Bruno Wojtinek: Steel Pulse
French cycling was in rude health in the 1980s and early ’90s. Bernard Hinault and Laurent Fignon bossed the big stage races, while Gilbert Duclos-Lassalle and Marc Madiot went on to be Paris-Roubaix masters. But to many observers, the heaven-sent answer to France’s Classics prayers was a handsome Nordiste wonderkid called Bruno Wojtinek. He was so good that Renault-Elf manager Cyrille Guimard had him sign a contract at the age of 17 to ensure he’d turn pro with his team. An irresistible routier-sprinter, he quickly attracted comparisons to past greats André Darrigade and Rik Van Looy. Fate would stop him from joining those paragons.
Wojtinek now lives in Paris, a stone’s throw from the Place des Vosges in the Marais district. His apartment is all white walls, Helmut Newton books and high chic, reflecting his job as an interior designer.
He flicks through a scrapbook of press cuttings that his parents made for him. Bruno’s father was a miner in Denain, then moved to Dunkirk to become a steelworker.
Like Bondue, the Wojtinek family was part of the huge Polish diaspora during the first half of the 20th century. After the First World War, 600,000 Poles moved to France, many settling in the Nord-Pas-de-Calais border and mining towns.
Alongside textile factories, coalmines were the lifeblood of the Nord. For decades in Paris-Roubaix, the sight of the pitheads and slag heaps on the horizon, like brooding black mountains, would signal entry into the region and the beginning of the race’s selection process.
Into the ’60s, the French government began a slow drip of mine closures. Bondue and Wojtinek grew up in an industrial region fighting for life. During this time, Paris-Roubaix had its own battle for survival. The Classic was in danger of losing its cobbles: the 1965 edition contained only 22 kilometres of pavé, less than half of the current version, as local bigwigs and bureaucrats sought to tarmac the region. They saw the cobbled roads as signs of the Nord’s backwardness.
In the short-term, course director Albert Bouvet sought out new sectors to invigorate the race. But the longer fight was safeguarding the existence of these rough roads for the future. The likes of Bouvet, Jean-Claude Vallaeys and journalist, Nordiste and future ASO race director, Jean-Marie Leblanc, led the battle to make the public realise the patrimonial value of the pavé, a symbol both of Paris-Roubaix and regional pride. Long before the existence of professional cyclists, these narrow arteries were pounded by horse-drawn carts and miners on the way to long shifts of gruelling labour.
Wojtinek knows the sacrifices made by his predecessors’ generation. “My dad worked 12-hour days [in the steelworks]. He knew it wasn’t good for him, but he did it for the family. He died of silicosis.”
His father had always encouraged him to do sport, and Wojtinek was a natural: he claims that one season as an adolescent, he won all of the 24 races he entered. The youngster loved to watch the professionals in action too.
“I was next to Cyrille Guimard in Roubaix velodrome after Bernard Hinault crossed the line in 1981. I was the one holding his bike afterwards when his tyre exploded. If that had happened 100 metres earlier, he wouldn’t have won Paris-Roubaix.”
Four years later, Wojtinek was in the thick of the action in a mud-marinaded edition. In the final shakedown of eight, Renault-Elf were the only team to place two riders in the group: Wojtinek and Marc Madiot. When Madiot accelerated in the Carrefour de l’Arbre, Wojtinek let him go, dutifully playing the numerical advantage. Once convinced of the gap, he had the strength to ride away from the rest to join Madiot on the podium. “Coming second in Paris-Roubaix at 22 was unprecedented. If I had won – I could have won – I would have been the youngest champion in history,” he says.
The result precipitated a fight between teams for his signature. As a fast, young sprinter who could handle himself in gruelling Classics, Wojtinek was a precious commodity. Peugeot won out and on his whopping new salary, their young new signing won stages at Paris-Nice and the Dauphiné, among ten victories in 1986.
“Wojti” was a force of nature. One season, he broke his collarbone in a cyclo-cross race, went to the Tour of the Med having barely ridden all winter and won the prologue ahead of Jelle Nijdam. “The other riders said: ‘It’s not true, he was training in secret’,” he recalls, grinning.
An instinctive racer, handling himself on the cobbles also came naturally. Wojtinek shows us a famous, wince-inducing photo of KAS rider Alfred Achermann crashing in the Arenberg Forest in 1988. The Swiss is face down on the pavé, I’d never realised that Bruno was the rider right behind him. “Look at my position: no hands on the brakes, relaxed arms and thighs. Normally, I’d go down too. But I just hopped the bike up and got past him.”
Wojtinek was regularly strong in the Nord, winning stages of the Four Days of Dunkirk and the GP Denain twice. “I was a bit more motivated at home. I’d give my grandmother bouquets from the podium. My dad was proud because all his friends were there in Denain.”
Home support didn’t make Paris-Roubaix any easier. “It’s a race unlike any others. You see the black faces leaving hell – it’s a bit like emerging from a mine,” Wojtinek says.
“It’s a little bit more difficult in the dry than the mud because you ride faster… Everyone can do Flanders or Roubaix slowly. The real difficulty is speed, when you’re always on the limit.”
Wojtinek’s results plateaued in his years with Z. He gained a reputation in the media as a Porsche-driving playboy. Did the money and distractions turn his head? He admits that his one weakness was training. Cyrille Guimard told La Voix du Nord: “If he had been more serious about his métier, Wojtinek could have won Paris-Roubaix as many times as Roger De Vlaeminck.”
The debate became irrelevant following a crash in 1989. Out training before Het Volk, an opening car door took him out. “I went down and took the impact on my knee. It was open and the cartilage was ruined.” Days before his 26th birthday, Bruno Wojtinek’s career was over.
“I had some low moments, thinking about what career I’d do afterwards. I forgot [cycling] for a few years, going out, women, drinking. It allowed me to turn the page. But afterwards, I always followed the sport.”
He shares the same regret as Alain Bondue. “In 1984, I said to myself ‘I’m going to win this’… but I was sixth [in 1986], eleventh [in 1988]. Without the accident, I think I would have maybe ended up winning Paris-Roubaix one day.”
Afterwards, Wojtinek ran a successful clothing shop and was an estate agent. He doesn’t seem to dwell too much on his racing memories: it’s been half a lifetime since that. His girlfriend, listening to the conversation, has never heard of Greg LeMond, which suggests that he rarely mentions it. Besides, looking around at his fashionable apartment, youthful face and broad smile, it’s clear the miner’s son hasn’t done badly.
First published in issue 53 of 1. Part 3 coming soon.
Read Part 1 here: Nordiste: Alain Bondue