He Ain't Heavy

Words: Suze Clemitson / Images: Cor Vos

The Simons, the Pélissiers and cycling’s band of brothers


They stare at each other across the decades – the dangerous Pélissiers, with their brilliantined hair and their bag of tricks, and the smiling Simons; all teeth, courage and coloured Lycra. Connected by a thread of yellow – a jersey won, another lost almost forever in the high peaks of the Alps – they are two of the great French cycling dynasties, infected with the love of la petite reine like a virus spreading from brother to brother and on down the generations.

Liberté, egalité and, most of all, fraternité. Few families have shared the common bond of cycling brotherhood and achieved as much success as the Pélissiers. Henri, Francis, and the youngest, Charles – the rockstar with the Elvis sneer – all escaped the stranglehold of the family farm and ran away to join the peloton. Fast-forward seventy years and Clement Simon, an artisan mason who has lived all his life in the little village of Mesnil-Saint-Loup, could only stand and watch as, one by one, his sons jumped astride their bikes and pedalled away to the mountains.

So, what makes a young man want to run away and join the circus that is professional cycling? For some, it’s the physical discipline and regimented lifestyle, like the army on two wheels. For others, it’s the opportunity to play the hard man and to wallow in the extravagant machismo of endurance sport. But for many young men it was a route out of grinding poverty, an escape from a life chained to the land or the factory production line.

From the moment I could talk I was ordered to listen
Now there's a way and I know that I have to go away
Father and Son (Cat Stevens)

The XVIth arrondissement is home to embassies and museums, the chic matrons of Passy, the Bois de Boulogne, Roland Garros and the old Parc des Princes, where the Tour de France would finish in the velodrome from 1905 to 1967. With its leafy boulevards lined with shiny SUVs and eye-wateringly expensive property, the XVIth is ritzy and luxe with an urban village vibe.

But in 1889, the village of Auteuil was still clinging on as the udder of Paris, providing the city with its daily milk. It was here that Pélissier père, newly arrived from the Auvergne in his wooden sabots, bought one of the last dairy farms in Paris – the charmingly named Vacherie de l'Esperance – and ended up a garage-owning millionaire. With a reputation for meanness, M. Pélissier set his eldest son Henri to work delivering the milk. Skinny as a whippet, Henri had no intention of driving the fastest milk cart in the west of Paris.

Instead, la ficelle turned his sinewy strength and stamina towards the bike, making an impression as an amateur and catching the eye of Lucien Petit-Breton, the incandescent and in-demand star of cycling before 1914 – and first double winner of the Tour de France.

Legend, in the truest definition of the word, sees the two men crossing paths at the Porte Maillot, the ancient gate to the Bois de Boulogne. Petit-Breton poses the question: do you want to come to Italy? To race? Henri is 22 years old and the transalpine world is impossibly exotic. He grabs his bags and sets off with his hero on the 9pm train to Milan.

Pro cycling is like sausage: I love it, but I don’t want to know how it is made (Race Radio)

Troyes, the capital of the Aube department that straddles the Seine, is a city shaped like a champagne cork. Steeped in history, religion and outlet centres, it’s the home of champagne, Chaource cheese and the infamous andouillette – a suspicious sausage that seems tailor-made to fit the cycling analogy.

On 17 July 2001, one of the local taxi drivers in Aube watches the small screen he has installed in his cab intently. He won’t miss a pedal stroke of today’s stage as the race heads for the twenty-one hairpins of the climb up to Alpe d’Huez. He watches Armstrong bluff the opposition, before delivering ‘The Look’ that will live in infamy and storming to the stage win. But for him, the drama is back down the mountain, his hopes, like those of the French viewing public, pinned on the skinny shoulders of a 32-year-old journeyman with familiar long and bony features, whose best professional result had been a stage win in the Giro some nine years earlier.

 Francois Simon riding into the yellow jersey on stage 10 of the 2001 Tour

As François Simon crossed the line 10’ 20” down on the Texan, he took the yellow jersey with a lead of 12 minutes on GC. Talking to media after the stage, he mentioned a phone call from his brother that morning: “He said ‘I lost the yellow jersey in the middle of nowhere in the Alps. Try to get it back for me.’”

Eighteen years after Pascal Simon broke the hearts of a nation by abandoning the Tour de France in yellow on the Alpe, he watched from his taxi as his kid brother, François, pulled on the maillot jaune.

Everybody stand as one, we don’t care where you come from, you’ll never be alone
Stand As One (Mat Bastard)

After Henri jumps on the train to Milan, there’s no stopping him. Acknowledging that ‘if nothing else, the school of Pélissier formed character,’ in his first year in Italy he wins Turin-Florence-Rome, Milan-Turin and the Giro di Lombardia, which he will win again in 1913 and 1920. Henri is a rider for the classics, taking Milan-San Remo in 1912, and a brace of Paris-Roubaix wins in 1919 and 1921.

When Francis breaks the filial ties that bind and follows his brother into the sport, the pair set about dynamiting all the smugness and surety of the Tour de France. Conforming to the classic birth order personality traits of the dominant perfectionist and the equable peacekeeper, Henri and Francis set about dragging cycling kicking and screaming into the twentieth century. But first, the first world war comes, bringing with it the loss of their brother Jean in the flood of deaths that sweeps over France like a red tide.

Late July 1914 and Henri heads for the velodrome in Liège – after all, a rider must make a living. He has just lost the Tour de France to Philippe Thys, the Belgian rider nicknamed ‘the Basset Hound’, by a paltry couple of minutes. But the meeting is cancelled as rumours swirl of German troops entering Belgium. Both Pélissier and Thys are 25 when the guns begin to blaze, and both will lose their best years to the war.

Henri, Francis and Philippe all survived the war, though Henri’s mentor Petit-Breton was not so fortunate, dying in a car crash in December 1917. 1909 Tour winner François Faber, the first non-French victor, meets his end at Mont-Saint-Eloi on 9 May 1915 – his body is never found. Octave Lapize, the first rider ever to crest the Tourmalet and Tour de France winner in 1910, was shot out of the skies on Bastille Day 1917. Henri Alavoine, one of a pair of cycling brothers and winner of 17 Tour stages, died of injuries sustained in aerial combat in 1916. As the Tour picks its way through the remnants of the carnage in 1919, Henri and Francis and Philippe are all on the start line.

Belgian Firmin Lambot took the first ever yellow jersey in Paris after spending four years as a German prisoner of war and never turning a pedal. But Henri and his brother, Francis, would stalk away from the race after an incident on stage four into the Atlantic resort town of Les Sables d’Olonnes, when Christophe committed the cardinal sin of attacking the race leader, the unfortunate Pélissier, as he suffered an ill-timed puncture. However, the old canard about never attacking a yellow jersey in difficulty would come later, when the fabled jersey was introduced at the finish of stage 10 in Grenoble.

Perhaps Henri should never have proclaimed himself the only thoroughbred among carthorses, but despite a tempestuous stage, he emerged only 11 minutes behind Eugène Christophe, the first man to wear the newly minted maillot jaune and first of the ‘Eternal Seconds’ so beloved of the French public. Tant pis, Henri had lost the race lead and he wasn’t interested in playing second fiddle. A year later, Henri Desgrange accused him of having the temperament of a nervous pretty woman: “at Morlaix he didn’t want to, at Brest he did. Compare this capriciousness with the strength of will of Christophe! We’ll all regret it, but Henri Pélissier will never figure on the winner's list.”

Pain is temporary. Quitting lasts forever. (Lance Armstrong)

Only 16 men have been forced to abandon the Tour de France while wearing the yellow jersey. The first was Francis Pélissier in 1927 who retired sick; the most recent was Tony Martin after a crash that broke his collarbone in 2015. Others have crashed or withdrawn as part of a mass protest. One was pulled out for having lied about his whereabouts and another atop Alpe d’Huez for failing a drugs test despite using a condom filled with someone else’s urine. But none has been so valiant as Pascal Simon, the eldest of the four cycling Simon brothers who graced French cycling between the 1980s and the 2000s.

Born in Mesnil-Saint-Loup, a charming little village in the Aube just 25 kilometres from the bright lights of Troyes, Pascal was a winner of the Tour de l’Avenir in 1981 who would go on to a series of solid top 20 placings in the Tour de France throughout the 1980s; those glory days when Fignon, LeMond and Hinault traded titles. In 1983, Simon looked set to fulfil all his early promise when he seized the yellow jersey – and a healthy 4’ 22” advantage over 22-year-old rising star Laurent Fignon – on a stage 10 that saw a 25-year-old Philippa York (riding as Robert Millar) take a first professional victory. That night, the Peugeot team had the luxury of plotting how they could best defend yellow while letting their star climber fly.

Pascal Simon at the head of a formidable group including Millar and Fignon

And then catastrophe. Joaquim Agostinho attacks on a short, flat, fast transition stage to Fleurance and Peugeot ride to shut down the attack. Agostinho’s teammate Jonathan Boyer gets involved and the result is inevitable. A seemingly unavoidable crash brings down the yellow jersey who falls heavily on his left side. The result: a fractured shoulder blade and the Tour seems lost. But nobody told Pascal Simon.

And this is where guts, courage and, yes, more than a little stubbornness and stupidity collide in Simon’s desperate fight to keep the maillot jaune. He ends the day still 4’ 22” ahead of Fignon, with ten stages left before the triumphal procession onto the Champs-Élysées.

It’s a measure of the iconic status of the yellow jersey that Simon was able to cling onto it for so long. With a leader’s jersey comes the potential to exert huge power in the peloton through the role of patron, that indefinable quality that’s equal parts leadership and grinta, strength and sheer bloody-mindedness. If you look up the dictionary definition of patron, you’ll find a picture of Frenchman Bernard Hinault looking cool as fuck in Ray-Bans and attitude. Hinault, who sat out the 1983 Tour with knee problems after winning the Vuelta at the start of the season to hold all three Grand Tour titles at the same time, defined the role of the patron better than any other rider: “to be a patron, you have to be capable of winning the race overall, not just the points or the mountains. You hold the key to winning stages and can decide if someone can win. You need the strength to get off the front and catch an attacker, and there may be days you decide to do that, even if they haven’t wound you up.”

Hinault in Shades


Le Monde had already hailed Simon’s dominating win at the Tour de l’Avenir as proof that “he possesses the stature of a complete rider and probably an authentic leader,” calling his seven-minute margin of victory that of a ‘nascent authority’. Pulling on the yellow jersey was simply an affirmation of his promise. But the broken shoulder left him vulnerable, unable to feed himself or lift a bidon with his left arm. Unlike the collarbone, which is designed to snap under pressure, it takes a major trauma to break a shoulder blade.

But Simon gained another 24 hours in yellow on the long haul from Fleurance to Roquefort-sur-Soulzon and, after the next day’s stage to Aurillac, was telling the media he had slept well and recuperated perfectly; he was even able to stand on the pedals en danseuse and pull on the handlebars. But the next day, he was dropped for the first six kilometres of the stage by his nearest rivals and – though they chose not to press home their advantage – it seemed only a matter of time before Simon would abandon his dreams of glory.

Still, he fought on, to the delight of the crowds at the roadside and the French public at home. Stage 15: 15.6 kilometres of pure pain as each rider time trials to the summit of the Puy de Dôme. Simon comes almost to a standstill and the crowds are so dense that he misjudges his effort, exploding over the last 2 kilometres. His lead is slashed to under a minute as the race creeps ever closer to Alpe d’Huez.

Simon benefits from a peloton wary of striking their matches early on the road to Saint-Étienne, but 24 hours later it is over. Simon climbs off his bike on the summit of the Côte de la Chapelle-Blanche. The road is too long, too hard, too much. After six days flirting with the abyss, the tightrope walker topples and falls. “I tried to go as far as possible, but I’m in too much pain. Tonight, I’m sad. It’s the last time I’ll wear the yellow jersey.”

Sixty years earlier and Henri Pélissier is busy making Henri Desgrange eat a delicious dish of word salad with a particularly spiky vinaigrette. At 34, the Parisian is at the back end of his career, toiling through a Tour with his brother, Francis, that is less a race and more a war of attrition – the road littered with broken forks, smashed wheels and abandons.

By the midway point of the race, Henri is still 22’ 8” adrift of the Italian breakout star, Ottavio Bottecchia, the first Italian ever to wear the maillot jaune. On stage 9 he loses more time after a torrid stage in the Alps that sees him puncture, burst his tyres and get hit by a car. By stage 10, Henri knows he’s riding on borrowed time. On the programme are the climbs of the Allos, Var and Izoard, but the Var is neutralised thanks to mudslides, so Henri must strike from long distance, forcing the pace on the Allos and pressing home the advantage on the Izoard. He ends the day in yellow, 11’ 25” ahead of Jean Alavoine and 13’ 16” ahead of Botecchia. Alavoine, who lost his own brother and domestique in the war, has a broken arm and will not finish the race. There are suspicions that the Mason of Friuli has been poisoned, just like Léon Scieur, who spends a week in a clinic in Lourdes recovering from his own bidon of bad juju.

Henri puts the boot in the next day too when, despite an avalanche on the Col des Aravis, he crosses the finish line with brother Francis to end the day 29’ ahead of the Italian on GC. It is Henri’s tenth and final stage victory. By the time the race reaches the Parc des Princes, his triumph is sealed and Desgrange congratulates “the greyhound that prevails over the thick-set man like Lambot, Sawyer or Heusghem, that we believed to be forever the body-type of the Tour de France.”

“Faire le métier”: combien de fois dans ma vie ai-je entendu cette expression fourre-tout qui signifie tout et son contraire? (Laurent Fignon)

If Henri and Francis ride fully formed towards us out of the past, it’s on the words of one man. A one-time poet, Henri Londres is the lyricist of the suffering and the disenfranchised. Like an outsider artist, he reports from the margins of society, the liminal places where cruelty bleeds into insanity. His only duty is to stick the pen into the wounds.

For a man who had already reported from the front line of the first world war, the fledgling USSR and the inhuman degradation of the prison galleys of Cayenne, the Tour de France might have seemed a strange fit. But in the Pélissiers, he found the kind of willing conspirators that were a journalistic wet dream.

It shakes out like this. Henri again abandons the 1924 Tour again in Coutances, in protest at what he sees as Desgrange’s quixotic and archaic rules. In a world in thrall to mechanisation, productivity and Taylorism – the theory of scientific management and optimum work pace that reduced workers to mere automata – life on the chain gang had never been tougher, at least according to the Pélissiers.

There’s no doubt that Desgrange took a textbook mad scientist’s glee in meddling with ‘his’ race; he once described it as “the greatest scientific experiment that the sport of cycling has ever given us.” The mechanisms of the Tour were a perfect fit with those of Frederick Winslow Taylor, who believed in the transfer of power from worker to manager. The manual worker should be “so stupid and so phlegmatic that he more nearly resembles in his mental make-up the ox than any other type,” wrote the American, an echo of Desgrange’s ‘thick-set’ men of the Tour.

The French communist newspaper L’Humanité nailed Desgrange’s infatuation with getting maximum productivity from his riders, invoking his “ferocious and, at times, criminal exploitation” of the ouvriers de pedale, as he inflicts “sanctions that will force the workers to work more – most of the men hired by the company are exhausted – the ‘Father of the Tour’ is perplexed. How can you make riders who can’t go any further race?”

Henri the thoroughbred refused to be reduced to the level of an automaton. And while he was hardly hard done by – he was a bona fide star of the sport and the prize money at the Tour was nothing to be sniffed at – he refused to be dictated to. The Pélissier brothers would decide the terms of their employment and when they would withdraw their labour. After all, who was the best judge of what a rider might achieve, a despotic manager or the rider himself?

Picture the scene at the Café de la Gare: the brothers putting on quite a show for the veteran yet naive reporter, drinking chocolate, kissing over the table, the bons mots dripping from the lips: “the Way of the Cross had only fourteen stations, while ours has fifteen. What they do to us you wouldn’t do to mules! The day will come when they put lead in our pockets because God made man too light!” And then, picture Francis, with the real dynamite – the boxes and bottles containing the pills and the potions that fuel the professional cyclist. The litany is well known: cocaine for the eyes, chloroform for the gums, sleeping pills to combat the nocturnal onset of the St Vitus dance.

The picture the brothers collude to paint is flamboyantly grim – the flesh of the professional cyclist white as the shroud, the skin voided by diarrhoea no longer fitting the skeleton, the toenails dropping out one by one – and Londres laps up his veritable scoop. On the back of Londres’ article in the Petit Parisien, Pélissier is able to set up a rider’s union but its success is short-lived as riders rebel against Henri’s ego.

The other Henri, Desgrange, is apoplectic, claiming in a typically acerbic editorial that Londres has pandered to the demands of ‘millionaire rebels’ who blame capitalism for all their ills. In an editorial for Desgrange’s L’Auto, Henri Decoin – the future director of French film noir classics such as La Fille Du Diable and Non Coupable – claimed that his much-loved colleague had come to him and said, “we must get rid of the Tour! I must have come for something! I got rid of the convicts and I want to get rid of the Tour!”

Suffer as the professionals who rode at the birth of the Tour undoubtedly did, it seems unlikely that Londres would ever have compared their plight to that of the poor bastards in the Cayenne galleys – and he never did. It was Decoin who, writing of the touristes-routiers who would ride the Tour each year at their own expense both economically and physically, noted that they resembled “the forcats of Albert Londres.”

Had the Pélissier brothers played the great journalist, this outsider to the clandestine world of the professional cyclist who had planned on spending his summer in Paris with his lover, for a fool? Francis said later, "Londres was a famous reporter, but he did not know much about cycling, so we had a little bluff with our cocaine and our pills! It amused us to annoy Desgrange!" But there was real anger in their litany of the petty foibles of the autocratic race director: “if you start with a newspaper up your jersey, then you must finish with it. If I throw it away, I’m penalised. If we need a drink, we have to check there’s no one within 50 metres of the pump. Otherwise, penalisation. If we carry on down this route there’ll be no more artists, only vagabonds.”

Of course, no one forced the Pélissiers to race. They were under no compunction to faire le métier of a professional cyclist; to submit to the hard labour of the Pyrenees. So, what does it mean to be a professional cyclist? What made Pascal Simon ride on through six stages of the Tour de France when he knew it was a road to ashes, la mort dans l'âme? “To hope for better, I would have needed the character of Hinault,” he explained. “I undoubtedly had the characteristics of a champion, but not the spirit.” But those six stages, his Calvary, have come to define his career with qualities that we routinely ascribe to only the greatest of professional cyclists: courage, stubbornness, and force of will. As Jean-René Bernadeau said of Francois Simon’s performance in the 2001 Tour, “a Simon never disappoints their sponsor! With a Simon, you always get value for money!”

Pascal Simon


In fact, Pélissier was ahead of the curve when it came to modernising. Fausto Coppi might take the credit for dragging the sport into the twentieth century, but Henri was motor pacing, interval training, watching his diet and laying off the booze back in the 1910s. And, like Coppi, the Pélissiers practiced their oeuvre as professionals, whether that meant innovative training methods, careful nutrition, laying off the booze or getting the preparation right with drugs. For Henri, it also meant standing up for his right to do his job in humane working conditions, by whatever means he thought necessary.

Les deux Henris – Pélissier and Desgrange – were like a pair of rams locking horns race after race, butting egos repeatedly to establish who was boss. Pélissier’s exceptionalism was bred of his early success – the casual ease with which Petit-Breton had plucked him out of the crowd for stardom – and ultimately by his sense of his own self-worth. He was stubborn, moody, sometimes violent; the life of an ex-champion is often uneasy. In 1933, his wife, Leonie, shot herself, and Henri kept the pistol, perhaps as some kind of metal memento mori. Two years later, during a dinner party argument that turned nasty, his mistress, fleeing from a barrage of kicks and punches with her cheek oozing blood from where Henri had slashed her, grabbed the gun and shot him four times until a bullet found his carotid artery, and the now bloated corpse of the once streamlined Henri Pélissier hit the floor of their Versailles apartment.

“The tragic end of Henri Pélissier surprises no one” declares Paris-Soir. Camille Tharault is given a year’s suspended jail sentence and walks out of court, onto the streets of Paris as a free woman.

Un train peut en cacher un autre (French level crossing sign)

In a green corner in the east of Paris sits the municipal velodrome, lovingly christened La Cipale. It was on this 500-metre concrete track, with its wide corners and shallow banking, that Eddy Merckx finished each of his five Tour de France victories. La Cipale replaced the old Parc des Princes as the finish line of the race in 1968, when the old velodrome was torn down to make way for the Périphérique. But before the wrecking ball could swing, the bas-relief of the Pélissier brothers was lovingly removed and transported across town to the Bois de Vincennes. Now, it stands at the entrance to La Cipale, or the Vélodrome Jacques-Anquetil as it was renamed in 1987 to mark the great star’s death. In fact, Anquetil had no more to do with La Cipale than the Pélissiers, but it was Francis who would guide the fledgling Monsieur Chrono to his first sensational Grand Prix des Nations victory in 1953, when Anquetil was just 19.

Francis knew greater success as a directeur sportif than a cyclist, where he was always a super-domestique for his elder brother. And while three national champion’s jerseys, two Bordeaux-Paris and a couple of stage wins said Francis was no slouch, he shone at the helm of the Mercier team, earning the nickname ‘the Wizard of Bordeaux-Paris’ for his ability to guide unknown riders to the top of the podium. Of course, there are whispers in the press, but Francis tells them it’s all down to marginal gains: superior mental and physical conditioning, a thorough study of technical data and gearing and precise control of nutrition, both before and during a race, proving there is nothing new under the cycling sun.

And then came Charles, the least physically gifted of the three who, by sheer force of will, pulled himself out of the mud of cyclo-cross to become France’s best sprinter. Charles was the brother who made the girls’ hearts flutter and whose good looks and muscular physique landed him a rôle in a velodrome-set drama in the 1930s. Rarely photographed looking anything less than dapper, he revolutionised the way that a racing cyclist was supposed to look, and declared he never cared about results, only that he put on a beautiful show. With a record eight stage wins under his belt in the 1930 Tour, Charles was the blueprint for every gorgeous peacocking sprinter that came after. Nicknamed Valentino, he was the original dandy of the peloton.

Is there a law of diminishing returns when it comes to filial talent? While no one could accuse Francis or Charles of having journeyman careers, neither achieved the level of success of the mercurial Henri – that is, if you assume the maillot jaune to be the ultimate achievement in cycling. Regis Simon took a stage win in Pau in the 1985 Tour. Jerome got his stage win in 1988 at Strasbourg, then took the prix de la combativité in Paris. Francois would bookend Simon success at the race with his three days in yellow in 2001, and though he never won a stage, he would do what no other Simon had done: enjoy his jour de gloire by becoming French national champion in 1993.

In some ways, the Simons and the Pélissiers put neat parentheses around French success at the Tour. Henri Pélissier’s 1923 victory was the first for the French in twelve years and opened the floodgates to a string of French successes in the 30s, 50s, 60s and 70s. By the time the Simon brothers took to their bikes and peddled out of Troyes in the 80s and 90s, the period of French dominance in their home Tour had come to an end with a last hurrah, as Hinault and Fignon took every win between 1981 and 1985. Since then, silence.

Where the dynamic and dangerous Pélissiers set their faces to a future painted bleu, blanc et rouge, the craggy faces of the Simon brothers were already looking backwards to a glory that was fading fast.

I catch him when he's strayin' like any brother would
Man turns his back on his family well he just ain't no good
Highway Patrolman (Bruce Springsteen)

How do you deal with a sibling who wants to follow in your footsteps? And how does a younger sibling carve a career in the same sport? Some, like the Pélissiers, the Mosers or the Yates brothers, end up riding together on the same team; for others, age and guile, in Coppi’s immortal words, overcame youth and skill. Coppi and Bartali were united by the grief of losing a brother to the sport; the particular despair of losing a cycling doppelgänger whose talent never matched your own. For others, still, the relationship is typified by the Induráin sandwich – during the 59 kilometre time trial around Lac de Madine in the 1993 Tour, Miguel powered through wind, hail and rain to put over two minutes into his nearest rival, Tony Rominger, while his brother Prudencio came dead last, 17’ 48” down. Had it not have been for a timely puncture, Miguel would have eliminated his own brother.

Fausto & Serse Coppi

There has been extensive scientific research over the years into the relationship between siblings and the influence of birth order on personality. Siblings that are close in age encourage and support each other – who else except your brother can truly understand what’s going on in your life? Siblings develop the kind of healthy competition that encourages one to test oneself to the limit, to pedal harder when faced with adversity, to deal with the highs and lows and the death in the soul.

The meaning of fraternité has changed down the years. Where once it depended on a monocultural unity, the concept has been challenged by diversity and globalism. Unlike liberté and egalité, fraternité is not freighted with rights and statutes but the moral obligation to “act towards one another in a spirit of brotherhood,” as enshrined in the 1948 Universal Declaration of Human Rights.

The Yates brothers at the 2017 Vuelta


Cycling is, to all intents and purposes, a closed and esoteric society, like a brotherhood of monks or convicts, devoted to sacrifice, omertà and the projection of a certain kind of masculinity that is at once steeped in testosterone yet founded on fragility and vulnerability. A cyclist never walks or climbs stairs if it can be avoided, according to Laurent Jalabert: “In the Tour, everything counts. Half an hour’s extra sleep a day, that takes on huge significance after three weeks. At heart, the Tour means living like a monk. If you’re not on the bike, you ought to be in bed. To live to the full this intense ordeal.”

Prudencio Indurain

Where the physical act of cycling transcends gender and class and race and sexuality, the sport remains implacably white male-dominated in a way that few other sports can match; a masochistic feast of suffering and sweat from which women have been traditionally excluded, except in the passive and pretty role of podium girls. But the Pélissiers and the Simons are a brotherhood within a brotherhood, like Matryoshka dolls. And if their younger siblings existed as a counterpoint to throw Henri and Pascal into relief, sharing their blood and their genes if not their talent, they were still something more than mere gregari, loyal domestiques. Their trick, in the end, was not to live in the shadow, but to bask in the glow.


This feature first appeared in Conquista 18.