“My only rival is Emile Idée.”
So Fausto Coppi announced in a yellowed headline in an aging newspaper tucked away in a drawer. At first glance, Emile Idée glances over it as he shifts through the numerous articles that recall his career as a punchy rider and respected time trialist. But then he pauses. “I don’t know why Coppi said that. But yes I was a pretty good time trailer.”
In fact Idée, who turned 100 years old on Sunday, was more than pretty good. During World War II and the years after, Idée was simply one of the best riders of his generation. Sure he may not be a household name in the annals of cycling, but he twice won the French national championships as well as the Grand Prix des Nations—the world time trial championships of the day. And twice he finished second to Coppi, who had obvious respect for the French rider. And today he is the oldest living stage winner of the Tour de France.
In a pre-COVID world, more stories would likely have been written about Idée. After all, the Tour de France was originally scheduled to finish this past Sunday, July 19, on his birthday.
Idée’s career would also have likely been even more remarkable if it were not for the outbreak of World War II. Turning professional in 1941, he was forced to spend his early years racing where he could in Nazi-occupied France.
“We did a lot of track racing and then some road racing,” Idée told VeloNews during a recent conversation at his home south of Paris in Marolles-en-Brie. “There were still some races, but there weren’t any spectators. People were just scared.”
On occasion Idée would venture into the southern half of France, where racing was more abundant in the region controlled by the Vichy government, put in place by the Germans. But the racing came at a high risk, as Idée learned when he won the 1942 French national championships.
“The race was in Lyon and the route just really suited me,” Idée remembers. “I was really going well that year. In the end I was in a five-man break and won easily.”
But while Idée was more than satisfied to pull the blue, white and red jersey awarded to the winner over his shoulders, any joy of victory was short-lived.
“I paid the price,” Idée remembers. “As soon as I returned to Paris I was arrested for crossing the zones without the proper papers. I spent a month in prison! As soon as I arrived home, they came and arrested me. I should have just stayed down there. It would have been better for my career. But I was already married and needed to get back.”
As soon as the war was over, Idée proved that he was still a formidable competitor and he again won the French national championships in 1947, just days before the start of the first post-war Tour de France.
This time Idée was able to savor victory longer as he was selected to the French national team to race in that year’s Tour along with the likes of an up-and-coming Louison Bobet.
“I’ll never forget,” Idée said. “The race started in front of the Louvre Museum in the center of Paris and we raced up to Lille. But the crowds! There were just so many people! It was a long stage. But the crowds didn’t thin out after we left Paris. No, they were all along the roadside on our way up Lille. I had never seen anything like that. And I don’t think I ever saw anything like that again!”
Idée is the first to admit that he wasn’t built for stage races. “I had trouble eating while racing,” he said. “As a result I would always get worn down over a three-week race.”
Starting his first Tour at the age of 27, he only raced three, dropping out each time. Certainly his forgettable Tour performances did not reflect Idée’s true potential, who twice won the “Challenge Sedis” for the best all-around French rider of the season.
Consolation finally came in 1949, when Idée managed to win a stage. And it was a memorable one at that, as the stage raced into the southern city of Nîmes on French Bastille Day. “I won it like I did the French championships, out of a small group,” Idée recalls. “But boy was it hot!”
But while victory in the Tour finally came on stage 13 that year, what even Idée did not know at the time was that it would, in essence, be his swansong to the Tour de France. Three days later he would drop out for a third time, never to race the Tour again.
Today, Idée clearly has no regrets about his cycling career. Sure his Tour de France results did not reflect his true talent. But he is quick to point out, “in the one-day races I was a real crack!” In fact today, his greatest frustration is not the races he lost, but the fact that he struggles to remember so many names and details. “Ah! That is the most frustrating thing about aging!” he says as he slaps his hand on his knee.
But soon enough he is back up, scurrying around his living room. At one point he pulls out an entire drawer of newspaper and magazine clippings, as he searches for written proof of details he cannot recall. Walking it over to a corner, he then sets the weighty drawer down on a step. He bends over with uncanny flexibility and strength that belie his 100 years, and then return to examine another drawer. “Don’t worry about that,” he says. “We can get back to it later.”
Look for our full feature on Idée and other post-WWII riders in our next print issue.