Monday, 17 June 2013

Daily Cycling Facts 17.06.2013

Mangled bikes at the 1928 Tour
On this day in 1928, the Tour de France set off on the 207km Stage 1 route from Paris to Caen - the earliest date the race has ever started. 162 riders were at the start line that morning, more than at any previous edition. It covered 5,476km around the perimeter of the country and there were 22 stages: five mountain stages, two flat stages and all the rest were team time trials in which the teams set off at intervals, the man with the fastest to the finish line being declared the winner.

It was a year of firsts: the first Australian team (headed by the legendary Hubert Opperman, who finished in 18th place) and the first time regional teams took part (there were eight trade teams, nine regional teams and the independent riders); as well as of firsts-and-lasts: a new rule was introduced that allowed teams to replace exhausted riders with fresh ones (the idea was to give weaker teams a better chance, but stronger and richer teams could introduce better riders so it in fact favoured them), a single team - Alcyon - took all three steps on the podium at the end of the race and Nicolas Frantz, who won for a second time despite near disaster (see below), became the only man to wear the maillot jaune throughout the entire race (in 1924 and 1935, the race leader had won the maillot jaune in Stage 1 and kept it to the end, but when Frantz won he wore it right from the start line. Maurice Garin would have done the same in 1904, but the maillot jaune hadn't yet been introduced into the race).

Second place André Leducq drinks to Nicolas Frantz, who
beat him by 50'07".
Frantz's race could very easily have ended in Stage 19 when his frame snapped as he rode over a level crossing. Alcyon were afraid of the bad publicity and ordered him to get a new machine from an Alcyon shop, but Frantz and the manager said that doing so would take too long and potentially lose the race. Exactly what happened next is not known - some people say that, while the manager and Alcyon representatives argued, Frantz saw a woman in the crowd with a bike and asked if he could borrow it while others say they went to the nearest bike shop and bought the only bike in stock - either way, he ended up riding  100km on a women's bike that was much too small for him and lost 28 minutes. Fortunately, he'd had an advantage of 75 minutes when the accident happened and so the maillot jaune remained his.

L'Auto awarded an unofficial meilleur grimpeur to Victor Fontan, the beginnings of the King of the Mountains competition that became an integral part of the Tour from 1933 onwards. There was also a  Trofee l'Equipe for trade and regional teams, different to the Teams classification that would be introduced in 1930, won by Alcyon and the Champagne regional riders.

Eddy Merckx
Merck in 1974
There are two main periods in cycling's time line - the years before 1968, when cyclists dreamed of being called the best to have ever lived and the years that came after 1974 when they knew the best had been and gone, and nobody would ever top what he had done (except, perhaps, Marianne Vos; who might just be something else entirely). That rider was, of course, The Cannibal, the man now officially known as Edouard Louis Joseph, Baron Merckx.

Lance Armstrong may have topped Merckx's five Tour de France victories with his own seven (he was later stripped of all of them when USADA found him guilty of doping as part of what many call the biggest fraud in the history of sport), but Armstrong concentrated almost entirely on the Tour and won little else. Merckx, in comparison, also won five Giri d'Italia and a Vuelta a Espana - eleven Grand Tours, the most ever won by an individual rider. What's more, Armstrong never achieved a victory that even compared to Merckx's greatest triumphs: at the Giro in 1968 and then again at the Tour in 1969 - when he wanted to teach his rivals a lesson after he'd been thrown out of that year's Giro for failing a drugs test in highly dubious circumstances (according to legend, the doctor who performed the test told Merckx "I know you're innocent, but the test is positive." A story appeared some time later claiming that the doctor, far from being a decent man who would have upheld  Merckx's honour had he have been able to do so, had taken a sizable bribe from Felice Gimondi, who went on to win the race) - he won the General Classification, the Points competition and the King of the Mountains, something that had never been done before and has not been repeated. Cycling's ultimate prize - victory in all three Grand Tours in a single season - was beyond even him (and is therefore considered impossible by many), but he won the Triple Crown (Giro, Tour, World Championships) in 1974, the first man and still one of only two to do so.  He won two Grand Tours in a single year three times with the Tour and Giro in 1970 and 1972 and the Giro and the Vuelta in 1973, a record shared with Bernard Hinault's Tour and Vuelta in 1978 and Tour and Giro in 1982 and 1985, and he holds the record for the most stage wins at the Tour (34) and highest total number of days in the maillot jaune (96). He shares the record for the most stages won in a single Tour (8) with Charles Pélissier, who did it in 1930, and Freddy Maertens who did it in 1976 - however, Merckx did it twice, in 1970 and again in 1974.

For a few years in the early 1970s,
Merckx was literally unstoppable. No
other rider could even get close.
His domination of the other races was no less complete: he won four Tours of Sardinia, three Paris-Nice, two Rondes van België, and one Critérium du Dauphiné, Tour de Suisse, Midi Libre and Tour de Romandie. His 28 Classics victories are a record, as are his seven wins in one Classic alone (Milan-San Remo). He also holds the record for the most Liège-Bastogne-Liège wins (3). All in all, Merckx won 525 races over his fourteen years as a professional rider and many more whilst a junior, then as an amateur. In 1971, he won 45% of the races he entered.

Merckx, like Louis Trousellier, is the complete antithesis to the "poor boy from a broken home" stereotype. His middle-class parents owned a prosperous grocery shop in one of the more upmarket  towns surrounding Brussels and he says that neither he nor his brother and sister went without anything he needed during childhood. Nor does he claim that the will to become a better man than an abusive father is what drove him to success; rather, he thanks his father for instilling him with the hard work ethic that he credits as the reason for his achievements. L'Equipe made much of this in 2000 when they said "Eddy Merckx was a spoiled child of the post-war generation. Very spoiled, in fact. To see that, you have only to look at photos of his youth: Eddy dressed as a page boy, as an injured soldier (his sister played the role of nurse), as a cowboy, the Merckx family on winter sports holidays, Eddy and his father's Plymouth car. So many memories of a happy childhood far, very far, from those of a van Looy or a Coppi. He was often reproached for it, but was it his fault if God gave him so much?" Of course, the French are angry that no French rider has won a Tour since Hinault in 1985 and of course they're angry that Belgians have dominated "France's sport" for more than a century; but to make such a thinly-veiled accusation of spoiled arrogance 23 years after his final victory is perhaps taking things a little far. In fact, the similarities between Merckx and the great French hero Hinault are marked: both men saw racing in a curiously machine-like, black-and-white way, believing - perhaps correctly - that if one did not intend to win every race one entered, one may as well not enter races. Neither man was arrogant; if you really are the best in the world at what you do, saying so is a statement of fact rather than an arrogant boast.

18th of May 1978 - Merckx announces
his immediate retirement
He fell in love with cycling while he was still small and hero-worshipped Stan Ockers who twice won the Points competition at the Tour and died in an accident at the Antwerp track when Merckx was 11, and his parents bought him a second-hand racing bike when he was eight. On the 16th of July in 1961, not long after his 16th birthday, he entered his first race at Laeken (that very same day, 315km away, Jacques Anquetil won his second Tour); on the 1st of October in the same year, he won his first. It's tempting to imagine that across Europe cycling's establishment stopped what they were doing and looked fearfully at the sky, sensing that something of momentous importance had just started to happen; but in reality neither seemed an important event as far as the world was concerned, few people other than local fans could ever claim to have been there to see it and once the race was over only few more people knew the name Merckx than before. Ten years later, he was the most famous athlete in the world - even people with no interest, even people in America and other nations traditionally uninterested in cycling, knew The Cannibal. His fame was worldwide, surpassing that even of today's top soccer players and boxers, acclaim far and away beyond that enjoyed by any cyclist before or since outside France and Belgium.

The rest is legend.

Adri van de Poel
Adri van der Poel
Born in Bergen Op Zoom, Netherlands on this day in 1959, Adri van de Poel was a professional between 1981 and 2000; he began his career with the Belgian DAF Trucks-Cote d'Or-Gazelle and ended it with Rabobank. He announced the beginning of his professional career in fine style by winning Stage 3 and second place overall at Paris-Nice, Stage 1 at the Critérium du Dauphiné and a host of criterium victories during that first year, also winning a bronze medal at the National Championships. In 1982 he won more criteriums and entered his first Tour de France; second place on Stage 21, ninth place on Stage 18 and top 20 on four other stages races being very good results for a rider making his Tour debut, even if he was 102nd overall at the end.

In 1983, van der Poel was caught out by an anti-doping test that revealed strychnine in his system. Though extremely toxic, strychnine in small doses acts as a stimulant and was commonly used as such in the early days of cycling - notably by riders associated with the notorious manager/soigneur Choppy Warburton; due to its toxicity it's also used in pest control so, when he claimed that he must have unwittingly consumed the offending substance in the pigeon pie served by his father-in-law the previous Sunday and the Dutch Federation could find no reason to dispute the claim, he escaped sanction. Thirty years later, his explanation still holds water, so it's probably safe to assume he was telling the truth. He also finished another Tour de France that year and this time came in the top ten on nine stages, taking 37th place overall.

Left to right Adrie van der Poel, Joop Zoetemelk, Phil Anderson, Jan Raas
At the end of the 1983 season he was third in the Giro di Lombardia and in 1984 he finished Stage 4 at the Tour in third before abandoning after Stage 13. In 1985 he won Scheldeprijs and Paris-Brussels, in 1986 the Ronde van Vlaanderen and third place at Paris-Roubaix; then his first Tour stage came a year later when he was the fastest man to complete Stage 9's 260km between Orléans and Renazé, the year also brought him the National Road Race Championship. In 1988, he won Liège-Bastogne-Liège and another stage at the Tour, Stage 16 from Luz Ardiden to Pau, but it wasn't the most impressive victory of all time as it was only 38km long (Stage 17 - often termed Stage 16b - took place on the same day and was 198km). In 1990 he won the Amstel Gold Race; but from then onwards, in spite of the great promise he'd once shown, he ceased to be a contender for respectable Tour results and never won another stage.

Van der Poel was a very talented road cyclist by anyone's standards, but he was much better at cyclo cross and won the National Championship in 1987, 1989-1992, 1995 and 1999 and the World Championship in 1996, along with many victories in smaller events. That these are concentrated in the second half of his career suggests a likely reason that he never lived up to that early road promise - he just decided that he preferred 'cross. He is married to Raymond Poulidor's daughter.

Steve Peat
Steve Peat, the most successful downhill mountain biker
in the history of the sport
Born in Chapeltown, South Yorkshire on this day in 1974, Steve Peat started his professional mountain career in a relatively undistinguished manner with the British Saracen team, enjoying little success before moving on to Team MBUK - an organisation sponsored by the Mountain Biking UK magazine that did a great deal to popularise all forms on the sport in Britain from 1988 onwards. In 1997, he joined the GT team and began earning podium places in Europe and the USA, then in 1998 he won the Snoqualmie round of the UCI Downhill MTB Word Cup. 1999 saw him win the National Championhips for the first time, and in 2000 he took it again. 2001 brought two rounds of the World Cup, 2002 the overall World Cup in 2002 and a third National title. British fans began to hope they had a future world champion.

In 2003 Peaty (as he was now universally known, original nickname "Sheffield Steel" having been found not to the liking of fans) became National Champion for the fourth time, taking back the title from Rob Warner, and received an invite to return to a British team in the form of Orange, sponored by the Yorkshire bike manufacturer of the same name. This offered two advantages - a team organised specifically with the the intention of pushing him towards victory at the World Championships and secondly the Orange Patriot, at that time perhaps the most effective downhill bike in the world. Aboard one during his two years with the team, Peat won two rounds of the World Cup and the series overall, the European Championships and then in 2005 a fifth British title and another two World Cup rounds (including the British round at Fort William, to enormous joy from home fans).

And that, ladies and gentlemen, is why downhill MTBs look
as beefy as they do. Peaty at Fort William
The rigours and extreme speeds involved in downhill racing have driven innovation among the bike manufacturers ever since Joe Breeze, Gary Fisher and their Californian hippy friends invented the sport, and it's probably a safe bet to say that the incredible long-travel suspension bikes built by Santa Cruz had as much to do with Peat's decision to leave his British team and sign up to them for 2006 as the pay cheques on offer - he's ridden for them every since. That year, he won the World Cup again and the the Lisboa Downtown, a downhill race that takes place on the cobbled streets and steps of Lisbon in Portugal and which leaves anybody who has ever filled out a risk assessment form full of admiration for the organisers. He won it again in 2007, then again in 2008 when he also took back the National Championship. Finally, in Setember 2009, he won the title he'd chased for so long - the World Championships. Four months previously, when he beat Gee Atherton to win Round 3 of the World Cup, he  had become officially the most successful downhill mountain biker the world has ever seen.

Sven Nys
Sven Nys
There must be something special about the 17th of June - not only were the world's most successful road racer (Merckx) and downhill mountain biker (Peat) born on this day, the world's most successful cyclo cross rider was too: Sven Nys came into the world in Bonheiden, near Antwerp, on this day in 1976.

Nys began competing in BMX when he was eight years old and won eight National titles. In most countries, riders in their teens tend to switch from BMX to mountain biking or road racing, but in Belgium it's just as likely to be cyclo cross - as was the case with Nys, and he was immediately successful in that discipline too with a win at the Brabant Provincial Junior Championship and second place at the National Junior Champs in 1994. The next year, he won the Junior Nationals, then moved into the Amateurs category for 1996 and won again at Brabant. 1997 was his breakthrough year with another victory at Brabant and numerous other races, which earned him a place with Rabobank for 1998.

At Middelkerke in 2007
Rabobank would be his home for the next eleven seasons and, with them, he won the Under-23 World Championship in 1998 with eleven other victories; the Superprestige and nineteen other victories in 1999; a second Superprestige, the World Cup, the National Championship and nine other victories in 2000; fourteen races in 2001; another Superprestige, a second World Cup and eleven other races in 2002; a fourth Superprestige, a second National Championship and thirteen other races in 2003; 21 races (including a derny race) in 2004; a third National Championship, the World Championship, Superprestige, the GVA Trofee (and thus became the first rider to achieve cyclo cross' Gran Slam) and twenty-seven races (including the National Cross-Country MTB Championship) in 2005;  Superprestige, the GVA Trofee and twenty-seven races  in 2006 and Superprestige, the GVA Trofee and thirty other races (including another National XC MTB title) in 2007. Halfway through 2008 he changed to Landbouwkrediet team and won the National CX Championship, Superprestige, the GVA Trofee and fifteen other races (including another derny race) that year; then the National Championship and fifteen other races in 2009; the National Championship, GVA Trofee and sixteen other races in 2010; Superprestige and thirteen other races in 2011 and, to date, the National Championship, Superprestige and four other races in 2012 as the 2011/2012 season drew to a close. His victory at the 2012 Antwerpen MTB race on the 2nd of June was the 427th victory of his career.

Henri Lemoine, who was born in Massy, France on this day in 1909, turned professional in 1930 and retired in 1957 after 28 seasons - one of the longest careers in cycling. For a while, he worked with Charles Mochet, one of the first manuacturers of recumbent bikes, and helped Mochet in his efforts to popularise them

Other cyclists born on this day: Jan Maas (Netherlands, 1900, died 1977); Henry Ohayon (born Morocco 1934, competed for Israel); Olga Sacasa (Nicaragua, 1961); Donny Robinson (USA, 1983); Jim Fisher (Canada, 1975); Tracey Watson-Gaudry (Australia, 1969); Jan Veselý (Czechoslovakia, 1923, died 2003); Wendell Rollins (USA, 1917, died 1990); Uwe Preißler (East Germany, 1967); Lyudmila Gorozhanskaya (Belarus, 1970); Jean-Louis Baugnies (Belgium, 1957); Peter Hric (Slovakia, 1965); Urho Sirén (Finland, 1932).


  1. 100 years of the Tour this year. I can't wait!

  2. I have a feeling that it's going to be a very, very good race this year. Obviously the Tour is ALWAYS a very, very good race, but I think this one will be especially so.