Wednesday, 8 January 2014

Daily Cycling Facts 08.01.2014

Jacques Anquetil
On this day in 1934, one of cycling's all-time greatest riders was born: Jacques Anquetil, son of a builder. It was said that while "Anquetil could drop nobody, nobody could drop Anquetil" and that as a result he was always racing the clock, rather than other riders - one of the reasons he became known as Mr. Chrono.

Anquetil obtained his first racing licence on the 2nd of December 1950, when he was riding with the amateur AC Sottevillais - he would remain a member of the club for the rest of his life, never forgetting the support it offered in the early days of his career, and there is a memorial provided by the club on his grave at Quincampoix. Soon after joining, he passed his exams and became a qualified engineer, finding employment with a local factory but, having by this time realised that his future was on the bike, he walked out of the job after less than a month because his boss refused to allow him extra days off for training. Fortunately, AC Sottevillais' coach and manager André Boucher was a talented man and the young Anquetil developed fast; rapidly beginning to bring in victories and money.

Just two years later, the young rider won a bronze medal at the Olympics. Boucher gathered a selection of press cuttings and mailed them to a representative of the famous La Perle bicycle manufacturer which ran a racing team, asking him to send them on to the team's manager Francis Pélissier (brother of Henri who won the Tour in 1923). The representative was impressed and so the cuttings did find their way to Pélissier, who was also impressed and personally rang Anquetil - who, as a nineteen-year-old lad, was presumably over-awed to get a call from a Pélissier - to offer him 30,000 francs per month to ride for the team as an independent (a class of semi-professionals who received limited backing from their team and were responsible for finding and paying for their own board and lodgings at races). Anquetil, in the way of young men everywhere, went straight out and spent the money on a new car; a Renault Frégate, the manufacturer's top-of-the-range model that was supposed to be a rival to Citroen's legendary DS, that he crashed twice in the first year he owned it. In 1953, Pélissier sent Anquetil to the GP des Nations which had become known as the unofficial world time trial championships and where he would compete against British star Ken Joy. At that time, British cyclists considered themselves to be far stronger time trial riders than their Continental counterparts, but once out on the parcours - upon which Joy had started sixteen minutes earlier - Anquetil wasted no time in catching and passing him, then won. The British rider was crushed, but in a way Anquetil had done the British racing scene a big favour: after many years of insularity created by the National Cycling Union's ban on road racing, British cyclists had little experience of  the level of professionalism in Europe and incidents such as this were a valuable lesson in how they needed to shape up if they were to realise their recent dream of competing in events such as the Tour de France. However, Pélissier was not yet convinced that the future lay with Anquetil, and at the same race the following year he concentrated his support on the Swiss rider Hugo Koblet who would win the Tour in 1951. Anquetil was not happy, but he beat Koblet and once again won, as he would a total of nine times.

Anquetil in 1963
(image credit: Dutch National Archive)
Later in his life, Anquetil developed an affection for Britain based on the nation's love of time trials. In 1961, he was invited to attend the annual Road Time Trails Council awards ceremony at the Royal Albert Hall, where he handed over prizes to Brian Kirby and the legendary Beryl Burton, who became perhaps the most successful British athlete of all time. Three years later, he was approached with a suggestion that he might consider taking part in a British race over a 25 mile course and was enthusiastic - when asked how long he thought he would take to complete the race, he replied "46 minutes" - 8 minutes faster than the record time set for the course. Anquetil was famous for an ability to accurately assess any course after studying maps for no more than few minutes, and the times he estimated he would take to complete them were rarely incorrect. Sadly, in this case we'll never know if he really could have finished in the time he stated because he asked for £1000 to take part - Vic Jenner, a timber merchant who had provided large amounts of money to cycling events in the past, had said he would put up the money but when he died a short while afterwards nobody else had the means to replace his offer. However, Anquetil did race in Britain that year when he took part in a cycling exhibition at the Herne Hill velodrome, riding with Tom Simpson.

(image credit: Velorunner)
That ability to read a parcours so accurately is evidence of Anquetil's formidable intelligence, which combined with his physical attributes to make him the devastatingly effective rider that he was - Dick Yates said, "That Anquetil was a highly intelligent man there can be no doubt and he was the nearest thing to a true intellectual that cycling has ever produced." He found astronomy fascinating and, according to those who knew him, had a working knowledge and understanding of the science; yet he also had a superstitious side that remain common among cyclists to this day. In 1964, a fortune teller for a French newpaper predicted that he would die on the 13th day of the Tour de France. His wife Janine tried to hide it from him, but he found out when fans of his rivals sent him anonymous letters with clippings of the prediction and, on the rest day before the 13th day of the race, he locked himself in his hotel room and refused to come out. Eventually, Raphaël Géminiani managed to tempt him out by promising to take him to a party,something almost guaranteed to pique the famously hedonistic rider's interest; the next day, feeling the after effects of a night of excess, Anquetil rode badly and was dropped soon after the stage began. However, he survived the day and went on to win the Tour, his fifth. That he suffered so badly may be seen as evidence that tales of wild parties he supposedly held during races and his habit of preparing himself by staying up late and drinking vast amounts of wine (he claimed that his preparation the night before a race consisted of "a pheasant with chestnuts, a bottle of champagne and a woman") are simply legends - legends that the he, like Mario Cippolini four decades later, did nothing to dispel, realising the effect that being passed with ease by a rider they believed to be hung-over would have on his opponents (Géminiani said that Anquetil had on more than one occasion bluffed his rivals into thinking he was no good in the mountains - which, in truth, were not his favourite part of a race - before "tearing them to shreds," further evidence that he used psychology against rivals). Janine also insists that the tale in which the rider successfully treated mid-race indigestion as he battled Poulidor to the top of the Puy de Dôme by gulping down half a bottle of champagne passed to him from the team car by Géminiani is a myth; despite it being recounted as fact in many books (if we were to stop telling all the good stories from Tour history that are really myths, however, we'd lose many of the best tales; and the truth should not be permitted to get in the way of a good narrative when dealing with matters such as cycling).

In 1954, Anquetil began his mandatory two years' military service. Towards the end, he was given orders that he described as the "strangest, the most unusual that a gunner has ever been asked to carry out" - namely, to beat the Hour Record that Italian Fausto Coppi had set fourteen years previously at 45.848km and which he had already failed to better in 1955. The agreement was that, should he succeed, half the prize money would go to the Army and the other half to the mother of a soldier who had been killed in Algeria. Anquetil, of course, would keep the glory - worth far more to a young cyclist than any amount of money. His first two attempts failed when he started off to quickly, but on the third - riding a near-exact copy of Coppi's bike built from scratch in three days especially for the attempt - he covered 46.149km. Coppi placed his seal of approval upon the achievement by giving the French rider his autograph.

Memorial, Chateaufort
(image credit: Henri Salome CC BY-SA 3.0) 
In 1965, Anquetil beat the Hour Record once again with 47.493km. However, this time it was disallowed because he arrogantly refused to submit to an anti-doping test afterwards, feeling that a rider of his stature - by this time, he had won his five Tours, two Giro d'Italia and a Vuelta a Espana - should be afforded better treatment than having to urinate in a bottle in a tent set up in the middle of the track. He would, he said, be perfectly content to supply the sample in the more dignified surroundings of his hotel room; but the Italian testers disagreed. The row became rather heated and manager Géminiani (a man known for his short temper - which was never displayed more memorably than in 1952 when he lost his patience with Jean Robic, who had for some reason decided to give a press conference while in the bath: Géminiani stormed over and pushed his head under the water three times, holding it there until Robic could no longer hold his breath)  tried to physically throw the testers out of the tent.

Anquetil's attitude towards doping was an unusual one. While he never made a full admission to using drugs, he was completely open with journalists and other figures at a time when the subject tended to remain unspoken, as exemplified by none other than Charles de Gaulle when he said of Anquetil, "Doping? What doping? Did he or did he not make them play the Marseillaise abroad?" Anquetil's views on the matter, meanwhile, are better summed up by the response he gave when the subject came up during a televised interview: "Leave me in peace. Everyone takes dope." The nearest he came to a confession was when he told the story of how he and Roger Hassenforder - who entered the Tour six times and finished once, in 50th place - had decided to find out if amphetamine has the same effect on fish that it has on humans by dropping a handful of Maxiton tablets into a restaurant's fish tank. Apparently, it does.

He was the first cyclist to achieve five overall victories in the Tour de France, including his incredible win in 1961 when he wore the maillot jaune in every stage of the race - a feat that had happened before, but against far weaker fields than one which included riders like Jean Stablinksi and Charly Gaul. He also won the Giro d'Italia twice, the Vuelta a Espana once, the Critérium du Dauphiné Libéré twice, Liège-Bastogne-Liège and Bordeaux-Paris once, Paris-Nice five times and the Grand Prix des Nations nine times, among many other victories. Even the notoriously bad-tempered Bernard Hinault, who detests being compared to the cycling giants that came before him, says that being compared to Anquetil "is an honour."

Towards the end of the 1960s, Anquetil became increasingly angry with the French fans for transferring their loyalty to Raymond Poulidor: Poulidor was a great rider, but he was human. Anquetil, meanwhile, often seemed more than that and had a tendency towards pomposity at times which meant that while he enjoyed enormous respect, he was not especially liked by many French, who prefer their heroes flawed (we can seem the same characteristics in their attitude towards Lance Armstrong). On the 27th of December, in what looks rather like a tantrum, he announced his retirement and devoted the rest of his life to running his farm at his chateau, Le Domaine des Elfes - according to Dick Yates, "he had a deep love of the land and was at his happiest when driving a tractor." Like Bernard Hinault (who claimed not to have ridden a bike for many years after retiring), Anquetil gave up cycling altogether and is known to have ridden just three times afterwards; once at the Grand Prix des Gentleman in which professionals try themselves against the greats of years gone by, once on an afternoon jaunt with friends and once with his daughter on her birthday. He did, however, maintain links to the cycling world, commentating on races for French television where his race analyses were became considered the best in the business and stirring up controversy when he showed bias towards Luis Ocaña by explaining to him in detail how he should go about beating Eddy Merckx at the Tour de France.

Anquetil's grave
(public domain image)
He was 53 when he died of stomach cancer, at 6am on the 18th of November. Towards the end, Poulidor came to see him and the two men became friends. "He said to me that the cancer was so agonisingly painful it was like racing up the Puy de Dôme all day, every hour of the day," Poulidor said. "He then said, I will never forget it, 'My friend, you will come second to me once again.'"

Mirella van Melis, one of the many great Dutch cyclists to have begun her career in cyclo cross, was born on this day in 1979. In 1997, she became World Road Junior Champion, then won eight National Track Championships over the next three years whilst also winning stages and podium finishes at several road races.

Happy birthday to mountain biker Paola Pezzo, born in 1969 in Verona. Paola was World Champion in 1993, won a gold medal at the 1996 Olympics in Atlanta, then became World Champion for a second time and won the Grundig World Cup in 1997, won the European Championship in 1999 and took another Olympic gold in 2000. Her most recent major victory was becoming National XC Champion in 2005.

Fernand Sanz (full name Fernando Sanz y Martínez de Arizala), born on the 28th of February 1881 in Madrid, won a silver medal in the Men's Sprint at the 1900 Olympics when he represented France. However, he has a far better claim to fame than that: he was the illegitimate son of Alfonso XII, King of Spain. He died on this day in January in 1925.

Other cyclists born on this day: Nicholas White (South Africa, 1974); Severino Andreoli (Italy, 1941); Chelly Arrue (USA, 1969); Jim Davies (Canada, 1906, died 1999); Rolando Guaves (Philippines, 1945); Rudy Houtsch (Luxembourg, 1916); Jaroslav Kulhavý (Czechoslovakia, 1985); Peter Latham (New Zealand, 1984); Jiří Mainuš (Czechoslovakia, 1945); Klaus Nielsen (Denmark, 1980); Vladimir Osokin (USSR, 1954); Kurt Rechsteiner (Switzerland, 1931); Edwin Santos (Guatemala, 1972); Eric Wohlberg (Canada, 1965).

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