Sunday 10 June 2012

Daily Cycling Facts 10.06.12

The Ronde van Vlaanderen was held on this day in 1945 - the latest in the year the race has ever been run and less than one year after Belgium was liberated from Nazi control. It had been the only Classic to continue on occupied home soil for the full duration of the War and a small number of German officers - cycling fans, presumably - had actually become involved in the organisation of the race.

This led to big problems once peace was declared as organisers faced accusations of collaboration. This was a serious issue for Karel Van Wijnendaele, who had set up the first edition right back in 1913 because he was also the editor of Sportwereld, the newspaper that ran the race, and journalists found guilty of collaboration were banned for life from their profession. Fortunately, he was able to have his ban overturned when he supplied a letter from none other than General Bernard Montgomery, thanking him for risking his life by providing a safe house to British pilots as they attempted to return to safety after being shot down.

Sportwereld's rival Het Volk saw the accusations as a prime opportunity to increase its own readership that year and announced that it would organise its own race, to be called the Omloop van Vlaanderen. In Flemmish, omloop has an identical meaning to ronde; which the Ronde's oganisers felt made the names too similar. Their concerns were supported by the Belgian Cycling Federation and Het Volk were ordered to change the name of their event to the Omloop Het Volk - and later, the Omloop Het Nieuwsblad, by which  name by which it's still known today. The Ronde finished that year at Wetteren, as it would do until 1961, and the winner was Sylvain Grysolle. Three years later, he won the Omloop Het Volk too.

Jean Robic
Jean Robic
Reading any book on cycling will soon reveal that, over its 150 years, cycling has produced a number of riders whom one might describe as the type to stand out in a crowd. In some cases, they do so for all the right reasons - Hugo Koblet, for example, or Charly Gaul when he wasn't doing one of his frothing-at-the-mouth rabid jackal death-faces, and Ben Swift and Mark Cavendish (Swifty and Cav included at the insistence of Mrs. Cyclopunk). There are also those who are "not conventionally attractive," the Cadels and Andys ("They've got something" - Mrs. C again) and there are those whose looks made small children burst into tears, none of whom will be listed here out of respect for the dead and the feelings of those still with us. Then there was Jean Robic, who looked as though he belonged on the side of a church tower with a drainpipe sticking out of his mouth. He also had a tendency to wear unusual glasses, weird bug-eyed goggles and, strangest of all for the times, a leather helmet; the combined effect made him look uncannily like he might be more used to traveling by flying saucer than by bicycle, and earned him the nickname Le Farfadet de la lande Bretonne, "the Hobgoblin of Brittany Moor." Bicquet, "The Kid," was his nickname among more charitable acquaintances. Not friends, though; Robic didn't have any friends, because while it would be wonderful to say that he made up for his strange looks with a kind, generous and endearing personality, he didn't.

Robic was born on this day in 1921 in Vouziers, which is in the French Ardennes, but in common with most Celts he was proud of his ancient heritage and claimed to be a Breton like his father. The family moved to Brittany when Jean was seven and set up home in Radenac, still a tiny village and the sort that the charitable might claim has rustic charm (locals probably think it's a bit of a dump), where his father - a keen racing cyclist himself - set up a bike shop and taught his son the trade, also encouraging him to become the sort of rider he'd probably once dreamed of being. It looked for a while as though fixing bikes was as close as Jean would get to making a living from racing, because he didn't make much of an impression when he got a job with the H. Sausin cycle factory. The New York-born journalist René de Latour was one of the few to remember him:
"If anybody had told you or me in 1939 that this skinny kid of 17, with ears large enough to be of help with a back wind blowing—if we had been told that here was a future winner of the Tour de France, we would just have laughed... His arrival in the Paris area was not sensational. Robic won a few races out in the villages but this did not mean much. We had hundreds of boys like him in France."
When war broke out and Northern France fell to Nazi occupation, many of the most important races were brought to a halt. This did Robic a huge favour, because it forced him into the sort of small, local race apprenticeship period that he badly needed if he was ever going to develop into a champion. In 1943, L'Auto, which had run a race between Le Mans and Paris when fighting brought a temporary end to Paris-Roubaix (and which would be accused of collaboration and shut down after the war) got permission to start running the race again. Robic entered the second wartime edition, which took place in 1944 (the Nazis, who used cycling events to try to convince the French that life was going on as normal and draw their attention away from all the millions of people they were murdering, made sure the race was filmed and widely shown. It can be seen here) - it was due to a crash in the race, and the fractured skull it left him with, that he adopted the leather helmet; hence his third nickname Tête de Cuir, Leatherhead.

Robic's advantage - he had the lightness to climb and the
strength to attack on the flat stages
Big-headed as ever, Robic had told his new wife Raymonde that he would be bringing back the maillot jaune as a wedding present when he entered the first post-war Tour in 1947, but nobody else expected him to even stand a chance despite the fact that, at 1.61m tall and a wiry 60kg in weight, he had the classic build of a climber (like many climbers, he loathed descending and would arrange for a soigneur to hand him a lead-filled bidon - or mercury, when solid bidons were banned - at the top of a climb in order to weight down his bike and help prevent it skipping around on the way down). Much to their surprise, he won three stages. De Latour still didn't think he could win because he was too inconsistent, but at the end of the Stage 19 time trial Robic had got himself into third place overall. He couldn't improve on that by the time the race reached the start of Stage 21 and, since the final stage is largely ceremonial and an unwritten law states that the leader must not be attacked on the way into Paris, it looked as though Pierre Brambilla would win. Robic, meanwhile, had no time for traditional niceties and bore respect for nobody but himself - with help from Edouard Fachleitner (it was later claimed that Robic told him, "Ride with me. You'll come second but I'll give you 100,000 francs") he attacked repeatedly and so savagely that Brambilla became ill. When the two men reached the Parc des Princes, they had an advantage of thirteen minutes and, for the first time, Robic was leading the race. Despite the ferocity of his attacking, Robic couldn't catch Briek Schotte (who was the only Flandrien, some say) but once time bonuses had been awarded he became the first man to have won a Tour without wearing the yellow jersey whilst competing for it, and legend has it that Brambilla was so disgusted he went home, buried his bike in his garden and swore he'd never ride again.

Brambilla did ride again, though; including another four Tours - which makes the story look rather as though it's probably just another one of those apocryphal, romantic tales that constitute a good quarter of all cycling history (and long may it remain thus -  journalist Jock Wadley knew Brambilla and said that his greatest regret was that he never thought to ask him if the buried bike story was true until after he'd died. We should be grateful for that, just in case it turned out to be a myth). What's more, the Fachleitner bribe might not have actually happened, either: Pierre Chany, L'Equipe's chief cycling journalist and a man who reported on no fewer than 49 editions of the Tour, said that the rumour was stared by René Vietto who hated Robic and would stop at nothing to blacken his reputation (Vietto, incidentally, is at the centre of two of cycling's romantic tales. You can read about both of them here).

With his hook nose and diminutive stature, Robic
bore an uncanny resemblance to Mr. Punch
Robic was almost universally hated by the other riders. The peloton in the heat of a race is not a place where polite language is always used, but Robic was said to be so foul-mouthed that he offended even the earthiest sons of the French soil; and this also did little to endear him to race organisers - on at least one occasion, when he and others finished outside a time limit, his verbal response to the news would lead to him being the only rider not invitd to continue f the judges then relented for some reason. He was also bad-tempered, always angry, fond of insulting others and a braggart, once claiming to have "a Coppi in each leg" and on another occasional dismissing Gino Bartali entirely. André Mahé, who finished in second place behind Ferdy Kübler in Stage 1 at the 1947 Tour, said that when Robic went to a restaurant he'd stand in the doorway and wait until all the diners had stopped eating and were looking at him, then proclaim "Oui! C'est moi - Robic!" ("Yes! It is I - Robic!") As is almost invariably the case, however, there was another side to him: when his father died in an accident (a branch that he was trying to saw off a tree fell on him), he spent a large portion of winnings on buying a haberdasher's shop and setting her up in business and he would also write to her while away on the Tour. He was brave, too: after the war, it was revealed that he had risked torture and execution at the hands of the Nazis by using his bike to transport secret messages between Resistance cells and even though he smashed several bones in his spine in a crash at the 1953 Tour, he was back on the start line in 1954. A very few people looked deeper and saw that side of him - one of them was Louison Bobet, who despite being a Breton himself was once Robic's arch-enemy (interestingly, Bobet also carried messages for the Reistance during the war). Perhaps it was because Bobet knew how it felt to be the most hated man in the peloton (find out why here) that he was waiting to pay his respects when Robic finished his last race in 1967, 24 years after his first professional contract.

Robic was also a talented cyclo cross
rider - he was National Champion in 1945
and World Champion in 1950
The general impression is that life always tasted sour to Robic, but in retirement it got worse. Raymonde's family owned a cafe called Au Rendez-vous des Bretons near Montparnasse Station, which he took over; but it failed. Then Raymonde - whom he seems to have loved deeply - left him for another man and he fell into depression. For a while he refereed wrestling events, a sort of "sports-based entertainment" version much like the American type popular today that relied heavily on crowd-pleasing stunts such as when "heels" who disagreed with his decisions would lift him above their heads and throw him out of the ring. For a man as full of himself and his abilities as Robic, that must have hurt even more than the damage it surely did to his injured spine. Then, he went for a long period without employment and took to walking the streets, hoping to meet somebody who might offer him any sort of paid work at all - or, some say, a drink.

Eventually, an old friend took pity and gave him a job; allowing him to begin piecing his life back together. He even learned to moderate his language and behaviour, in time making friends with other cyclists in addition to Bobet and developing a social network, which is why he was driving home from a party given in honour of Joop Zoetemelk, just after the Dutchman's 1980 Tour victory, when he was killed in an accident. The street on which he lived as a child in Radenac has been renamed after him and a room in the village hall has been converted into a museum of his achievements.

Christophe Bassons
Christophe Bassons was born in Mazamet, France on this day in 1974 and started to race mountain bikes in 1991, when he was sixteen. A year later, he took to road racing and in 1995, while studying for his degree in civil engineering, he won the Tour du Tarn et Garonne and the Military World Time Trial Championship. He signed a contract to ride professionally for Force Sud in 1996 and then, when the team broke up in March, Festina-Lotus, where he remained until Willy Voet's mobile pharmacy was stopped by customs and the cycling world was torn apart by the Festina Affair of 1998.

Christophe Bassons
Thus began one of the worst scandals ever to hit cycling, parking off a cycle of admissions, denials, investigations, accusations and counter-accusations. Yet two of Festina's convicted riders - Christophe Moreau and Armin Meier, both of whom wisely decided the best option was to confess shortly after they were arrested, were vociferous in their insistence that Bassons was entirely innocent. Jean-Luc Gatellier, a writer who studied the Affair for L'Equipe, agreed: "It's true he's not one of them and he hasn't come out of the same mould... it's true that Christophe Bassons doesn't belong to the family of cheats and the corrupted," he said. As a result, he had little difficulty in securing a contract with La Française des Jeux when Festina died.

Bassons was among the lowliest of domestiques and, had be not have been singled out as the sole innocent man among a gang of criminals, he's probably have come out of the Affair no less anonymous than he had been before the story broke and would have been able to get on with his career. However, while subjected to intense scrutiny by some (his good character remained steadfastly intact), he was hailed as a hero by others and was chosen as something of an unofficial figurehead for the new, clean cycling that fans hoped would emerge when the scandal finally ebbed - assuming, of course, that cycling survived, which looked far from certain at some points. He was invited first to write for Vélo, in which he referred to riders who opposed quarterly medical checks (then used in an effort to catch dopers, or at least to be seen to be doing something to catch dopers) as hypocrites, then for Le Parisien. Basson's articles were generally considered harmless, amusing fripperies that shed a little light on the fit-for-public-consumption inner workings of the peloton; but once in a while they revealed a glimpse of its dark heart, stretched to over-capacity as it laboured to keep the EPO-thickened blood flowing through the sport. In one, he mentioned Lance Armstrong's rise back to the top of cycling after his recovery from cancer, which he said had been viewed as highly suspicious by many riders.

One day, Bassons claimed that as the Tour was climbing Alpe d'Huez, Lance Armstrong rode alongside him and delivered what sounded very much like a warning. It had been, the Texan said, a mistake to keep talking about doping. Bassons replied that he was concerned about future generations and what might happen to them if doping continued. "Why don't you go home, then?" Armstrong asked, which many took to be a politer way to say "if you don't like it, go." Armstrong confirmed later that the exchange had in act taken place, but explained it differently: "His accusations aren't good for cycling, for his team, for me, for anybody," he said. "If he thinks cycling works like that, he's wrong and he would be better off going home." He's still sticking to that story.

Bassons had either seriously misjudged the peloton's mood with regard to doping or he was simply far too angelic to survive in such as dirty world as late 1990s cycling. Whichever it was, the sport was not yet willing to clean up its act - after all, the Festina Affair wasn't the first scandal that had been survived. When Tom Simpson died, ranks were closed, a few new measures put into place to make it look as though steps had been taken and riders reminded one another to be a bit more careful in the future; the journalists went away and nothing much changed. Seven years earlier, when Knud Enemark Jensen collapsed, fractured his skull and later died at the Olympics, the same thing happened; and five years before that when Jean Malléjac came close to dying on Mont Ventoux, the same mountain where Simpson died. It had been that way ever since the days of Choppy Warburton, in the 1890s, and it remained so until Operación Puerto in 2006 when cycling finally realised something had to be done - and that time, set about doing it. Also, he had made a powerful enemy in Armstrong, who was well on his way to winning a Tour and beginning to put together a marketing and public representation team far beyond anything cycling had ever before seen - he may not have been liked by all the riders, but if they were going to have to pick sides there was no doubt they'd be on his, where the money was.

Very soon, he found that riders he once thought were friends would completely blank him. If he tried to instigate a breakaway, nobody would go with him. When he walked into a room, he was ignored. Sometimes, when he was surrounded by 200 men in a peloton, the atmosphere was distinctly threatening. It wasn't long until he cracked and, the morning after Stage 11 at the Tour that year, he got up at 05:30 and packed his bags. He took the time to say goodbye to his team mates ("one rider didn't look at me and refused to shake my hand," he said. "That hurt.") On his way out, he met team manager Marc Madiot, who had admitted to using amphetamines during his own career, and was told that he was letting down the squad.

Bassons has turned his back on cycling - or
cycling turned his back on him - but he
remains active in sport
His team mates, old and new, were almost unanimous in their condemnation: "I was the only one to talk to Bassons [at Force Sud]... He doesn't listen to anyone. Bassons is an individualist. Even in a race he doesn't easily lend a hand. He rides for himself," said an uncharacteristically serious Thierry Bourguignon, usually the (somewhat tediously) zany clown of the peloton. He found a handful of new friends, some of them powerful figures - "His solitude was the living proof that nothing fundamental has changed in the morals of the milieu, "said the journalist Jean-Michel Rouet. "Christophe Bassons died at the stake, burned by his passion. On official communiqués, he left two words: non partant. The peloton had already forgotten rider number 152." The French Minister of Sports Marie-George Buffet was another to take his side. "Rather than fighting against doping, they're fighting its opponent," she said and wrote to him to let him know he had her support, congratulating for having the courage to speak up, but the ProTour remained too hostile an environment - in 2000, he went to the second-category Jean Delatour team; then at the end of 2001, when he was still only 26 and would have been about to begin his best years, he retired. That same year he qualified as a sports teacher and took up a job with the Ministry of Sports and Youth in Bordeaux, where he is now in charge of anti-doping.

Andy Schleck
Andy Schleck at the prologue of the Critérium du Dauphiné,
Born in Lëtzebuerg on this day in 1985, Andy Raymond Schleck comes from a Luxembourgish cycling dynasty - his older brother Frank is also a professional cyclist (and rides for the same team), his father Johny was National Road Race Champion in 1965 and 1973 and rode six Tours de France and his grandfather Auguste came third in the GP Faber of 1926 and 1927 and in the Independents National Road Race Championship of 1928. Oldest brother Steve is a politician. A little-known fact about Andy is that during his youth he was a cyclo cross rider of considerable promise, winning the National Junior Championship in 2002.

In 2004, Andy joined the amateur Vélo Club de Roubaix and was spotted immediately by Tour veteran turned directeur sportif par excellence Cyrille Guimard, a man whose proteges have won numerous prestigious races including seventeen Grand Tours. Among them was Laurent Fignon, of whom he said Andy reminded him, adding that the Luxembourgish rider was one of the greatest natural talents he had ever seen. When he won the Flèche du Sud that same year, he was noticed also by Bjarne Rijs, manager of Frank's team CSC, and offered a trainee contract. Just a year later he was a full professional and got his first taste of a ProTour at the Volta a Catalunya and won the time trial at the National Championships (Frank won the road race).

Having won two stages of the 2006 Sachsen Tour, Rijs deemed his young rider ready for a Grand Tour in 2007 and sent him to the Giro d'Italia, where he finished four stages in third place, won the Youth category and took second place in the General Classification - a stunning result for a Grand Tour debut. The following year he rode his first Tour de France, finishing the Alpe d'Huez stage in third place and proving to the world that a rider destined to be remembered as one of the great climbers had arrived. He was twelfth in the General Classification and won the Youth category, but more importantly had been an instrumental part of CSC's efforts to win the Teams competition - their total prize money equalled €621,210, not far off €0.4 million more than second place Silence-Lotto's €233,450.

Schleck is known as one of the peloton's nice guys. Here,
he awards a medal to Didi Senft, The Devil - who is not as
popular with riders as he is among the fans
In 2009, Schleck won Liège-Bastogne-Liège, one of the toughest and most prestigious Classics - and thus established himself as many people's favourite for the Tour. In fact, there was only one thing in his way, and that was his friend Alberto Contador. Schleck is, without a doubt, one of the top General Classification contenders of his generation and on a good day in the mountains no man alive can beat him, Contador included; Contador, meanwhile, is one of the greatest of all time, and unlike Andy he time trials almost as well as he climbs. That gave him the advantage he needed, Andy had to settle for second place and the Youth category once again. When July in 2010 rolled around, a lot of people looked at Andy and thought it was to be his year. Contador, who by that point had alread won four Grand Tours, was still very much in his prime; but Andy had grown up. His form had always been good, but a year earlier he still had the unformed, softer look of a boy; now he was chiseled, harder and purposeful - when the race got to the high mountains in the Pyrenees and Alps, would Contador be able to hold him off? For a long time it looked as though he might not: whenever he attacked and looked over his shoulder to see who'd followed him, there was Andy smiling back. Then, the Luxembourger won Stage 8, took the maillot jaune from Cadel Evans and held it for six stages through the Alps and the flat stages en route to the Pyrenees, where many expected him to increase his lead, perhaps even prove himself a better climber than Contador, and win the race.

It was not to be. During Stage 15, as the race climbed the last mountain of the day on the way to Bagnères-de-Luchon, Schleck dropped his chain. Contador chose that moment to attack, assisted by Denis Menchov, Samuel Sanchez and a number of other climbers looking to improve their times. By the time he'd set off again he was alone with nobody able to help him make up the gap. Contador took the maillot jaune at the finish line, along with a 39" advantage - the exact same time by which he would win overall five stages later. It remains one of the most controversial incidents in recent Tour history, attacked and defended by equal numbers: Sean Kelly was disgusted with what he saw as a total lack of sportsmanship and Gerard Vroomen said that while Contador had gained a great chance to win, he'd lost his chance to win greatly; meanwhile, Eddy Merckx, Bernard Hinault and Miguel Indurain saw nothing wrong in what he'd done. Contador said that he hadn't realised Schleck was in trouble and apologised (but even those who want to believe him, this writer included, have difficulty accepting his claims: the video of the incident makes it look very unlikely that he didn't know). Schleck says that he accepts the explanation and the apology; they remain friends.

In the Leopard Trek kit
Four days after the 2010 Tour, Andy and Frank gave a press conference in which the announced they would be leaving CSC at the end of the season and would ride with a new Luxembourg-based team managed by Brian Nygaard and Kim Andersen. The team was to be called Leopard True Racing, but when the young Danish rider Jakob Fuglsang announced that he too would be joining, he revealed that it would be Leopard Trek. The announcement of Team Sky was one of the biggest things to ever hit British cycling, but the buzz surrounding Leopard Trek was worlwide and in a different league altogether and kept growing as some of the most popular and talented figures in professional cycling were confirmed for the squad, many of them asset-stripped from CSC; among them was Stuart O'Grady, Oliver Zaugg, Joost Posthuma, Wouter Weylandt, Brice Feillu, Maxime Monfort, Lunis Gerdemann, the legendary Fabian Cancellara and, perhaps most popular of all, Jens Voigt; thier combined UCI points made the team number one in the world before it even officially existed. They also took media-savviness to a whole new level, like a multi-platinum selling rock band making maximum and effective use of social network websites, their own excellently-designed site, TV and magazines. One of the most recognisable and stylish team kits, tour buses that looked like space shuttles, Mercedes team cars and the gorgeous Trek Madones the team rode were the icing on the cake - Leopard Trek meant business, and they had the talent and the budget to take on the world and win.

There are those who say that Leopard Trek never delivered what they promised, but that's just because many fans expected them to win everything. In fact they were highly successful during the single year for which the team existed with numerous victories in the one-day events and the stage races. One of the most impressive was Andy's spectacular Stage 18 triumph at the Tour, when he rode away from the peloton on the 2,645m Col du Galibier. Nobody could get anywhere near him that day and, once again, it looked as though the Tour was his. In the following stages, however, his avantage was gradually eroded and by the time the Stage 20 time trial came around, he had just 57" on second place Cadel Evans. He lost, and Evans because the first Australian to win a Tour.

In August 2011, Geox team manager Joxean Fernandez Matxin claimed on Twitter that he'd heard Leopard Trek and RadioShack were to merge for 2012, but few believed him and when officials from both teams denied it the story seemed dead in the water. Then, further information began to leak out - Leopard Trek's Brian Nygaard was apparently none the wiser, but there were persistent tales of mysterious meetings between Leopard owner Flavio Becca and RadioShack manager Johan Bruyneel. Gazzetto dello Sport, the reliable Italian newspaper that owns the Giro d'Italia, said that it had received confirmation the new team would be called RadioShack-Trek; if that was a guess it was a good one, because when the team was confirmed it was RadioShack-Nissan Trek.

Andy follows Cadel on the Alpe d'Huez
Though Andy became the official winner of the 2010 Tour after Contador's controversial two-year ban in the wake of a failed anti-doping test (an honour he was reluctant to accept, having remained a steadfast supporter of the beleaguered Spanish rider throughout the long and drawn-out trial), 2012 didn't get off to a good start. His performances in the Classics was so poor that Bruyneel packed him and Frank off to an extra training camp. Frank then became a last-minute choice for the Giro after Fuglsang was injured; he abandoned with an injured shoulder but, for three weeks the spotlight was not on Andy, giving him excellent opportunity to train. Tour organisers announced that there would be more than 100km of time trials and less emphasis on the mountains, which in the opinion of many fans rules him out of contention this year. However, sometimes - when he really needs to - Andy can ride time trials. He did so in Stage 19 at the 2010 Tour, looking for a while like he might even beat Contador (though ultimately, he didn't). If he can in 2012 and also does well in the mountains (although the 2012 Tour has been termed less mountainous than preceding years, it still takes in La Planche des Belles Filles, Col du Grand Columbier, Madeleine, Croix du Fer, La Toussure, d'Aubisque, Tourmalet and others for a total of 25 peaks), Andy might surprise us yet.

On this day in 1899, 44-year-old composer Ernest Chausson lost control of his bicycle while riding down a hill on his estate in Limay, Yvelines, crashed into a wall and died instantly. Chausson's father made his fortune working with Baron Haussmann, whose 1850s redevelopment of Paris gave us much of the grand architecture that is familiar to cycling fans from the last stage of the Tour de France as it rolls along the Champs-Élysées each year. He was buried in the Cimetière du Père-Lachaise, not far from the graves of Albert Champion (who won Paris-Roubaix the same year Chausson died and set up the Champion spark plug firm), Laurent Fignon (winner of two Tours and one Giro) and Félix François Faure, who was president of France from 1895-1899 and whose determination to see the Dreyfus Affair permanently declared res judicata indirectly gave rise to the events that led to the creation of the Tour de France.

Other births: Alois Wacha (Austria, 1888); Donna Gould (Australia, 1966); Natsue Seki (Japan, 1966); Lucien De Brauwere (Belgium, 1951); Nico de Jong (Netherlands, 1887, died 1966); Carlo Bomans (Belgium, 1963); Luigi Roncaglia (Italy, 1943).

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