“What is needed here in professional cycling is a benign dictator”, said The Brief. I had bumped into him on the train. Brandishing a newspaper, he was fresh back from the law courts, sending criminalised ruffians from the hulks to the colonies. His wig was carefully powdered ‘n’ packed away in his brief case. I caught his drift.
A leader to head the parade and call the shots. A man such as Henri Desgrange. One who brooks no nonsense. One who walks the walk as well as spieling it. He invented Le Tour and ran it ruthlessly until his demise during the Second World War. Young Henri had given notice of his attitude as a young Parisian office clerk in the latter days of the nineteenth century. He was a pioneer of the pedals, cycling to work in plus-fours with no socks. His bare calves shocked women pedestrians. His boss told him to cover up or shave off. Desgrange quit. Ain’t that cool? His racing mores were ‘men not the machines’. He led from the front and took no bullshit.
“It is always easy to obey if one dreams of being in command”
In these difficult days, it would seem that cycling is run by committee men. No difference here now from all those other sports controlled by bug-eyed sponsor-sponging bureaucrats. I warn my kids to beware of men in bland bespoke suits wearing those frameless glasses of the psychopathic Nazi dentist played by Larry Olivier in Marathon Man. Such men as we possess fail to inspire and uplift. Praise for the sport emits as a muddled apology, time after time. What is needed at the top is a hero to represent our dreams to the unknowing. A towering figure to fit the bill. Just like John Wayne.
“Walk tall. Walk straight,
And look the world right in the eye.
That’s what my Mama told me,
When I was about knee high”
Val Doonican, the loveable Irish country artiste with the remarkable knitwear, sang that. But it was written by Don Wayne. Not John (no relation), but it could well have been. The Americans have, of recent years, buttoned on to the importance of a strong, charismatic, fabulous looking leader. Why, Ronald Reagan, he of the superb quiffage, got his feet under the desk in the Oval Office of the White House. And Arnold Schwarzenegger got the gig as Governor of California. Yep, even George W. Bush pulled the top job because folk tagged him as a fun guy to go for a beer with. For a maybe moment, I even had Lance Armstrong figured as a wannabe Capitol Hill politician. Not so sure, right now.
Yet are we here to do the bidding of despots? Or do we quite like, on the quiet, being shoved around and told what to do? I am tired of the fluff and drivel. A strong icon to persuade the world that all is golden in the land of the bicycle is attractive. I’m not lookin’ for a Führer; I’m only referencing the cycle game here.
“We don’t need this fascist groove thang”
Jacques Goddet as a supreme organiser in tough times is a wonderful memory. In khaki suit with a pith helmet, he stood through the sunroof of his motor, looking every inch the tank commander. Jean Cocteau called him “The last of the troubadours”. Goddet said, “It’s necessary to keep the inhuman side to Le Tour. Excess is necessary”. Loud ‘n’ clear, Jacques!
Jean-Marie Leblanc, resembling a pork butcher from Lille with impressive jowls, certainly knew his cycling chops. He spoke from the heart to save us all from ruin but was short on glamour. These days, image is everything.
I just want to be comforted, inspired, driven by beautiful determination and certainty. I would consider Mario Cipollini as pres, because a winning smile and a great barnet go a long way. What matter a little flakiness around the edges? It can prove most endearing.
Status is conferred by achievement; gravitas is arrived at through painful experience; diplomacy gained by always thinking about the other guy. One man towers above all-comers, residing in a stratosphere of his own creation. Would we not trek to the ends of the earth and the Izoard in unity with such a man? That man can only be Eddy Merckx.
“Don’t follow leaders;
Watch the parkin’ meters”
Bob Dylan Subterranean Homesick Blues
Extract from issue 39, out now
Through rain, ruin and France's battlefields: the story of the toughest race in cycling history.