Monday 9 July 2012

Daily Cycling Facts 09.07.12

Tour de France 1905
11 stages, 2,994km.
In 1905, the Tour had seen so much cheating that several riders were banned for life and director Henri Desgrange swore that the race would never be held again. However, by now the race had grown to be far bigger than anyone could have hoped - and was bringing in a lot of money too, so it didn't take too much persuasion to convince him that it should go ahead again in 1905. There would be big changes: the overall winner would now be decided on points rather than according to accumulated time, with the winner of each stage receiving one point, second place two points and third three points and so on plus an extra point for every five minutes between them and the next rider up to a maximum of elevem (the idea was, obviously, to end with as few points as possible, rather like observed trials mountain biking); the intention being that the finishing order became more important rather than winning in as short a finishing time counted, so that riders wouldn't be tempted to cheat by completing parts of a stage by car or train. Another change was that the stages were much shorter (the shortest in 1905 was more than 200km shorter than the shortest in 1904) and would start in the morning rather than the afternoon to ensure they finished during daylight, when officials could better keep an eye on what riders were up to - one method of cheating apparently used widely in 1904 (though with little evidence, it seems) had riders gripping a cork attached by wire to a team car, things such as this could now be far more easily noticed. It worked: none of the top ten in the General Classification nor any stage winner had to be disqualified (that may have been very different had doping controls existed - in those days before reliable tests, riders swallowed, sniffed and injected all sorts of things). Another change permitted riders to be paced by another cyclist, a tandem or a motor vehicle - this had not previously been allowed in the Tour, which was one of the first major cycle races to prevent riders from making use of pacing.

Ballon d'Alsace - the Tour's first mountain (well, sort of...)
In both of the previous editions, the race had been over the Col de la République; Desgrange had preferred to keep this quiet because he felt it would discourage riders from entering. A few route organisers had suggested adding more mountains, perhaps with points for the riders who got to the top fastest, but Desgrange was reluctant. Before the 1905 route was chosen, a L'Auto staff member named Alphonse Steinès took him for a car trip over the Col Bayard and Ballon d'Alsace and, showing him how spectacular a mountain stage could be, finally convinced him - though he made Steinès agree that, should the mountains prove too hard and ruin the race (or, as he had worried before, the riders were robbed by bandits or eaten by bears), the blame would be entirely his and not Desgrange's. Thus, Ballon d'Alsace was included in Stage 2 and the Rampe de Laffrey and Bayard in Stage 4; the first official climbs in the Tour de France.

Maurice Garin had initially won in 1904 but then been banned for two years; several other top riders were banned for varying periods of time. There was, therefore, no obvious favourite - Henri Cornet was eventually declared winner the previous year, but since he'd originally been fifth and more than three hours slower that Garin he wasn't considered a contender; Louis Trousselier, Hippolyte Aucouturier, Antony Wattelier and René Pottier looked likely to do well, but really nobody knew.

The organisers thought they'd found a way to rein in badly-behaving riders, but the French public were another matter entirely and in the very first stage all the riders (except, rather suspiciously, Jean-Baptiste Dortinacq) had to stop and repair punctures after persons unknown spread 125kg  spread across the road. However, Trousselier was able to catch him up and win the stage - he had to: he was in the Army at the time and had requested permission to enter the race but was only allowed 24 hours leave. He believed, correctly, that if he won the stage his commanding officer would extend his leave - but it was a huge risk to take because he could very easily have ended up facing a court martial (which have since been abolished in France); and he was so determined to escape that prospect that he set a pace so high only fifteen riders finished within the time limit. Fifteen others finished after the limit and the remainder eventually showed up on a train. Desgrange was understandably furious and announced that the race was being abandoned immediately, but the riders managed to talk him round after accepting a 75 point penalty.

Aucouturier, Trousselier, Cornet and Pottier got away on the Ballon d'Alsace on Stage 2 after avoiding more nails spread over the road; the heavily-built Aucouturier and Trousselier rapidly finding that they were at a disadvantage when the terrain headed upward. Cornet, still only 20 years old (his 1904 victory makes him the youngest Tour winner ever), found that he wasn't able to keep up with Pottier and was the next to be dropped, thus Pottier became the first man up the first mountain in the Tour de France. On the way down, he discovered the flip-side to the lighter-man-has-the-advantage-when-climbing rule - a heavier rider usually has the advantage when descending because his weight prevents the bike skipping around: Aucouturier caught hom and won the stage. Unfortunately, Pottier wouldn't be able to get his revenge when the race reached Bayard, because in Stage 3 he developed tendinitis and abandoned (some sources say he hurt his ankle when he collided with a spectator). Trousselier won again; not far behind him in second place was Lucien Petit-Breton, who would become the first man to win the Tour twice a few years later.

Stage 4, with the Rampe de Laffrey, was where Desgrange must have been convinced once and for all that the riders could cope with the mountains - as one of France's steepest roads (in places, it reaches a gradient of 18%; this has also made it one of the country's most dangerous roads - four accidents to have taken place there are considered the worst motoring accidents in French history  and there used to be a warning sign depicting a skull with flashing lights for eyes until someone decided it was in bad taste), if the riders got up it they could cope with anything else. Julien Maitron, who won Stage 6 in 1910, was first to the top of both climbs but once again Aucouturier was fastest on the way down; Trousselier was second.

Louis Trousselier
Trousselier won Stage 5 and second on Stage 6, by which time it was impossible for the majority of riders to catch up in the General Classification and most of those that - through a miracle - could had given up and were competing for second. On Stage 7 he had a puncture shortly after the start line, at which point the entire peloton seized its chance and attacked - when, after 200km of chasing, he caught them and then won the stage, they all gave up.

Pottier, despite abandoning, was declared the Tour's very first meilleur grimpeur ("best climber"). Many years later, the meilleur grimpeur would evolve into the King of the Mountains classification. Trousselier earned 6,950 francs for winning the General Classification. The night after doing so he gambled it all away. Meanwhile, Desgrange's gamble paid dividends - rather than the disaster he'd feared, the riders had got up all the mountains and the spectators had been more impressed than ever, even though quite a few of them probably would have liked to have seen a rider being eaten by a bear though). Therefore, he was able to report to L'Auto's owners that "his" race (which had actually been thought up by Géo Lefèvre, one of the paper's more junior reporters) had increased the paper's daily circulation to 100,000 copies. The next year, the Massif Central was added and, a few years later, the Pyrenees and then the Alps.

Top Ten Final General Classification
1 Louis Trousselier (FRA) Peugeot-Wolber 35
2 Hippolyte Aucouturier (FRA) Peugeot-Wolber 61
3 Jean-Baptiste Dortignacq (FRA) Saving 64
4 Emile Georget (FRA) JC Cycles 123
5 Lucien Petit-Breton (FRA) JC Cycles 155
6 Augustin Ringeval (FRA) JC Cycles 202
7 Paul Chauvet (FRA) Griffon 231
8 Philippe Pautrat (FRA) JC Cycles 248
9 Julien Maitron (FRA) Peugeot-Wolber/Griffon 255
10 Julien Gabory (FRA) JC Cycles 304

Federico Bahamontes
Bahamontes, The Eagle of Toledo
When he was 13, Federico Bahamontes and his father Julián became refugees of the Spanish Civil War and went to Madrid in search of food and shelter. Julián found work breaking rocks and earned enough money to start a fresh produce market stall; Federico, like so many boys that became great cyclists, helped support the family by delivering groceries on a heavy utility bike. In 1942 he saw Julián Berrendero win the Vuelta a Espana and became smitten with cycling, which later persuaded him to start racing - and on the 18th of July in 1947, he won the first event he'd ever entered.

Born in Santo-Domingo-Caudilla on this day in 1928, Bahamontes was still an amateur when he won a stage and the King of the Mountains in the 1954 Vuelta a Asturias. That race that brought him to the attention of the Spanish Federation, which wasted no time in recruiting him for the national team that would compete in the 1954 Tour de France - the team coach recognised that there was little he could do to improve on the raw natural talent Bahamontes displayed and sent him off with only one instruction: "Try to win it." He didn't, but he did lead the King of the Mountains from the first stage it was awarded (Stage 11) all the way through to the end of the race. He won the Mountains classification at the Giro d'Italia the next year too, then at the Vuelta a Espana the year after that.

Enough climbing talent to make a thousand mortal grimpeurs:
Gaul and Bahamontes
In 1958, he went back to the Tour and was widely considered a favourite. He won the King of the Mountains, but this year he faced one obstacle even he couldn't defeat - Charly Gaul. Bahamontes was arguably a better climber than Gaul on account of his consistency and ability to perform well in all condition but for three weeks that year Gaul found the form of his life and, when the weather at the Tour was as cold and as miserable as he liked it to be, he could climb like no rider seen before nor since, taking the General Classification after making no less a mountain than Ventoux look easy; Bahamontes settled for King of the Mountains again. However, Gaul could only perform well in the sort of weather that had his rivals wishing they'd taken jobs in heated offices; while he could still beat Bahamontes when they escaped together during Stage 17 a year later, the weather was warmer throughout the race and he was simply unable to achieve the consistency he'd have needed to beat the Spaniard and finished out of the top ten overall. Bahamontes took the General Classification and the King of the Mountains that year, twelve years to the day since he won his first race. Some say that he did so only because the rider's agent Daniel Dousset ordered his riders on the French team to let Bahamontes win because he knew that was the only way Henri Anglade, who was handled by rival agent Roger Piel and would be a far greater threat to Dousset's rider Jacques Anquetil in the lucrative post-Tour "round the houses" races than pure climber Bahamontes, could be prevented from winning. Most people who were there to see Bahamontes ride say he would have won anyway.

All in all, Bahamontes won a total of nine King of the Mountains (one at the Giro, two at the Vuelta, six at the Tour - when Lucien van Impe looked like winning his seventh in 1975, he decided to hold back and let the competition go to another rider rather than beat the record set by the man he considered the master). Like Gaul, he had the looks of a grimpeur but didn't ride like one: he was stiff on the bike and rode sitting upright; unlike Gaul, who looked as though he'd been born with the bike attacked to his body, he never seemed quite comfortable and would change his hand positions on the handlebars almost constantly. In common with most climbers (but not Gaul, who feared nothing but himself) Bahamontes had a great dislike of descending because he was too light to be able to prevent the bike skipping around at high speed. During his amateur career he once came off the road and fell into a cactus, and he never liked to take risks after that, often unclipping himself from the toe-straps so he could dab a foot on the ground; in the Tour he was so worried about descending the Galibier alone that he stopped to wait for the peloton to catch up. Rather than risk disqualification or a fine, the Spanish managers ordered the team mechanic to pretend he was fixing a fault with the bike; but Bahamontes never pretended that he'd stopped for any reason other than being scared and passed the time as he waited by having an ice cream.

 Bahamontes with Gaul (left) at the memorial to 
Francois Faber and Nicolas Frantz
At the time of writing, Bahamontes is 84 years old and still very much with us. Mentally, he appears to be still as sharp as he was when he won his Tour; but long gone is the impulsive, sometimes rather infuriating rider who threw his bike over a cliff at the 1956 Tour so that his team mates wouldn't be able to change his mind about abandoning, replaced by a likable, charming and exquisitely mannered gentleman. During the last two decades of Gaul's life, when he had been found living alone in a forest hut with little memory of who had once been and was then returned to the world by the woman who would become his wife, Bahamontes befriended him; he also became a close friend of his childhood hero Berrendero.

Born on this day: Stephen Gallagher (Northern Ireland, 1980); Richard England (Australia, 1981); Dale Stetina (USA, 1956); Eric Thompson (Great Britain, 1927); Armen Arslanian (Lebanon, 1960); Saber Mohamed Hasan (Bahrain, 1967); Jens Juul Eriksen (Denmark, 1926); Obed Ngaite (Central African Republic, 1967).

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