Sunday 15 July 2012

Daily Cycling Facts 15.07.12

A Vélib' parking station with the distinctive bikes
Vélib' (vélo and liberté), Paris' public bike-sharing scheme, was launched on this day in 2007. Since then it had expanded throughout the capital and into nearby towns and, with 20,600 bikes and 1,451 parking stations (there's one every 300m in the centre of Paris), is now the second-largest scheme of its type after the Hangshou scheme in China, which has 61,000 bikes and 2,400 stations. Since 2011, the scheme had also encompassed an electric car sharing programme known as Autolib'.

Like London's bike sharing scheme, Vélib' machines are deliberately designed to be low-geared and heavy so as to make them less tempting thieves (nevertheless 3,000 were stolen during the first year and many more vandalised; this was - shamefully - largely blamed on immigrants and created far higher costs than had been anticipated). They are built at a factory in Hungary by the venerable Mercier company that sponsored teams in the early days of the Tour de France. They weigh 22.5kg, have a three-speed hub gear and are fitted with LED lights powered by a dynamo which remain on at all times when the bike is in motion.

Jean Dargassies
Jean Dargaties, who was born in Grisolles on this day in 1872, decided to buy a bike one day in 1903 so he could visit Montauban - which was 25km away and further than anybody in his family had ever traveled. He never intended to become a sporting cyclist - indeed, the idea that he would ever do anything other than work in the family's forged (just as several generations had before him) probably never occurred to him; but the owner of the bike shop he went to had heard that a new race was going to take place around France that summer and told him all about it, explaining that it was to be called the Tour de France. "With muscles like yours, you could ride that," he said - and so Dargaties took his new bike home and wrote to L'Auto, the newspaper that was organising the race, including his 10 francs entry fee and asking for more details.

Some months later, with only a few days left until the race was due to begin, Dargaties had received no reply. Rather than assuming he hadn't been accepted, he went to Paris and sought out L'Auto's offices where he was able to meet assistant race director Géo Lefèvre, whose idea the race had originally been and who would later describe their initial conversation in the paper:
"My name is Dargaties and I've come from Grisolles."
"From Grisolles, near Montauban, and I've come to make inquiries."
"Inquiries about the Tour de France."
"But... you're already entered, I think."
"Heavens, yes, I've entered! I just wanted to know what's going to happen."
"You haven't read L'Auto?"
"L'Auto? I don't think anyone reads that in Monnetaubanne."
"Monnetaubanne, Tarn-et-Garonne."
"Oh, Montauban!"
"Yes. The man who sold me my bike told me there was a Tour de France race and he said: 'Dargaties, you're made for that."
"Tell me, have you ever actually ridden a cycle race?"
"No, but I've ridden from Grisolles to Montauban and back and I didn't even have to try. I'm a blacksmith; I'm not worried about tiredness."
Lefèvre misheard Dargaties' name and wrote it down as Dargassies; thus it was that he rode in the very first Tour de France and it's by that name that history knows him. Lefèvre seems have liked Dargassies from the moment he first set eyes on him, and the riders apparently did too because they arranged things so that he led the race as it passed Grisolles, where Lefèvre reported the entire town came out to see him - this was the first time that a leader was allowed to lead without challengers at his hometown and became one of the Tour's great traditions, still sometimes observed to this day. Passing through Montauban, his forks broke - he took the bike to his own forge, where one of his brothers repaired it, and continued. He was one of only 21 riders to complete that first Tour and finished in 11th place, winning the grand sum of 145 francs.

Tour de France, 1907 - there is said to be a photograph depicting Dargassies, his mother and his two
brothers at the family forge, but neither it nor any other photos of him seem to be available.
Dargassies entered again the following year and finished in tenth place; however, after numerous riders were disqualified for cheating he was promoted to fourth place and awarded a prize of 1,000f, a huge sum to a rural blacksmith. It was during the 1905 Tour that he first met Henri Pépin. Pépin, approaching 40 years old, had been a successful cyclist in the past and was vice-consul of the French cycling federation; he was too old to compete with the younger men in the Tour, but rich enough to enter as a coureur sur machines poinçonnée (an indepedent rider, either with very limited sponsorship or completely unsponsored) simply for the experience of doing so and without concern for his results. In 1907, Pépin apparently decided that now he was nearly 43 he'd make his last Tour one to remember (in fact, it wasn't his last Tour: he entered again in 1914, the year he died, when he was almost 50), so he hired Dargassies and another rider named Henri Gauban and rode the Tour purely for fun. At his expence, the three men stayed in the finest hotels, ate in the finest restaurants, picked up a rider who had fallen exhausted into a ditch and took him along with them and generally got on the organisers' nerves by doing whatever they wanted whenever they wanted.

Pépin tired of the adventure during Stage 5, paid his two domestiques a sum equal to the prize on offer to the overall winner and told them they could now do whatever they wanted. Gauban decided to carry on and did a superb job; getting to within 36' of the race leader before abandoning in Stage 11. Dargassies decided to go with Pépin; the fact that he never entered the Tour again is a probable sign that, at 35, he too was finding the rigours of the race too great. Thus ended one of the most unusual careers in the history of professional cycling.

After his career as a cyclist, Dargassies opened a grocery shop and then a bike shop, both in Grisolles. He lived there until 1965, when he died at the age of 93, and is buried in the town cemetery under his original name.

Jostein Wilmann, born on this day in 1953, finished in 14th place at the 1980 Tour de France - at the time of writing, this is the best General Classification result for any Norwegian rider in the history of the race.

Lewis Wyld, whom many sources claim preferred to be know as Lew but - say his descendents - actually preferred his middle name Arthur, was born in Tibshelf, Great Britain, on this day in 1905. Together with his brothers Frederick (known as Harry) and Percy (who seems to have been happy with the name his parents gave him) and George Southall, they set a new Team Pursuit record at the 1928 Olympics - which was then broken by another team the next day. (Some sources say that the fourth member of the team was Southall's older and more famous brother Frank, who won a silver in the Inidividual Road Race that same year; official Olympic records show that it was in fact George.)

Other cyclists born on this day: Julio César Aguirre (Colombia, 1969); Sébastien Rosseler (Belgium, 1981); Jostein Wilmann (Norway, 1953); Peter Hirzel (Switzerland, 1939); Uwe Unterwalder (East Germany, 1950); Manuel Guevara (Venezuela, 1969); Henk Nieuwkamp (Netherlands, 1942); Josef Helbling (Switzerland, 1935); Georges Honein (Lebanon, 1963).

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