First, he was the performer, a domestique racing alongside Jan Janssen and Luis Ocaña. Then he watched and reported from the wings before becoming the ringleader of the whole travelling circus. It’s little wonder that a lifetime with the Tour de France has left Jean-Marie Leblanc jaded.
“I’ve turned the page on cycling,” Leblanc says. He sighs. “I’ve had almost all my life in demand, you know? I decided to retire in February 2006: I was 62 years old and a bit blunted by the doping affairs and the use of the press in these affairs. I always felt a bit under attack.”
Ironic, then, that we are talking at a professional cycling race, during a plane transfer at the Tropicale Amissa Bongo in late February 2015, taking up one of many invitations from his friend and fellow ex-pro Philippe Crepel.
No panache, no romance
Since retiring, Leblanc finds the sport increasingly unrecognisable to the one he fell in love with. “I find that there is less fantasy, less improvisation in the racing. It’s less interesting. There are breakaways, but they’re often caught. So, it’s without surprise and panache. Is it the fault of race radios? Undoubtedly, a bit. Is it the fault of money becoming more important? A bit of that too.
“It’s a pragmatic, efficient cycling which shatters the fantasy and romanticism a bit. Take the 1960 Tour: four favourites got away on a flat stage [stage six to Lorient]: Nencini, Rivière, Adriaensens and Junkermann. And they took 15 minutes, it was totally unexpected.”
Leblanc quickly warms to his subject as he talks; after all, this was the era when a passion for cycling took hold. In 1966, after graduating university, he turned professional, finishing two Tours de France during a five-year career with Pelforth and Bic.
After his career, Leblanc turned to journalism, becoming cycling editor at L’Equipe and writing for the likes of La Voix du Nord, Vélo Magazine and Cycling Weekly. Having worked as the voice of Radio Tour for seven years, he started his 17-year tenure as director of the Tour de France in 1989.
"I was blunted by the doping scandals." Leblanc under the media spotlight as the Festina Affair breaks at the 1998 Tour de France. pic: Offside/L'Equipe
Tumultuous times on the Tour
He presided over the Tour de France from the late Eighties to the mid-Noughties. During his watch, the race grew into a worldwide, commercial and sporting behemoth. Yet, as he oversaw the race during the EPO era, there were the coinciding lesions on the race that nearly killed it: Festina and Puerto, doping scandals which “tired and blunted” Leblanc.
Miguel Indurain and Lance Armstrong bookended Leblanc’s tenure with periods of dominance. In the summer of 2013, Leblanc compared Armstrong to notorious American fraudster Bernie Madoff, telling AFP: “He deceived the Tour, the public, the media, those who believed in the value of his performances; even worse, he betrayed his sport.”
Leblanc’s stand-out memories of the Tour are not linked to sporting performances, but the bigger picture. “The centenary Tour in 2003 was formidable. Yes, the race was beautiful, Armstrong and Ullrich had a good battle. But moreover, it was the race’s anniversary and the whole of France celebrated. The parade in Paris at the end was beautiful. Because, never forget that, the organisers do it for the public.”
The death of Fabio Casartelli during the 1995 Tour is his darkest day on the race. “The Tour de France is made to bring joy and celebration; that day, there was the death of a young man, 24 years old, an Olympic champion. It was a tragedy. The Tour failed in a sense there.”
Leblanc discusses race details with his successor Christophe Prudhomme during the 2006 Paris-Nice. pic: Offside/L'Equipe
Tour must keep travelling
How does Leblanc see the future of professional cycling? “I’m optimistic and pessimistic: optimistic because the Tour and the Monuments – I won’t say they’re eternal – but they always have a magnificent attraction for the public.
“At the same time, cycling is a sport that needs public services to be organised. There’s more and more traffic and roundabouts, it’s harder and harder to organise a race. It’s a real problem.
“Among the amateurs, we don’t pay too much attention to it. But one day, with the professionals, what’ll happen? For me, it’s a medium-term worry. I hope that we won’t be obliged to have Tour de France stages on circuits in towns in the future. It’s against the nature of the race, which has a vocation to travel, to visit all the magnificent regions. It’s like a travelling circus, showing the joy and the pain to the whole country on the roadside. If tomorrow, it’s just all criteriums, it wouldn’t be the same thing.”
While cycling moves forward with the rest of the world (“social media? Don’t talk to me about that, it doesn’t interest me at all,” Leblanc snaps), there is one contemporary rider who has captured Leblanc’s imagination. “Vincenzo Nibali, with his manner of old-school riding. He won, not in the style of a mathematician, counting seconds and beats per minute, but through his panache. That’s cycling as we like it; I believe the French public was impressed by him too.”
Now 70 years old, Leblanc still catches his beloved Paris-Roubaix and a Tour stage in person to say hello to the old gang. But he isn’t consumed by cycling anymore; he doesn’t have to be.
“I’ve retired well, going back to my region in the Nord. I took on a role in my village as the president of tourism and culture. I have some donkeys, I have grandkids who do their music; I have another life,” he says.
However, he’ll never be done with cycling: that much is clear by his eloquence and passion whenever talking about it. Jean-Marie Leblanc may claim the page is turned on the sport, but the book will always be open.