Donnez-moi un Bic
Before my ride to Timbuktu in 1998, a seasoned traveller advised me: “Take lots of Bics. You can give them away to kids.” So, like an old-time explorer stuffing his bags with trinkets as sweeteners for the natives, I took a boxful of the slender, orange-tubed pens. But the clamour of tiny Malian ragamuffin kids crowding around, chanting “Donnez-moit un Bic, Donnez-moi un Bic” got me down in the end. The tentacles of skinny arms and hands grabbed at pens which, in a context of such unimaginable poverty, were a trophy of wealth.
The original Bic pen, manufactured by Marcel Bich and his business partner Edouard Buffard, went on sale in 1950. The two men got patent rights from the Argentine-Hungarian inventor László József Bíró, whose revolutionary invention first appeared in 1938. Bic produced a whole range of disposable products – lighters, magnets, razors – and in 1968, the company entered cycle racing with directeur sportif Raphaël Géminiani, the grandaddy of commercial sponsorship. In keeping with Bic’s utilitarian range, the design of the jersey was classic, simple and bold.
The ’67 and ’68 Tours were contested by national squads, but riders wore their trade team’s name on the national jersey. Charly Grosskost, a noted prologue specialist, took both halves of the first day in 1968 – time-trial in the morning, 189 kilometre road stage in the afternoon – with Bic emblazoned on each shoulder. That year’s winner, Jan Janssen, joined Bic for the following season, but Gém had big problems trying to get him and 1966 champion Lucien Aimar to cooperate. Whereas Belgian and Italian teams were homogenised and united, French teams had to include three foreign riders alongside seven Frenchmen – a divisive compromise.
Gém brought his old mucker Jacques Anquetil into the Bic outfit for the twilight of his career. He came third in the 1969 Paris-Nice, won by Eddy Merckx, behind his inveterate foe Raymond Poulidor.
The backbone of the Bic team formed early. Luis Ocaña joined in 1970, as did Johnny Schleck (father of Andy and Frank), the powerhouse rouleur Leif Mortensen and the amazing late-starter Joaquim Agostinho, who rode his first Tour in 1969. Merckx said Agostinho was the only rival who had given him any real concern.
Ocaña, often censured as being hit-and-miss, none too intelligent with a fragile morale, famously crushed Merckx in the Alps during the 1971 Tour. Thirty kilometres from the finish in Grenoble, Merckx punctured on the Col de Porte and lost nearly a minute. He chased the Ocaña group up the mountain, clawed his way back to the line of following cars, and rode through until he was only 20 metres down. At this point, Bic’s Mortensen was dropped from, or slipped off, the lead group. The cars came through again and the race commissaire, as rules required, blocked both Merckx and the Dane. Merckx’s chase was bitterly frustrated; Ocaña increased his lead.
The Spaniard’s terrible crash on the Col du Menté in the storm-bound Pyrenees handed the Tour back to Merckx, and it was only in the Belgian’s absence that he won the Tour, in Bic colours, two years later.
After one more season, the Bic cycling team, like its sponsor’s product range, proved to be disposable.
A look into the family album of a forgotten Tour and Giro winner, courtesy of Gastone Nencini's