Through the Night

Words: Paul Maunder
Illustrations: Matthew Burton

It’s May 23, 1891. In the Place du Pont, in the Bastide neighborhood of Bordeaux, France, 38 of the era’s best long-distance cyclists gather in the chill predawn air. There’s a Pole, a Swiss and four British riders. The remainder of the field is French. A sizeable crowd lines the starting funnel, their horses and carts parked carelessly across the town square. They’ve come to witness the inaugural Bordeaux–Paris cycle race. In particular they’ve come to see the elite British team, led by George Pilkington Mills, the sport’s pre-eminent road racer. Mills and his teammates are technologically more advanced than the competition — they have snug leggings instead of trousers secured by clips, and they’ve added footrests to the forks of their bikes. If you’re about to ride 600 kilometers on a single-speed mount, putting your feet up on the forks on downhills could provide a race-winning advantage. Marginal gains indeed!

Some 26 hours later, as a crowd of 7,000 welcomed the exhausted and grimy Mills into Paris, his victory was anything but marginal. His compatriots Monty Holbein and Selwyn Edge completed an all-British podium. The first French rider, in fifth, was more than five hours behind. Mills’ victory was based on a combination of brute strength, cunning strategy and stimulants. The race organizer, the Véloce Sport newspaper, knew that Mills made a habit of riding the length of Great Britain — from Lands End in the southwest to John O’Groats in the northeast — and setting records on every ride. In 1885, aged only 18, he completed the 900-mile route in five days and 10 hours on a penny-farthing, no less! That record still stands.

While the organizers knew Mills’ pedigree, they perhaps weren’t so clued up about his strategies. Certainly the good citizens of Angoulême weren’t familiar with the eccentric tendencies of the British. Their city was at kilometer 127 on the Bordeaux–Paris route, and the townspeople figured that after such a long stretch of cycling, the riders would need a good rest. They prepared hearty meals, hot baths and showers, and soft beds for the heroes of the road — for surely they would be in need of a long rest? When the British riders arrived, much to the astonishment and dismay of the spectators, they quickly slurped down bowls of soup then jumped back on their bikes and set off once more. Repeating this pattern at every checkpoint, Mills and his compatriots drew steadily farther away from their rivals.

By Tours, after 350 kilometers and with 12 hours on the clock, Mills was an hour ahead of Holbein. He stopped there long enough to consume a raw steak and what various accounts refer to as “a specially prepared stimulant” — most likely morphine — then set off for Paris. Doping, in those days, wasn’t illegal, but was considered not the proper behavior for a gentleman.

Five years after Mills’ victory, another British rider, Arthur Linton, won Bordeaux–Paris, but died two months later. The truth about his death has been the subject of considerable historical debate, with some claiming Linton was the first competitive cyclist to be killed by doping, while complications from typhoid fever were given as the cause of his death in 1896.

Whatever the truth of Linton’s case, it’s clear that in those murky early days of organized bike racing, doping was common. In his August 2000 New Yorker story, “The Hardest Test,” the novelist Julian Barnes wrote: “Benjo Maso, the Dutch sociologist and historian of cycling, enlightened and depressed me about the prehistory of drug use. In the early days, this meant mainly strychnine, cocaine, and morphine, though there were also folksier pick-me-ups, like bull’s blood and the crushed testicles of wild animals… In the nineteen-twenties, riders used ‘incredible amounts of booze.’ Maso cited another Bordeaux–Paris race (the event called for herculean stamina, being run in a single stretch, right through the night), in which the allowance per man in one team was a bottle of eau-de-vie, some port, some white wine, and some champagne.”

The ghosts of doping may continue to haunt our sport, but Bordeaux–Paris is firmly settled in the category of “great lost races.” When it was conceived, long-distance bike racing was fashionable, even heroic. The race helped to establish the sport in France, paving the way for the Tour de France, and the prestige of the race lasted long into the mid-20th century. Bordeaux–Paris was a classic as important as Paris–Roubaix or the Giro di Lombardia, and every top rider wanted it on their palmarès. The list of winners included Tour de France champions Ferdi Kubler, Louison Bobet and Jacques Anquetil, but it was Herman Van Springel who won the most editions, taking seven victories between 1970 and 1981. Van Springel, a quintessential Flemish hard man, was a strong time trialist — though ironically he lost the 1968 Tour de France to Jan Janssen in the final day’s time trial while wearing the yellow jersey — and excelled at the very specific effort that Bordeaux–Paris demanded.

For, despite being a massed-start race, Bordeaux–Paris was essentially a very long paced time trial. The pacing was initially by tandems or other bicycles, and in 1931 commercial motorcycles were introduced, followed in 1938 by moped-like derny machines. When the race restarted after World War II, the riders picked up their dernys shortly before the halfway stage, usually at either Poitiers or Châtellerault. For roadside spectators it must have made for an exciting, distinctive experience. The loud buzzing of the dernys and the great riders of the day speeding through the countryside at speeds of up to 60 kilometers an hour. The best riders worked in total synergy with their pacers, communicating on the fly, together sensing when to push on and when to ease up.

Most of the entraîneurs, the men driving the dernys, were former bike racers and had an intuitive understanding of their athletes and the race. They dictated tactics to the riders, not the other way around. It helped if they were also partial to second helpings of tarte tatin — larger men made for better protection from the wind! Indeed, the officials frisked the pacers at the start of the race to check for concealed padding. Before picking up their pacers, on the long dark road from Bordeaux, the riders kept together, staying warm and well fed, with the agreement not to attack each other. But when they arrived at Poitiers or Châtellerault, the race was on. A huge crowd would gather to watch the melée of clothing changes, hasty refreshments, and the pack of dernys starting up amid clouds of smoke.

Once out of town the pacers would gradually wind up the speed, often with a furious rider behind them yelling to slow down. Just as in unpaced racing, attacks by unknown riders were tolerated, but by the final 100 kilometers, through the hilly Chevreuse Valley area to the south of Paris, the strongest men always came to the fore.

Jacques Anquetil’s victory in 1965 will be remembered as one of the most spectacular in the race’s history. Raphaël Geminiani, Anquetil’s team manager, had concocted a publicity stunt that he hoped would make the fans warm to the aloof five-time Tour winner. Anquetil was to ride the Dauphiné Libéré, an eight-day stage race in the Alps, and then Bordeaux–Paris. There was only 10 hours between the finish of the Dauphiné (which Anquetil won) and the start of Bordeaux–Paris at 1:30 a.m. the following day. Anquetil took a chartered plane between races, had a few hours sleep and a meal, and headed to the start line.

The man standing between Anquetil and an improbable double was Tom Simpson, the 1963 Bordeaux–Paris winner. Anquetil had a miserable night, suffering from stomach cramps, but when Simpson’s Peugeot teammate François Mahé attacked, Anquetil joined his Ford-France teammate Stablinski in a long pursuit with Simpson. Mahé held off his chasers for more than four hours and was caught only 20 kilometers from the finish. On the last few climbs, repeated attacks from Stablinski and Anquetil forced Simpson to chase until, inevitably, he could chase no more. Cheered on by massive crowds, Anquetil forged on alone to win by a minute. It wasn’t the single biggest win of his career, but Anquetil’s Dauphiné/Bordeaux–Paris double was a remarkable athletic feat. It showed the depth of his character and hugely increased his popularity.

In the 1970s and ’80s, the race began to slip into a gradual decline. The 1984 winner Marcel Tinazzi tested positive for amphetamines and was stripped of his victory, but the event’s troubles were deeper than just one rider. To compete in Bordeaux–Paris required many weeks of specific preparation and monster mileage days behind a derny; most riders simply couldn’t fit that into their schedule. Also, without the big stars of the sport, the event had lost its public appeal. Perhaps it didn’t come across well on television. In the age of live televised races, long-distance heroics couldn’t compete. Whatever the reason, the romance had faded. The last motor-paced race was held in 1985. The following three editions had no pacing…but nothing was going to rescue the event. Since 1988 it has existed occasionally as a cyclosportive event.

No longer do the roads of central France reverberate to the drone of dernys, and with every year the eyewitness memories fade of this once-great classic, but cycling is good at remembering its past. To Van Springel, Anquetil, Mills and every other rider who set off in the middle of the night loaded with fear and jam sandwiches, we salute you.

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