Friday 20 June 2014

Daily Cycling Facts 20.06.2014

Stage 10, 1926 - Bottecchia, who will not finish the stage,
struggles through difficult conditions on Izoard
On this day in 1926, 126 riders set off from Evian on the first stage of the 20th Tour de France. For the second time in its history, the race didn't start in Paris, and it had been reduced to 17 stages from 18 in 1925 - however, it was most definitely not easier. For a start, riders would face the Alps twice, on the way out and the way back in and again, and Henri Desgrange (who believed that the ideal Tour would be one in which only one rider finished) hadn't cut a stage for their benefit - he did it to increase the average stage length. What's more, the parcours followed the nations borders more closely than ever before or since; making this the longest Tour in history at 5,745km (for comparison, the 2012 edition was 3,497km).

Automoto's Ottavio Bottecchia was most fans' favourite as he'd won in 1924 and 1925, but many others fancied Alcyon's Adelin Benoit who had surprised everyone with a stage win and five days in the maillot jaune in 1925. A classic battle was expected, but as tends to be the way in the Tour de France it turned out far better than anyone had hoped. Right from the first stage unexpected things happened, beginning with a perfect solo break by Jules Buysse (brother of Marcel, who won six stages in 1913, and Lucien, who had finished in second place overall in 1925) that saw him win the stage with an advantage of thirteen minutes. Stage 2 ended with a bunch sprint won by little-known Belgian rider Aimé Dossche, who had picked up his first professional contract with Automoto at the the start of the year but seems to have switched to Christophe (which, like Automoto, was co-sponsored by Hutchinson at that time) before the Tour; so the GC remained virtually unchanged. Then in Stage 3 Gustaaf van Slembrouck managed to grab a lead that kept him in the maillot jaune for six days.

During Stage 3, Lucien Buysse received news that his infant daughter had died but, after thinking things over, decided to honour his family's request that he continue and try to win a stage that could be dedicated to the memory. Stage 4 was perhaps too soon and went to Félix Sellier instead; Stage 5 to Adelin Benoit. Another little-known Belgian named Joseph van Daam won Stage 6 after judges declared that Sellier had broken race regulations (van Daam would win two more later on, so he was much more famous when the race ended), then Nicolas Frantz won Stage 7; since Frantz had finished fourth in 1925 and showed enormous promise, instantly made him a favourite too (he's have to wait another year for the first of his two overall victories, however). Van Daam won Stage 8, this time on his own merit, then Frantz took Stage 9. The race had truly begun now, with a new challenger making things difficult for Bottecchia and Benoit.

One of the Tour's more inexplicably iconic images: a cow watches Jules Buysse
Desgrange, ever since he'd been convinced that it was possible to ride the high mountains and that the riders wouldn't be eaten by bears (something that, perhaps unfortunately in the eyes of some fans, has yet to happen in the Tour) and that in fact the public enjoyed the race more when it was an heroic spectacle, was always on the look-out for ways to make his race more difficult. Stage 10, however, went far beyond anything from previous years - and, say the ever-dwindling number of people who were there to see it, since. In terms of distance, it wasn't the longest stage that year - ten stages were longer, the longest 433km - but its 326km took the riders over some of the toughest roads in France, and they set out at midnight to be in with a chance of finishing by the following afternoon. Matters were not improved by a storm on the Col d'Aspin, but the Buysse brothers were made of stern stuff: while the rest of the peloton survived, they attacked hard and Lucien won after riding for seventeen hours. He had taken the maillot jaune, but better still he could dedicate the hardest stage in the history of the Tour to the memory of his daughter.

By 18:00, only ten men had arrived at the finish line and Desgrange was becoming concerned, perhaps worried that bears did have a taste for cyclists after all. He sent race organisers out in cars to search of the missing men and before long some had been located, in various states of exhaustion, strung out along the route. A full 24 hours after the stage had begun, 47 of the 76 starters had crossed the line, at which point it was decided that all riders would be permitted an extra 40% of the winning time (6 hours and 48 minutes) in which to finish as the standard cut-off time in which all riders must finish in order to escape disqualification would leave a field so depleted it would reduce competition and make for a boring race. The remaining 22 were disqualified. Incredibly, despite the harsh stage, only one rider abandoned: Bottecchia. The stage had been so difficult that judges had turned a blind eye when some of the riders had arrived at the end of the stage by bus and when a member of the public confessed that he had carried some riders to the finish line in his car but insisted they'd been in such a poor state he had done so through altruism rather than being offered money, officials declined to disqualify the riders - and paid the man for helping them.

Buysse leads over the Tourmalet, Stage 11
When Buysse won Stage 11 two days later, he gained a lead of more than an hour over his nearest rival. From now on, he was able to stay tucked safely away in the peloton, conserving his energy and simply making sure that he finished (which didn't prevent him winning the meilleur grimpeur, a prize for the best climber from the days before the King of the Mountains competition). Frantz won two more stages once the race returned to the flatlands, but he didn't have a hope of getting anywhere near the leader now and had to be content with second place. As they crossed the finish line in Paris behind stage winner Dossche, the gap between them was 1h22'25" (Buysse's overall time was 238h44'25" - around two-and-three-quarter times as long as Cadel Evan's 2011 winning time); a far greater memorial to his daughter than a stage win.

Another rider who experienced extraordinarily bad luck in 1926 was the Marcel Bidot, riding his first Tour that year. Misfortune first struck him on the second stage, between Mulhausen and Metz, when the axle of his pedal sheared through. It was, of course, forbidden for a rider to receive any sort of help in those days and a rider was expected to finish on the bike he'd started on unless a race official declared the machine to be ruined - since Bidot's bike still worked, he was not given permission to continue on a replacement. For a while, he tried to ride on, but soon realised he was losing so much time due to only being able to pedal through half of each revolution of the cranks that he'd soon be out of contention. He managed to bodge a repair using a leather toe strap to hold the pedal in place, but it soon fell off again. Eventually, an official showed some mercy and allowed the rider to borrow a bike offered by a spectator, but for some reason of his own demanded that Bidot's wheels be fitted to the spectator's bike. The new machine was much to small, but at least Bidot could continue; he arrived at the finish completely exhausted but still in the race.

Derailleur gears had been around for some years by 1926, but were considered too unreliable to be used in a professional race (and were banned in the Tour because Desgrange believed they'd make things too easy for the riders); instead, bikes had rear wheels fitted with two cogs - a smaller one on one side and a larger one for climbing on the other, allowing gear changes to be carried out by unbolting the wheel, flipping it over and then bolting it back in place, with horizontal drop-outs allowing chain slack to be taken up. Later in the race, on Tourmalet in Stage 10, Bidot's 25-tooth climbing freewheel disintegrated. Once again, he was not permitted a replacement bike; he climbed the 1,489m Col d'Aspin and the 1,569m Col du Peyresourde with the 22-tooth freewheel he'd intended to use on the flat sections and descents. With his 43-tooth chainring, it would have been agonising even without the atrocious weather. As we've seen, only 47 riders had finished the stage by midnight. When the weather got even worse, with the wind turning gale-force and the freezing rain pelting down, Bidot considered abandoning the race; but he did not. He reached the finish line one-and-a-half hours after stage winner Buysse. Henri Desgrange, either unaware of the ordeal Bidot had endured or, as was sometimes the case with him, out of simple dislike for the rider, rounded on him: "Bidot does not know how to suffer," he thundered in his L'Auto editorial the next day. "He will not finish the Tour!"

Remarkably, Bidot didn't tell him where to stick his race and continued - not just riding the race, but trying to ensure he still received a respectable time by using clever tactics. That irritated Desgrange, who felt that a race should be won by heroic, Corinthian athleticism rather than by being clever; once again, he attacked the rider in his newspaper, claiming that Bidot was making the Tour boring by marking all the attacks, controlling the pace at the front of the pack and generally doing everything that a modern-day rider hoping to win a Tour would do. "Bidot can ride any race he chooses next year between the 19th of June and the 19th of July - except the Tour de France," he wrote.

Bidot would face even more bad luck - on the Izoard, in the unearthly Casse Deserte, a sharp shard of stone pierced his tyre. It goes without saying that, either because the Fates were treating him cruelly or because Desgrange was and had made sure the rider wasn't going to get away with anything - there was an official on hand to make sure he didn't have any help in repairing it. The weather, again, was atrocious; Bidot's hands were so numb with the cold that he tried to use his teeth to peel the tubular tyre away from the rim. The Alcyon team car drove by and its driver, a man named Meunier, tried to surreptitiously toss Bidot a penknife, but the official spotted it: "I forbid you to pick it up," he ordered. Finally, he managed to prise the tyre off the rim using a wingnut, which were used to fasten the rear wheel in place to make gear changes easier, but he'd again lost significant time.

In the end, through a combination of what was, despite Desgrange's mistaken belief, an enormous capacity for suffering and more intelligent racing, Bidot finished tenth overall, 2 hours, 53 minutes and 54 seconds behind Buysse - an incredible achievement considering all he'd been through. It is one of the most remarkable tales of perseverance, determination and sheer bloody-mindedness, both the good and bad types, in the history of the Tour.

Fortunately, Desgrange did eventually relent and allowed Bidot to enter the race again - in 1928 he won Stage 5 and was eight overall; in 1929, when he was National Road Race Champion, he won Stage 12 and was sixteenth overall. His prize money, totaling nearly 52,000 francs, was enough to buy a comfortable home, and he lived to be 92 years old.

For the first time, not one single stage had been won by a Frenchman (this wouldn't happen again until 1999). Desgrange, who wanted the race to be a spectacle of every-man-for-himself heroism, was not happy with several teams, accusing them as he had Bidot of using tactics in an effort to survive the superhuman distances, and as a result, all but three of the flat stages in 1927 were run as team time trials. Buysse said that he would win again in 1927, but Automoto experienced financial difficulties and, as his best years were gone by the time they could afford to send a team back to the Tour, 1926 was his only victory. Bottecchia decided to retire following his problems on Stage 10. One year later he was dead, possibly due to murder at the hands of Italian Fascists.

Fabian Wegmann
Fabian Wegmann
Fabian Wegmann, born in Münster on this day in 1980, turned professional with Gerolsteiner in 2002 and remained with them until the end of 2008 (older brother Christian, once a professional rider himself, joined the team's management in 2006). In 2009 he followed general manager Christian Henn to Milram, staying there for two seasons until he received an invite to join the new Leopard Trek in 2011. However, as Leopard Trek was based around climbers Andy and Frank Schleck and RadioShack had climbers of its own, Wegmann was judged surplus to requirements when the teams merged at the end of the year and was not one of the riders who made the jump; later being picked up by Garmin-Barracuda. He remained with the team when it became Garmin-Sharp for 2013 and, early in the season of that year, took 12th place at the Amstel Gold Race.

A climber of considerable repute, Wegmann does better in races that favour the grimpeurs. He won the King of the Mountains at the 2004 Giro d'Italia, the 2005 GP San Francisco with its two 18% climbs and the GP Miguel Indurain in 2006 and 2008. He won the National Championships in 2007, 2008 and 2012.

Considering their geographic position between cycling-mad Italy and Eastern Europe - who, while not quite as passionate as the tifosi, do enjoy a bike race - the Greeks are strangely under-represented in the annals of cycling history. One name that does show up is that of Zafeiris Volikakis, who was born in Volos on this day in 1990. While he has been successful primarily in track competitions at home, he also won a silver medal in the Team Sprint at the 2006 European Junior Championships and a bronze at the Worlds the same year, also placing 17th in the Keirin at the 2010 Worlds (his team were 13th in the Sprint) and third for the Keirin at the Moscou track meet in 2011 (his older brother Christos was first).

Belgian cyclo cross rider Dieter Vanthourenhout was born in Brugge on this day in 1985 and won the National Debutants Championship in 2001, then the Juniors a year later. In 2006, he was third at the Under-23 Nationals and has added podium finishes in several races since.

Other cyclists born on this day: Rita Razmaitė (Lithuania, 1967); William Morton (Canada, 1880); Hailu Fana (Ethiopia, 1967); Eduardo Cuevas (Chile, 1951); Eduardo Trillini (Argentina, 1958); Ilias Kelesidis (Greece, 1953, died 2007); Adrian Timmis (Great Britain, 1964 ); Noël de la Cruz (Cuba, 1968); Zsigmond Sarkadi Nagy (Hungary, 1955); Antón Villatoro (Guatemala, 1970); Émile Demangel (France, 1882).

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