The Peugeot Legionnaires
In the great wardrobe in the sky where iconic cycling kit is stored, the Peugeot jersey has a special little coat hanger all to itself. For those who like to describe cycling as chess on wheels, there is a happy symmetry in the fact that Bernard Thévenet, Tom Simpson, Eddy Merckx et al raced in a jersey that bore a chessboard’s chequered design – “les damiers” as the French called it.
If you measure a cycling jersey’s significance by the number of iconic images in which it figures, the black and white squares deserve that special place, particularly in the hearts of British cycling fans. This was Tom Simpson’s jersey. Not the one that is seen in the pictures of the desperate fight to save the Major’s life on Mont Ventoux, but in happier days: behind the Derny en route to victory in Bordeaux-Paris, blasting away in front of the youthful Merckx as the win in Paris-Nice beckons.
The chances are that a jersey with a chequerboard design – or maybe more than one – is carefully folded in one of the Samsonite suitcases in which Robert Millar kept the jerseys he had ridden in and won during his career. The picture of Millar with his arms thrown back in relief as he takes his first-ever Tour de France stage win is as iconic in its way as any of the Simpson images: again, the chessboard is centre stage.
It was the jersey of the Foreign Legion, the band of Australians and Britons (with one Irishman, Stephen Roche) who raced for the ACBB club and graduated to the Peugeot professional team during the 1980s: Graham Jones, Sean Yates, Phil Anderson, Allan Peiper. It was the Foreign Legion that proved once and for all that cyclists from outside continental Europe could go “over there” and compete, not just as isolated individuals, but in numbers. Being a Legionnaire, said Millar, was a special thing: a cyclist felt he had been part of something, part of a movement.
The chessboard was more than a professional jersey, more than a design that won two Tours de France with Bernard Thévenet, more than an emblem that was centre stage in one of the event’s most unique calvaries, Pascal Simon’s drawn-out and ultimately fruitless attempt to hold the yellow jersey with a broken shoulder in the 1983 race. It was uniquely ubiquitous, the black and white squares featuring on millions of shopping bikes used across France by all and sundry, while variants of the design were to be seen in every amateur race, thanks to the Peugeot policy of backing at least one club in every region of France.
The link to the chessboard ran deep: it was last seen in the professional peloton in 1986, when Peugeot stopped sponsorship, but the team that could trace its roots back to Merckx and Simpson’s days lived on under the guidance of Roger Legeay as GAN, Z, and Crédit Agricole. Now, for the first time in almost a quarter of a century, Big Rog has been unable to find a backer. The link, sadly, is to be broken once and for all.