Thursday 3 April 2014

Daily Cycling Facts 03.04.2014

Paris-Roubaix was held on this day in 1904, when it was won by Hippolyte Aucouturier for the second consecutive year (according to some sources, 1904 was the first time the race was run without pacers - but records seem to show motorpacing was banned in 1901 and bicycle/tandem pacing in 1910). An early breakaway group including Aucouturier led through most of the race with riders jostling one another at checkpoints (in those days, they had to sign their names) so that they could be off before rivals; the pen frequently vanishing so as to hold up others in a prime example of the sort of cheating that was considered almost par for the course at the time.

By early afternoon, Aucouturier was out in front alone but, little by little, César Garin (Maurice's brother) was catching up until the two men were together with 45km to go. Garin was knocked off by a car full of journalists, but managed to remain with his rival. As the finish approached, they slowed down to a crawl as each man tried to gauge the another's strength and goad him into an energy-sapping attack. In the end, Aucouturier proved the wilier, winning by two lengths in a final sprint.

The Ronde van Vlaanderen was held on this day in 1927, 1960, 1977, 1983, 1994, 2005 and 2011. 1927 was the first of two wins for Gerard Debaets, and he had won in the Independent category in 1923 too. Debaets became National Road Race Champion in 1925 and won Brussels-Paris a year later, but other than these five - very major - successes his career on road featured few victories and he did far better racing on track: with 17 important races to his name, he is ranked the 32nd most successful track cyclist of all time.

In 1960, the race was won by Tuur Decabooter; nicknamed The Bull and considered in Belgium to have been about as near to a Flandrien as any rider to have raced since Briek Schotte can be - that is, a rider who attacks hard and refuses to give up no matter how bad the parcours and weather may be. Decabooter's sister-in-law is married to Walter Godefroot, the winner of the Ronde in 1968. 1977 was won by Roger De Vlaeminck who, with Eddy Merckx and Rik van Looy, is one of only three men to have won all five Monuments; however, de Vlaeminck won Paris-Roubaix - the hardest Monument of them all - a record four times, and that makes him arguably even closer to a Flandrien that Decabooter. For the first time in 1977, the start was moved to Sint-Niklaas were it would remain for twenty years and the Leberg, which climbs from 60m to 99m with a maximum gradient of 15%, became a part of the race.

1983 brought a second victory for Jan Raas. Two new climbs appeared that year - the Molenberg which rises from 24m to 56m with a maximum 17% gradient and Berendries, a longer climb from 33m to 98m but less steep with a maximum gradient of 14%. 150 of the 188 starters didn't make it to the end.

Nick Nuyens
(image credit: Thomas Ducroquet  CC BY-SA 3.0)
1994 went to Gianni Bugno, then still a relatively rare sight as an Italian in the Flemmish Classics. His career never quite reached the heights it could have done had he have been born five years earlier because he was overshadowed in the Tour de France by Miguel Indurain; however, while Indurain concentrated in the Tour, Bugno was by far the more versatile rider and could grab Grand Tour stage wins where the Spaniard could not in addition to winning Classics such as this one which were no-go areas for his rival.

Victory in the Elite Men's race in 2005 went to Tom Boonen, the first of his two wins and hard-fought against Peter van Petegem. The Ronde van Vlaanderen voor Vrouwen - the Elite Women's race - was also the first of two consecutive wins, in this case for Mirjam Melchers-Van Poppel.

In 2011, the Ronde became a part of the UCI WorldTour with 100 points on offer for the winner, putting it in the third category of events after the Tour de France and the other Grand Tours and on an equal footing with the eleven most important stage races other than the Grand Tours. The winner that year was Nick Nuyens after he survived savage attacks from Fabian Cancellara on the Leberg and Philippe Gilbert on Bosberg. Nuyens also won the Under-23 Ronde in 2002.

Annemiek van Vleuten won the Ronde van Vlaanderen voor Vrouwen in 2011, one of the three victories that would earn her that year's Women's World Cup, thus keeping for Nederland Bloeit the trophy that had been won by her team mate Marianne Vos the year before.

Left-right: Jesse Aitchison, Ethel Jermeat, Evelyn Hamilton
Evelyn Hamilton
Today, when women's professional cycling is almost entirely ignored by the media, it's so difficult for female cyclists to make their name as professionals that some of those who have done so warn others hoping to do the same that if it's fame they seek, they'll be better off looking elsewhere. If this is true in the 21st Century, is must have been all but impossible for a woman to get her achievements noticed in the first third of the 20th.

One who did was Evelyn Hamilton, born Eveline Alice Alexandra Bayliss on this day in 1906 in Westminster, London.  Summarising Evelyn's life is a challenge to any historian because she was one of those people who seems to have believed that her past should be multiple choice, frequently recounting stories that cannot possibly have been true or are highly suspect - however, one fact that is in no doubt is that she won both the National Half-Mile Handicap and the Sporting Life Trophy at the Stamford Track in 1931. That success won her sufficient fame to be approached by the producers of the 1934 musical Sing As We Go, in which she can be seen acting as body double for Gracie Fields in a scene in which Fields' character Gracie Platt rides a bicycle. Around the same time, she appears to have befriended Claud Butler, head of the manufacturer that in those days built some of the finest bikes in the world. A photograph taken at the Paddington Track in 1932 depicts Hamilton astride her bike, dressed in a sleeveless Claud Butler jersey.

The Miss Modern Model of 1934 (the bike
shown is fitted with a Constrictor Osgear)
Butler sponsored Hamilton in 1934 when she set off on one of his bikes to become the first British woman to ride 1000 miles (1609km) in seven days - a feat she completed after 84 hours of riding. The bike was fitted with the brand new Constrictor Osgear, developed by the legendary Oscar Egg and manufactured under licence by Constrictor, a tyre company based in North London who would also introduce the first lightweight alloy wheel rims. The system featured either three, four or five cogs on the rear wheel with the chain moved between them by a cable-operated arm bolted onto the chain stay, while a jockey wheel fitted to the end of a sprung arm mounted to the bottom bracket maintained chain tension. Media attention was so great that Butler produced a commemorative bike named the Miss Modern Model, a high-end machine that sold well, notable for having a shortened top tube so as to be suitable for women (whose arms tend to be shorter in comparison to height than men's) and tweaked frame angles so as to maintain correct geometry - one of the very first female-specific bikes in history.

One year later, Hamilton was so famous that when she set off to ride from Land's End to John O'Groats (which she did in four days), she was presented to her fans by Ben Tillet who, before retirement a few years previously, had enjoyed enormous popularity as a Labour Member of Parliament and trade unionist. The event was filmed by Pathe News, and the recording still exists. In the coming years, her fame grew as she set more and more records, including riding 10,000 miles (16,093km) in 100 days aboard a Granby bike (fitted with the new Cyclo-Star gears that resemble a modern derailleur. This was the first time Hamilton used a non-Claud Butler bike for one of her long-distance journeys, but the reason for this is not known - had they fallen out or had Granby offered a tempting pay-cheque? We'll probably never know. She finished the ride - having embarked upon it to prove that women were capable of equalling men in terms of athletic achievement - on the 14th of August 1938. Another Pathe newsreel features Hamilton offering cycling safety and style tips.

That same year, Evelyn and husband Jack set up a bike shop under her name at 416a Streatham High Road, London - it would move briefly to 402a and then 398a (reason unknown, but the area suffered heavy bombing during the Second World War). The building still exists (51°25'21.21"N  0° 7'46.58"W) and is now occupied by a large homewares and furniture store, the shop front altered beyond all recognition. The Hamiltons ran the shop until circa 1968, but it continued as E. Hamilton under different ownership right up until 1984; by which time it also sold motorbikes.

Precisely what Hamilton was doing during the war is a mystery - all that is known is that she wasn't seen at the shop for the entire duration. One rumour suggests she had gone to France to become a wall of death rider for a circus and was trapped in Paris when it fell to the Nazis - there is some evidence to support claims that she spent the war in France, but the truth about what she was doing there is rather clouded by her own mythologising. During interviews later in her life, she seems sometimes to have amused herself by inventing contradictory stories - she told one reporter that she had pretended to be French and found work in a cafe popular with members of the Gestapo and another that she had taken the identity of a dead woman and lived with - and possibly bigamously wed - a local named Fernand Helsen. Once, she claimed that she had worked for the Resistance, using a tandem to surreptitiously transport wanted people in heavy disguise across the city until she was captured by the Gestapo - but was able to escape when she pulled a miniature gun from her hair, shot her captor and fled, later managing to get herself back to England. Whether the story is true is as good as up to one's own personal opinion, but the way she told it it was most certainly convincing - she was awarded the Cross of Lorraine by President De Gaulle after the war.

That raises an interesting point: when she made up tall tales, was she lying for the hell of it or was she deliberately putting up a smokescreen around her past?

In fact, the truth about where Hamilton was and what she was doing during the War may be far stranger than even her tallest stories. According to some, the Hamilton shop operated as a front organisation for the Free French Forces (a partisan army that fought hard against the Nazis long after the country was occupied) and the British Special Operations Executive, the top secret intelligence and guerilla warfare organisation. Lending credence to the story is the fact that Helsen did exist but, far from living in France during the war, was an employee of the French Embassy in London - according to gossip, Hamilton was known to have had affairs with a number of men other than her husband (one of whom may have been the father of her son John who died when he was ten months old and, it seems, was neither the child of either Jack nor Helsen - until proof of his existence was uncovered in 2011, the child was generally supposed to have been another of Hamilton's invented stories. She had been known to claim that the baby was taken by the Nazis when she was in France and never seen again) and it's just within the boundaries of possibility that the tale of a bigamous marriage (a crime for which she seems to have never been investigated) and the other stories were invented to cover up a more professional relationship and official, covert activities. Whether they married or not, she took Helsen's name and retained it for more than half a century after his death in 1950. Oddly, nobody knows what became of Jack - had they divorced, in which case her claimed marriage to Helsen was not bigamous? Did he die in the War? Did he even exist?

Evelyn Hamilton, 1935. Left - Ben Tillet, right - Claud Butler
While she was away during the War, Hamilton's shop was run by three Frenchmen and, as befits a woman who lived such a remarkable and strange life, their identity is unknown. However, at least one of them may have been one of the famous Pélissier brothers: Hamilton had been known to mention a distant cousin of hers who had won the Tour de France - as Henri Pélissier had done in 1929. Henri was shot dead by his lover Camille Tharault in 1935 and an older brother was killed during the First World War, leaving Francis and Charles who survived until 1959.

After relinquishing control of her shop, Hamilton moved to the Norfolk town of Swaffham where she lived for the rest of her life (and, according to locals, had more affairs). She died there on the 29th of May 2005 and is buried in the town, her gravestone bearing the name Evelyn Alice Helsen.

Bjarne Riis
Bjarne Riis
(image credit: Danny Lechanteur CC BY-SA 3.0)
Many riders give their best years to cycling. Some give their entire lives, remaining a part of the sport after their own competitive career has ended - frequently, this is because the world of professional cycling has a habit of institutionalising those who live within it and the world outside is a big and scary place, but it can also be because the individual in question loves cycling so much that it becomes their life. Bjarne Riis, who was born in the Danish city Herning on this day in 1964, falls into that latter category.

Riis began cycling in childhood and, according to those who knew him, displayed a desire for perfection right from the start. His racing career began with the Herning CK amateur club and he performed well enough to be in the running to be selected for the 1984 Olympics, but ultimately was not and planned to relocate to Italy in search of a professional career. However, former Danish National Champion Kim Andersen - who would later serve as directeur sportif at Team CSC, owned by Riis, before jumping ship (along with several CSC riders) to Leopard Trek for 2011 - advised him that he would be better placed were he to go to Luxembourg instead, Italy having no shortage of promising new talent. Before long, he was riding with the Luxembourgian ACC Contern club where he came into contact with legendary trainer Marcel Gilles, a man who has become known as Mr. Velo and whom would become Riis' mentor, honing and developing his abilities to a level that earned the Danish rider his first professional contract with Roland-Van de Ven in 1986. His first season started well with 5th place in the Grad Prix de Wallonie, but for the rest of that year and the next he failed to impress team bosses and his contract was not renewed at the end of 1988.

His career could have ended that year, just one of the many cyclists who might have been good enough to make it in the hard professional world but, ultimately, didn't have what it takes. Fortunately, during 1988 Tour de l'Avenir he and Kim Eriksen were approached by Systeme U. The team's star rider Laurent Fignon was leading the race, but precariously - as a race for semi-professionals (known in the early days of stage racing as independents), he wasn't guaranteed the support of his team and needed some riders to assist him. Whether a future contract with the team - who at that time were one of the most dominant on the European scene - was offered as a bribe appears not to have been recorded, but it seems it was certainly hinted at: and came to pass, in December that year when Systeme U announced that it had indeed signed him up as a domestique.

Systeme U, and the three years during which he rode in support of Fignon, proved highly advantageous for Riis. Despite having grown up in one of the flattest nations in Europe, he was able to remain with the twice-Tour de France winner through the most challenging mountain stages of the 1989 Giro d'Italia and worked hard, becoming an instrumental part in the Frenchman's overall victory and, following a number of unsuccessful seasons after an injury, eventual placement as the world's top-ranked cyclist. In exchange, Riis was pushed towards a stage win (Stage 9) of his own - but better still, the pair became friends; and a rider of Fignon's calibre is about as good a tutor as any young hopeful could wish for. He also had his first taste of Tour glory that year when Systeme won the Stage 2 Team Time Trial.

Three years later, Fignon retired. Riis, who was now in an ideal position to seek out major wins of his own, was recommended to the Italian Ariostea team by his fellow Dane Rolf Sørensen and secured a contract with them for 1992. He remained with them for two seasons, winning Stage 7 at the Giro and Stage 7 at the Tour in 1993, managing an impressive 5th place overall in the latter race. In 1994 he moved onto Gewiss, once again staying for two years during which he won Stage 13 at the 1994 Tour and the National Championship, the Post Danmark Rundt and 3rd overall at the Tour a year later. In 1996 he switched to Telekom, where he rode as team captain under one of cycling's most respected managers Walter Godefroot.
Riis with Ariostea team mates, 1993
(image credit: Eric Houdas CC BY-SA 3.0)
Riis was on unmistakably excellent form as he rolled up to the start line for Stage 1 of the Tour de France that year. He was always in good shape, but now he had the impossible-to-define glow that a rider with a very good chance of ultimate victory shows; with a spring in his step and an efficient looseness aboard the bike. That was the year that saw Stage 9 reduced from a 190km mountainous ordeal to a 46km sprint due to heavy snow on Galibier and the Col de l'Iseran, and Riis aced rival (and team mate) Jan Ullrich; finishing the stage with a 44" advantage and in doing so gained the yellow jersey that he wore for the remaining 12 stages. When he crossed the finish line on the Champs-Élysées, he'd added almost a minute to his advantage and was 1'41" ahead of 2nd place Ullrich. His victory was a major influence on Telekom's future, propelling the team from the second division to the upper echelons of the sport and drove a huge increase in interest in cycling in both Denmark and Germany. He was also more than 14 minutes ahead of Miguel Indurain, winner of the previous five Tours.

When he showed up at the 1997 Tour in similarly fine form, he confirmed himself as race favourite - he'd been the popular choice since winning the Amstel Gold in atrocious weather back in the spring. However, it proved to be one of those years in which the rider who looks most likely to win doesn't, and for no apparent reason: perhaps the Madonna del Ghisallo decided she'd see to it that Ullrich and Pantani (winners in 1997 and 1998) got their chances before the long reign of Lance Armstrong which would begin in 1999, or perhaps it was simply down to the fact that no matter how good someone is at spotting form and regardless of the parcours, it's impossible to predict the outcome of a near-chaotic, 3,500km race around France - either way, Riis didn't even get to stand on the final podium, coming 7th overall.

The next year, he was once again on good form as the season began - not too good, but with the healthy look of a man who will achieve his peak sometime in July when the Tour begins. He looked good during Stage 1 at the Tour de Suisse that year, but the race was to end in disaster: as he made his way to the start line of Stage 2, he hit the side of the road, wobbled and was unable to unclip from his pedals in time to avoid falling. His knee and elbow hit the road hard, sustaining the injuries that forced his retirement in early 2000.

Riis' post-racing career has been as colourful as the days when he was a rider. In 1998, in the wake if the Festina Affair that began when Belgian soigneur was stopped by customs agents and found to be in possession of enough drugs to start a pharmacy and which would shake professional cycling to its very core, it was revealed that Riis had returned a haematocrit reading of 56.3% in 1995. At that time, haematocrit readings were the only method of detecting possible EPO usage as a reliable test for the drug had not yet been developed - 50% was judged to be the maximum an athlete could achieve naturally, with those who recorded higher considered highly suspect. Riis' reading was especially questionable because, earlier in the year before the season started, he had been measured at 41% - a huge and probably all but impossible increase which led Festina riders to claim if they'd been administered drugs with the aim of getting their readings to 50%, he must have been given sufficient to reach 60%. Hence his nickname: Mr. 60%.

Post-Festina investigations linked Riis to Drs. Francesco Conconi and Michele Ferrari - Conconi, who was employed to develop anti-doping tests but had a lucrative sideline selling dope he knew couldn't be detected to athletes, is commonly believed to be the man who first introduced professional cycling to EPO. However, the Dane was never caught out; suggesting that he was remarkably clever when he used other drugs. Strangely, he didn't lie outright when questioned about drug use. Rather than simply stating, "I have never doped," he always preferred to tell people "I have never tested positive."

Riis in 2007
(image credit: Velo Steve CC BY-SA 2.0)
On the 21st of May 2007, Bert Dietz - who had spent all but his last two years with Telekom before retiring in 2000 - decided it was time to come clean and revealed that he had doped during his time with the team. Udo Bölts and Christian Henn then felt prompted to come clean, as did a pair of doctors who had worked for Telekom while the men were riding. A few days later, Rolf Aldag, Brian Holm and Erik Zabel also confessed. The following day, Riis joined them. It's a big deal when any cyclist admits to cheating, but when a Tour de France winner does so it's a huge story - in a press release issued by Team CSC, he confessed to having made what he referred to as "mistakes," then explained during a press conference that he had used EPO, cortisone and growth hormone over a five-year period extending from 1993 to 1998. That, of course, includes the year he won the Tour. His confession required a great deal of bravery, coming as it did after Festina and at the height of Operación Puerto when doping - for so long accepted by many and simply not discussed with the press - had become considered a cardinal sin with panicked witch hunts exposing those who had made use of chemical assistance as managers and officials, in many case up to their eyeballs in nefarious activities themselves, frantically tried to convince the world that they'd always been unaware of how vast a problem doping had become and that they were doing what they could to stamp it out.

Unlike many, Riis never sought to blame others for his doping. He did not claim that Telekom managers had pressured him into doping, nor did he try to tell people that Telekom had supplied him with the drugs he used. Nor did he ever try to gain the sympathy of the press or fans - he merely stated the facts about what he had done, informing the world that he had bought drugs and taken them of his own free will while Godefroot chose to look the other way, and then waited while the hordes decided his fate. Immediately, he was branded a cheat and a liar and, less than a month later, Tour director Christian Prudhomme confirmed that the ASO had decided to disallow the 1996 victory and were stripping Riis' name from the race records.

However: while "I had to dope just to keep up" is inadmissable when used as an excuse by a guilty rider, it does need to be taken into consideration when we look at the results and consider our verdicts of riders prior to Operación Puerto. Puerto was the scandal that finally forced cycling to clean up, but it was Festina that revealed how prevalent doping had become. If we were to disqualify every rider who doped at the Tour before 2007, it's fair to say that there would be very few - if any - Tours that would not have very different results afterwards. Thus, we need to bear in mind that whilst Riis' cheating can never be condoned, we need to also recognise that the vast majority of those who competed against him were also doping and that, as a result, it was arguably not an unfair competition. We should also consider his freely-given confession and take the manner in which he went about into consideration. To their credit, the ASO did this and in July 2008, Riis was written back into the books. His Tour victory may not have been an honourable one, but it was not necessarily unfairly won.

(image credit: Rune CC BY-NC-SA 2.0)
In retirement, Riis has become even more successful. He was involved with Home-Jack&Jones from the earliest days of the team and with his help it became the first Danish outfit to compete in the Tour de France and, when the team hit hard times following the loss of its main sponsor after a doping scandal around rider Marc Steel in 1999, he bought a controlling interest in it and installed himself as manager. In 2001, he successfully negotiated a new sponsorship deal with the US company CSC which, following periods in which additional support was provided by World Online and Tiscali, agreed to become the team's sole sponsor. CSC went from strength to strength with Riis at the helm, soon becoming one of the most successful on the circuit and fielding one of the most impressive rosters in recent years. In 2005, CSC reduced the money it provided - a move that has spelled the early demise of many teams, but Riis persuaded his riders to accept a pay cut. It was a very difficult period during which he used his own money to keep the squad afloat, but he got them through. In 2008, he attracted Saxo Bank, one of Denmark's most successful financial institutions, thus preventing the team from folding at the end of the year when CSC pulled out. 2009 was not to be without its problems, meanwhile - shortly after the season got going, co-sponsor IT Farm went bust and left Saxo Bank as sole sponsor.

Further difficulties would come in 2010 with Alberto Contador's doping case and  Frank and Andy Schleck's announcement that they would be leaving the team to form Leopard Trek and taking several of their team mates with them; the added complication of Saxo Bank's original decision to support the team for just a year fortunately coming to nothing when they agreed to continue for another year, a decision that paid off when, following the expiry of a controversial back-dated ban, Contador returned and won the Vuelta a Espana.

Willy Hume
Willy Hume, who was born in Belfast on this day in 1862, became the very first person in the world to own a safety bicycle - ie one fitted with equal-sized wheels and a chain drive, rather than a draisine or penny-farthing - with John Boyd Dunlop's newly invented pneumatic tyres in March 1889. Dunlop suggested that the tyres might prove to offer an advantage in a race, so on the 18th of May that year Hume took his bike to the Queen's College Sports meet held at the North of Ireland Cricket Club in his home city - and won all four cycling races.

Spectating at the races was Harvey du Cros, a wealthy industrialist and future Conservative politician (boo! hiss!). Highly impressed by the bike's performance, du Cros sought out the rider afterwards and learned the secret to his success, which convinced him to find out more. Six months later, he had purchased the rights to produce Dunlop's tyres (paying the princely sum for £3000) and created the Pneumatic Tyre Company. Dunlop's patent would later be declared invalid after it was discovered that another Scottish inventor named Robert William Thompson had developed his own pneumatic tyre and patented it in France as early as 1846, but du Cros' factory was the first in the world to make pneumatic tyres.

Hume died in 1941, three years after he was honoured with a page in Cyclng Weekly (then known simply as Cycling) magazine's Golden Book of Cycling, which seeks to commemorate "the outstanding rides, deeds and accomplishments of cyclists, officials and administrators."

Arthur Charles Jeston Richardson - the first man to cycle around Australia and across the Nullarbor Desert (which he described as "about 1000 degrees in the shade") - died on this day in 1939. His corpse was discovered lying next to that of his wife by police at their home in Scarborough. He had shot her, then himself, possibly as a result of a serious mental illness developed after he was injured in the First World War (for more information on Richardson, see the entry for the 23rd of February - the anniversary of his birth in 1872).

Jack Sibbit
John Ephraim Sibbit, who was born in Ancoats, Manchester on this day in 1895, represented Britain at the 1928 Olympics where he won a silver medal. He had already won the 1922 National 5 Mile Championship and two National Quarter Mile titles by this time and would continue adding victories afterwards, holding no fewer than 12 National Championship titles by the time he was 41. Towards the end of his career, Sibbit rode bikes built by his own Jack Sibbit (the name by which he was known) company based at 475 Stockport Road in Manchester - other top cyclists of the day, including Reg Harris who was considered Britain's best track cyclist of the 1940s and 1950s, also favoured his machines. The building still exists and is now occupied by a fashion shop and hairdresser. Sibbit was awarded a page in the Golden Book of Cycling in 1932.

Nick Craig (born Stockport, UK on this day in 1969) has been British Cyclo Cross Champion three times (1996, 1998, 2005), British Cross Country Mountain Bike Champion twice (2000, 2003) and British Mountain Bike Marathon Champion twice (2005, 2006).

Other cyclists born on this day: Jan Mattheus (Belgium, 1965); Ricardo Senn (Argentina, 1931); Peter Nieuwenhuis (Netherlands, 1951); Rubén Donet (Spain, 1983); Raúl Gómez (Argentina, 1945); Svyatoslav Ryabushenko (USSR, 1968); Manolis Kotoulas (Greece, 1978); Stephanie McKnight (US Virgin Islands, 1960); Ricardo García (Mexico, 1926, died 2008); Carmelo Barone (Italy, 1956).

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