Thursday, 21 June 2012

Daily Cycling Facts 21.06.12

The Tour de France has started on this date twice, first in 1925 and then again in 1966. The 1925 edition consisted of 18 stages, at that time the most ever, but the overall distance was increased by only 5km to 5,430km - still much longer than today's Tours, but a significant decrease in the average stage length which would lead to a much longer race and a reduction to 17 stages the following year. It also marked the return of sponsored trade teams with respectable budgets for the first time since the First World War. Rules were changed, too - there was no longer a time bonus for the winner of each stage and any rider deemed to have said or done anything likely to damage the Tour's image was to be banned the following the year, this having been inspired by comments Henri Pélissier made to the journalist Albert Londres after a row with organisers. 130 men started, split between two groups - 39 rode with trade teams, the rest were independent touriste-routiers who paid their own way during the race (some slept in hotels and ate in restaurants, others slept in hedges and ate anything they could catch, beg or steal). There was a great deal of variation in team size with the largest, J.B. Louvet-Pouchois, consisting of eight riders including Eugène Christophe, Albert Dejonghe and Hector Heusghem; the J.Alavoine-Dunlop "team" began the race with just one rider, Jean Alavoine.

Bottecchia was, shall we say, not the finest example of
Italian manhood to have ever swung a leg over a bike.
However, the maillot jaune has magical powers over the
female tifosi and they swarmed across the border to throw
roses in his path - extra police had to be drafted in to Evian
to keep them under control. Frantz too received massive
support after three special trains were organised to bring his
fans from Luxembourg to the race
Ottavio Bottecchia had won with comparative ease in 1924, despite being knocked off his bike by a dog, once Pélissier stormed off home in the wake of an argument involving jerseys - only Nicolas Frantz presented any sort of challenge, but too late in the race to deprive him of victory. He was a favourite this year too but he knew that he was in for a tougher race because of Adelin Benoit, a 25-year-old Belgian who had won the National Championship for independent riders two years previously and had been adding good results ever since. Pélissier was back too, but he was 36 and would abandon with knee problems, never to return to the Tour. The Italian got off to a good start by winning the first stage and had the maillot jaune for two days, but then Benoit's second place 5'38" behind Louis Mottiat on Stage 3 allowed him to take it away. Frantz won the next two stages but was unable to take the lead, then Benoit had a puncture in Stage 6, Automoto-Hutchinson attacked and got Bottecchia to the line first. He won Stage 7 too, briefly winning the jersey back, but when the race reached the mountains Benoit won Stage 8 and once again took the lead. However, he had been lucky; mountains were not his speciality and when Frantz won Stage 9 the jersey was returned to Bottecchia who, with the assistance of Lucien Buysse, kept it.

Buysse was rewarded by being allowed to win Stages 11 and 12 (he'd also been promised half the money Bottecchia earned in the race), though in the latter both men missed a control post (riders were required to sign a log, proving they'd stuck to the parcours and not taken any shortcuts) and were penalised ten minutes. Nevertheless, at the end of the stage Bottecchia had a 27' advantage over nearest rival Frantz, and when the Luxembourger lost a further 37' due to a puncture on Stage 14 his race was over. Bottecchia won in 219h10'18", Buysse was 54'20" slower for second place. Bottechia also won the meilleur grimpeur, an award given by L'Auto to the rider judged to have performed best in the mountains before the introduction of the King of the Mountains competition in 1933, but it would be his last Tour victory - he returned in 1926 but abandoned in the Pyrenees; then in 1927 he was found lying unconscious by the side of a road not far from his home in Peonis and died eleven days later.

In 1966, the Tour covered 4,303km over 22 stages - much longer than modern editions, but considerably shorter than 1925 (in 1925, the average stage length was 301.6km, in 1966 195.6km. Many people make the mistake of believing that this is an indication that the riders in the early 20th Century were a much tougher breed than post-Second World War, but they forget that average speeds - 24.775kph in 1925, 36.76kph in 1966 - have risen dramatically. Also, in 1925 the riders had a rest day almost every other day; in 1966 they had only two).

Poulidor, the man who saw the future
The riders, well-used to bad weather, harsh mountains and the occasional corrupt official and/or belligerent fan, faced a new ordeal - for the very first time in 1966, they had to submit to drugs tests. Rumours spread before the first test was carried out and, unhappy about it, all the riders except for one made themselves scarce after Stage 8 when the testers were supposed to arrive. The one rider who remained was Raymond Poulidor, who despite connections to Bernard Sainz (the notorious "Dr. Mabuse") never tested positive. Poulidor had seen the future and knew that even if he escaped their clutches this time, they'd be back, many times. As a result, he holds the honour of becoming their first subject, and his memory of the occasion reveals how amateurish the procedure was at the time:

"I was strolling down the corridor in ordinary clothes when I came across two guys in plain clothes. They showed me their cards and said to me ...
"You're riding the Tour?" - "I said: 'Yes'."
"You're a rider?" - "I said: 'Yes'."
"OK, come with us."
I swear it happened just like that. They made me go into a room, I pissed into some bottles and they closed them without sealing them. Then they took my name, my date of birth, without asking for anything to check my identity. I could have been anyone, and they could have done anything they liked with the bottles."

The testers managed to catch a few other riders, some of whom refused to provide samples next day, riders staged a protest by getting off their bikes and shouting abuse - mostly general abuse directed at anybody who would listen, but much of it directed at Tour doctor Pierre Dumas (whom, they claimed, should be tested for wine and aspirin in case he was using them to cope with the demands of his job, too) and some directly targeting Poulidor for submitting himself to the test. " "After that, they did me no favours in the peloton," he later remembered.

Rudi Altig won the first stage in much the same way that he won so many of his track victories,  getting his head down and hammering away at the pedals until it was time to stop and get back off the bike again, and the small lead he gained proved unexpectedly sufficient to keep him in the maillot jaune for ten stages; at which point the race reached the Pyrenees. Meanwhile, Jacques Anquetil was steadily improving his time, hotly pursued as ever by Poulidor who was even more furious than usual with his great rival in the wake of a Stage 2 crash, which Anquetil used as an opportunity to attack. Poulidor made it back to the main group but was understandably not at all happy, Anquetil called him a cry-baby and said he needed to "learn how to stay upright on his bike."

Jan Janssen, Lucien Aimar and a small group they'd recruited to help took a serious bite out of Anquetil's time during Stage 10 from Bayonne to Pau, while Tommaso de Pratook the stage win and earned his one and only day in yellow. Guido Marcello Mugnaini, who had come fourth overall the year before, won the next day but without taking the leadership, allowing Jean-Claude Lebaube his own single day in yellow; then Altig took Stage 12. By this time, the small lead he had in the first few stages had long been eroded away and so as the race left the mountains for two stages and a time trial on the flatlands, the lead passed into the hands of his countryman Karl-Heinz Kunde who kept it for five stages.

In Stage 16, Julio Jiménez (who had won the King of the Mountains at the Tour and Vuelta in 1965) got away from the peloton, forcing Janssen, Poulidor, Anquetil, Aimar and others to chase. They couldn't catch him and he won the stage but without enough time to get the maillot jaune, which went to Janssen. The next day, a group of riders tried the same trick and managed to build up a sizable lead on the two early descents so that Janssen, Anquetil and Aimar once again had to expend energy by chasing them down. Then Poulidor escaped too, and Anquetil - used to always beating the Eternal Second but weakened by bronchitis brought on by bad weather in earlier stages - was having none of that, so he chased. Poulidor was never as good as his rival he retained his form for far longer, despite only being two years younger; Anquetil exhausted himself and abandoned the next day, never to return to the Tour. The break was caught but Aimer discovered he had the strength to keep going, taking Janssen by surprise and finishing with the lead - Janssen tried to get it back in Stage 18, but Aimar and matched him move-for-move; he won back some time, but to no avail and Aimar won the race (and some years later, he became an excellent example of why a retired professional cyclist has to stop eating like a pre-retirement professional cyclist). Janssen's time was good enough for second place, however, an he became the first Dutch rider to achieve a podium place in the General Classification. Two years later, he won outright.

Jacques Goddet
The memorial to Jacques Goddet, high up on
Jacques Goddet, the second director of the Tour de France after a prostate operation and illness left Henri Desgrange too sick to continue (he would die four years after Goddet took over), died on this day in 2000. Goddet is credited with modernising and developing the race from its quaint beginnings to the world's largest sporting event (one of his first changes was to permit the use of derailleur gears which became standard on all bikes two years later after the Tour was won for the first time on a bike fitted with one), but even a brief history of the man cannot be complete without a look at his wartime activities. While he permitted the L'Auto presses to be used to produce pro-Resistance materal and pamphlets, his anti-Nazi credentials come under serious doubt: firstly, he seems to have personally supported Philippe Pétain who would become Chief Marshall of Vichy France (and who was sentenced to death after the war for treason and collaborating with the Nazis, though the sentence was reduced to life imprisonment on account of age) and produced some 1,200 articles in support of him.

Of course, Goddet may have been effectively signing his own death warrant had he have refused permission for this to happen; it has also been argued that a controlling interest in L'Auto's shares was owned by a consortium of German businessmen, in which case Goddet would have had very little say in the paper's editorial direction and might not in fact have personally supported Pétain at all. Far more damning meanwhile is the fact that before the war he had hired out his Vélodrome d'Hiver to be used for fascist meetings and then, when France was occupied, permitted it to be used by the Nazis for the temporary imprisonment of 13,000 French Jews who remained there in horrible conditions before being transferred to concentration camps - only 300 of them survived the war. It is possible that his hand was forced by those German businessmen, of course. It's also possible that he was not a Nazi sympathiser but was an antisemite; the two do not necessarily go hand-in-hand (there have been many left-wing antisemites in history and it works both ways - Oskar Schindler saved 1,200 Jewish lives, but he was a supporter of other Nazi policies and joined the party of his own free will).  After the war, L'Auto (which, incidentally, had been established as an anti-Drefus paper after the Army captain - who was Jewish - had been falsely convicted of trumped-up charges fueled at least partly by the rampant antisemitism of the times) was forced to close for continuing to publish during the Occupation, as were many other newspapers and magazines. Goddet responded by creating L'Equip, the paper that is still printed today and is one of the first points of call for Tour-related news, but due to his association with L'Auto could not be listed as being a part of it even though he had an office at the paper's headquarters until the final years of his life.

Mark Bell
Mark Bell, 1960-2009
Mark Bell was born in Birkenhead, near Liverpool, on this day in 1960. His talent was plain to see from a very young age - when he was just ten years old he finished a 10 mile (16.1km) cyclo cross race in 33 minutes, wearing his football strip and school shoes. By 14, he was representing the North of England in the English Schools Cycling Association three-day event, competing against an international field.

Bell's amateur career was nothing short of spectacular, with some 200 victories. In 1979, he joined the Athletic Club de Boulogne-Billancourt and rode alongside Robert Millar, Scotland's greatest ever cyclist. He began to show talent on the road at about the same time and in 1981 became National Road Champion and won two stages in the Milk Race, as the Tour of Britain was then known. He became the first foreign winner in the history of the Étoile de Sud in 1983 and then a year later rode in the Olympics - that race, however, proved to be a disaster. He had been told that the course was flat, whereas in reality in included one very challenging hill and for all his talents, Bell was most definitely not a climber. He abandoned the race.

Having turned professional in 1985 to join the Falcon team, he came third in the National Road Race competition. He joined Team Raleigh the following season and won it; his superb sprinting ability showing itself when, as race official and future British Cycling president Brian Cookson remembers, "he simply rode away from some of the greatest names in the sport." He also came second in the Tom Simpson memorial that year, then joined Emmelle-MBK before retiring at the end of the 1988 season.

Life after retirement was not at all kind to Bell. He suffered from poor health and became an alcoholic, which made some of his medical issues worse. In 2008, he said that he "was on top of" his alcoholism, meaning that he had made an effort to bring it under control and, at the time, was managing to do so, like all alcoholics never knowing whether this the end of the war or just another battle. He also revealed that he was suffering from damage caused by deep vein thrombosis in his left leg and required a shoulder joint replacement due to osteomyelitis, an infection of the bone marrow. Sadly, his body gave out before he did and he died on the 30th of January 2009, aged 48.

Toni Merkens
Toni Merkens, born in Cologne in this day in 1912, began his career in cycling as an apprentice to Fritz Köthke who, at that time, was one of Germany's top frame builders. By his early 20s he had begun to make an impact on racing, especially on the track, and became National Amateur Sprint Champion in 1933, 1934 and 1935. He won a gold medal for the 1,000m Sprint at the 1936 Berlin Olympics in extremely dubious circumstances - he had clearly been seen to grab the Dutch rider Arie van Vliet's clothing, pulling him back and forcing him into second place; but the German judges ignored it. It was only when the Dutch team launched an official complaint' leaving them no choice but to act, that they penalised him 100 Reichmarks.

Before the war, Merkens was a popular rider in England.
He's seen here at Herne Hill in 1936, in third place behind
Dennis Horne (1) and Jack Sibbit (2). The identity of the
German in fourth place is unnown
As soon as the Games came to an end, Merkens turned professional; then won the Track Stayers National Championship in 1940 and the Sprint title a year later. The Nazis had originally kept German athletes out of the war, especially successful blond ones such as Merkens who were valuable as the posterboys of master race propaganda, but by 1942 they were facing a shortage of new recruits; Merkens was drafter into the Army and sent to fight the Russians on the Eastern Front. On the 20th of June 1944 - two years after his draft, one day before his 32nd birthday - he was struck by a piece of shrapnel from an exploding shell and died shortly afterwards.

Merkens' own political beliefs seem to be unknown and we can no more condemn him for being a Nazi than we can say for certain that he wasn't one - his apparent willingness to assist in the great Fascist propaganda exercise that the 1936 Games became suggests he may have had leanings that way, but at that time the German public had yet to discover just how evil the regime was. Secondly, many cyclists with no political leanings at all opposed the Nazis because they banned the six-day races that provided much of a track rider's income; and we should also ask why someone with such obvious symbolic value as Merkens was sent to the dreaded Eastern Front which saw some of the worst fighting and conditions of the war. Nevertheless, we can be glad that he was one of only a very few cyclists to have competed in a jersey emblazoned with a swastika.

Hein Verbruggen
Hein Verbruggen, looking - as he quite often
did - rather like a schoolboy who can't quite
believe he's got away with his latest mischief
Born in Helmond, Netherlands on this day in 1941, Hein Verbruggen's rise through the cycling world was a sign of the times - never an athelete himself, his career had been in business management before an interest in cycling led to the presidency of the Dutch Federation, then to the UCI.

In 2008, investigative journalists from the BBC uncovered documents apparently showing that under Verbruggen, the UCI had received payments equal to approximately US$5 million from Japanese race organisers, which the broadcaster claimed was a bribe or reward for backing the inclusion of keirin in the Olympics. Verbruggen continues to deny the claims, and the UCI ignored the BBC's requests for an explanation. In 2010, Floyd Landis - then undergoing a doping investigation - claimed that Verbruggen had  accepted a bribe worth US$100,000 from Lance Armstrong to submerge a failed anti-doping test said to have occurred in 2002, also saying that there would be no documentary evidence of the payment. However, the UCI - now under Verbruggen's successor Pat McQuaid - was able to produce documents showing that they had in fact received two payments, one to the tune of US$25,000 from Armstrong personally which was used to develop new anti-doping controls for junior races and one of US$100,000 paid by Armstrong's management company that had been used to purchase a Sysmex blood testing machine. That the UCI was so open in admitting that it had in fact received the payment Landis alleged, provided evidence proving it had and then also proved a second payment that had not been previously been mentioned in the case is considered by most to be indication that nothing dishonest had taken place; though McQuaid is on record as stating that in his opinion Verbruggen's decision to accept the payments was a mistake.

Simon Richardson, born in Bristol on this day in 1983, came second at the National Under-23 Cyclo Cross Championship in 2004 and won the 2005 National Cross-Country Mountain Bike Championship before switching to road racing. In 2009 he won Rás Tailteann and in 2012 he was fourth at the tough Lincoln International GP.

José Maria Yermo, who would become famous simply as Yermo, was born in Guecho, Spain on this day in 1903. He originally competed in athletics and set new National records for the long jump and triple jump, then turned to soccer and played for the national team five times. After that, he became a cyclist and represented Spain at the World Championships and the 1928 Olympics.

John Kenneth Middleton, born in Coventry on this day in 1906, competed in the same Olympics as Yermo and won a silver medal as part of the second-placed team in the Team Road Race. He died on the 24th of January, 1991.

Other births: Per Christiansson (Sweden, 1961); Rolf Morgan Hansen (Norway, 1961); Yermo (Spain, 1903, died 1960); Valdemar Nielsen (Denmark, 1879, died 1954); Zbigniew Woźnicki (Poland, 1958, died 2008); Tadashi Ogasawara (Japan, 1955); Bruno Götze (Germany, 1882, died 1913); Ilmari Voudelin (Finland, 1896, died 1946); John Middleton (Great Britain, 1906, died 1991); Luigi Consonni (Italy, 1905, died 1992); Fernand Gandaho (Benin, 1968); Juan Sánchez (Spain, 1938).

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