Friday 31 January 2014

Daily Cycling Facts 31.01.2014

Henri Desgrange
Father of the Tour de France - some would say not its inventor, despite the impression he liked to give once it became apparent that the race was going to be successful beyond anybody's wildest dreams - Henri Desgrange was born on this day in 1865 in Paris, one of twins and into an affluent, upper-middle-class family. His brother George is described as having been "totally devoid of all ambition," but the same was not true of Henri who, it appears, may have been qualified to practice as a lawyer - this has not been proved but the first edition of his L'Auto newspaper states that he was "a former advocate of the Court of Appeal," and he was most certainly employed at a law office owned by a firm named Depeux-Dumesnil, based near the Place de Clichy in the North-West Quadrant. Legend has it that he was threatened with dismissal for wearing tight socks that showed his thighs as he cycled to work and, as a result, was given the choice of finding another means of transport or finding employment elsewhere. He saw this as an opportunity and walked out, dedicating the rest of his life to the sport he loved.

Desgrange set a number of cycling
records as a young man and became
National Tricycle Champion in 1893
Degrange was a cyclist of considerable note in his own right. He had been inspired to take it up when he went to watch the inaugural Bordeaux-Paris race in 1891 and bought his first bike soon afterwards, originally hoping to make a name as a track rider. However, he found that he wasn't able to accelerate as quickly as other riders, which gave him a serious disadvantage. Endurance events suited his physique far better and in 1893 he set the world's first ratified Hour Record by riding 35.325km at the Vélodrome Buffalo, the first of twelve records he would set during his career. Four years later, he became the director of the new Vélodrome Parc des Princes, a facility that had been so badly built that spectators had to be kept out of the stands when it first opened for fear of structural collapse. However, he proved a wise choice for the job and made good use of the central area surrounded by the 666m track; making it available for other events which brought in much-need extra income so that he was able to improve the building and develop it to a point where it became the city's premier sports stadium. Towards the end of 1903, he also took over the directorship of Paris' first indoor track, the Vélodrome d'Hiver, which would later be hired out by Desgrange's successor Jacques Goddet for fascist rallies and handed over to the Nazis as a temporary prison for Jews before they could be transported to concentration camps.

Desgrange is frequently remembered
as a humourless tyrant - but was that
description entirely deserved?
At the turn of the last century, France was divided over the Dreyfus Affair and Desgrange was an avowed anti-Dreyfusard. Dreyfus was an Army captain, the highest Jewish military figure in the country, who had been accused of selling state secrets to Germany - treason, no less, for which the maximum penalty was death. The charges against him were trumped up, partly due to the antisemitism of some of his opponents; but it should be realised that Desgrange was not necessarily an antisemite himself (Goddet's beliefs, as we have seen, were questionable) - indeed, it seems quite likely that he was not when one takes into account his passionate admiration for the writer Émile Zola, whose style he tried to emulate in his own writing and who, as one of the most vocal Dreyfusards, attacked antisemitism and was instrumental in the Captain's eventual complete exoneration of all charges. His opposition to Dreyfus is perhaps more likely to have stemmed from the fact that the Captain was from Alsace, which had passed into German hands in 1871 as a result of the Franco-Prussian war to the very great embarrassment of France, leading to a deep suspicion of all Germans and anybody who might favour them. It was Desgrane's opposition to Dreyfus that landed him his next job, however, when wealthy anti-Dreyfusard industrialists the Comte de Dion and Adolphe Clément were looking for somebody to edit the L'Auto newspaper that they were setting up in the hope of driving the existing paper Le Vélo and its Dreyfusard editor Pierre Giffard (who had told them he was no longer willing to carry their advertisements on account of their differences) into bankruptcy.

Desgrange at the 1913 Tour (second from right with
cigarette and long coat). Rural roads would not have
been much better when he set out to follow the race
for the final time in 1936
Still not entirely convinced that the event would be a success, Desgrange decided to stay away from the race so that he couldn't be blamed if it all went wrong (he would do the same a few years later when mountains were first introduced, fearing that the riders would die of exhaustion, be attacked by bandits or eaten by bears and not wanting to shoulder responsibility if any of these happened) and sent Geo Lefèvre instead (Lefèvre had been the man who thought up the race in the first place when Desgrange was ordered by L'Auto's owners to improve circulation figures). It was an immediate hit, with all of France turning out to watch the heroic riders battle 2,428km in six stages around the country. It had the desired effect on L'Auto's sales figures, too, which increased to more than 60,000 (some sources put the figure even higher, sometimes as much as double this). Twenty years later, it sold half a million copies a day. Desgrange's reputation was made, and he spent the rest of his life more than happy to let people believe that it was he who had thought up the whole thing in the first place. However, while Lefèvre is often called the true father of the Tour (or so the story goes - for an alternative take on the birth of the race, click here), it was Desgrange who raised it and developed it into the largest sports event on the planet - and in doing so, he invented the sport of bicycle stage racing.

Desgrange underwent surgery on his prostate in 1936, requiring two operations either side of the Tour, and convinced his reluctant surgeon to agree to him attending in a car padded out with cushions and with a doctor in attendance. At that time, many roads outside of the centre of Paris were primitive, at best cobbled and at worst, unsurfaced tracks full of potholes and gulleys (in rural areas, they would remain as such until the Tour became televised, at which point local mayors began to find the money to modernise them so that the world wouldn't think their communities backward) and even in the first stage it became apparent that he wouldn't be able to continue. He attempted to continue through Stage 2, with a fever and in great pain, but was forced to give up. He retired that day, handing over L'Auto's editorship to Jacques Goddet and his daily column to a journalist named Charles Faurous, then traveled to his chateau. He died four years later at his villa on the Mediterranean.

Harry Hill
Harry Hill, a record-breaking British cyclist and bronze-winning Olympian, died on this day in 2009. Hill's Olympic appearance came at the infamous 1936 Games, held in Nazi Germany, and he may have won silver or even gold were it not for the fact to get to Germany, he needed to first get from his home near Sheffield to London. He had no money, and nor did his mother who had raised him alone after his father was killed while fighting in Africa in the First World War. So, he rode the 200 miles (322km) on the bike with which he planned to enter.

Once back in Britain after the race, he faced the same problem - but this time it was worse. On the way there he'd had just enough money to buy food and had carefully saved enough to do the same on the way there, but whilst in Germany temptation had got the better of him and he'd spent it all on a souvenir jacket. There was no alternative: he'd have to ride the rest of the journey without eating. He couldn't, of course, and "only" managed 170 miles before he cracked and had to thumb a lift.

The following year, Hill set a new Hour Record for an outdoor track in Milan, covering 25 miles (40.23km). In 1976, when he was 60 years old, he cycled across North America. He claimed to have never smoked or consumed alcohol in his life. He rode his bike every day from the age of 13 until 2004, when he fractured his hip. He was Britain's oldest winner of an Olympic medal when he died aged  92 of pneumonia.

Annett Neumann, born in Lauchhammer, Germany on this day in 1970, won a silver medal for the Elite Sprint at the World Track Championships in 1991 and another in the same event at the 1992 Olympics, then two more for the Sprint and the 500m at the World Championships of 1996.

Wilfried Wesemael, winner of the General Classification at the 1979 Tour de Suisse, was born on this day in 1950 in Aalst, Belgium.

Lisa Mathison, born in Brisbane on this day in 1985, was Junior Cross Country Mountain Bike Champion in 2001 and 2002, then Elite Champion in 2003 and 2004 and Under-23 Champion in 2006. In 2013, following several years out of the public eye, she was third at the National Downhill MTB Championships.

Other cyclists born on this day: Ted King (USA, 1983); Georges Augoyat (France, 1882, died 1963); Anthony Williamsen (USA, 1880, died 1956);  Mario Gentili (Italy, 1913, died 1999); Luigi Borghetti (Italy, 1943); Camilla Larsson (Sweden, 1975); Mikhail Kountras (Greece, 1952); Rolf Järmann (Switzerland, 1966); Craig Adair (New Zealand, 1963); Jaap ten Kortenaar (Netherlands, 1964); Niels van der Steen (Netherlands, 1972); Marcelo Greuel (Brazi, 1963); Walter Pérez (Argentina, 1973).

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