10 May 2009

Albert Londres and the Tour de France: "Your wife is your bicycle"

Being the second of two excerpts from Albert Londres' reporting on the 1924 Tour de France. The first is here. Once more, the translations are by Graeme Fife, and his footnotes are included where appropriate.

Toulon, July 7, 1924

As soon as they got off their bikes, the 'Marshall' resumed his role. The Marshall is Alphonse Baugé. He is commander-in-chief of all racing cyclists — those who race in the Tour de France, the Six Days, the Classic races and on the road track. He is, I believe, the only man alive today capable of working a miracle. He'd have a young boy riding a bike without saddle or handlebars. One day, Alphonse Baugé will be canonised.

He wears a dark-blue uniform, cut like pyjamas, with red wool piping round the jacket. You can't mistake him; he's got a dentrifice Mistinguett smile. He follows the race in a closed car, and it's not only his car that's closed, it's his mouth, too. At every start, the secretary general of the race sews his lips together with brass wire. The other day, out of pity, I thought I'd push a straw into the corner of his mouth to give him some air. He refused. He's a stickler for the rules. At the end of the stage, the secretary general takes a pair of scissors from his pocket and cuts the wire. Alphonse Baugé takes three deep breaths, declares that his heart is still beating, pauses to take stock, then goes off to the riders' hotel.

In Brest, I'd hardly crossed the threshold of the Tour de France dining room when I heard "So, you say it makes no difference to you whether you sing at the Opéra or the Batignolles?"¹ Baugé was talking to Curtel. Curtel wanted to abandon the race, complaining that he'd ridden 1,200km and only earned 650 francs. "In Marseille," he said, "I got 500F for 300km."²

"Well no, you're not a great artist; you're happy to be a provincial baritone playing in knockabout comedy."

"What?" replied Curtel. "I'd rather get 100F at the Batignolles than 5F at the Opera."

"Have you no self-respect? Haven't you even got that?" He put his hand over his heart. "Don't you maybe think how proud your old parents are?"

"Hang on," said Curtel, "my parents aren't that old."

"You don't want to know, you've closed your mind. Listen, I'll give you an example. You know Kubelik, the great violinist? Right. You think Kubelik would drop the violin because he'd only earned 650F? No. Kubelik is an artist.³ So then. You too, you're an artist of the pedals. For the first time you have the honour of riding the Tour de France, this beacon flame of cycle racing, and for some story about 650F you'd let that go?"

"If I kill myself for 650F, what am I going to live on afterwards?"

"Stop. You're no better than a hack, a dumb labourer, a boot-shine boy, a dish washer-upper. You understand nothing about the beauty of the handlebars. Suit yourself. You disgust me."

We arrived in Bayonne. The assault on the Pyrenees started the next day. Five or six riders were faltering with nerves. In comes Baugé to the hotel foyer to see what's going on. "You're going to abandon, you with your system for the Pyrenees?"

"What? I haven't got a system for the Pyrenees."

"Of course you have a system for the Pyrenees: you're going to quit when the whole world is waiting for you on the cols?"

"Oh no Monsieur Baugé, no one's waiting for me at the cols."

"I tell you the whole world's waiting for you; you know that as well as I do. Your old Pyrenean grandmother will be handing you flowers on the summit of the Tourmalet tomorrow."

"I don't give a f... for flowers, M. Baugé. I tell you, I've got no tendons left."

"It's not a question of tendons."

"What am I supposed to push with, then?"

"Go and find your masseur. He'll give you tendons. Listen son, have you got no heart?"

"Yes, but I don't have any tendons."

"Don't think about that. Think about your success, about your name in the big Paris papers. Think about the hero's welcome they'll give you at the station when you get home if you finish the Tour."

"For heaven's sake, M. Baugé, I keep telling you..."

"Yes, yes, you tell me you've got no tendons. Understood. Very well. So, be an undertaker, not a racing cyclist, you understand me? Goodbye."

Next time, it was Luchon. When the guys arrived they were as cold as a decomposing corpse. They went off for a bath. They came back for dinner. "You think this is any kind of profession?" they were saying. Baugé put his head round the door. "It's not a profession, it's a mission."

"Our mission," said Collé, "is to be with our wives, not to work till we drop."

"Your wife," replied Baugé, "is your bicycle." Tiberghien, in his silk-collared beige pyjamas, assured him that the bicycle had nothing to do with women. Baugé was already off again: "Of course it's a profession, and what a beautiful profession. Does it really mean nothing to you to hear all of France shouting 'Alavoine! Thys! Sellier! Mottiat! Bellenger! Jacquinot! etc.' for an entire month?"

"When you're vomiting your guts up, that's not because you're getting stronger."

"Listen: take Bottecchia. Do you think that if Rockefeller had offered him 50 large notes on the top of the Tourmalet he'd have quit? No. Because Bottecchia has an ideal."

"Yes: to buy a plot of land back home in Italy, build himself a house — him being a bricklayer — and plant his spaghetti."

"No, no," said Baugé.

"Oh, but yes," said Bottecchia.

By Perpignan, of 46 aces, only 20 were left. Sellier and Jacquinot had abandoned in Bourg-Madame; they were suffering too much.

"I understand that, my boys," said Baugé, "but you know, don't you, no rider ever becomes great without great hardship."

Between Perpignan and Toulon, two routiers went under the wheels of a car and were left unconscious on the road: Ugaglia first, then Huot. Their fellow-riders weren't amused.

"My friends," said Baugé, "I've taken falls too. I've gone under the wheels of a car. I was brought up in the business. I know what it's like. There are crosses to bear in our profession, like any other. You know what I'd do if I were you? I'd read Duhamel's Life of the Martyrs; it will put heart into you for tomorrow's stage. Take it from me."

"Can you get it in Toulon?"

"You can get it anywhere."

"Great. We'll go and buy a copy."



¹ Théâtre Les Batignolles: popular and music hall, in the heartland of Paris cabaret, near Pigalle and the Moulin Rouge, and not so far from the Opéra, at the other end of the cultural scale. There was also a velodrome on the Boulevard des Batignolles where, in the early days, men (who paid 12F) and women (15F) could learn how to ride a bicycle.

² Approx. gauge of money equivalents: Le Petit Parisien cost 15F; racing bike, 350F; suit, 95F; trousers, 25F; house in Paris, 25,000F; in suburbs, 15,000F; bottle of white wine, 1.90F; wages of a skilled tradesman, c. 30-40F per day; of a factory girl, 1.40 per hour. Team domestiques earned c. 1,500F per month and might get a purse of 10,000F for the Tour.

³ Henri Desgrange actually called the aces "the first violins". Londres has picked up on this.

Desgrange was adamant about sex and bicycles: they did not mix. A committed racing cyclist should not divert any of his energies into bedtime romping. And, since sex was natural, healthy and necessary to any red-blooded male, self-denial of sex during the racing season was the surest proof of real willpower. They could always make up for lost time during the winter.


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