When it comes to the great cobbled classics, the Tour of Flanders and Paris-Roubaix are often mentioned in the same breath. But in many ways, they are quite different, and winning both is far from a given. Sure the most complete classics riders like Peter Sagan, Tom Boonen, and Johan Museeuw have won both, as has Eddy Merckx.
And then there is Jean Forestier, who is quite simply the oldest living winner of both monuments.
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Now 90, the mild-mannered Forestier still lives in his native Lyon. And some ways it is even hard to imagine that he was once one of the most feared classics riders in the peloton. But Forestier was a master tactician, who raced with a pocket full of guts and knew how to play other riders off against one another.
And such ingredients came in handy in both the 1955 Roubaix race, not to mention in Flanders the following year, when he beat the giants of his day—legends like Fausto Coppi, Louison Bobet, Rik Van Steenbergen, and Briek Schotte.
“My dad was working at a local slaughterhouse and got up really early,” Forestier recalled of his humble beginnings just after World War II ended. “So I would get up with him and go out and ride until 7 a.m. before going to my own apprenticeship as a mechanic.”
“I started competing in some local races and soon enough I got a little contract with Follis Cycles, a local framebuilder,” Forestier continued when VeloNews visited him last summer. “But to say that I was a professional was saying a lot by today’s standards. We just made minimum wage.”
Forestier padded his salary with race winnings and worked his way up to the elite levels of the sport. By the mid-1950s Forestier was already a fixture on the mighty French national team in the Tour de France. While he was a respected teammate to stars like Louison Bobet, he was not an obvious choice to win the 1955 Paris-Roubaix.
“Roubaix was definitely my biggest victory,” Forestier says without hesitation. “I was only 24 years old. I was also one of the only riders to have wooden rims. I really liked them on the cobbles as they were very flexible. But that year it was very cold, windy, and rainy and the mechanics that built up my wheels that day did not treat the wood properly. And the more the race moved along, the more the wood warped. By the end of the day, they were just completely out of true.”
Overcoming mechanical issues, Forestier rode perfectly. “Today they alternate sectors with paved roads but back then, once you hit the town of Arras, it was almost all cobbles,” Forestier recalls. “I’ll never forget, Bobet made a big acceleration before and exploded the pack. I was back in the fourth group. We regrouped right around Arras and I saw Antonin Rolland and said, ‘Antonin I have won the races the last two Easters but I would be surprised if I won today!’”
But despite the mid-race setback, once he made it to the front of the pack, Forestier went on the attack. It proved to be one of the best decisions he ever made. “I attacked going into the Mons-en-Pevelle sector which is still really critical today. It’s about 30 kilometers from the finish, but really decisive. Behind Coppi and Bobet were chasing, but, well, I think they were looking at each other a bit and that really helped me.”
Forestier insists that he was as surprised as anyone to win that day. “I did my first Roubaix the year before. I did maybe 100 kilometers and dropped out. The year I won was actually the first one I finished!”
While Forestier returned to team duties in the Tour de France, Roubaix taught him what he was capable of in one-day races. Less than a year later, he again outwitted the tenors of the peloton at the 1956 Tour of Flanders. And while Roubaix may have been a surprise, victory in Flanders was virtually a mission impossible from the start.
“The crazy thing was that I was the only rider from my team. I had no teammate and no director sportif. I drove up with my wife and had to find my hotel and a place to eat. The others simply didn’t show up!”
If the situation was not exactly coming up roses the night before the race, they continued to deteriorate before the start. “I had to find someone with Belgian francs so I could find something to eat before the start. Back then there was no common money, no Euro. We had to change money at the border. Fortunately, I ran into a French journalist with some Belgian money and he loaned me enough to get a Tartlette before the race. And that’s all I had. And when I started the race I didn’t have a team car or a spare set of wheels—nothing! If I had had the smallest mechanical problem, I was out of the race. I was finished! I even told my wife that I did not expect to last long.”
Riding against such odds, Forestier rode brilliantly, saving energy the entire day and putting himself in perfect position in the final kilometers.
“I remember that Alfred de Bruyne, had a really big ride that day. He was out in front all day long it seemed. But we caught him with about four kilometers remaining. He was just wasted. And me, without any support, I just had to stay on the wheels. But suddenly I thought to myself, ‘You can win this thing!’ I didn’t really know how, but I knew I was capable. I just felt great! Going into the last kilometer, we hit this little cobbled climb. I was in the front pack with Stan Ockers and Rik van Steenbergen and they started looking at each other on the left. I jumped from behind on the right and immediately got 50 meters and I won with 50 meters!”
Even in light of his two monument victories, Forestier remained a reliable team rider in the Tour de France, even winning the green points jersey in 1957, and spent a two-day-spell in the yellow jersey.
But really, it was the classics that inspired him the most. And they still do today. “I still really love watching the classics,” he says. “I love Sagan. He can do everything. There is Alaphilippe too. He has punch with a sense of show. Just pure emotion.”
“And then there is the grandson of Raymond Poulidor, what’s his name?” he continues. We remind him of Mathieu van der Poel. “Oh yes, that’s it. He is amazing! There are just so many great riders today. Cycling is still such a pleasure to watch.”