Thursday 1 May 2014

Daily Cycling Facts 01.05.2014

La Flèche Wallonne, perhaps the most prestigious of the Classics after the Monuments, fell on this day in 1938 - the third edition of the race. At 280km - not, as some sources claim, 300km - it shares the honour of being the longest ever edition with the previous year. It started at Tournai, as had 1937, but followed a different route to end at Rocourt and the winner was Émile Masson Jr., who would also win a stage at the Tour de France that year. Masson was the son of Émile Masson Snr., who won two stages at the Tour in 1922. The 14th edition, held in 1950, also took place on this date. Running for the third of twelve consecutive years between Charleroi and Liège, it covered 235km and was won by Fausto Coppi - the second Italian to achieve victory. For the first time that year it was held the day before the Liège-Bastogne-Liège Monument to create Le Weekend Ardennais.

Henri Pélissier
Pelissier in 1919, the year he won his first
On this day in 1935, Henri Pélissier died at the age of 46. The second of four cycling brothers, of whom three (himself, Charles and Francis) would become professional (Jean, the oldest, died at Argonnes in the First World War), Henri would race in all but two of the peace-time Tours de France between 1912 and 1925, failing to finish all of them except for 1914 when he came second to Phillipe Thys and 1923, which we won after Ottavio Bottechia failed to change his gear in time (in those days, gear shifts were achieved by getting of the bike, removing the rear wheel, flipping it around and placing the chain over the differently-sized cog on that side before retightening the wheel and continuing; so a missed gear change could result in the loss of many minutes rather than seconds) and Jean Alvoine abandoned after a crash.

He also won the Giro di Lombardia three times, Paris-Roubaix twice, Milan-Torino, Milan-San Remo, Bordeaux-Paris, Paris-Tours and Paris-Brussels and used his exalted position to protest against the harsh conditions riders of his day were expected to endure and, as result, became embroiled in a long feud with Tour director Henri Desgrange - surprisingly, he didn't always enjoy popular support and many other riders apparently found him rather annoying. However, for all the concern he showed for their welfare he was by no means a likable man - his wife, Léonie, suffered much at his hands and entered a deep depression, leading to her suicide in 1933 when she shot herself with his revolver. Three years following her death, he took a new lover named Camille "Miette" Tharault, 20 years younger than he was. It appears that he treated her no better better - during a row one day, he attacked her with a knife and slashed her face. She, however, was made of sterner stuff than poor Léonie: she ran upstairs and grabbed the very same gun with which her unfortunate predecessor had committed suicide but, instead of turning it on herself, took it back down to kitchen and shot Henri five times. After the killing was investigated, she was given a 12-month suspended sentence which, court officials said, was the closest they could come to releasing her without charge under the laws of the time. (For more on Pélissier, click here.)

Pete Smith
Not many people remember Pete Smith today, despite the fact that he represented Great Britain - alongside two other members of his club, Clifton CC from York - at the 1968 Olympics. Born in Acomb, Northumberland on this day in 1944, Pete had already finished high up in a handful of races by 1968 when he and fellow club members Ray Cromick and John Watson had an extraordinary year in which they broke numerous time trial records. Hearing that the search was on for British riders to go to the Games, they trained hard and proved the fastest in an entry test over 100km, despite only having a couple of months (during which they continued working in their full-time jobs) to prepare. In September, they went to Mexico.

Mexico City is, famously, the highest capital city in the world with the lowest parts 2250m above sea level and the highest at nearly 4000m. Nowadays, were the Games to be held there again, athletes would undergo an extensive period of high-altitude training prior to the start in order to be adjusted to the conditions; in the late 1960s, things were different and Pete remembers that many athletes, especially those competing in endurance events, suffered as a result - he was more fortunate and found that he became acclimatised quickly. The other members of the GB team did not, and they came tenth out of 30 teams. "It was not as well as we expected to do, but there you go, we did alright - not too bad," he remembers.

Pete also remembers the protests that took place that year, including those outside the Games where students rallied to demonstrate against the Olympics being held in Mexico when the government could have spent the money on the country's starving poor - "They had a valid point," he says. There were also protests within: American 200m runners John Carlos and Tommie Smith raised black-gloved fists on the podium after coming third and first in their event to highlight civil rights abuses in the USA. "They were alright to run a hundred metres and win a medal in Mexico, but not alright to sit with whites on a bus in their own country," says Smith, explaining his sympathy for the protest.

Smith continued to compete until 1973, winning Stage 10 at the 1968 Tour du Maroc and the 1969 Lincoln International.

On this day in 1998, Lance Armstrong married Kristin Richard - and thus set in motion several years of confusion for sports commentators, those of whom with little knowledge of cycling could never quite tell the difference between the new Kristin Armstrong and the one who won a total of five National and two World Road Race and Time Trial Championships and is not related to Lance in any way. And, unlike Lance, isn't a lying, cheating bully.

František Jursa, born in Brno on this day in 1933, was with the Czechosolovakian team at the 1956 Olympics. He was fifth in the Team Pursuit and also rode in the Individual and Team Road Races, failing to finish both. A year later, he became National Cyclo Cross Champion and won silver in the same competition in 1958, 1959 and 1960 - also winning the Košice-Tatry-Košice road race that final year.

Peter Van Den Abeele, born in Gent on this day in 1966, won Koppenbergcross in 1991, 1997 and 1999 and was National Cyclo Cross Champion in 1994. In 1997, he became National Cross-Country Mountain Bike Champion. Today, he works with the UCI as off-road manager and cyclo cross co-ordinator.

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