Posts Tagged ‘Graeme Fife’

Bernard Hinault

April 17, 2013

Words: Graeme Fife Photos: Gerard Brown

“The snow was driving so hard into our faces, on a crosswind, that we had to protect our eyes with one hand. We needed ski goggles. I couldn’t see a thing.”

Bernard Hinault talking after Liège-Bastogne-Liège, Sunday 20 April, 1980. The race was 245 kilometres; after 70km, 110 of the 174 riders had already quit.

Approaching the feed station at Vietsalm, at 149km, Hinault told his directeur Cyrille Guimard that if it hadn’t stopped snowing by the time they got there, he was climbing off.

As if Nemesis, the goddess of vengeance herself, was eavesdropping, the sun came out. Hinault, being the sort of man he is, was obliged to ride on.

“I went to the front and started to go [roule] because that way I could get some heat into my body and legs.” (The French word rouler can mean to lick someone, as in a fight, or, in the slang, to stand on the pedals.)

He caught and dropped a small group of breakaways, and, 80km from the finish, he was on his own.

“My mind was blank – I couldn’t see anything. I was locked up in myself. I looked at the pine trees – everything was white. I was riding in the furrows left by the car tracks.”

He finished 9min 24sec ahead of Hennie Kuiper, his second victory in the doyen of Classics (Hinault had already won in 1977 and was second in ’79).

By the time Kuiper arrived everyone had gone – television and radio reporters included. It’s as cogent an example as there is of Hinault’s sheer class, his willpower – the rage à vaincre of which he’s spoken – and his style, the panache, the exploit, the dominating spirit, what he called “une morale terrible”.

“Since that day,” he said 30 years on, “I have no feeling in two of my fingers. As soon as the glass drops below eight degrees, I get a pain there.”

This is an extract from issue 19

Sylvain Chavanel

March 7, 2013

Chavanel 2
Words: Graeme Fife Photos: Gerard Brown

I pressed him on the subject of morale among the French riders which had, for a while, been patently on the slide. He rather dismissed the notion. They have a good level in France, a lot of wins since the beginning of the season.

“Is that evidence of a new charge of spirit?”

He answered before I could put it to him that the example of the older generation – him, Thomas Voeckler, even the late-blossoming Christophe Moreau – had much to do with an observable change.

His reply hinted that this wouldn’t be something he’d embrace readily: an innate modesty, I’d say.

“No,” he said, “I don’t think so. They got wins in Qatar, Mallorca…and I hope it will continue. When we come to the big classics, it’s a higher degree altogether. We had people like [Laurent] Jalabert and [Richard] Virenque at world class and we have to wait for others to emerge.”

There’s no question in my mind that he is happy with his role as elder professional, still ‘doing his thing’. Conscious, too, that this attitude will indeed stimulate others.

Solitary by disposition he may be, but he has that easy acceptability of all the demands of the job which shows in the deeply committed professional, a man of his trade, and a jusqu-auboutiste – an all-outer – which is his trademark.

When I ask him what his objective for the season is, I supply the word even before he responds: “Gagner?”

He smiles. The soigneur lifts his right leg to plant it on the table, Chavanel reaches for the pillow, pummels it briefly and reclines once more.

“Yes, it’s important to win, to go for victory. You can come in with the lead bunch but I don’t care about that.

“If I feel good – and that’s the main thing – I make a break and I look round to see if there’s anyone there or not. But I’m not one to think about advantage or disadvantage.

Je roule. If I can win two or three races, on good courses, as I’ve done these last few years, that I would like very much.”

Example: Tour de France stage 2 Brussels to Spa. Only 11km from the start, Chavanel breaks clear and is joined by a number of others.

He attacks once more alone on the Col de Stockeu, some 33km from the finish, only Jürgen Roelandts stays with him until he, too, falls away – on the Col du Rosier, 20km on.

In the rain, on slick, wet roads, Chavanel presses on to win by nearly four minutes and, joy, to take the yellow jersey.

Interviewed after that victory, he said he didn’t have superior qualities in certain areas – he can’t sprint like Boonen, for instance, so he has to find other ways of winning “to make a splash.”

It’s true that he doesn’t win so many races as the great champions “but when I do win, it gets noticed.”

Paradoxically, he said, all the way through the escape he struggled to convince himself that it would come off, but he didn’t want to be disappointed if he failed once again and gradually he got stronger.

The simple analysis is ‘it ain’t over till it’s over’, but the deeper explication is of a psychological toughness that can weather the doubt, know it for what it is and stick to the base instinct: to attack, no matter what it costs and to hell with the risk.

It seems to me an admirable attitude, a coupling of self-knowledge and careless courage, even joie de vivre.

Chavanel 1

Extract from issue 25.

Tro-Bro Léon

April 11, 2012

Words: Graeme Fife Photos: Gerard Brown

French cycling exchanges  pavé for ribinoù in this weekend’s Tro-Bro Léon. Endura Racing – profiled in Rouleur issue 28 – will be riding for Alexandre Blain, Rouleur’s tip for the podium. This extract from Graeme Fife’s feature on Brittany’s rough stuff is in Rouleur 27.

For jpm, ardent man of Brittany that he is, the idea of a bike race round his home region of Léon combined a method of raising money to sponsor native culture and a means of showcasing the beloved pays, the natal land, that notion so dear to the French.

There was another ingredient that made the planned race special, different: the inclusion of a number of sections of ribin (plural ribinoù). These largely unmetalled farm tracks are shortcuts across the open fields, linking roads composed of packed earth, often compacted with stones, some loose, frequently with a grassy ridge down the centre. The ideal ribin, says jpm, “shouldn’t be too broken up, not too many potholes and with grass down the middle – that makes it more rustic.” These off-road byways also serve as escape routes for people on the way back from the bar, allowing them to bypass police breathalysers.

The first TBL – organised by jpm, his brother, and a few friends – was for amateurs; 152 kilometres, four or five ribinoù. Like Henri Desgrange in 1904, however, jpm didn’t expect there to be a second edition of his race. “It was a mess. The first two riders missed the race route. We’d daubed the arrows in a crazy hurry – overturned a pot of paint in one volunteer’s car…” But of course there was another edition the year after, 170 kilometres, and “the arrows were so well-executed that the local highways authority told me to cover them up with tar.”

A shy, taciturn man with an unswerving will to get done what he wants to get done; enormously patient, capable of sitting through protracted objection to any proposal he makes and then repeating with quiet insistence what he’d asked for at the outset, jpm has another similarity with Desgrange: he seeks ever to improve, to make new demands, to extend the original vision. Opened to pros in addition to amateurs in 1999, TBL became a fully professional race the following year. From a budget of 8,000 francs for the first edition in 1984 to one of €250,000 today, the 2011 race (UCI rating 1:1) covered 206.4 kilometres with 25 ribinoù sectors totalling 34.2 kilometres. A couple of years ago a journalist from Le Monde, flourishing his intimate knowledge of pro bike racing, called the TBL “the Breton Paris-Roubaix”. However, jpm pooh-poohs the analogy. True, some parts of the race are off-road but there really is no biddable comparison between the pavé and the ribinoù.


jpm lets fall the black and white Breton flag and the 177 riders of the 28th Tro-Bro Léon ride out, among them seven of the Sigma Sport-Specialized team. I’d had a quick word with Sid Barras beforehand about his guys. Oh yes, steep learning curve, no time to recce, problems with the radio, not doing every race with them. “I’ve got other things in my life but… if I can help them… Listen, I need to get out otherwise I’ll get stuck. It’s happened before. Cheers.”

My companions know the course and so we cut some corners, scoot through small villages moored in big fieldscape, hot bright sun, cornflower blue sky, and onto the third section of ribin: 1.6 kilometres. It’s a good’un, two strips of tarmac and a verdant herbal Mohican down the middle. We’re ahead of the race, motos and cars stirring a haze of dust, horns blaring from time to time, spectators hanging back in the verges. A stretch of hedge and out into open farmland – they grow a lot of potatoes round here. We overtake a team car, move through to the end of the track and park to wait for the riders in the early break.

They emerge from the dust as if in a mirage, the carbon frames and wheels speaking the uneven surface in a percussive staccato. Heads down, the judder of the ribin going up through arms, shoulders, neck, and they’re past. We follow, into the mist of fine precipitate, earth particles and heat haze. The course regulator roars through, perched on a moto, waving her arms up and down like she’s pretending to be a seagull. She keeps blowing her whistle and glaring at us. The driver leans out of the window and says something like “What’s your game?” and, ignoring her gesticulations, we chase up and latch onto the bunch of escapees. One rider tosses a bidon to a woman standing by the roadside.

“That’s thoughtful,” remarks the driver, “and for the environment, not to make rubbish of it.”

The fourth stretch of ribin is much rougher: stones, fissures, rutted. The break surges through and you can feel the urgency in their acceleration as they swing off the path and onto smooth road. Another seven kilometres and we’re into woodland, an old village, stone buildings, some abandoned; the ribin markedly rougher; bikes dance like barefoot runners on hot pavements; and suddenly, a steep steep climb out of the dell, cruel tax on legs and lungs, loose stones cheating traction, a nasty hairpin. This is Le Vern, famous round here. Not quite a muur, more of a revetment.

We park again and wait for the main field to go by; that expected but never less than thrilling sizzle of collective power, drive and intense concentration, the potency of a bee swarm. Back in the car and another dodge across country to rejoin the route in the basse marée, an inland area of shore below the tideline which, despite being ringed by a protective dune or bank, is nevertheless frequently inundated with sea water to form a saltmarsh. A few years ago the Tro-Bro Léon had (unusually) bad weather and the ribin here was a saturated trench of sand.

Rouleur issue 27

Tour 2011 – Racing Old Style

July 29, 2011

By Graeme Fife

No Prologue. Cut to the chase and to business straight from the gun. Had the sprinters leafing through the route book, thinking ‘Where do we come in?’ No time, check out the opener: big lump at the end of stage one, the Flanders men smiling, at least, Gilbert with his hair dyed blonde. They don’t do superstition in cobble-land. No time to draw breath and… team time trial – they all hate that: nervy, exposed, let the rest down if you miss a turn, come out of the bend too quick, brain and body on a hot rivet. And it happened: Eisel down, HTC twiddling their pedals to wait, but they don’t need the seconds. Contador, however… Except that it got his dander up. Lost more time on what he’d lost earlier and so, here he was, only stage 4, scrapping with Evans for the win on Britanny’s Mûr.. (The locals insist on the circumflex – it turns a wall into ripe and mellow. Ha ha. Not this day. Evans showing some teeth. An encouraging sign.)

So now we have Cancellara bitching about Brittany. Narrow roads? To hell with narrow roads. Forgetting that other Hell he’s done, seems he’d rather have motorways, big roads for the big bike race. Perhaps Spartacus is thinking more Cacophonix. The man, maybe, being in decline against the clock (Martin his martel…hammer) hankering for the lone highway mindset, without all these other riders to bother about. Sure, it rained. So you adjust. The Bretons, for sure, wouldn’t be having any truck with whingeing Belgians. Imagine Hinault sympathising. But, the crashes came and too many good men hit the deck and stayed there. It’s the hazard of bike racing and nothing can eliminate the momentary lapse, the crass idiocy – the team car barging through to deliver bidons to their bloke and bustling another rider out of the way is the least culpable of the moronic incidents. The casualty list was dire. For them all, the men who went out on the tarmac, let Brakjovic, Van den Broeck, Vinokourov, Wiggins speak the wholesale calamity. It’s always rotten to witness, you feel the awful thud of frail bone on unforgiving metal. Vino? End of the 2011 road, end of the road, fullstop. Wretched way to finish. Wiggo, in the form of his life. I saw him at the Dauphiné. He said he’d learnt from the failure of last year – sure, failure, didn’t step up to the responsibilities of leadership. Mark it, responsibility. It takes more than talent on the bike, you need to be able to look away from the bike and adapt. This he was doing. Learnt some more trade-craft and looked a different man.

So, too, Cavendish. Allan Peiper had a word with him. Look after the others, mate, learn the métier. Okay, he needs the hostility to fire him up but no more petulance. (Hushovd asking to take all the deducted points for the fracas which had them both penalised? Speaks volumes. Think of the two of them at each other’s throats two years back.) So, the rules are changed, you adapt. Cav goes for the intermediates, now, shaping like a complete racer, because that’s the way to green. Never complain: ride the course they give you. Greipel beats you one day, you respond in kind.

A bitter symbolism in the television car carting Hoogerland into the barbed wire and shafting Flecha into Voeckler. TV dictates the times of the race and TV gets evicted from the race, good show. Prudhomme had just told all cars to give priority to the team vehicles and to stay away from the riders. Perhaps the fact that he didn’t mention the verge-side trees gave the TV cretin his licence to attempted murder.

Voeckler in yellow. (Beginning of the season the second-string Europcars weren’t even sure of a ride.) He’ll keep it to Luz-Ardiden was the safe money, Pyrenees is where the Schlecks start to tear it up. Except they didn’t, or couldn’t. It ought to be a simple job to dish Contador (possibly): harassing changes of rhythm, the old one-two, jab jab and paf with the uppercut. No. Didn’t come, and Evans lurks, imperturbable, an encouraging sign. And Rolland. I watched him, Rolland, riding this, his third Tour, never done much before, but the Europcar, or rather the Bernaudeau, collectivity really does seem to be more, a lot more, than psycho-babble. It bloody works. Observe. Rolland was leading his boss up the slopes looking as if he could ride all day. Well, he was riding all day, and Voeckler began to inhabit the jersey like a real champion, not a short-term tenant.

Cav was clocking them up. One French wise-cracker asked (you know what they’re like): ‘Where was Cavendish born? The Isle of Man? Oh, no. Cavendish was born in Chateauroux in 2008 and reborn in 2011.’ The day, alas, of his ex-track partner Wiggins’ demise. The day after Sky’s first stage win. Boasson Hagen, the other Norwegian, who swept across the line in Normandy, named for the Norsemen who settled there. Sweet historical synchrono. And Chateauroux was once a fief of the English crown, so touché on that, too, another symbolic reclamation of territory.
Having moaned about the descent into Gap – ridiculous, dangerous, nasty nasty, pooh – Andy Schleck finally shrugged off the amiable come-what-may attitude and wrote a great page in Tour history, Merckx urging him on through Prudhomme’s sunroof. It was indeed superb, 60km out there and riding at some sublime level of power and concentration that forged the Tour’s Mr Nice Guy anew. Then, too, former shrinking violet Evans, cursing the others for not helping, into the headwind, up the valley to the highest stage finish ever in the Tour, Giant of the Alps, finally realised it was his to do, or not, his race to win, his, or not, and he dug in, the amazing Voeckler and Rolland still there, like the shadows of his old uncertainty. On the rooftop of the Tour, Evans tightening what looked like an unshakeable grip, therefore and Voeckler still in yellow, at the cost of being hardly able to breathe, talk, walk, function. A new level of racing? Hardly. The old level resurfacing clean.

Snapshot: top of the Galibier, Thomas arrives, shepherding Uran for the white jersey, gets to the line, glances back, seeing him in, almost tenderly. He’s got the works, Thomas, and he looks after the others, as well. Responsibility, it’s an essential, to the team, to yourself.
Next day, Contador, the podium slipping away from him, hitting the front on the Télégraphe, saving honour, at least, going for broke and broke is a place we have not seen for years. Contador is, I think, one of those men whose route to the earning of deepest respect lay in the fight back and he was delivering it. The stage was short, the climbers were being invited to attack early and it was happening – at the expense of the intermediate sprint…In Bourg, foot of the Alpe? Given the striking enterprise of the race route as a whole, this was daft. What was wrong with Valloire, outskirts of the Galibier? Hmm.

On the Alpe, another moment of Tour history. Voeckler to Rolland: ‘Go.’ And, as if charged with some force of the mystic tradition of the race, Rolland not only went but, riding in company with Contador and Sanchez towards the finish, knowing that his boss was slipping out of yellow, he turned in the saddle and scoped the Spaniards, once, twice, thrice and with magnificent disdain, haughty as a matador performing the Verónica, he soared off, victory, white jersey, both ears and the tail. (Okay, listen up: the Verónica is where the matador stands stockstill and looks away, into the crowd as the bull brushes past his cape, close as Veronica’s veil wiping the sweat from Christ’s brow on the way to Calvary.)

It was Evans’ win and taken with power – seven seconds off Martin in the time-trial, that showed the core of his all-out tenacity this year where, bad luck aside, he’d shied away before. But it was Voeckler’s Tour. A second division team, ten days in yellow, stage win, white jersey, 4th overall. Wow. And the Norwegians, only two of them there, but four stages and Hushovd trashing the curse of the rainbow jersey with the force of a Viking’s hawk on the stoop. And… oh, yes, Cav… Cavendish, of course, as they say in France.