His books bring alive his era, his understanding of cycling is unique; Jean Bobet’s observations are sometimes controversial, but always reasoned and beautifully expressed.
By Chris Sidwells.
Jean is the brother of three-time Tour de France winner and world champion, Louison Bobet. He was a pro bike racer, a good one too, Paris-Nice winner in 1957, but nothing like his older brother. He could be given the ‘brother of’ tag many less gifted siblings receive, but he never will because racing was just part of Jean's life.
He was a gifted student who became a top journalist, then a successful businessman and an award-winning author. Old school maybe, but still one of cycling literature’s finest. It was with some trepidation I asked to meet him a few years ago.
Ostensibly it was to ask about the first five-time Tour de France winner Jacques Anquetil, who I was writing about at the time. Bobet was in a unique position to observe Anquetil as a racer in the 1950s and as a journalist in the sixties. But I also wanted to meet him, and to talk about cycling in Anquetil’s era and beyond. It was an enlightening experience and things he told me then will appear from time to time in www.cyclinglegends.co.uk. But for now, this is Jean Bobet talking about Jacques Anquetil the cyclist.
“We first met in 1953 when we were independent riders. My first impression of him was something that has never changed; Anquetil was perfection on a bike.
“In my opinion cycling champions divide into two schools. There are those, like my brother, who are first of all athletes. What I mean is that they could have done anything in sport; they have robust physiques, they move well, they have balance. Louison could have been a champion at tennis, football, anything. Bernard Hinault was the same. The other school are cyclists and cyclists only.
“Some of them do not even look good until they are riding a bike. Fausto Coppi was from that school, he was ungainly, almost ugly, off his bike; his clothes did not seem to fit him. He didn’t even walk well, but shambled along. Coppi off his bike and on it was the difference between a bird walking and one in flight.
“Anquetil belonged to the second school too, although he didn’t look as bad away from his bike as Coppi did; in fact he was quite a handsome and smart fellow. But he could have done nothing else in sport but become a cyclist, his body was too specialized. On a bike he was perfection,” Bobet says.
“I rode the 1957 Tour de France, the first that Anquetil won. I was in a team representing the Paris region, the Ile de France, and it was a terrible team. After four stages five of my tem-mates had gone home. On the finish line in Paris, Jacques Goddet, the director of the Tour and the editor of L’Equipe, asked me to write five articles about the Tour. That was the beginning of my career as a journalist, and in my first article I wrote about Anquetil, describing him as a wonderful rider, which he was.
“But I have a problem with Jacques. At first I proclaimed him, he was smart and clever and very dedicated, but over the next four years my admiration turned to disillusionment. The problem was his use of drugs, and his open admissions to the press that he used them. I cannot support doping, in fact I left cycling because of it.”
This statement seems ambiguous. What was Bobet’s problem with Anquetil, his use of drugs or his admitting it? “Both. Doping is a personal problem, you either do it or do not. It is a real problem in sport, but once it’s out in the open, even those who do not dope cannot prove their innocence. Doping robs the innocent of victories, but admitting it robs the innocent of their innocence. I never used dope, but if I say it today nobody will believe me,” he says.
“Dope is hatred in sport. Individuals try to qualify it, make excuses, but they do not work. In the sixties Anquetil used to point out that some artists had created great works under the influence of drugs, using it as an excuse, but even that argument does not work.
“I studied English Literature at university, and one of my favourite poets is Coleridge. It is widely accepted that he wrote poetry under the influence of opium, but when Coleridge wrote Kubla Khan he didn’t steal the words from Keats or Wordsworth. A doped cyclist steals victories from those who don’t dope. I say that, but I still watch every race I can on the TV, I still love the sport. There are many like me, I think.”
Despite their differences Bobet and Anquetil connected on a personal level. “Strangely, my disillusionment with Anquetil did not prevent us being friends. He was not the first to dope, and I understand that speaking out was how he dealt with the problem, because he was a very honest man, in his own way. He was dishonest, in my opinion, when he used dope, but he wasn’t two-faced. His nature forced him not to hide the fact that he used it. I could not help myself liking him, he was uncommon.”
We’d talked about Anquetil as a person, what about his ability on the bike, what first-hand experience did Bobet have of that? “First of all, he was the great champion of the time trial. I rode the first Grand Prix des Nations he won, and during each kilometer I lost five seconds to him, and I was not so bad at the time trial.
“Then when I was a journalist, I always followed him in a time trial. It was an honour, looking at perfection. His style was perfect, his pedaling and low aerodynamic position were all developed before he became famous by his coach, Monsieur André Boucher
.“Anquetil worked tirelessly with Boucher, always training behind his Derny for a big time trial. Boucher was genuine, and Jacques appreciated that in a person more than anything else. No matter how hard Boucher pushed him, Jacques never once cried out for him to slow. I watched one session on a 100-kilometre circuit. They did not slow once, even when a level crossing was closing. They just went straight though as the barriers came down. That is how committed they were,” Bobet affirms.
“One particular reason I admired Anquetil was because, although I studied literature, I am fascinated by mathematics and physics. Anquetil was perfection at continuous motion. His system was totally adapted to it, so much that he could not support interruptions to his effort.
“He hated the team time trial; it wasn’t so much that he couldn’t stand the accelerations, although he struggled with them. It was just that his system could not support interruptions to his pace. Rudi Altig, for instance, nearly killed him in the Baracchi Trophy one year, and if they were both on top form Anquetil was always faster than Altig in a time trial,” Bobet says.
Why was Anquetil’s ability so specialized? “I think that it was to do with his pedaling style, his muscles and the smooth, constant way they delivered power to his bike. I will tell you a story about another rider from the sixties who I admired a lot: Rik Van Looy. He was bad at time trials, but he wanted to improve and one day he was looking at Anquetil’s bike to see if there were any secrets he could glean from it.
“The wheels particularly attracted Van Looy’s attention, so he asked Jacques where he got them from. Jacques said: “If you want a pair of my wheels I will give you a pair.” So Van Looy rode his next time trial on Anquetil’s wheels. They were very much lighter and had fewer spokes than standard wheels, and after three kilometres both wheels were wrecked because of the way Van Looy pedaled. Van Looy’s muscles were all sprint and no time trial, whereas Anquetil’s were all time trial and no sprint.”
How does Anquetil compare with the other five-time Tour de France winners? “Of them all he was the most perfect. Eddy Merckx was the best, make no mistake, but his style was ugly. Hinault was a bit stiff, certainly not as fluid as Anquetil. Indurain was the nearest, beautiful pedaling, though a bit upright.”
An interesting comparison from a man who has seen them all, and one that ties in with his earlier observation that there are two types of champion cyclists, those who have basic all-round athletic ability, and those whose bodies seem to be specially tuned just to riding a bike.
Merckx, a monster on a bike, had the ability to be a good footballer, and he could ride any type of race from a cyclo-cross to a track sprint and be competitive. Hinault once said that he considered himself to be an athlete first and a cyclist second, even using running and gymnastics as part of his training towards the end of his career. On the other hand Indurain, who like Anquetil won his Tours in the time trials, was so specialized he often complained that his legs hurt even when going for a short walk.
Jean Bobet witnessed the Anquetil and Poulidor rivalry at first hand, so was it a real thing or something hyped up by the press? “Oh it was real, and it was huge. I worked for Radio Luxembourg for a lot of the time, and the mail we received from ‘Poulidoristes’ and ‘Anquetilistes’ every day was phenomenal.”
Was Poulidor the most popular? “Yes, the French love an underdog and Poulidor was always seen as that. Although, personally I think that if Raphael Geminiani had been Poulidor’s manager and not Antonin Magne, he would have won at least one Tour de France. I loved Magne, but he was not modern.
“The problem a lot of the public had with Anquetil was the way he raced, not attacking and using the time trials to gain time. That is a very cold way of racing, and foreign to how French people think. They like daring attacks by riders, even if those attacks fail.”
Did Poulidor’s popularity bother Anquetil? “Oh yes, it disturbed him greatly, he couldn’t understand it. He was the winner, how could the public love Poulidor? He used to ask me: “What would Poulidor be without me?” But once I asked him to think what he would be without Poulidor. It was a factor in his fame, Anquetil’s rivalry with Poulidor inspired him to do remarkable things.
“Life was war to Jacques Anquetil when he raced, but in the last years of his life I think he came to appreciate a great many things he hadn’t appreciated before. For example, he used to walk for hours at night, alone, just looking at the stars. I also think that it was fantastic that he and Poulidor became friends after Jacques stopped racing.”
There will be more from Monsieur Bobet on www.cyclinglegends.co.uk from time to time.