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In his distinctive black slacks and shirt, not to mention his long black hair, French journalist Philippe Brunel cuts a striking image in the pressroom. But above his distinctive silhouette, Brunel has long stood out as one of the best writers in cycling, combining a refined literary sense of description with a sharp journalistic eye for detail, history, and fact. He commands respect among both the journalists and cyclists, and he is nothing less than a towering figure in the sport.
Brunel has long been preparing to bring his career to a close, and this year he was planning to cover his final Giro d’Italia and Tour de France, two of his favorite races, for while his has spent his entire career with the French sports daily L’Équipe, he is a connoisseur of Italian cycling. But the COVID-19 crisis has suspended the international cycling calendar, and it is uncertain that Brunel will return to either race. It would be an unfitting end to a great career, to say the least, and somehow it is simply unimaginable.
VeloNews caught up with Brunel from his Paris apartment, and with what would have been the start of the Giro d’Italia barely a week away, Brunel looked back over his years covering the great race.
VeloNews: Philippe, You have spent your entire career covering bicycle racing for L’Équipe. When did you actually start?
Philippe Brunel: Oh I started at L’Équipe in 1977, when I was still a student. I was studying art history and Italian film at La Sorbonne, and I had a part-time job working as a copy boy at L’Équipe in the evenings. We had a big telex room where all of the telexes arrived from different agencies around the world, and I would deliver them to the different sports desks be it cycling, football, rugby, whatever. In addition, I would re-read the copy of the correspondents. I would go to work after class and work until two in the morning. They were long days, but I got to know all of the journalists. I was a real child of the paper.
VN: Well your studies in art history and Italian cinema explain your love for the Giro d’Italia, as well as your unique ability to describe the sport of cycling as a sort of grand theater.
PB: Well firstly I had a grandmother who was Italian, and then through my studies I just fell under the charm of Italian culture and lifestyle. And you have to remember that this was an age before the globalization of today. There was something unique about Italian culture. Things were always just more beautiful there, more poetic, it seemed.
But yes the Giro d’Italia — like the Tour de France — is like theater. It’s like La Scala. The Tour of Italy, or the Tour de France allows you to understand who is Fausto Coppi, who is Jacques Anquetil, or Eddy Merckx. It was never the race itself that interested me, but the huge stories they produced. In the beginning, the Tour enhanced the reputation of Merckx. But then there came a point where the Tour was seen through Merckx’s performance. In the street if you ask someone, “What is bike racing for you?” they say that it is Anquetil, Hinault, Armstrong, whoever, and I have always written about cycling vis-à-vis the riders, because for bicycle racing is a human adventure. The Tour de France is a sort of human fresco as is the Giro. When we ride through Le Tre Cime di Lavaredo today, it is like when we rode through there in the 1960s. Generations change, but we always return to the same places, the same landscapes, which provide a certain reference point. You can see Nibali riding along the same road where Eddy Merckx became [the legendary] Merckx, where he forged his reputation. And that offers us certain measures of evaluation between the different generations. That allows us to continue the story in a way. It’s a long story of a family. Generations come and go, but the family history remains.
VN: You have a long history all your own with the Giro. You have done it year in and year out for decades. How many have you actually done?
PB: Oh I don’t really know. Around 30, I guess. But yes, there is a certain liberty in the way we write about the Giro as opposed to the Tour. I don’t know what it is. Perhaps something was lost in France with the Festina Affair. And then there are the fans. The fans that come to the Giro are taking off a day of work very often. They are not there just because they are on vacation and the Tour happens to be passing through. It is a different climate, with really passionate fans.
VN: What was your first Giro?
PB: 1980, the first victory of Bernard Hinault. I’ll never forget it because I went down with other journalists at L’Équipe, like Pierre Chany, who was probably the greatest cycling journalist ever. And there were others like Roger Bastide. It was a great initiation for me with these huge personalities in journalism. We became friends and they showed me how to work.
And then there was Hinault. I will never forget the amazing stage over the Stelvio, where Hinault’s teammate Jean-René Bernadeau went up the road early and then Hinault bridged up to him, and they came across the line together in Sondrio. I’ll never forget that day. Hinault came to the Giro at the height of the rivalry between Francesco Moser and Giuseppe Saronni and upset them both. And the Tifosi were hostile. They threw cans at our car simply because [we are] French. There was still that kind of nationalism, which has faded since then. But there was also a sort of dialogue between the riders and the fans. There was a sort of Italian history within the Tour of Italy that existed, little matter that the race was won by a Frenchman. It was interesting.
VN: What do you remember of the Bernard Hinault of 1980? Sure he had already won the Tour de France, but not yet five times. He was still constructing his own legend.
PB: Well I will never forget the interview I did with him there that year. It was a 12:30 AM. Hinault slept very little. And while I was interviewing, his shorts were soaking in the sink. But none of this mattered. He was so sure of himself. And when Hinault was focused on a goal he never had any doubts.
VN: Hinault was definitely a giant. I think it is safe to say that they threw away the mold when he retired!
PB: It was just a different time. And the thing about the Giro d’Italia is that it is more intimate than the Tour. Back in those days there would be maybe 40 journalists at most in the press room. And sometimes the pressrooms would be in little schoolrooms. But it was like a family.
I will never forget one day during my first Tour of Italy in 1980, we were in this schoolroom with the old desks where students sat together in groups of two, and Gino Bartali sat down next to me. Now Bartali was the champion of my Italian grandfather, and he was a huge figure at the Giro. That year he was writing a daily column for the Italian paper Corriere della Sera, and he just sat down next to me. I’ll never forget it. It was really hot that day. Gianbattista Baronchelli had just won, and Bartali sat down next to me in that little desk and started writing his story on a piece of paper. There I was sitting next to Gino Bartali at a school desk, as he wrote his story. It was just an incredible moment for me. And when he was finished, another journalist from the paper came up and read over the piece with him and then took the paper away. But then Bartali stayed there at the desk. And at one point he lifted up the desktop and pulled out a piece of paper from the student’s desk. He sat there and wrote something, and when he was finished, he put the paperback in the desk and then got up and left. I was so curious. What did he write? Finally I pulled out the piece of paper and read it. I didn’t yet speak Italian, but an Italian journalist translated it for me. It read, “To you, the young child, the child, that will read this tomorrow, here in your seat worked Gino Bartali. Bon courage and don’t ever give up!” It still gives me goosebumps every time I tell that story. He was already fairly old, but that gives you an idea of just who was Gino Bartali.
Later in life, we became very good friends, and I often went and visited him at his house. He even showed me where he was going to be buried before he died. But that story just reinforced my own sentiments and those who loved cycling, people like Bartali, were good people.