Van Impudence!


An ode to grace …

So, there I was, awkwardly adrift in the cultural hellhole that was the early ‘70’s on Tyneside and entranced by an exotic sport held mainly in distant countries and with no media support to fuel a burgeoning fascination. In a time long before even World of Sport began their token showing of less than 1% of the world’s greatest, most gruelling, sporting extravaganza, the Tour de France, options for following races were as limited as your chances of buying a white Model T Ford.

The only Tour updates in those days were an occasional list of stage winners and, if we were very lucky, an updated top 10 GC, all hidden within the dreaded “Other Results” buried in the back pages of the Sports section of daily newspapers and usually secreted under all the football stuff that had already been reported elsewhere.

The cycling results were so small and so barely legible that they would have given actual small-print a bad name, and corporate lawyers a hard-on that could last for weeks.

Beyond these barest, most perfunctory of details, we restlessly devoured stage reports in Cycling (this was so long ago that it was even before the profound and dynamic name change to “Cycling Weekly”) to try and get a feel for the drama and the ebb and flow of the ongoing battle, but what came through was a generally disjointed and less than the sum of its parts.

For the young cycling neophyte the biggest treasures were a series of books published by the Kennedy Brothers following the narrative of each Grand Tour, imaginatively titled “Tour ’77” or “Giro ‘73” (you get the picture).

Although published weeks after the publicity caravans had packed away their tat and as the gladiatorial names garishly graffiti’d on the roads slowly began to fade, these books told a compelling narrative of the race, from the first to last pedal stroke, replete with some stunning high quality photos.

Opening the crackling white pages you could inhale deeply and almost catch a faint whiff of the sunflowers, Orangina and embrocation, as you were instantly transported to the side of the road to watch the peloton whirring by.


 

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It’s in one of these Tour books that I first stumbled across a full-page photo of a boyish, fresh-faced young man, posed with some faceless fat functionary to receive a completely bizarre gazelle-head plaque. This may have been a prize for winning a stage, or the mountains classification, having the most doe –like eyes in the peloton, successfully passing through puberty, or something like that.


 

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What struck me most though was that this hardened, elite, professional athlete didn’t look all that different from me – he wasn’t all that tall, very slight of build and looked so young – creating the impression of an instant underdog.

I would also later learned that under the jauntily perched cap was a head that would be subjected to some criminally bad hair moments too – instant empathy, although I never sank quite as low as having a perm.

It was hard to believe this rider was capable of comfortably mixing it up with the big, surly men of the peloton, with their hulking frames, chiselled legs, granite faces and full effusions of facial hair. Not only that, but when the road bent upwards he would fly and leave everyone grovelling helplessly in his wake.

The young man is Lucien Van Impe and the accompanying chapter of the book is titled Van Impudence, and relates in detail how he defied the hulking brutes of the peloton and their supreme leader King Ted, to wreak his own brand of cycling havoc in the mountains.

It was here that began my long-standing love affair with the grimpeurs, the pure climbers of the cycling world, those who want to defy gravity and try to prove Newton was a dunce.


 

Cyclisme : Tour de France - Alpe D Huez - 1976
An Astaire-like glide

Watch any YouTube videos of the time and you’ll see the big men of the Tour grinding horribly uphill, their whole bodies contorted as they attempt to turn over massive gears and physically wrestle the slopes into submission.

Merckx, indisputably the greatest cyclist of all time is probably the worst offender, and looks like he’s trying to re-align his top tube by brute strength alone,  while simultaneously starring in a slow-motion film of someone enduring a course of severe electro-shock therapy.

Then look at Van Impe, at the cadence he’s riding at, the effortless style and how he flows up the gradients. Woah.

His one-time Directeur Sportif, and by no means his greatest fan, Cyrille Guimard would say, “You had to see him on a bike when the road started to rise. It was marvellous to see, he was royally efficient. He had everything: the physique, fluidity, an easy and powerful pedalling style.”


 

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A decent time trialist on his day, this is Van Impe during the 1976 Tour ITT – in yellow and on his way to overall victory

In his book, Alpe d’Huez: The Story of Pro Cycling’s Greatest Climb, Peter Cossins writes that, “Van Impe’s style is effortless and majestic. Watching him, one can’t help but think that riding up mountains is the easiest thing in the world. His is no heavy-footed stomp, but an Astaire-like glide.”

Many cycling fans prefer the rouleurs and barradeurs, the big framed, hard-men, the grinders who churn massive gears with their endless, merciless attacks, dare-devil descending and never-say-die attitudes.


 

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Van Impe wears the green jersey of the Giro’s best climber with much more aplomb than the highly suspect perm

Others seem to like the controllers who grind their way to victory, eating up and spitting out mile after mile of road at a relentless, contained pace, regardless of whether they’re riding a time-trial, a mountain stage or across a pan flat parcours.

For me though pure poetry lies in those slight, mercurial riders, who would suddenly be transformed – given wings and the ability to dance away from the opposition when the road tilts unremittingly skyward.

Even more appealing, they’re all just a little skewed and a bit flaky, wired a little bit differently to everyone else or, as one of my friends would say, “as daft as a ship’s cat”. The best can even be a little bit useless and almost a liability when the roads are flat, or heaven forbid dip down through long, technical descents.

The power of the Internet and YouTube in particular has even let me rediscover some of the great climbers from before my time, the idols who inspired Van Impe, such as Charly Gaul and Federico Bahamontes.


 

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Gaul and Bahamontes

This pair, the “Angel of the Mountains” and “Eagle of Toldeo” respectively, both had that little bit of extra “climber flakiness” to set them apart. Bahamontes was terrified of descending on his own and was known to sit and eat ice-cream at the top of mountains while waiting for other riders so he had company on the way down.

Gaul’s demons were a little darker, once threatening to knife Bobet for a perceived slight and for a long period in his later life he became a recluse, living in a shack in the woods and wearing the same clothes day after day.

As Jacques Goddet, the Tour de France director observed, Van Impe also had “a touch of devilry that contained a strong dose of tactical intelligence” and was referred to as “l’ouistiti des cimes” – the oddball of the summits in certain sections of the French press.

Goddet went on to describe the climber as possessing “angelic features, always smiling, always amiable,” and yet Van Impe was known to be notoriously stubborn and difficult to manage, requiring careful handling, constant reassurance and a close coterie of attendants who would cater to his every whim away from the bike.

Cyrille Guimard, who coached, cajoled, goaded and drove Van Impe to his greatest achievement, Tour de France victory in 1976, described him as “every directeur sportif’s nightmare.”


 

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Van Impe doing what he does best

While I’ve enjoyed watching and following many good and some great riders, it’s always the climbers who’ve captivated me the most, although just being a good climber doesn’t seem to be enough. In fact it’s quite difficult to define the exact qualities that I appreciate – Marco Pantani and Claudio Chiapucci never “had it” and nor does current fan favourite and, ahem, “world’s best climber” the stone-faced Nairo Quintana.

There has to be a little something else, some quirk or spark of humanity that I can identify with and that sets the rider apart and makes them a joy to watch and follow. Of today’s climbers I’m most hopeful for Romain Bardet – he seems to have character, style and a rare intelligence, but only time will tell if he blossoms into a truly great grimpeur.


 

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“Always smiling, always amiable”

From the past, our very own Robert Millar of course was up there with the best (although my esteem may be coloured by intense nationalism). Andy Hampsten, on a good day, was another I liked to watch and, for a time the young Contador, when he seemed fresh and different and believable.

Still, none have come close to supplanting Van Impe in my estimation and esteem. He would go on to win the Tour in 1976 and perhaps “coulda/shoulda” won the following year, if not for being knocked off his bike by a car while attacking alone on L’Alpe D’Huez. See, that sort of shit happened even back in the “good, old days.”

By the time Van Impe’s career was finally over (including a retirement and comeback) he’d claimed the Tour de France King of the Mountains jersey on a record 6 separate occasions (matching his hero Bahamontes) and a feat that has never been bettered. (Fuck you Richard Virenque and your performance enhanced KoM sniping, I refuse to acknowledge your drug enabled “achievements”).


 

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On the attack, in the jersey he became synonymous with

In contrast, both during and after his professional career, Van Impe never tested positive, never refused a doping test and has never been implicated in any form of doping controversy – he’s either incredibly, astonishingly lucky, clever and cunning, or the closest thing you’ll ever get to the definition of a clean rider.

So, if you follow the Kitty Kelley premise that “a hero is someone we can admire without apology,” then Van Impe resolutely ticks all the boxes for me.

During his career he also managed to pick up awards for the most likeable person in the peloton and the Internet is replete with video and images of him as a good-natured and willing participant in some weirdly bizarre stunts, such as his spoof hour record attempt – proof he was an all-round good guy who never seemed to take himself too seriously.


 

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In this bizarre and apparently hilarious (if you speak Flemish) YouTube clip, Van Impe is seen challenging Moser’s Hour record

In all Van Impe completed an incredible 15 Tour’s, never abandoning and was an active participant and presence in all of them.

He won the race in 1976 and was 2nd once and 3rd on three separate occasions, finishing in the Top 5 eight times. Along the way he won 9 individual stages and achieved all this while riding for a succession of chronically weak teams and competing when two dominant giants of the sport, Merckx and Hinault, were in their pomp.

Van Impe was also 2nd overall in the Giro, winning one stage and two mountains classifications on a couple of rare forays into Italy.

Not just a one-trick pony though, he could  ride a decent time-trial and won a 40km ITT in the 1975 Tour, when he handily beat the likes of Merckx, Thévenet, Poulidor and Zoetemelk.

Even more surprisingly for a pure climber he even somehow managed to win the Belgian National Road Race Championship in 1983 after coming out of retirement.

I’m not sure if this represents Van Impe’s skills and talent, a particularly favourable parcours, or simply the nadir of Belgian cycling. Maybe all three?


 

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Belgian National Champion

In October this year Van Impe turned 70 and until recently was still actively engaged in cycling through the Wanty-Groupe Gobert Pro-Continental Team. He lives with his wife, Rita in a house named Alpe D’Huez, a reminder of the mountain where he set the foundations for his greatest triumph and perhaps suffered his most heartbreaking defeat.


 

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An elder Van Impe – still active in cycling

Not bad for the one time newspaper delivery boy and apprentice coffin-maker from the flatlands of Belgium.

Vive Van Impe!


 

 

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TWOCing ‘copters and the consternation of choice …

Club Run, 4th July, 2015

My Ride (according to Strava)

Total Distance:                                     100km/62 miles with 831 metres of climbing

Ride Time:                                             3 hours 58 minutes

Group size:                                           22 including the kids. No FNG’s.

Weather in a word or two:             Meh.

Main topic of conversation at the start: I was disappointed to learn that the Newcastle Chilli Festival wasn’t a chance for all the chilli growers in the North East to exhibit their prize winning peppers and compete against each other for “Best in Class”. Apparently it’s nowhere close to being quite as dull as a modern take on the traditional Leek Show.

With the Tour de France starting and already concerns about the Astana team, it wasn’t long before the conversation turned to le dopage in the peloton. I recounted Michel Pollentier’s legendary failed dope test at l’Alpe d’Huez – when he was told the good news was his sample was clean, but the bad news was that he was pregnant. Always worth a chuckle.

A quick discussion concluded that probably 99% of bike frames were made in Taiwan. A quick check of bikes found some are quite open about this, with “Made in Taiwan” proudly stencilled on the frame, others played with weasel-words, declaring things like; “designed in Germany,” but leaving the actual provenance of manufacture reassuringly vague.

“They’re all made in the same factory in Taiwan!” is the kind of argument OGL all too regularly screeches to disparage just about anything that doesn’t come from his own shop. Then again, where would you prefer your bike was manufactured – in an ultra-modern, high volume, hyper-controlled, computerised factory in the Far East, or in a back-street workshop in Rotherhide by some surly, anonymous, chain-smoking British bloke called Dave, with a CSE in Woodwork, home-made tattoos and an on-going battle with last night’s hangover? Just a thought.

“What kind of bike’s that anyway?” One of the youngsters then asked, with a vague nod of his head in the general direction of, well just about everyone. I did a quick double-take, looking all around in bewilderment as I tried to spot some stealthy, un-badged, über-bike. Finally it dawned on me he meant Reg. I’m not usually so slow on the uptake, but was rather puzzled by the question as my bike has “Holdsworth” emblazoned on it in big, bold, gaudy letters in at least a dozen places. We finally realised he simply hadn’t heard of Holdsworth, or their venerated and rich heritage within British Cycling. #Sigh# The youth of today.

Main topic of conversation at the coffee stop: OGL gleefully recounted several methods for beating dope tests, the majority of which seemed to involve shoving something up your anal canal. Curiously he wasn’t forthcoming about his own personal history with doping control. He then recounted Michel Pollentier’s legendary failed dope test at l’Alpe d’Huez -when he was told the good news was his sample was clean, but the bad news was … yeah, ok, you’ve got it.

We discussed the potential for holding a race along the route of one of OGL’s magical mystery tours: down farm tracks, through gates and across cattle grids, while carefully negotiating flocks of sheep, herds of cows and their assorted effluvia. On paper the tactical nuances sounded compelling, with the breakaway hurrying to get through and close a gate before the peloton arrives. Much like fighting for position on the pavé, everyone would have to scramble to ensure they weren’t the last through and be held responsible for stopping and closing the gate behind them.

G-Dawg then recounted how he once bunny-hopped a cattle grid on his fixie, but foolishly forgot to pedal in mid-air, enduring a turbo-charged kick up the backside on landing.


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Ride Profile

The Waffle:

The forecasts all predicted heavy, thundery rain in the early morning, followed by increasing brightness that would finally morph into all-round fabulous summer weather. Yeah, right.

Sure enough I woke to a heavy downpour that sounded like an army of clog wearing ants vigorously enacting River Dance across our roof, and found myself almost paralysed by the consternation of choice: the decision between winter bike with mudguards or best bike was bad enough without having to consider all the clothing options for what promised to be a very changeable day. Having just “blinged up” Reg with new wheels and tyres however I was anxious to give them a whirl no matter what the conditions, so style won out over sense. (When was it ever a fair contest?)

I then eventually settled on arm warmers and waterproof jacket (bizarrely often referred to as a racing cape in cycling parlance, as if we’re all wannabe-super heroes), over my usual jersey and shorts, mistakenly leaving behind a pair of waterproof overshoes so by the time I’d reached the rendezvous point my once pristine, white socks were a very grimy shade of grey and I was in danger of developing a bad case of trench foot.

I arrived to find a smattering of winter bikes in amongst all the high gloss carbon, and a wide range of different clothing choices that reflected the same levels of indecision and uncertainty that I had felt.

The kids were out too for their monthly ride on the roads, including The Red Max and Monkey Butler, fresh from conquering the Cyclone. The Monkey Butler was complaining vigorously that his brake blocks were catching and to illustrate the point lifted up his front wheel and gave it a quick spin. It managed about a quarter of a slow-motion revolution before stuttering to a stop. Red Max tried to convince him such small impediments were character building and it would help him grow stronger, but finally relented to peer pressure and adjusted the brakes.

The Prof then declared he was ready to ride and already in need of a wee stop! With that as impetus 12 brave lads (no lasses) and a handful of kids pushed off, clipped in and set out into warm humid air and an all pervading drizzle.

With the choice of either shipping the jacket and getting soaked from the outside-in, or keeping it on, boiling and getting soaked from the inside-out, I went with the latter and stowed the waterproof.

Needless to say there was no right choice as the weather swung from utterly minging to barely passable and back again and we were constantly riding through an unrelenting, muggy and misty drizzle.

We once agian endured the dangers and depredations of the Great North Road Cyclemaze, emerging victorious (if bemused) like an all-conquering Theseus who’s a bit slow on the uptake. We split from the kids who went their own merry way shortly afterwards and we became a rather compact Dirty Dozen.

In between him calling for more wee stops than a dog with an irritable bladder in an ice-field full of lampposts, I fell into a rather bizarre philosophical conversation with the Prof about whether the Samurai Bushido code was actually a religion, if Catholicism was founded on guilt, all Protestants were unhappy and how you knew when you’d actually learned something. [???]. I’m still bewildered.


If The Prof. had his way there'd be a lot more of this.
If The Prof. had his way there’d be a lot more of this.

With such a small group we didn’t split as usual, although beZ flew off early to top-off his ride with another 100 miles or so. I was having one of those days where the pedals were floating round seemingly of their own volition and quickly romped to the top of the Quarry Climb.

As we pushed on toward the café though my rear cassette started to sound like a bag of ball-bearings in a tumble drier. At this point I vaguely recalled tightening the locking ring on the cassette by hand with the intention of taking the tool to it before slapping the new wheels onto the bike. I had then completely forgotten to do this and over the course of the ride the whole thing had worked itself loose. Oops. Idiot.


Medre! Some imbecile has forgotten to tighten the locking ring.
Merde! Some imbecile has forgotten to tighten the locking ring.

I dropped away from the lead group, more embarrassed by the awful jangling clatter than suffering any serious mechanical impediment, and so missed Taffy Steve claiming second place in the race to the café, only beaten by all-round Racing Snake and Pierre Rolland lookalike, Spry.

Finally, sometime in that jingle-jangle morning, I rolled into the café suitably sur la jante.

The guy who rode the Cyclone on a Raleigh Chopper pulled in as I was jury rigging my cassette with the edge of a multi-tool, hoping it would suffice to get me home with some semblance of quietude. I had a chat with him and he moaned that the rain had forced him to leave the Chopper in the garage, explaining that the stainless steel wheel rims make braking a bit of a lottery in the wet!

Once I split from the club on the way home I found I was being stalked by a Police helicopter that seemed to parallel my route. This always gives me a sense of trepidation as over-active imagination thinks they’re pursuing some TWOCing bastard in a stolen hot-hatch who isn’t going to see a skinny bloke on a plastic bike as much of an impediment to his escape.

Luckily our paths didn’t cross and they buzzed away as I turned for the climb up Heinous Hill and home. Finally, as I rounded the last hairpin the sun burst out in full, glorious splendour, the beautiful summer’s day the forecast had promised. Ah well, only 4 hours too late.

Until next week…


YTD Totals: 3,346km/ 2,079 miles with 37,158 metres of climbing.


[Footnote: as the superb* “Alpe d’Huez: The Story of Pro Cycling’s Greatest Climb” by Peter Cossins and many other sources make clear, the story of Pollentier’s failed dope test is completely apocryphal and totally untrue. He was actually caught trying to use some Byzantine apparatus to deliver a clean sample of urine from a bulb under his arm and was eventually left to produce his own, much tainted sample au naturel.]

[* Footnote to the footnote: I have to admit to total bias as the book’s centrepiece is the battle between Joop Zoetemelk and fabulous Lucien van Impe during the latter’s glorious Tour win in 1976.]