Today marks the anniversary of the 20th edition of La Flèche Wallonne, which took place over a 221km parcours between Charleroi and Liège in 1956 - the same start and finish towns as in the previous seven years and the following nine (though they were reversed from 1960 to 1965), but using a different route. The winner was Richard Van Genechten, a climber who one year before had driven himself so hard on Mont Ventoux during the Tour de France that he fell unconscious from his bike and was rushed to hospital. He nearly became the third man to win the Ardennes Double a day after his Flèche victory when he finished in second place behind Fred de Bruyne at Liège-Bastogne-Liège.
On this day in 2000, the world lost a man who had it not have been for the Second World War (during which he became an even bigger hero that he did during his cycling career) may have become known as the greatest rider of all time: Il Pio, Gino Bartali. He would win the Giro in 1936 and 1937, the his first Tour de France in 1938 and a second in 1948 - the longest period between victories achieved by an individual rider in the history of the race.
|Gino Bartali, a great man on the bike and off|
Until they produced a rider capable of dominating the Classics, Italians were widely believed to be useless cyclists when away from their home nation. Having been persuaded to continue racing, this seemed true of Bartali when he entered the Tour de France for the first time in 1937 as he got off to a bad start and lost time; then, perhaps angered by the cliche, he unexpectedly picked up the pace and won the yellow jersey during the mountainous Stage 7 between Aix-les-Bains and Grenoble. However, the very next day he was involved in a crash when Jules Rossi lost control - he plunged 3m off a bridge into a stream, landing on his chest and suffering breathing difficulties that forced him to retire from the race. That evening, he went to visit Tour director Henri Desgrange and apologised for his decision. "You are the first rider to come to see me before dropping out," Desgrange is reputed to have said. "You're a good man, Gino. Next year, we shall see one another again - and you shall win."
It has been known for many years that, during the War, Bartali assisted in efforts to save the lives of Jewish Italians, but it's only comparatively recently become known just how far he was willing to go to rescue a fellow human being from almost certain death - not only did he courier information and fake documents around the Italian countryside, he personally transported Jewish refugees in a specially-designed trailer towed behind his bike across the Alps and into neutral Switzerland. It's estimated that he was responsible for saving more than 800 people, yet he never asked for reward nor even recognition; stating years later that "One does these things, and that's that." In 2012, Israel's Yad Vashem announced that it was gathering further information in preparation for declaring him Righteous Among The Nations, an honour bestowed upon those who helped defend and save Europe's Jews from fascist attempts to exterminate them.
|Bartali, having won the 1948 Tour|
Britain's Lucy Martin was born in Merseyside on this day in 1990. She was spotted and invited to join the Olympic Talent Teamwhen she was 15 and soon selected for the Olympic Academy, a programme reserved for the most promising young athletes. In 2011, she received an offer of a professional trade team racing contract with Garmin-Cervélo where she raced alongside some of the best cyclists in the world including Lizzie Armitstead, Emma Pooley, Jessie Daams and Iris Slappendel, then went with Armitstead, Pooley, Daams and others to AA Drink-Leontien.nl following the demise of the Garmin-Cervélo women's team late in 2011.
Paul Watson, born in Milton Keynes on this day in 1962, had a good amateur career before turning professional in 1987 after performing well for two consecutive years at the Milk Race (as the Tour of Britain was then known). Two years later, he surprised the worldwide cycling scene by somehow coming sixth at no less an event than La Flèche Wallonne, thus inspiring theories that a serious talent had somehow slipped under the radar and was now announcing itself. He entered the Tour de France that year but was woefully unprepared - he was 143rd in the prologue but afterwards managed no better than 191st (Stage 3), then abandoned after coming 202nd - only four riders ahead of the Lanterne Rouge - in Stage 5. He did well at the Milk Race again that year, coming 4th overall, then faded away from cycling and little has been seen of him since.
(image credit Thomas Ducroquet CC3.0)
British rowing champion James Cracknell, who was born on this day in 1972, attempted in 2010 to swim, run, row and cycle from Los Angeles to New York in 16 days. On the 20th of July, during one of the cycling sections, he was hit from behind by a truck in Arizona - one of the most dangerous types of accident for a cyclist, and was left with a coup contrecoup injury caused when the brain impacts against the inside of the skull. Cracknell has attributed his survival to the Alpina helmet he was wearing at the time, pointing out that it absorbed enough of the impact to have been broken into two pieces, and has since been a vocal advocate of cycling helmets - especially those made by Alpina, though he insists that there is no commercial agreement between himself and the company. In 2011, British newspaper The Daily Mail published a photograph of a helmetless Cracknell riding a folding bike but stated that he returned home to get one when he realised; his wife told reporters that he has suffered memory loss since his accident.
Lenka Ilavská, who was born in the Slovakian town Liptovský Mikuláš on this day in 1972, won the 1992 Emakumeen Bira, the 1993 Giro d'Italia Femminile and the 1995 Krasna Lipa Tour Féminine.
Mouritius "Maurice" Prosper Peeters was born in Antwerp on this day in 1882 and moved whilst still a child with his family to The Hague, where the Peeters took Dutch nationality. Maurice represented the Netherlands at the Olympics in 1920 and 1924. In 1920, he rode alone in the 1000m Sprint against British stars Thomas "Tiny" Johnson and Harry Ryan, who worked together in an attempt to remove all chances of a Dutch victory. Ryan attacked in the early part of the race, trying to tire his opponent out so that Johnson could cruise to unchallenged victory. However, Peeters proved more than match for the pair of them: Ryan tired and gave up his attacks, then the Dutchman went to work on Johnson, maintaining his lead and taking the gold medal. Four years later, he won the bronze in the 2000m Tandem race.
Leif Mortensen won a series of amateur races in the late 1960s, then turned professional and won a silver medal at the World Road Race Championship in 1970 (held that year in Leicester, Great Britain). A year later, he was sixth overall at the Tour de France and then twelfth in 1972, then he won the Tour of Belgium in 1973 and was 19th at the Tour de France - the palmares of a man who came so close to being a great, but didn't quite have what it takes.
Other births: Maria Hawkins (Canada, 1962); Kazım Bingen (Turkey, 1912); Andrej Hauptman (Slovenia, 1975); Leif Mortensen (Denmark, 1946); Carlos Miguel Álvarez (Argentina, 1943); Jakob Caironi (Switzerland, 1902); Anton Krijgsman (Netherlands, 1898, died 1974); Elio Bavutti (Italy, 1914 died 1987); Tekeste Woldu (Ethiopia, 1945); José Ollarves (Venezuela, 1953); Syamak Zafarzadeh (Iran, 1964); Alex Van Linden (Belgium, 1952); Mohamed Reza Banna (Iran, 1971); Kevin Kimmage (Ireland, 1967); Bob McLeod (Canada, 1913, died 1958); David Boll (USA, 1953).