Wednesday, July 6, 2011

Tour legends and legends of the tour; stage 5 - Henri Pélissier

Throughout this, the 98th edition of le Tour de France, I will be writing a daily despatch on some of the things that have combined to make this race one of the biggest, most celebrated and anticipated sporting shows on earth.

A common hypothetical in cycling circles asks what could have been for Fausto Coppi and Gino Bartali? How many races would these two great Italians have won if it weren't for WWII? For considering both cyclists had their careers interrupted by the war, that there would have been many more wins cannot be doubted. So, the hypothetical is, how many?

Bartali and Coppi share a drink

A hypothetical you don't hear so often is, what could have been for Henri Pélissier? This is despite the fact that he too won many races either side of a great war. Maybe you don't hear it so often because his was WWI, which was shorter. Or perhaps it is actually because he just wasn't as good. Sure, he had an impressive palmarès with wins in the Giro di Lombardia, Milan-San Remo, Paris-Roubaix, Bordeaux-Paris, Paris-Brussels, Paris-Tours and the Vuelta al País Vasco. But despite various stage victories and podium finishes, he was only able to win one Grand Tour, the 1923 Tour de France.

Compare this to Bartali and Coppi, who shared eleven Grand Tours, and Pélissier's record looks somewhat lacking. So maybe that's why there's no Pélissier hypothetical getting bandied round at bike-geek parties.

Another explanation might be Pélissier's character, which could be described as somewhat militant and confrontational. Hénri Desgrange, known as the "father of the Tour de France", didn't like Pélissier because he was a unionist and organiser. He campaigned for better wages for cyclists and complained about the conditions imposed on him and his colleagues.

Henri with brother Francis

Pélissier didn't like Desgrange because he imposed a battery of rules on the cyclists to make the suffering and difficulty as great as possible. Desgrange was a stickler for these rules, and the two men rarely saw eye-to-eye.

So while Pélissier started the Tour eight times, he only finished twice (he came 2nd in 1914). Most of these DNFs were a result of confrontations between Pélissier and Desgrange. For example, in the 1920 edition, Pélissier was penalised 2 minutes for discarding a punctured tyre. In protest, he abandoned. Similarly, in 1924, as the defending champion, Pélissier had the following conversation with journalist Albert Londres, as found in Matt Rendell's Blazing Saddles;

Pélissier: This morning, at Cherbourg, the commissaire approached me and, without a word, lifted up my jersey. He was checking whether I had two jerseys. What would you say if I lifted your jacket to see if you were wearing a white shirt? I didn't like his manners, that's all.
Londres: What could he have done if you'd had two jerseys?
Pélissier: I could have fifteen fifteen of them, but I'm not allowed to start the with two and finish it with only one.
Londres: Why?
Pélissier: Those are the rules...I went to see Desgrange. "I can't throw my jersey onto the road, then?"
Desgrange: No, you can't throw away your sponsor's material.
Pélissier: It isn't my sponsor's, it's mine.
Desgrange: I'm not discussing it on the road.
Pélissier: If you're not discussing it on the road, I'm going back to bed.
Which he did, taking his brother with him.

I can only imagine how Pélissier would have reacted to drug tests. Fortunately for him, the use of drugs was common and open. And few were more open about them than Pélissier himself. Take the following extract, also from Rendell's book;

'You have no idea what the Tour de France consists of...It's a cavalry - except there are only fourteen stations of the Cross. We have fifteen. We suffer on the road, but do you want to see how we cope? Look...'
He took a phial from his bag.
'Cocaine for the eyes and chloroform for the gums.'
'Liniment to warm your knees,' said Maurice Ville.
'And there are pills. Do you want to see the pills?'
They took out three boxes each.
'Basically,' said Francis (Henri's brother), 'we're on dynamite.'
Henri carried on:
'Haven't you seen us washing at the finish? It's worth paying to see it. Beneath the mud, you're white as a sheet. You're drained by diarrhoea, your eyes roll in water. At night, in your room, instead of sleeping you twitch like someone with Saint Vitus Dance.'

And when Francis said they were on dynamite, he wasn't joking; a common drug of the period was nitroglycerin, which was said to improve breathing.

Pélissier celebrates his 1923 victory

There's little doubt that Pélissier would have won a few more Tours if he could have got along a bit better with Desgrange. So, the next time you're at a bike-geek party and someone asks, "What could have been for Coppi and Bartali?", you can put them in their place by countering with the far more retro question, "What could have been for Pélissier?" With any luck, they'll not have heard of him, granting you the opportunity to dazzle them with your knowledge...your bike-geek stocks will rise dramatically.

No comments:

Post a Comment