André Darrigade was an all-terrain guy and his offensiveness was one of his greatest virtues. He didn’t settle for knowing that arriving in the pack meant you had the upper hand; he provoked the breakaway himself when necessary.
But above all he was a gentleman, an elegant rider who respected his rivals and won the respect of all of them. You only have to see the admiration with which he speaks about his fellow riders as he turns the pages of his photo albums.
“I came to Biarritz by chance,” he tells us. “After I retired I immersed myself in the media distribution business; first for my hometown of Les Landes and then I went further afield. That’s how I ended up in Biarritz. Later on, as well as this business, we opened the Darrigade bookshop next to the casino beach. We painted it red in honour of the local rugby team’s colours. Now it’s my son that runs the business, as well as the media distribution that started it all.
“I happened to be here at the same time as the Bobet brothers Jean and Louison, Bretons by birth but Biarrots by adoption. Louison was the first to win three Tours de France and in two of those wins we were team-mates on the French team.”
Rivals at times, team-mates at other times but always friends, they would say. “They built the Miramar Hotel, that one there [he points to the building that can be seen from the window.] By the way, the great Louison died there in ’83, may he rest in peace. Cycling introduced us and brought us together and life led us both to the same place. Now the Miramar belongs to a hotel chain.”
Almost unintentionally we talk about the terrible fall that André suffered during the last stage of the ’58 Tour. On the last lap of the Parc des Princes velodrome, where that edition of the Tour was to finish, the general secretary of the park ran across the grass to stop photographers getting onto the track. André collided with him and both were seriously injured.
Constants Wouters died 11 days later while André, who suffered serious fractures to his skull and ribs, was taken to the infirmary. Incredibly – and quite recklessly by today’s standards – he had enough strength to come out onto the track completely wrapped up in bandages to do the lap of honour and personally congratulate that year’s flamboyant Tour winner Charly Gaul. Later he was taken to hospital where he spent the night in a coma.
As our time in Monsieur Darrigade’s house draws to a close he takes the opportunity to talk about the current state of cycling, roused by the presence of an ex-professional rider as opposed to a journalist.
“What do you make of Cavendish? Seems like a great rider but the sprints nowadays are so different… And how much faith can you put in carbon bikes?
"The fact that the bike weighed so little never gave me much confidence… And what language do they speak in the pack nowadays? The current riders have such strange nationalities compared to the old days.”
In my role as interviewer I’m as surprised as I am grateful for the good feeling André leaves me with. “You and I were cyclists,” he tells me, “and in spite of the years that separate us, we have so many shared experiences.”
Extract from issue 28