Sunday 24 June 2012

Daily Cycling Facts 24.06.12

Henri Pélissier
The Tour de France began on this date three times - 1923, 1962 and 1976. In 1923, the race covered 5,386km in 15 stages, an average stage length of 359km. 139 riders set out from Paris to begin the first stage, but the race was all about one man: Henri Pélissier.

Pélissier entered his first Tour in 1912 and came second overall in 1914 before the First World War brought the Tour to a temporary halt. When the conflict eventually came to a halt he returned to cycling and won Paris-Roubaix (in the same year that it became known as l'Enfer du Nord, the Hell of the North), then entered the Tour. That year, he got into an argument with the other riders and ending up leaving the race in a huff, which can be seen as the beginning of his strange relationship with the Tour - he hated it, and ever afterwards rode to prove a point. In 1920, he started well but was penalised two minutes when officials saw him throwing away a punctured tyre, a violation of the rule stating that every rider had to finish a stage with all the equipment he'd had at the start, and he once again left in an angry mood. It seems that race director Henri Desgrange and Pélissier never did get on, but now their dislike began developing into active hate: Desgrange claimed that the rider had never had the strength to be a Tour winner. "Pélissier," he wrote in L'Auto in 1921, "doesn't know how to suffer. He will never win the Tour." In response, Pélissier stayed away from the race for the next two years and apparently had absolutely no intention of ever going back.

However, at that time he was winning all of the most prestigious races and became a popular hero; so in 1923, following a long run of foreign victories that threatened to reduce French interest in the race, one of Desgrange's employees suggested that he apologised to Pélissier so he'd return and win. Desgrange refused point-blank, and said in his newspaper that the rider was now too old to ride the Tour. Pélissier entered as soon as he read it. There was a new rule that year - while exchanging bikes with team members was still not allowed, riders were permitted to obtain help from team managers in the event of an accident; this was at least partly in response to Fermin Lambot's victory the previous year, which many people felt came about due to the mechanical failures suffered by rivals rather than on account of his own skill. Another new rule brought in time bonuses, with the winner of each stage having two minutes subtracted from his overall time. There was also a new category of rider - whereas in the past there had been sponsored riders and independents, there were now first class sponsored riders; second class sponsored riders who were judged to not be as good as the first class riders but nevertheless had sponsors (not unlike the domestiques of today, though the concept was strictly forbidden at the time as Desgrange wanted ever rider to ride solely for himself and was extremely opposed to team tactics; and tourist-routiers, who were much the same as independents.

Robert Jacquinot
Robert Jacquinot (Peugeot-Wolber), who had won Stages 1 and 3 and worn the maillot jaune for three days the previous year, won the first stage; closely followed over the finish line by a little-known Italian rider named Ottavio Bottecchia who also wanted to win the General Classification - he was on the same team as Pélissier, but in this race they were sworn enemies rather than team mates. Bottecchia then won Stage 2 and became the first Italian to wear the maillot jaune (in 1924, he would become the first Italian to win the General Classification). Pélissier had a puncture 105km from the finish line in Stage 3, which increased his overall time, but with help from brother Francis he made it back and won; thus benefiting from the two-minute time bonus - afterwards, he'd lost only 37". He looked as though he might be about to take over the lead, but then on Stage 4 he had another puncture and Romain Bellenger took yellow; having fixed it, he threw away the tyre and earned himelf another two-minute penalty (his reaction to this hasn't been recorded, but it's probably safe to assume he wasn't pleased).

The Tour reached the Pyrenees in Stage 6. Jean Alavoine won on both days in the mountains, but Bottecchia easily outclassed the rest to get the maillot jaune and then keep it for four days. On Stage 10, in the Alps, Pélissier noticed that Bottecchia had underestimated a climb and was pushing too high a gear. In those days, bikes had two gears - a small sprocket on one side of the rear hub and a larger one on the other; the gear being selected by stopping, removing the wheel, flipping it over and then continuing. He seized his chance and Bottecchia, knowing that he'd lose even more time by changing gear, could not follow. Pélissier may have been five years older than his rival, but experience and clever tactics count - he won the stage and the yellow jersey.

On Stage 11, the Pélissiers avoided tactics altogether and used the simple technique of just being the strongest, fastest men on the course - they rode away from the peloton and only Bellenger could remain within ten minutes of them. Alavoine had an accident and abandoned, which put Bottecchia in second place overall; but by now Pélissier had a 30' advantage and the Italian didn't stand a chance of making it up on the remaining flat stages. Desgrange, for all his faults, was gracious; not least of all because L'Auto's daily sales rose for the first time to more than half a million during the race and topped a million the day after Pélissier won. In it, he glorified his old enemy:
"The mountains seemed to sink lower, sunk by the victorious thrust of his muscle. More than a score of times on the most vicious gradients, hands on the tops of the bars, he looked down at the valley bottoms, like an eagle staring at his prey."
Pélissier, meanwhile, paid a tribute of his own: "Bottecchia will succeed me," he said. Jacquinot also had a good race - despite providing further proof that experience can outdo youth when he used up so much energy that he fell exhausted into a ditch, his determination to get up and keep going combined with his two stage wins (1 and 5) and superb performance on the Tourmalet won him an invite to join Pélissier and Bottecchia on the Automoto team, which he accepted.

Jacques Goddet
In 1962, the Tour consisted of 22 stages and covered 4,274km without a rest day, and for the first time since 1929 it was contested by trade teams, sponsored by commercial firms, rather than by national teams; however, the rules stated that teams must not be "too international" and at least six riders on each (from ten in total) had to be of the same nationality or, if that was not possible, the team had to be split 5/5 between no more than two nationalities. Another notable change was that the mountains were now categorised into Category 1 (the hardest, with most points on offer) down to Category 4 (the easiest for which points were awarded). Later, Hors Categorie ("beyond categorisation") would also be added. Jacques Goddet - who had enjoyed ultimate control over the Tour since Desgrange was forced to give up his directorship due to ill health - found that he now had an equal. The race had grown so vast that L'Equipe, which had been formed by the owners and editors of L'Auto when it was shut down for suspected collaboration with the Nazis after the war, could no longer run it alone; Émilion Amaury, owner of the Parisien Libéré, became a financial backer and installed Félix Lévitan as co-director. In the end, a compromise was reached - Goddet, who had more experience in running sporting events, looked after the organisation of the race itself and Lévitan looked after the finances. This was the very beginning of the Amaury Sport Organisation, which now owns the Tour, the Vuelta a Espana, the Critérium du Dauphiné, Paris–Roubaix, Liège–Bastogne–Liège, La Flèche Wallonne and Paris–Tours as well as numerous other events - representing a wide variety of sports - around the world.

Rik van Looy dons the maillot jaune in
The race started that year in Belgium and Rik van Looy, then World Champion, was determined to win the first stages in his own country. He lost Stage 1 to the German Rudi Altig, which was bad enough, but then he got lost and took a wrong turning on Stage 2a and André Darrigade won instead - which earned van Looy plenty of ribbing because it happened in Herentals, his home town. Fortunately, his Flandria-Faema-Clément team then won the Stage 2b time trial and restored some of his pride. Meanwhile, things weren't going well for Raymond Poulidor and Federico Bahamontes either; they were widely considered to be the only men capable of keeping Jacques Anquetil from a third victory, but they were already eight minutes behind in the General Classification. Anquetil's mood was unknown: recently, his Helyett-Hutchinson team had recruited his old rival Raphael Géminiani as a manager, and Anquetil had not been happy - going so far as to request that the sponsors got someone else to act as manager during the Tour (before long, they became allies and even friends; which is how they managed to work together and use a little bit of cheating to beat Bahamontes in the Alps in 1963).

In Stage 6, a large and powerful breakaway escaped the peloton and began to look as though it might make it; neither Altig, who had taken back the yellow jersey when he won Stage 3, nor Anquetil could get anywhere near it. Fortunately their team mate Ab Geldermans had gone with the break and, as the strongest man in it, they were confident enough that he would be able to take over the lead, so neither of them had to exhaust themselves by chasing. In Stage 8a, the same thing happened; this time Mario Minieri won the stage (Minieri's only victory before this had been a stage in the Tour of Sicily three years earlier, so nobody begrudged him nor showed much concern) and Darrigade got himself back into yellow. Anquetil wasn't especially concerned about that, either, because Stage 8b was an individual time trial; which he won, as expected by himself and most other riders, without problems. Another break got away the next day, this time another Italian named Antonio Bailetti (who had won Stage 4 at the Giro d'Italia earlier in the year) was first over the line and the maillot jaune passed to the Belgian Willy Schroeders, who was coming to the end of his career and kept it for three days.

Tom Simpson.
Behind him is Rudi Altig
(World Championships, 1965)
A large crash on Stage 11 took several riders out of contention, among them van Looy who went to hospital with kidney damage. Then, later in the stage, something remarkable and unexpected happened: Schroeders couldn't ride well in the mountains and the stage was won by Frenchman Robert Cazala, who had also won Stage 6 but he wasn't fast enough to take the overall lead, which went instead to Tom Simpson - the first British rider ever to wear the maillot jaune. It couldn't last, of course, especially as Stage 13 was a mountain time trial and there was absolutely no way that anyone other than Bahamontes was going to win that. Jozef Planckaert was second and took the yellow jersey, but Simpson was encouraged and rode better than ever before.

The night after Stage 13 finished, the German rider Hans Junkermann fell ill. Tour doctor Pierre Dumas was summoned and, in time, the rider felt a little better the next morning. He was on the start line after his team's request that the race be delayed by ten minutes was granted; but after only a few kilometres he dropped off the back of the bunch and, too ill to continue, abandoned. A short while later, another rider did the same, followed by another and then another. In total, twelve men abandoned, all with the same symptoms. Two more stated their intention not to continue after the stage. Dumas was not a cyclist and had never been interested in the sport until he became Tour doctor, which meant that the ways of the old doctors who turned a blind eye to doping meant nothing to him. He was not at all convinced by the explanation given by all fourteen riders and their teams, who claimed food poisoning caused by bad fish, so he started digging. After asking around, he discovered that all of them had been to visit the same Belgian soigneur in the evening after Stage 13, before Junkermanns became ill. He also checked up on the hotels in which the riders had stayed and discovered that not one of them had fish on the menu that night. The riders were not at all pleased by his probing and threatened a protest the next day, but were talked out of it by the journalist Jean Bobet (the brother of three-time Tour winner Louison) who had been a successful rider in his own right and as such was uniquely trusted and respected by them - for now, anyway; he was later involved in the making of a film titled Vive le Tour! which poked some rather barbed fun at them over the incident, and they never trusted him again.

Vive le Tour!

Approaching the Alps, Anquetil was not in the lead; however, he was in a position where he could still make a bid for victory. One thing was worrying him, though - Bahamontes, the best climber in the world. Anquetil could also climb and as the king of the time trial had little doubt that he'd win the final race against the clock in Stage 20, but Bahamontes could time trial too. On other words, the eventual outcome all boiled down to one thing: was he a better time trial rider than Bahamontes was a climber, and was Bahamontes a worse time trial rider than Anquetil was a climber? He couldn't answer that, so he resorted to something else in which he excelled - trickery. On Stage 14 he attacked hard and kept going, forcing his rival to chase. It was a big risk that could very easily have cost them both the race, but it worked - Bahamontes, being a skinny climber, exhausted himself; he lost fifteen minutes that day and was no longer a contender.

A third victory for Maitre Jacques
Stage 18 was expected to be where the action would happen and the winner - or at least, a selection of riders from whom the winner would be selected - would be revealed. Reality turned out to be rather different and for the first four hours the peloton traveled at an average speed of 25kph, then a series of punctures put paid to attempted attacks. Rather than the high-speed battle fans anticipated, it was by all accounts highly boring - so much so that Emile Daems, who was a sprinter rather than a climber, was able to win. On Stage 19 Raymond Poulidor, who had begun the race with one hand in plaster, felt good and was advised by his manager to make the best of it by attacking. He started the stage ten minutes down in the General Classification and he ended it in third place overall, which alerted Anquetil to the fact that he had a new enemy for the future.

Of course, Anquetil was never in real danger - the Stage 20 time trial still had to be ridden. He knew he'd win, but he did so in crushing style; beating Poulidor by 5'01" and Planckaert by 5'19". With only the flat Stage 21 and the largely ceremonial final stage into Paris left, the race was his and nobody even bothered trying to take it from him. Tom Simpson, in sixth place overall, had the best ever finish by a British rider; it would remain so for many years after his death on Mont Ventoux at the Tour five years later, until Robert Millar came fourth in 1984.

In 1976 the Tour again consisted of a prologue and 22 stages, this time with two rest days; three of those stages were split, two of them into two parts and one (Stage 18) into three short road sub-stages, and the total distance was 4,017km. From time to time, the overall winner has been awarded various gifts in addition to money; among them have been works of "art" of questionable aesthetic and monetary value - this year, an apartment near the sea was on offer.

With the exception of 1973, it was the first Tour Eddy Merckx had missed since 1969, and he had won each of them - the official reason he stayed away that year was that he'd been advised to do so by his doctor on account of a saddle sore, but the real reason is that he'd come second in 1975 and knew he wouldn't win it this time around either. He had hoped to return for a glorious and record-breaking sixth victory in 1977, but came sixth. The truth was his best days had gone, and he should have quit while still at the top like he'd always said he would.

Bernard Thévenet
The absence of Merckx left Bernard Thévenet as main favourite, but as has happened so many times in the Tour events took an unexpected turn - right from the prologue in Saint-Jean-de-Monts it was obvious that his form was not that of a potential winner. Joop Zoetemelk, Luis Ocaña and Lucien van Impe replaced him as most popular choices. The Belgian Freddy Maertens won the prologue and the first stage, then the Stage 3 time trial and Stage 7 which earned him the yellow jersey all the way until the end of Stage 8. The General Classification contenders were not concerned, however, because the route took them directly from the Alps to the Pyrenees for a solid week of climbing in the high mountains rather than the two ranges being separated by flat stages, as is usually the case, and they knew that the time they gained there could not easily be made up by the rest of the peloton later in the race.

When they got there, in Stage 9, a large breakaway escaped and started speeding off towards the finish line; but since there were no strong climbers among them and the stage ended on the Alpe d'Huez the favourites still remained unconcerned - which proved wise, because Zoetemelk won and  van Impe, who ended up with an 8" advantage overall, took the maillot jaune. Zoetemelk won Stage 10 too after he was the fastest over the Col d'Izoard, but van Impe and Thévenet gave him a tough time and ended only a second behind in the General Classification. Relatively unknown Spaniard José Viejo was allowed to get away the next day with nobody giving chase due to his lowly position overall, a move that brought about his biggest claim to fame - he crossed the finish line with a lead of 22'50" over the second place Gerben Karstens, which remains the largest stage-winning margin since the Second World War.

On Stage 12, Thévenet's Peugeot team began putting the tactics that they hoped would win them the race into action, sending Raymond Delisle to win the stage and take the yellow jersey. Régis Ovion won Stage 13 but then failed an anti-doping test, so Willy Tierlinck of Gitane-Campagnolo took his place with Wladimiro Panizza (Scic) being upgraded to second place - the rest of the field was left as they were so, 36 years later, third place remains unfilled.

Lucien van Impe
Van Impe had worked out what Peugeot meant to do by Stage 14 and realised that Gitane needed a plan of their own. Fortunately, the team had recently taken on Cyrille Guimard as directeur sportif and Guimard, who had been a very successful cyclist in his own right (and was French cyclo cross champion that same year), was the absolute master strategist. His advice was to attack, but van Impe decided this probably wasn't the best way forward and hung back, telling team assistants that Zoetemelk would soon exhaust himself. The assistants repeated Guimard's advice, telling them that it had since been re-issued as an order; but he told them that the only way he'd consider changing his plan was if Guimard personally told him to do so. This was relayed back to the Guimard, following in the team car, who immediately ordered the car to catch up and pull alongside the rider. When it did so, Guimard leaned out of the window and told him in no uncertain terms that if he didn't do what he was told, the driver would be ordered to run him over. Van Impe attacked, it worked, and Zoetemelk had to chase - without assistance from his team, who seemed unable to respond.

Zoetemelk responded well, getting to within 50" of his rival by the end of the stage, but by that time van Impe had caught up with an early breakaway group containing Luis Ocaña who remembered all too well that during his epic battles with Merckx a few years previously Zoetemelk had always refused to help him. Now he saw his chance for revenge, and he began helping van Impe. Working together, they got faster and faster and Zoetemelk was unable to keep up - he lost three minutes overall. The stage had been ridden so fast that almost half of the riders remaining in the race finished outside the time limit and the organisers had to waive the elimination rule so that the rest of the race wouldn't become boring. Van Impe and Zoetemelk dueled with one another right to the end, gaining a few seconds here and losing them there, but the winner was decided that day. Thévenet abandoned in Stage 19, but the next year he returned with better form and won.

Robbie McEwen
Robbie McEwen, 2010
Born in Brisbane on this day in 1972, Robbie McEwen joined the Australian Institute of Sport in 1992 and was immediately spotted by coach Heiko Salzwedel as having the potential to become a world-class sprinter. Salzwedel knew his stuff - McEwen, in his best years, was the best in the world.

McEwen picked up his first decent results before turning professional, including a stage win at the Tour de l'Avenir in 1994 and the National Championships, at Elite level, accompanied by seven stage wins in total in 1995; which earned him a contract with Rabobank for 1996. Most riders win little, if anything, during their first professional year as they learn to cope with the rigours of competitive cycling at a level beyond what they've previously experienced, but not McEwen - he won two races and seven stages that year, including another at the Tour de l'Avenir. In 1997 he rode his first Tour de France and finished six stages in the top ten, though he was only 117th overall. He was top ten in six more in 1998, but more importantly this time around he was top three in two of them and came fourth in the overall Points competition, which functions as a "race within a race" contested by sprinters. 1999 was not so good with 122nd overall, but he won his first stage - Stage 21, on the Champs Elysées.

In 2000 he went to the Giro d'Italia for the first time but left after Stage 13, then returned to the Tour and finished top ten six times again; this time, however, his other results got him to second place on Points. He stayed away in 2001 (and won 20 races elsewhere), then won Stages 4 and 10 at the Giro before abandoning. At the Tour he won Stages 3 and 20; his four other top ten finishes proving to be enough to win him the Points competition for the first time - the first Australian to do so.

He would enter the Tour again in 2003, 2004, 2005, 2006, 2007, 2008 and 2010; in 2003 he was second in the Points competition, in 2004 he won it for the second time, in 2005 he was third on Points and in 2006 he won three stages and a third Points competition. In 2007 he won the first stage through Kent in the UK, against all odds and expectations as he crashed badly 20km from the finish line; Lotto-Adecco gave a fine display of team work in getting him back to the front and into a position where he could win the sprint by a bike length. Sadly, his Tour ended in the Alps - he missed the cut-off in Stage 8 and was eliminated from the race.

McEwen racing for GreenEDGE, 2012
Sprinters do not tend to get as many years at the top of their game as other types of rider, the time in which the human body can turn out as many watts as they do being limited to, in most cases, only a few years. For McEwen, the turning point was 2007: when he returned in 2008 he was noticeably not as fast as he had been and less able to deal with the climbs than before - he was top ten four times, but his results elsewhere put him 122nd overall and eighth on Points. 2010, his twelfth and final Tour, was better with seven top ten finishes getting him to fifth overall in the Points competition. In five of those stages, he was fourth - sure evidence that, while he was still one of the best in the world, a new generation of younger men had taken over and Mark Cavendish was their king. He had the sense to bow out of cycling's greatest and toughest race then.

McEwen never went back to the Tour, but he wasn't quite done yet. He continued competing through 2011 and got more good results, including an overall victory at the Circuit Franco-Belge after winning two of its four stages, then in 2012 he accepted a contract with the new Australian Pro Team GreenEDGE, though with their understanding that he was going to retire at some point that season. He called it a day after the Tour of California, during which the climbs had hurt him more than ever before; after being awarded the Most Courageous jersey he told fans: "This was a good race to pick as my last because I suffered so much this week I won't miss it."

Marla Streb
Mountain biker Marla Streb was born in Baltimore on this day in 1965 and came to cycling late aged 28, by which time she'd earned a Masters' degree in molecular biology. It all began with a cycling holiday in Europe, accompanied by her friend Mark Fitzgerald; whom she would later marry. Discovering that she was fast, she made up her mind to starting racing when they returned home. Primarily known as a downhill racer (she's been National Champion twice), Streb has also won numerous cross-country events.

Mary McConneloug, born in San Francisco on this day in 1971, was US National Cross Country MTB Champion in 2003, 2005, 2007 and 2008.

Sam Harrison, born in Risca, Wales on this day in 1992, had little interest in cycling until he heard some friends talking about the velodrome in Newport. They told him racing there was fun and he decided to join them on their next visit - and that was the start of a career that has led to six National titles, one World title and a BBC Young Sports Personality of the Year award.

Other births: José Pauwels (Belgium, 1928); Ruben Forsblom (Finland, 1931); Eigil Sørensen (Denmark, 1948); Moritz Milatz (Germany, 1982); Oscar Schwab (USA, 1882, died 1955); >Gabriel Curuchet (Argentina, 1963).

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