ooss."

Other births: Jon Andrews (New Zealand, 1967); Tsubasa Kitatsuru (Japan, 1985); Michel Scob (France, 1935, died 1995); Wilde Baridón (Uruguay, 1941); Jacek Morajko (Poland, 1981); Giacomo Gaioni (Italy, 1905, died 1988); Herbert Richter (East Germany, 1947); Ferruccio Manza (Italy, 1943); Philippe Chevalier (France, 1961).

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