Words: Suze Clemitson / Images: Cor Vos
Bordeaux-Paris was one of the last links to professional road cycling’s dustiest origins. The version that died in 1988 was a pale shadow of what was once arguably the greatest race of all – a race which also gave us perhaps the greatest feat in the sport’s history, courtesy of Jacques Anquetil.
17.20. It all starts at the Hotel Grillon in Chambéry. There’s just time for a shower, a shit and a massage before Anquetil is whisked away in a Ford Taunus, Géminiani at the wheel, in pursuit of a double inédit – the Dauphiné and Bordeaux-Paris, the longest, toughest, motherfucker of a Classic on the calendar. Anquetil is 32, at the summit of his legendary career: the first rider to win 5 Tours de France and all 3 of the Grand Tours, tester par excellence and winner of a record 8 Grands Prix des Nations to hammer home the point. None of this is his idea.
When George Pilkington Mills lined up at the first Bordeaux-Paris he was there by right. Invited to ride by organisers Véloce Sport, Mills had ridden an Ordinary from Land’s End to John o' Groats in just 5 days and would attack the record ceaselessly over the coming years on bicycles, tricycles and tandems. The king of LEJOG was a perfect fit for the 600 km slog between the great south-western city of Bordeaux and the Parc des Princes velodrome in the south-west suburbs of Paris, now home to Paris Saint-Germain.
1891 was a busy year for G.P. Mills. At the age of 25 the designer and bicycle
manufacturer went bankrupt and once again broke the LEJOG record, this time by 21 hours over his old mark, riding a Humber safety bicycle. He also breezed across the Channel with a couple of friends from the North Road Cycling Club, which he had co-founded in 1885 to promote ‘fast and long distance cycling on the Great North and other Roads', to tackle some continental racing. Mills, Montague Holbein – who would unsuccessfully attempt to swim the English Channel at least 4 times – and Seymour Edge – future motor manufacturer and car dealer – would finish one-two-three in the first Bordeaux-Paris.
Mills used a combination of youth, guile and tactical nous to build an unassailable lead. When the race reached Angoulême, instead of resting and enjoying a three-course meal and a hot shower, as the good people of Angoulême were expecting – surely no one could tackle such a great distance without need of a bed for the night? – they were shocked to see Mills grab a bowl of soup and hightail it out of their city, paced on his way by one of France’s top professional riders. He would lead by over half an hour by the time the race reached Ruffec, 50 km away.
Mills would eventually be declared the winner of the race once the Bicycle Union had been convinced of his amateur status. Even though he was sponsored by a bicycle manufacturer Mills wore the fake halo of the amateur riding for love not money.
Given the weather conditions and the equipment at hand Mills’s winning time of 26h 36m 25s was quite a feat. But the Englishman had had an ace up the sleeve of his woollen jersey – when he stopped briefly at Tours he ate raw meat and consumed a ‘specially prepared stimulant’.
18.30. He boards a Mystère 20 at Nîmes airport and 1 hour 15 minutes later
steps onto the tarmac at Bordeaux-Mérignac. He catches an hour’s sleep before the marathon begins. His directeur sportif, Raphaël Géminiani – Le Grand Fusil – is waiting to drive him to the start line in the heart of Bordeaux. Gem is the real author of this crazy stunt. It is he who has decided that his rider is capable of completing the 1,565 km of a particularly mountainous Critérium du Dauphiné Libéré before haring across the country to ride through the night and into the day from Bordeaux in the deep South West to the boulevards of Paris.
For those who think British cycling success began in 2012, Mills wasn’t the only rider tearing up the continental roads in the 19th century. James Moore had been setting records since the 1860s and was considered the world’s first great racing cyclist. Having won what was purported to be the first ever bicycle race in 1868 at Saint-Cloud in Paris he capped it all with his triumph in Paris-Rouen in 1869.
Moore’s triumph in Saint-Could was quite an achievement considering he’d only acquired his first bicycle, a cumbersome Michaux velocipede, in 1865. Born in Suffolk but resident in France from the age of four, the crack rider was known as l’Anglais volant in France and ‘The Flying Frenchie’ across the Channel. But Moore had retired by 1877, too soon to race the fledgling Bordeaux-Paris.
Instead, 5 years after the North Road Cycling Club had dominated that first race, it was a slight, dark-haired rider with an impressively European moustache that would stand on the top of the podium. Arthur Linton was mining in the pits of the South Wales valleys at 13 and signed as a professional to Gladiator Cycles in 1893. There he came under the influence of James Edward 'Choppy' Warburton, who, like Linton, had been a child labourer, scuttling under the clatter of the cotton looms as a 6-year-old, gathering waste cotton.
Choppy has become the original Dr Mabuse, the godfather of every modern doping doctor, with his infamous little black bottle and the sulphurous stench of doping. The truth seems more mundane: the bottle was a piece of showmanship wielded by the flamboyant Lancastrian in his sweeping floor-length overcoat and bowler hat, his arms wrapped over-familiarly around his young charges.
Toulouse-Lautrec captured him in a poster for the Simpson chain company, hands in pockets, bestriding the little world of the Catford velodrome like a colossus. He was fond of boasting that he’d trained four riders and three had become world champions, including Linton. Tongues wagged but it seems Linton’s true weakness was for gambling and match-fixing, a little peccadillo he’d acquired during his successful athletics career. His riders’ success hinged on a dedication to ferreting out new ways to improve performance – history is in the process of reevaluating him as a Brailsford rather than a Ferrari.
As part of Warburton’s untouchable Gladiator squad Linton was unstoppable,
setting record after record. When he returned home to Aberaman at the end of an 1894 season that saw him declared ‘Champion Cyclist of the World’ he received a hero’s welcome and a banquet in the local pub The Lamb and Flag.
Arthur had already split from Choppy in 1895, a saison sans thanks to a knee
injury. According to his obituary in the Evening Post his health was already failing before he recorded his greatest triumph, winning the 1896 Bordeaux-Paris with the “sheer bulldog pluck and determination, which were his characteristics throughout the whole of his career.” Though Linton crossed the line first, 1’ 02” ahead of his rivals, the victory was shared with the Frenchman Gaston Rivierre when Linton was adjudged to have taken a shortcut.
His last race was the gruelling Bol d’Or, a 24-hour marathon held at the Buffalo
velodrome in June. After leading for the first six hours he stopped for a break,
complaining of feeling unwell. Forced to retire, he returned to his hometown of
Aberdare and died just under a month later. And that’s when the rumours start – of Linton foaming at the mouth after a swig from Choppy’s bottle and dying from strychnine poisoning.
The truth is far more prosaic and infinitely sadder. Linton died from typhoid fever brought on, it was said, by overexertion and the years of training and constant effort. His brother Tom, also a modestly successful rider, would die of the same illness 18 years later. Choppy Warburton, his career destroyed by a lifetime ban from the English cycling scene, suffered a fatal heart attack just a year after his protégé’s death in 1897, still fighting his ban. It was said he was worth just three halfpennies when he died.
02.00. Dead of night. A fine rain – the kind that soaks you through – is falling. 11 men line up at the Bordeaux velodrome to ride the 567 km between them and the Parc des Princes. 8,000 fans pack the building, cheering their heroes to the rafters as they head off into the darkness. A phalanx of lighted windows and cheering spectators mark the way as the rain doubles down, and the wind hits them square in the face like a fat wet sail.
Le Véloce-sport had its offices at 3 Rue du Château-Trompette, a side street just off the Place des Quinconces, a magisterially open space and one of the largest public squares in Europe – just right for the start of a mass-depart cycle race. It was here that any aspiring cyclo-touriste could purchase a copy of Voyage de Bordeaux à Paris par trois vélocipédistes for the sum of 2F 30. This luxury edition – 200 pages and 2 illustrations – detailed the picaresque adventures of Messrs George Thomas, president of the Union Vélocipédique de France and chevalier de la Légion d’honneur, Oscar Maillotte of the Véloce Club Bordelaise and Maurice Martin of Le Véloce-sport as they bowled through the bucolic countryside towards the fleshpots of the capital. Think Three Men on a Bike with potholes, gîtes and pedals.
Maurice Martin, poet, writer and a long-time member of the V.C.B. virtually invented the idea of cyclo-touring and promoted it enthusiastically through the pages of Le Véloce-sport. But the magazine had another mission – to challenge the hegemony of the Parisian cycling press as arbiters of all things vélocipédique. When George Thomas took over as president of the UVF in 1890, Le Véloce-sport became the de facto house magazine.
Whether the exploits of Thomas, Maillotte and Martin were the inspiration for three pistards of the VCB – Fernand Panajou, Théophile Lévelley and Pierre Rousset – to create Bordeaux-Paris isn’t entirely clear, but the synchronicity is neat enough. They said they wanted to ‘strike the imagination’ of the rider by arguably creating the world’s first Classic. For Le Véloce-sport, scooping Le Petit Journal and Pierre Giffard’s Paris-Brest-Paris spectacular must have been sweet.
No such problems for the Le Véloce-sport event which, the magazine was quick to claim, had even won the approbation of those who were constitutionally opposed to bicycle racing in Bordeaux. By 1893 the list of prizes up for grabs included a watercolour offered by the artist for the oldest sprinter not classified in the top 6, plus a variety of medals: for the first rider to go through the control in Poitiers and finish in Paris and the first Bordelais rider to arrive at the finish line. Most splendid of all, a complete cycling costume offered by the Maison du Grand Théâtre in Bordeaux for the youngest Bordelais rider to arrive in the Parc des Princes.
1891 was Year Zero for road racing, born out of the unholy marriage of sport, spectacle and self-promotion. These were the baby steps of what became known in France as le sport spectacle where the enthusiasm and expertise of cycling clubs riffed off the commercial imperative of the newspapers that invested in their races to sell more newspapers. Riders and manufacturers weren’t immune to the commercial opportunities either. Before long they’d learned to monetise everything from inner tubes to tyres to the bicycles themselves. A cycling exploit like Bordeaux-Paris became both a technological showcase and a real-time drama to be shared with the crowds waiting with bated breath . . .
Bordeaux-Paris was the first in an explosion of ultra-distance races between 1891 and 1896, which saw the debut of La Doyenne, Liège-Bastogne-Liège, in 1892 and Paris-Roubaix in 1896. The northern cobbled race was often seen as a mere amuse-bouche for Bordeaux-Paris, the Queen herself. Both those shorter races survive, their devotion to distance never quite so extreme as the randonées refashioned as road races. Despite being commemorated in the folklore of cycling as a tasty choux bun, Giffard’s Paris-Brest-Paris – at 1,200 km over twice the distance of Bordeaux-Paris – struggled to capture the imagination and was finished as a professional race by 1951.
The gimmick of setting riders absurd long-distance challenges was part one-upmanship between rival newspaper editors and part regional pride – the riders of Bordeaux, alarmed at reports the cycling clubs of Grenoble and Lyon were about to adopt the English model of endurance time trialling, jumped the gun and opted for a less logistically challenging point-to-point race. The pacing came later – the 1899 race was paced by motorcar, the raffishly knickerbockered figure of Josef Fischer tucked in the slipstream of an elegant automobile. The familiar profile of the smelly little Derny would be introduced in the 1930s.
The UVF had always been open about attracting professional riders to their ranks and allowing them to compete in their races. But one of France’s elite riders, Charles Terront, would not be at the start line in 1891. In order to attract British riders to the race, Le Véloce-sport was forced to accept the diktat of the National Cycling Union that the race be strictly amateur. Which meant that the shamateur Mills, riding for his North Road club but heavily sponsored by Humber bicycles, was free to be paced by a professional and beat the peloton of French club riders. Ironically, the British had turned what was dreamed of as a randonnée into a proper road race.
The debate over where Paris-Bordeaux could and would lead the sport of bike
racing would rage on over the next decade. By the late 1890s the race had been taken over by Giffard’s Le Vélo and the 1902 edition was won by Édouard Wattelier, who had already finished second in that year’s Paris-Roubaix.
But there was another Bordeaux-Paris race that year, where the winning rider
smashed the winning time by over 4 hours. It was unpaced because the organizer despised anything that might impede on the Spartan cruelty of long-distance riding. That second race was won by a rider known variously as the White Bulldog and le petit ramoneur and was organised by the new kid on the sports journalism block – L’Auto-Vélo under the editorship of Henri Desgrange.
For the next 300 km, Anquetil suffers – like a dog in the midday sun, like a
condemned man in his cell. He pants, he coughs, the waxy skin stretches tight over his cheekbones like a death mask. Gem berates him, insults him, questions his pride and his manhood. Anquetil is having none of it but he’s fucked if he’s about to surrender. He says later that the reason he won was because he wanted to abandon the race as late as he possibly could presumably just to piss off the boss. But the relentless cold and the wind take their toll and by Châtellerault he’s half an hour down on his schedule.
Bordeaux-Paris didn’t make it into the first Tour de France as one of the iconic six original stages. Instead the peloton tackled Bordeaux-Nantes, a mere 425 km, in a stage won by Maurice Garin. The diminutive French-Italian rider would go on to win the race overall, having led from start to finish. It was the start of a long and illustrious relationship between the biggest cycling race of them all and the jewel of the South West – Bordeaux has hosted the Tour 80 times since 1903.
It’s not difficult to see how a 500 km+ one-day race in May became a playground of future Tour champions. It was the ideal preparation for the gargantuan stages of that race and the roll call of winners between 1903 and the outbreak of world war one reads like a Who’s Who of the Iron Age of cycling – Hippolyte Aucouturier (1903), 2nd in the Tour and winner of Paris-Roubaix that year; Louis Trousselier (1908) winner of the Tour – Paris-Roubaix double in 1905; Francois Faber (1911) winner of the 1909 Tour and a record 5 stages back-to-back.
When the race resumed in 1919 it was with a win by Henri Pélissier, the flamboyant star of the new French cycling who would finally win the Tour in 1923. His brother Francis would win Bordeaux-Paris in 1922. He was the last French winner before a long string of fabled Belgian hard men dominated the palmarès – Georges Ronsse the cyclo-cross specialist, Classics winner and two-time world champion won 3 editions of the race between 1927 and 1930.
The dominance of the twin superpowers of world cycling was briefly interrupted in 1925 by the first rider to pull off the illustrious Ronde van Vlaanderen / Paris-Roubaix double in 1923 – a feat unmatched until his countryman Fabian Cancellara did it again in 2010. Heinrich 'Heiri' Suter was born 8 years after the first Bordeaux-Paris was raced and won the GP Wolber – at that time the unofficial world championships – in 1922 at just 23 years of age and then again in 1925, the year he conquered Bordeaux-Paris. In 1926 he’d go one-two at Paris-Tours with fellow Swiss Kastor Notter.
The youngest and most successful of six brothers who all raced, Heiri nailed 58 professional wins in his career. Neat as a toy soldier with his slicked-down hair, Suter was Swiss champion 7 times before he retired at the end of a 14-year career that was ridden entirely between the two world wars.
Poitiers. Relief as the trainers mount their Dernys and motor-pace the riders from here to Paris. Vin Denson attacks and spends the next 100 km with his nose in the wind. He’s one of three Ford France-Gitane-Dunlop riders in the race alongside Maître Jacques and Jean Stablinski. But the Peugeot team are there in numbers and they’re keen to make the race relentless. Attack after attack has the desired effect and drops Anquetil like a greased piglet. Time after time he rides himself back, the jumper, tights and jaunty bobble hat of the early hours stripped away between the car doors, by the exposed roadside in the traditional Bordeaux-Paris mid-morning striptease – ah, the glamour of professional cycling. And through it all, Tom Simpson – the sensational winner of the 1963 race – bides his time.
They called him The Flying Dutchman ever afterwards. The rider who flew 70 m
down a ravine on the descent of the Aubisque and climbed back out on a rope
braided together out of inner tubes. For Wim van Est it was heartbreak - the first Dutch rider ever to pull on the yellow jersey, he was forced to abandon the 1951 Tour even though he suffered only mild abrasions. “In a flash I saw death,” he said later, “and the rest I don’t remember very well – a big boom in my head and then a religious silence.”
It made a great ad campaign for his sponsor, Pontiac watches: “My heart stopped, but my Pontiac didn’t.” That snappy advertising slogan, with the strapline “Pontiac can take a beating,” caught the public imagination. Shortly before his death in 2003 he unveiled a plaque at the spot his dreams died and another of the Tour’s legends was forged.
Wim van Est had only turned pro 4 years earlier, at the age of 24. He’d spent his early life dodging the law, smuggling tobacco and serving prison time. The bike was a step towards legitimacy and van Est grabbed it, winning Bordeaux-Paris in 1950. It suited him well, the rider they called ‘The Locomotive’, with its endless grinding kilometres. He would win it twice more – in 1952 and then again in 1961 at the end of his long career. In total he stood on the podium 6 times.
It was an exceptional record in the longest of the Classics. In any other era he’d have earned the title ‘M. Bordeaux-Paris’ and he remains one of the monstres sacrés of that epic race. But that particular nickname was reserved for a stocky rider from Grenoble who won the race 4 times between 1951 and 1957, Bernard Gauthier.
Like van Est, Gauthier was a relatively late arrival in the pro ranks having made the choice between the bike or the Foreign Legion. As a kid during the war he’d been picked up by the Gestapo and bundled onto a train headed for Buchenwald concentration camp. Full of the courage, audacity and grinta that would earn him the nickname ‘Steel Legs’ in the pro peloton, Gauthier jumped off the train and escaped. He started his cycling career as an independent, arguing that it was the only way to detect real talent, and wore the yellow jersey at the Tour for a week after diving into a crazy escape on an epic stage between Liège and Lille in the 1950 Tour. There’s a photo of him, wild-eyed, after raiding a pub for a drink, beer
bottle in hand.
The 1954 race showed every ounce of Gauthier’s guts. Crashing heavily at Arthenay the Frenchman shredded his shoulder leaving van Est to dart away towards a third victory. His directeur sportif, the ever-formal and taciturn Antonin Magne – winner of the 1931 and 1935 Tours and one of the greatest tacticians of them all – may have been nicknamed ‘The Monk’ for his silence, but he had a way of bringing out the best in his riders. Gauthier hauled back the Dutchman and then forced the race at Châteaufort, riding into the Parc des Princes alone and exhausted.
In 1956 the race was paced from start to finish. Gauthier, suffering terrible stomach cramps, seemed powerless to stop Jean-Claude Skerl, a complete unknown, running away with the race. For over 400 km Skerl held the lead until Gauthier’s iron determination and steel legs dragged him back into contention as the race headed towards Chartres, the magnificent cathedral looming large on the featureless plain. Gauthier struck in the Vallée de Chevreuse and Skerl’s luck and legs ran out. Gauthier raised his arms in victory for a third time.
The Chevreuse valley was his happy hunting ground again as he constructed a
record-breaking fourth win in 1957. The heat was storm-laden and oppressive. The great Classics specialist Rik Van Looy couldn’t take the pace and climbed off before the race hit Chartres, his red jersey flaked out at the roadside like a wilted poppy. Gauthier – like a great Hercules crushing a bike that should never have passed the bike fit – put the legendary sprinter André Darrigade to the sword and then flew away to a 7’ victory that more than honoured the French champion’s jersey he wore with such pride.
In a perfect ouroboros, Gauthier would spend the 1962 season as van Est’s DS at Liberia-Grammont-Wolber. It was one of cycling’s petty cruelties, a tragic vignette, that shook Gauthier’s confidence and sent him back to Grenoble to open a florist’s shop – Marc Huiart was knocked down by a race car and killed at the GP des Fourmies soon after he set off down the road to best his brother Jacqui’s winning time.
Hercules died at the age of 94 in November 2018, on the same day as Gaston
Plaud, the Peugeot directeur sportif who took Merckx, Thévenet and a young rider from England called Tom Simpson to glory.
Tours, km 327. Francois Mahé, a brick shithouse of a Breton, kicks through the muck and joins Vinson in the lead at Mont Saron. It’s the last race of a 15-year career that has seen him wear the leader's jersey and win stages in the Tour and the Vuelta and finish 2nd and 3rd in Bordeaux-Paris. He sets all his stubbornness and experience at winning one final time. The peloton, such as it is, a straggle of Dernys and riders strewn across the road, is 1’ 30” down by the time the race crosses the Loire. After 210 km alone in the lead, despite a couple of punctures that see the peloton frozen in place as he makes his repairs, Mahé is 6’ 30” ahead and the race behind is decimated. Simpson, furious that Mahé has attacked at the change zone, tries to bring him to heel, still picking chunks of gravel out of his groin and chamois as he rides.
“Briton wins cycle race,” announced British Pathé with typical stiff-upper-lipped understatement. At the height of its fame as the longest, most gruelling classic, Tom Simpson sprinted into the Parc des Princes and smashed it, putting minutes into his rivals and taking one of the great wins of his illustrious career.
To understand Bordeaux-Paris you have to understand how it feels to be yoked to a Derny kilometre after kilometre, the pace and the road inexorable, your eyes glued to the wheel, your nose filled with the thick stink of two-stroke fumes. Not a word had passed between Simpson and his trainer, the implacable Fernand Wambst, who had paced Ferdi Kübler to victory in 1953, for over 500 kilometres. Then 2 km before the velodrome: “On sprint pour le tour! We’ll sprint for the lap!” A 100,000 franc prime but peanuts compared to the winner’s prize and the lucrative appearance contracts that went with it. Simpson’s voracious greed for victory and its spoils was as all-consuming as ever – he won the 1963 Derby of the Road at a sprint, his extravagant coup de pédale as efficient as ever.
Under the direction of Plaud, Simpson and his 4 Peugeot teammates ate their
pre-race meal at 11.30. The hotel kitchens buzzed with soigneurs filling musettes and bidons for the day ahead. 15 riders lined up in the pre-dawn gloom to ride the 2 km of the départ fictif along the quays of Bordeaux before the flag dropped at 1.58am. Like a gang of narcoleptics out on a spree, the peloton of the 62nd Bordeaux-Paris headed sleepily towards Châtellerault where the trainers were poised to pace their charges the remaining 299 km to the Parc des Princes. Attacking effectively in a Derny-paced race is all about the symbiosis between trainer and rider, the almost imperceptible upping of the revolutions until your rear wheel has disappeared down the road as if you simply teleported from here to there. Wambst sees the twin Gothic spires of Chartres cathedral, one of the most recognisable landmarks in the race, and imperceptibly ups the pace, turning the pedals of the Derny just a little faster.
It’s nothing and everything. His turn of speed proves devastating with just over
60 km left to race. He is careful in the way he turns the screw not to blow Simpson’s legs out from under him. Both men and their machines move away towards Paris in perfect tandem.
When Wayne Hildred raced the 1982 Bordeaux-Paris alongside Paul Sherwen and Sean Kelly he wasn’t so lucky. His pacer was an ambitious Belgian wheeler-dealer and sometime agent called Staf Boone, who decided to make the race hard from the start. Hildred remembered “screaming out at Staf ‘Ease up! Easy, easy! Slow down, Staf!’ and he wouldn’t listen.” By 8am Hildred’s legs were shredded and he was vomiting at the roadside. Gradually, trainer and rider were forced to reverse places: “After a while I would just sit up and refuse to keep the pace and eventually I gained some control over him.” Hildred finished an hour down on the winner, Frenchman Marcel Tinazzi, and lost 6 kg in the process.
Wambst understands how to pace Simpson perfectly. Now the Englishman begins to hunt the victory in earnest, reeling in riders, constructing his final victory on the Côte de Dourdan, a Flemish berg dropped into the Chevreuse Valley. One of the lost mythic landscapes of cycling, wrapped in this quietly beautiful landscape that teems with forests, rivers and castles, Dourdan is the Arenberg or Alpe d’Huez of Bordeaux-Paris. In 1963, as they had been so many times before, the roads were heaving with spectators eager to see who was ready to launch themselves to victory. The 1959 winner Louison Bobet can be heard shouting "Bravo Tom - il est formidable!” from the Radio Luxembourg car.
So would Simpson ride the Tour if he won Bordeaux-Paris, asked Sporting Cyclist. “Almost certainly not," Simpson responded. "I would concentrate on the world road championships.” The rainbow jersey would have to wait until 1965 in San Sebastian when Simpson took an almost impossible win, beating the German powerhouse Rudi Altig in a two-up sprint. Mr Tom had never been so popular.
Le Gué, km 483. Everything until this point has been riposte and parry. Now
Simpson attacks, then attacks again at Ablis 9 km down the road and then again in the pavé at Dourdan after another 8 km. A series of quick thrusts that cut the thread between Simpson and his pursuers. With just 35 km until the finish in the Parc des Princes velodrome, Simpson catches Mahé with Anquetil and Stablinski around 100 m further back down the road.
But even in 1963 the shine was coming off Bordeaux-Paris. That year there was no Van Looy, Altig, Stablinski or Anquetil on the start line and the inevitable whispers about the legitimacy of Simpson’s victory began to circulate, even though any rider can only win against the riders in front of him.
By 1977 René Fallet, who followed that year’s ‘masterpiece of jeopardy’ from start to finish, was writing in the Livre d’Or du Cyclisme: “Now it is threatened with extinction, like the whale. Bordeaux-Paris has become too big for the so-called ‘big’ riders. In contrast to the great ones of yesterday, the Simpsons, Bobets, Küblers, Anquetils, etc., those of today flee this Monument like the plague and perhaps condemn it to death, which seriously dishonours them. One day – and why not? – they will find Paris-Roubaix or the Tour too tiring and will only ride criteriums. In front of empty seats, I hope. And it will be the end of this legendary sport.”
But Bordeaux-Paris wasn’t ready to go quietly. There were still riders who wanted to pit themselves against this prehistoric challenge. Herman van Springel lost the 1968 Tour by just 38 seconds, done over by a rampant Jan Janssen in a final 55 km time trial into Paris that saw the yellow jersey ripped rudely off the Belgian’s shoulders. 1969 saw the debut of Merckxissimo and the all-devouring Cannibal. What was a Belgian to do? Head for the South West and make his name in the last great endurance test. A race where he knew Merckx was sure not to follow.
Van Springel won in 1970, 74, 75, 77, 78, 80 and 81. In 1977 the funny little
Dernys – named after the Roger Derny et Fils factory where they were
manufactured and powered with pedals and two stroke engines – were replaced by a sleek and shining fleet of Kawasakis. The new Monsieur Bordeaux-Paris beat Tour winner Lucien Aimar in 1970 and might have increased his tally of wins to 9 if the 1971 and 1972 races hadn’t been cancelled. In 1974 he beat the next-placed rider Régis Delépine by over 15 minutes but was forced to share first place with him. Just like Arthur Linton back in 1896 he was judged to have ridden the wrong course though this time van Springel rode several kilometres more than he needed to and it was Delépine who argued that the prize be shared.
He was first in a field of 10 riders in 1975 and then second to Walter Godefroot the crack sprinter and Classics specialist who’d already won the race back in 1967. Although by 1977 the Miroir du cyclisme was declaring “‘The race that killed’ has become the race that died,” nobody told van Springel, who had his revenge on Godefroot by winning with a 3’ 25” margin of victory. He won again in 1978 to surpass Gauthier’s four wins, pinch his M. Bordeaux-Paris tag and beat Joop Zoetemelk in the process.
Despite a bad crash and serious head injury, van Springel still finished third in 1979 before rounding out his Bordeaux-Paris exploits and his professional career with back-to-back wins in 1980 and 81. In between times he managed 5 stages at the Tour, a green jersey, and a handful of other Classics including the 1968 Giro di Lombardia where he beat a star-studded field solo and bagged the Super Prestige Pernod International trophy into the bargain. But his name was made in the endless, grinding, hallucinatory hours of Bordeaux-Paris while Merckx was bending the Grand Tours to his implacable will.
Saint-Rémy-lès-Chevreuse, km 538. Into the endgame and the sting in the tail. Over a series of leg-sapping côtes Simpson tries in vain to stretch his tenuous lead but M. Chrono and Stab relentlessly, inexorably reel him back in, despite Stab’s trainer crashing on the Côte de Dourdan. By Saint-Rémy Mahé is a busted flush and Stab takes control, attacking at Châteaufort, forcing Simpson to dig deep, Anquetil’s pedal stroke ominously smoothing out from busted marionette to its usual perfectly oiled precision. But his race still hangs in the balance between triumph and abandon.
Bordeaux snoozes on the banks of the river Garonne like a châtelaine, grown rich and fat and sleepy on great wine and culture and gastronomy. Louche and elegant yet with a fiercely beating Latin heart, Bordeaux has a long association with the bicycle. From the monstrous stages of the early Tours to the halcyon year of 1994 when the hour record tumbled again and again throughout the dog days of summer and autumn, Bordeaux is now a mecca for the cyclo-tourist who can take in great vineyards, endless beaches and Arcachon oysters with equal ease.
1988 was the first in a run of three outstanding vintages and an exceptional year for Sauternes, producing wines of full, lush, mouth-pleasing richness, the sugar smoothed into honeyed heaven. But times were changing. The Chinese capitalist revolution was kickstarting the process that would open up the grands crus to Chinese ownership, the first Vinexpo was held in Hong Kong, and négociants started buying office space in Beijing.
The game was changing in cycling, too. 1988 saw the US’s Andy Hampsten winning an epic Giro, Ireland’s Sean Kelly taking his only Grand Tour win at the Vuelta and Spain’s Pedro Delgado victorious at the Tour de France despite a skin-of-the-teeth doping ‘positive’ that wasn’t – at least not under UCI rules. The Super Prestige Pernod International was on its way out, to be replaced with the shiny new World Cup competition. The UCI seized control of the professional rankings and replaced the informal rating of riders with their own points-based system, the start of a land grab that has put the sport’s governing body at loggerheads with race organisers ever since.
As for Bordeaux-Paris, the final curtain was about to fall. Long a race out of time it was declared open in 1988 and more than 1000 riders were at the start in the Place des Quinconces. There was no motor-pacing and the event was won by Jean-François Rault, a little-known French pro who covered the 608 km of that final race in 18’ 55”. The jours de gloire were at an end – no professional rider had the time to dedicate to specific motor-paced training or the desire to ride distances that belonged back in the Iron Age. There were too many premium UCI points to be won at the Vuelta and the Giro, and no rider with the cojones to attempt anything as wantonly ridiculous and joyously bonkers as Anquetil’s Dauphiné-Bordeaux-Paris double. That kind of thing was best off left in the bad old days of amphetamine-fueled hi-jinks. It had no place in the professionalised era of EPO.
Côte de Picardie, Versailles, km 555. Anquetil gives the imperceptible signal to his trainer, ups the pace with ease and lets fly. By the top of the côte he has 100 m over Simpson, 150 m over his teammate Stablinski. The sweating and the rocking and the uncertainty of the morning are long gone. The long levers turn with elegant efficiency. The effortless fluidity of his coup de pédale is matchless. The sheer sleek style of it all – back curved, head bowed, shoulders squared and immobile as he melts into the bike and transforms effort into advantage.
30 May 2014 and the Place de Quiconque is once again thronged with the 998
riders ready to take on the 610 km challenge of riding from the sun-soaked
vineyards of the south-western grands crus to the sleepy green of the Chevreuse. 26 years after its last incarnation as a professional race, Bordeaux-Paris is once again open to amateurs in the way that the godfather of cyclo-tourism Maurice Martin intended.
500 will ride through the night, maybe even stopping for the traditional striptease near Poitiers, aiming to finish the ultra raid in 36 hours. The rest will ride alone or in pairs to finish the ultra rando in under 60 hours. They will ride through 9 French départements passing through some of the prettiest villages and plus beaux détours in France. They’ll ride in the slipstream of Mills and Linton, Simpson and Anquetil, van Est and Gauthier and van Springel – a strange fever dream, a sleep-deprived journey back into the days when distance ruled and nothing else mattered.
Anquetil is in his element now, time trialling into the Parc des Princes velodrome to the ovation of the crowd. His motor pacer and trainer Jo Goutorbe raises his left arm to salute his rider, Anquetil’s wife cries without troubling her immaculate mascara or her exquisite eyebrows. L’exploit est fait. Stab takes the monstrous bouquet for second place. Simpson, who dreams of finishing his career and settling in Australia, finishes third. The eternally cool Anquetil has earned his permis de panache once and for all.