Thursday 21 March 2013

Daily Cycling Facts 21.03.2013

Jules Vanhevel
The Ronde van Vlaanderen was held on this day in 1920, 1926 and 1937. The 1920 winner was Jules Vanhevel, whose name is very often wrongly spelled van Hevel and who had been a very successful amateur in 1913, then Independent in 1914 and gone on to win several races while in the Army during the First World War until he was injured and sent to Great Britain to recover. After the war, he became professional and enjoyed an extraordinarily productive career until his retirement in 1936 when, at the age of 41, he came 6th in the Six Days of Brussels. (There's a lot more information on him and a remarkable museum about him housed in an Ichtegem pub in the entry for the 6th of April, the anniversary of his Paris-Roubaix win in 1924.)

1926 was won by Denis Verschueren, nicknamed The Giant of Itegem on account of his phenomenal strength. That same year, he won Paris-Brussels and he won Paris-Tours in both 1925 and 1927.

In 1937, the race was won by Michel D'Hooghe who raced for Van Hauwaert, the team with which he spent the entirety of his career from 1933 when he turned professional to 1940, the year he was killed at the age of 28 during the German bombing of Lokeren railway station. During the early years of the Ronde van Vlaanderen, Karel Van Wijnendaele - a racing cyclist turned journalist who had organised the race to advertise the Sportwereld newspaper - expressed grave concern at the event's lack of popularity and small entry numbers: "We had bitten off more than we could chew. It was hard, seeing a band of second-class riders riding round Flanders, scraping up a handful of centimes to help cover the costs," he would later remember. However, in the years following the First World War and helped no end by Flemmish domination of the podium, the Ronde had become a symbol of Flemmish nationhood and as such was increasingly popular. By 1937, around half a million spectators showed up to see the race - and many of them now had cars, which meant they could chase the riders en masse over the entire parcours, frequently zooming off at high speed to take a short cut through tiny villages in order to see the peloton pass by at a later point. This led to widespread chaos, being far beyond the sort of public excitement Belgium had ever before experienced, and so organisers decided that in future they were going to need the assistance of the police. The gendarmerie had had some limited involvement since 1933, but had done little other than keep an eye on things - now, drastic action was needed if the race was not to be banned. The next year, Van Wijnendaele used his newspaper to publish the following message: "To control as far as possible the plague of race-followers and assure the dependable running of our races, we have sent an exceptional request to the roads ministry to have our race followed by several gendarmes on motorbikes... They will have the right to penalise anybody following the race without permission" and from that point onwards it was run along similar lines to any other major race, with large numbers of police and private security officers controlling crowds and providing rolling roadblocks.

Hugo Koblet
Hugo Koblet was born in Zürich on this day in 1925. Like Louison Bobet, who was born a week earlier and whom he would race against (and beat) on many occasions, Koblet was the son of a baker. His widowed mother Héléna concentrated on training her oldest son to take on the business while Hugo, as the youngest, was made to carry out more menial tasks such as cleaning work surfaces, sweeping the floor - and delivering bread on a heavy utility bicycle.

He must have found cycling to his liking, because when he was 17 he left the bakery and found a job as a trainee bike mechanic at Zürich's Oerlikon Velodrome. Before long, he started to enter races - his first was a 10km hill climb, and that heavy delivery bike had evidently put some muscle on his legs because he won. Léo Amberg, who had come 3rd overall in the 1937 Tour de France, saw him race and was impressed. Afterwards, he sought out the young rider and persuaded him that he stood a good chance of making a living as a track cyclist. By the age of 20, he was National Amateur Pursuit Champion.

In 1946, Koblet turned professional with Amberg's team on track and with Mercier-R. Lapebie on troad, travelling to the USA to compete in the Six Days of New York and Chicago. Road cycling had already begun its long downward spiral into the obscurity that wouldn't end until the Polish coach Eddie Borysewicz single-handedly rescued it in the 1980s, but velodrome racing remained popular in the USA just as it was in Europe at the time, and the American crowds that watched the races were as impressed by the dashing Swiss rider with his movie-star good looks as he was by their country - and he was very impressed by their country, driving all the way to Florida and California, teaching himself American English from films and falling completely in love with the place and the good life that, in the 1940s and 1950s, had ceased to be a promise and had become reality.

In 1950, Koblet won a gold medal at the National Road Race Championship and then the General Classification at the Giro d'Italia - the first foreigner to win the race - along with the Mountains Classification and Stages 6 and 8. Back at home, he won Stages 4a, 4b and the General Classification at the Tour de Suisse and the GP Suisse 100km time trial. That was a good year, but it paled into insignificance in comparison to the next - 1951 was nothing short of phenomenal: he won the Criterium des As, the Geneva Criterium, numerous other one-day races, another National Championship, Stages 2 and 7 at the Tour de Suisse, Stage 19 at the Giro and Stages 7, 11, 14, 16 and the General Classification of the Tour de France.

That year, Gino Bartali was drawing towards the end of his career and Coppi was not at his best - and never would be again - following the tragic death of his younger brother Serse, but still Koblet faced stiff competition from the likes of Raphaël Géminiani, Fiorenzo Magni, Stan Ockers and Louison Bobet who was desperate to prove those who had labeled him a "crybaby" wrong by winning a Tour. Koblet began to attack the moment the peloton set off in the first stage and hardly let up, later being declared the winner of the Stage 7 time trial after it was discovered - following Koblet's protestation - that the original winning time attributed to Bobet had been mis-recorded, taking a whole minute off the Frenchman's actual time. Stage 11 has become one of the most legendary in the history of the race: Koblet literally dominated, attacking after 32km and then riding the remaining 145km alone to win the stage by three minutes despite Bobet, Bartali and Coppi doing everything within their combined power to stop him.

During one stage of the 1951 Tour de Suisse, when François Mahé was attempting to attack him in the mountains, Koblet calmly sat up and took his hands off the handlebars before retrieving a comb from a jersey pocket and tidying his hair. The story goes that Mahé was instantly, devastatingly demoralised and abandoned the race there and then, which the spectators, naturally, adored; but there are some who say that in actual fact Mahé was suffering from terrible haemorrhoids that he'd been keeping secret, and was glad of an excuse to give up). Stunts along these lines became a bit of a Koblet trademark and he began to always carry his comb, a small sponge and a bottle of cologne in a special pocket in his custom-made jerseys during races, using them to freshen up as he rode towards the finish line so he'd be ready to meet the reporters on the other side. In a lesser rider, this sort of thing would be considered detestable arrogance - but Koblet had the go to go with the show and when the Tour came to an end, he was a full 22 minutes ahead of second place Geminiani, almost half an hour ahead of Bartali and more than 45 minutes ahead of Coppi. Bobet, meanwhile, was more than an hour and 24 minutes down, languishing in 20th place overall after he'd been unable to keep up the pace in the mountains and had cracked badly.

Despite forming such an unbeatable obstacle, Koblet enjoyed near-universal popularity among the riders. Journalist René de Latour remarked on this in 1964, when he wrote in Sporting Cyclist: "[He] had not an enemy at all. His ready and kindly smile came from deep down inside, and one knows from the start that this was a man without rancour, a rare thing to say of anybody who has raced in top competition on the road where the intense physical struggle often leads to jealousy and dispute." Those good looks that had endeared him to American fans, combined with his charming manners and habit of always dressing impeccably, meant that he was extremely popular with women, too (Jacques Goddet, directeur of the Tour, was certainly rather taken with Koblet too - he wrote that he was nothing less than "the perfect specimen for demonstrating the miraculous power of the human race"); and he lived something of a playboy's lifestyle, spending money like his income was guaranteed forever, enjoying the company of beautiful women - one of whom, a 23-year-old model named Sonja Buhl, he married in 1923. Yet, fun as that lifestyle was, Koblet was the son of a widowed baker, completely unsuited to it and it took a heavy toll.

Despite winning two more National Championships, another Tour de Suisse and further stages at both the Giro d'Italia and Tour de France, Koblet was visibly a different rider in the years after his Tour victory. He remained strong through to 1955 and even in 1956 was capable of winning a stage at the Vuelta a Espana, but it was plainly obvious that 1951 was the pinnacle. Prize money began to tail off as a result, but he was fortunate enough to find promotional work with Alfa-Romeo in South America for a while, but then that began to fail too. He has begun to look much older, confused and pre-occupied by some mysterious concern of his own. By the time he and Sonja returned to Europe, he also seemed to be showing signs of memory loss - most notably, he completely forgot that he had signed a contract worth seven million lire (a vast amount, even in lire, at the time) for his name to be attached to a range of combs in Italy. The marriage suffered, then broke up, and Koblet set up home in an apartment over a garage he'd opened within sight of the velodrome where he'd worked as a mechanic. He retired from racing in 1958.

Knowing what we now know about clinical depression, it seems obvious that the rider suffered an emotional breakdown - the confusion, the emotional and physical change, the memory loss all stand in support. As we have seen so many times, this is a phenomenon experienced all too frequently by those who have fame ad fortune thrust upon them in a short space of time - especially when the dream begins to crack and fall apart. We have already noted that Koblet came from a poor background - the life he led was not the one he had been raised to live, and it overloaded him. The 2010 film Hugo Koblet: Pédaleur de Charme (which, incidentally, in an absolute must-see for all fans of the Tour's golden age) attributes his decline to doping, though Koblet was never caught using performance-enhancing drugs (and would probably would not have faced any penalty even if he had been). In the light of what we have seen time and time again - with popular celebrities and cyclists (Pantani is the first to spring to mind) who raced since Koblet's day - and with knowledge of the cavalier attitude towards drugs among riders who would merrily swallow or inject just about anything with little or no consideration for the consequences provided they might offer an advantage in a race, we cannot rule out the possibility that unknown drugs played a major part in his downfall.

In 1964, Koblet asked Buhl if she might be willing to consider giving their marriage another go. By this time his money was gone, he was in debt and he faced prosecution for unpaid taxes; so she refused. Later that year, he died four days after a car crash that was declared to have been an accident following investigation and is still officially documented as such. However, a man named Émile Isler swore that he had seen Koblet driving his white Alfa-Romeo at between 120-140kph on a road between Zürich and Esslingen, then turn around and drive back at a slightly slower speed past a pear tree at the roadside. Then, he turned around again and drove at high speed straight into it. He was 39 years old.

Jesper Skibby
Jesper Skibby
(image credit: Heelgrasper CC BY-SA 3.0)
Aging fans - such as your esteemed author - can commonly be heard complaining that the modern peloton doesn't contain the characters that populated cycling in days gone by. It's rubbish, of course - people said the same thing in the 1920s and in every decade since; it's just that today's cyclists haven't completed their careers and said all the things they'll say and done all the things they'll do yet. Once they do, we'll decide who amused us (except for David Zabriskie, who has already proved he's got personality by the bucketful) and turn them into heroes, then we'll start saying the same things about the riders of the 2020s. That this is the case can be proven by the fact that we moaned in the 1990s that the Tour de France was lacking the sort of personalities it had in the 1980s - even though the 1990s was the time that Jesper Skibby was riding.

Skibby, who was born in Silkeborg, Denmark on this day in 1964, is that rare thing: a character who thinks he's funny and genuinely is, lacing clown-like behaviour and silly jokes with a rare, razor wit that, when required, could burst pomposity like a needle bursts a balloon. He was even funny when he lay in a hospital bed recovering from a double skull fracture sustained in a crash at the 1993 Tirreno–Adriatico and when he lost his balance and came inches from a potentially career-ending injury under the wheels of a race director's car on the cobbles of Koppenberg in the 1987 Tour of Flanders.

What's more, he could really ride. He won National Championship titles whilst still an amateur and then managed podium places at numerous prestigious races during his professional career, including 1st place for Stage 19 at the 1989 Giro d'Italia, Stages 3 and 7 at the 1991 Vuelta a Espana and Stage 5 at the 1993 Tour de France. In 1999 and 2000, he rounded things off by forming part of the winning teams in the National Team Trial Championships.

In 2006, six years after he retired, Skibby published his autobiography. In it, he confesses that he doped through much of his career, stating that he began with anabolic steroids in 1991, then added testosterone supplements and growth hormones a year later and by 1993 was using EPO. Though he had never been caught using drugs while racing, he claimed that he had wanted the book to be brutally honest so that his daughters would know the truth - the unmissable undercurrent is that he didn't want them to believe he had been a hero when in fact he was cheat.

Unlike the majority of riders and cycling figures who have been caught red-handed or come clean as a result of their own consciences, Skibby does not try to implicate others, name names or even suggest un-named individuals had anything to do with his doping in his book, never once trying to excuse his actions with an "everyone else was doing it, so I was pressurised into doping simply to remain competitive" argument. Instead, he says that he heard about doping products that were available, purchased them himself and administered them to himself, taking full responsibility for his actions. Perhaps, then, he is a sort of hero after all.

Brooke Miller
Brooke Miller (orange sunglasses) with Alison Rosenthal
(image credit: Richard Masoner CC BY-SA 2.0)
Brooke Miller, born in Huntingdon Beach, California on this day in 1976, was cycling simply for reasons of fitness in 2005 as her successful Elite Women's Volleyball career began to wind down. That year, she attended a USA Cycling conference and learned that female cyclists have a tendency to reach their athletic peak later in life than their male counterparts. Still hungry for competition, she realised that she could have a second career. Two years later,, after gaining her PhD in evolutionary biology, she was selected for the National Team.

Victories came her way right from the start, including stage wins at the Tour de Toona, Mount Hood Classic and Nature Valley Grand Prix in 2006. 2007 brought 13 podium finishes, five of them wins, then in 2008 she became National Champion in both Road Race and Criterium. 2009 was similarly successful with sixteen podium finishes, six of them 1st place, then 2010 got off to an excellent start. However, that year she announced her retirement; citing difficulties in spending so much time away from home and a desire to concentrate on the 2012 Olympics as her reasons. She supports her new amateur career by working as a software development engineer and as marketing director at Team Tibco, with whom she rode when professional.

Andrey Kashechkin
Andrey Kashechkin, born on this day in Kyzyl-Orda, Kazakhstan, moved to Belgium in 2001 and turned professional with the Domo-Farm Frites team. He began achieving good results almost immediately, this putting himself in a good position to negotiate a contract with Quick Step-Davitamon two years later and, after a season with them moved on to Crédit Agricole and then Liberty Seguros-Würth. He did well throughout the season and was signed to Astana in 2007 with an agreement that he would ride in the Tour de France that year.

By the end of Stage 15, he was in 8th place and heading towards a respectable result. However, team leader Alexandre Vinokourov tested positive for illegal blood transfusions and the team withdrew from the event. As part of its investigation, Astana put all their riders through a rigourous  testing programme and samples provided by Kashechkin were also shown to display evidence of doping - when his B-sample confirmed the result, he was sacked from the team and received a two-year suspension, announcing that he would return to competition in 2009 after the ban was upheld at an appeal.

However, as is often the case when riders return from a high profile suspension - and so soon after Operación Puerto, all suspensions were high profile - he was unable to find a team willing to give him a contract and had to sit out for another year. Halfway through 2010 he signed to Lampre-Farnese Vini, then negotiated a release during the 2011 season so that he could be free to return to Astana and ride the Vuelta a Espana with them - his best placing was 28th on Stage 21 and he was 89th overall. In 2012 he took an impressive third place on Stage 1 at the Critérium du Dauphiné and managed a handful of respectable results at the Tour de France, then broke into the top ten with eighth place on Stage 15 at the Vuelta a Espana.

Ray Eden, winner of the 1995 RTTC National 100-mile Championship, died on this day in 2011 as a result of serious head injuries sustained during an assault near his Doncaster home. His attacker was subsequently charged with inflicting grievous bodily harm, the found guilty of manslaughter and imprisoned on the 12th of August that year.

Regina Schleicher, born in Würzburg, Germany on this day in 1974, probably couldn't have become anything other than a professional cyclist because her father, a qualified cycling coach, saw to it that she was immersed in the culture throughout her childhood. With his help, she became national Road Race Champion at Elite level in 1994 when she was still only 20, then won the Under-23 European Championship a year later. She began to ride to a high level in stage races early in the 21st Century, winning Stage 5 at the 2002 Giro Donne and Stages 4, 5, 6 and 7a in 2003 - and would almost certainly have won the General Classification over the next few years had it not have been for the domination of first Edita Pucinskaite and then Nicole Brändli, Ina-Yoko Teutenberg, Mara Abbott and Marianne Vos since then. In 2005, she won both the National and World Championships before concentrating on stage races in subsequent years.

Other births: Sébastien Chavanel (younger brother of Sylvain, France, 1981); Mohammad Reza Bajool (Iran, 1960); Linda Gornall (Great Britain, 1964); Franco Fanti (Italy, 1924, died 2007); Viktor Kunz (Switzerland, 1968); Antonio Salvador (Spain, 1968); Otar Dadunashvili (USSR, 1928, died 1992); Abas Ismaili (Iran, 1967); Hirotsugu Fukuhara (Japan, 1945); Netai Bysack (India, 1921, died 2005).

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