Sunday 22 January 2012

Daily Cycling Facts 22.01.12

Pelissier in 1919, the year he won his first
Henri Pélissier
On this day in 1885, Henri Pélissier was born in Paris. He was the second of four cycling brothers, of whom three (himself, Charles and Francis) would become professional (Jean, the oldest, died at Argonnes in the First World War). Henri would race in all but two of the peace-time Tours de France between 1912 and 1925, failing to finish all of them except for 1914 when he came second to Phillipe Thys and 1923, which we won after Ottavio Bottechia failed to change his gear in time (in those days, gear shifts were achieved by getting of the bike, removing the rear wheel, flipping it around and placing the chain over the differently-sized cog on that side before retightening the wheel and continuing; so a missed gear change could result in the loss of many minutes rather than seconds) and Jean Alvoine abandoned after a crash. He also won the Giro di Lombardia three times, Paris-Roubaix twice, Milan-Torino, Milan-San Remo, Bordeaux-Paris, Paris-Tours and Paris-Brussels.

His career began by chance after he happened upon twice Tour winner Lucien Petit-Breton one day whilst out walking. Petit-Breton asked him if he'd be willing to join his team to race in Italy - and since the team would depart that day, Pélissier had six hours in which to decide and organise himself. However, he had little going for him at time as his rather disagreeable personality had caused his father to kick him out of the family home, so he presumably decided very quickly that he may as well grab his chance and went. He lost that first race, but won the Giro di Lombardia in 1913 partially through luck:  there was a huge crash 400m from the finish line with many riders going down. Pélissier was not hurt and jumped back on his bike before sprinting to the line. The crowd, upset that their local hero (the now largely-forgotten) Constante Giraradengo had lost and decided Pélissier was to blame. A mob climbed onto the track, beating his savagely until he managed to clamber into the judges' tower to safety, where he waited while 80 policemen controlled his attackers.

Henri Pelissier with brother Francis - the only rider to stay
with him after he punctured in the Tour
Pélissier was not popular with the other riders, fans or organisers; spending much of his time rowing with the latter (especially Tour director Henri Desgrange who, to be fair to Pélissier, ended up picking on the rider somewhat - he once penalised him two minutes for leaving a a tyre at the side of the road after repairing a puncture) as a result of his belief that he was a champion of riders' rights. He took obvious pleasure in insulting and irritating others, causing Desgrange to refer to him as a "pig-headedly arrogant champion." At the Tour, he once said "The others are cart horses; I'm a thoroughbred." The next day he punctured and, in that more genteel time when the race would be halted to allow a stricken rider to repair his machine and catch up, the pack raced away; leaving him half an hour behind them. .

His wife, Léonie, suffered much and entered a deep depression, leading to her suicide in 1933 when she shot herself with her husband's revolver. Three years following her death, he took a new lover named Camille "Miette" Tharault who was 20 years younger than he was. It appears that he treated her no better better - during a row one day, he attacked her with a knife and slashed her face. She, however, was made of sterner stuff than poor Léonie: she ran upstairs and grabbed the same gun but, instead of killing herself, took it back down to kitchen and shot him five times. After the killing was investigated, she was given a 12-month suspended sentence which, court officials said, was the closest they could come to releasing her without charge under the laws of the time.

At Paris-Roubaix, 1919
It should be remembered that, no matter what his personal flaws, Pélissier was an innovative rider and the first to adopt a number of ideas and techniques that would revolutionise the sport over the coming years. He was, for example, possibly the first to understand that an athlete might benefit from following a controlled diet; so he would eat small amounts regularly throughout the day and start a race on a light breakfast in a time when other riders loaded themselves up with as much fatty food (steaks were the favourite of many) shortly before a race began. Thus, his opponents would set off slowly and take time to cast of their sluggishness, giving the wide-awake and alert Pélissier an ideal window in which to attack and build up a insurmountable lead. He was also possibly the first to realise that speed training would come in useful - Tour stages tended to be much longer in the early history of the race (in 1903, the average length of the six stages was 404.6km, while in 2011 the average length of the 21 stages - including time trials - was "merely" 163.3km) and so riders tended to concentrate on improving endurance rather than speed. Pélissier, meanwhile, would get up early and take a speed training session while most other riders would still have been in bed, then go for his distance training ride in the afternoon - as a clever tactician, he kept this secret. He never drank alcohol during a race, which seems obvious to us but was considered bizarre at the time, and developed a very modern fascination with reducing the weight of his bike and equipment: he once explained to a journalist who had found him sand-papering his rims, "I can save 50g - and on a moving part, that's worth 2kg on the frame."

Henri Pelissier in the 1923 Tour de France
Pélissier may have been one of the first to speak out about doping: one day, as he and Francis spoke to the journalist Albert Londres, he described the conditions and challenges that riders faced on a Tour stage and took a phial from his bag. "That's cocaine for our eyes and chloroform for our gums," he explained. Maurice Ville, another rider present at the interview, tipped out his own bag and continued: "Horse liniment to keep my knees warm... and pills? You want to see pills?" He took out three boxes full of them, as did the Pélissier brothers. "In short," Francis said, "we run on dynamite." Many have seen this event as mischief, an attempt to stir up trouble for the race organisers with whom he so often battled and indeed it was partially so - Pélissier later admitted that they'd decided to have a bit fun at Londres' expense because they felt that the  writer knew nothing about the sport; but it might also be seen as evidence of a belief that predates that of Fausto Coppi several decades later, one that riders were forced to endanger their health with drugs simply to be able to meet the harsh demands the Tour made of them.

The other riders may have felt insulted by his carthorses and thoroughbreds comment, but he had a point - and it's possible that he genuinely did wish to improve their lot.

Abraham Olano
Abraham Olano
(image credit: Masestela06 CC BY-SA2.0
Abraham Olano, a Basque rider born on this day in 1970 in Anoeta, won the Gran Premio de Villafranca de Ordizia with Lotus during his first professional year, rewarding them for taking him on after his first team CHCS collapsed shortly after signing him. A year later, now riding for CLAS Cajastur, he became National Champion in both road racing and time trial. Two years after that, he came 2nd overall with two stage wins at the Vuelta a Espana and won the World Road Race Championships, beating Miguel Indurain and by doing so, got all of Spain declaring him to be Indurain's successor.

He wasn't, of course - cyclists of that calibre don't come along so often - but he proved nevertheless to be a very talented rider indeed and won the Vuelta a Espana in 1998. He would take 3rd in the Giro d'Italia in 1996 and 2nd in 2001, 9th in the Tour de France in 1996 and 4th in 1997 and, in addition to his later victory, come 2nd in 1995 Vuelta., as well as the 1994 Vuelta a Asturias, the 1996 Tours of Romandia and Galicia, the Euskal Bizikleta in 1997 and 1998 and a list of other races.

Andre Tchmil was born today in Khabarovsk, Russia before moving to Ukraine (then part of the USSR) as a boy with his family. He showed sufficient talent in his early years to be enrolled in a specialist cycling school, one of the sports academies found in Eastern Europe and the USSR before glasnost that were designed to turn out outstanding athletes who could go to the Olympics and bring back glory. Jens Voigt, Jan Ullrich and Viatcheslav Ekimov were students at similar academies. When the USSR broke up, he became a Ukrainian citizen but rode for the Italian Alfa-Lum team, then emigrated to Belgium in 1998. He rode in five Tours de France but finished only two, failing to win a single stage, but became a highly respected Classics specialist with a particular aptitude for the harsh cobbled races; winning the Ronde van Vlaanderen and in 1994, the hardest Classic of them all, Paris-Roubaix. He also won the Road Race World Cup in 1999. Tchmil was still going in 2002 at the age of 39 when he sustained an injury to his thigh in the Three Days of De Panne, bringing his racing career to an end. He has worked in various capacities since retirement, acting as a team consultant before running a UCI cycling facility and then, in 2006, becoming the Minister of Sport in the government of Moldova, the country in which his sport academy had been located. In 2009, he became directeur sportif of the Russian-based Team Katusha.

Other births: Lee Vertongen (New Zealand, 1975); Dan Frost (Denmark, 1961); Preben Isaksson (Denmark, 1943, died 2008); Carl Lüthje (Germany, 1883); Uwe Messerschmidt (Germany, 1962); Miguel Pérez (Mexico, 1934); Marcelo Alexandre (Argentina, 1963); Renan Ferraro (Brazil, 1962); Sid Taberlay (Australia, 1980); Nikolay Kovsh (USSR, 1965); Nikos Angelidis (Greece, 1977); Lorang Christiansen (Norway, 1917, died 1991); Robert Lechner (Germany, 1967); Sava Gerchev (Bulgaria, 1914); Reinier Cartaya (Cuba, 1981); Paolo Pedretti (Italy, 1906 died 1983); Abraham Olano (Spain, 1970).

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