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Inside Cycling with John Wilcockson: Days of the Sporting Cyclist

What we read and how we communicate have always been important elements in the evolvement of our sport. At the outset of professional road racing in the late nineteenth century, the editors at newspapers and magazines not only reported the events but they also dreamed up the races and put them on. The world’s very first long-distance road race, from Paris to Rouen along the length of the Seine valley, was sponsored in 1869 by a magazine called the Vélocipède Illustré. Another title, Véloce-Sport, organized the first Bordeaux-Paris classic in 1891, Le Petit Journal put on the inaugural

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By John Wilcockson

Tom Simpson on the cover of Sporting Cyclist

Tom Simpson on the cover of Sporting Cyclist

Photo:

What we read and how we communicate have always been important elements in the evolvement of our sport. At the outset of professional road racing in the late nineteenth century, the editors at newspapers and magazines not only reported the events but they also dreamed up the races and put them on.

The world’s very first long-distance road race, from Paris to Rouen along the length of the Seine valley, was sponsored in 1869 by a magazine called the Vélocipède Illustré. Another title, Véloce-Sport, organized the first Bordeaux-Paris classic in 1891, Le Petit Journal put on the inaugural Paris-Brest-Paris that same year, and Paris-Vélo sponsored the very first Paris-Roubaix in 1896.

As for the Tour de France, that of course was born in 1903 by the French daily newspaper L’Auto as a strategy in a bitter circulation war with its rival, Le Vélo. A half-century later, as I’ve discussed in recent columns, genuine road racing was still in its infancy in Britain and North America. By the late 1950s, the only English-language reporting of European racing appeared in British magazines, the monthly Sporting Cyclist, edited (and largely written) by J.B. Wadley, and the weekly Cycling, which focused almost entirely on the traditional domestic time-trial scene.

Sporting Cyclist’s Wadley focused on continental racing, mostly seen from the perspective of an Englishman abroad explaining the intricacies of a sport to readers eager to learn about cycling’s major events and personalities. Typical was a 1959 interview he did with the legendary Eugène Christophe, the first man to wear the Tour de France yellow jersey who twice lost the Tour (in 1913 and 1919) when the forks on his bicycle snapped — the rider had to do his own repairs in those days! Wadley visited Christophe, then 79, at his home just outside Paris, starting the piece like this:

I rang the bell of No. 26 in a street at Malakoff which, although only 20 minutes on the metro and bus from the center of Paris is, officially, a country town. There was no answer. I enquired at the butcher’s next door.“Monsieur Christophe?” said the friendly tradesman. “I don’t think he can be far away — but wherever he is, you can be sure he’ll be on his bicycle.”

Early in the interview, which took up most of the day, Christophe talked about the Milan-San Remo classic he won in 1910.

“Hou-la-la — that was a race. It was bitterly cold from the start and then as we began to climb the Turchino pass, we ran into snow. I was in the lead, but shaking with cold and unable to control the bike on the terribly rough road, I fell into a ditch. Spectators carried me into a cottage and gave me hot drinks and rubbed me all over. They gave me a pair of long trousers to put over my shorts, and I continued. While I had been inside, others had passed by, but I caught them before long, and kept on my own until the finish.” “On his own” is putting it mildly. The next man, Ganna, finished 20 minutes behind, but was disqualified for hanging on to a car, second place going officially to Cocchi who arrived 1 hour 10 minutes after Christophe.

That interview (as with all of Wadley’s writing) was filled with details that provided more background and flavor to the sport than had ever before appeared in the English language. The Christophe piece ended with an enigmatic quote from “le Vieux Gaulois” as he was often called.

“Tell your young readers there are no secret recipes for racing success,” were his last words to me. “If there were, then all the champions would be the sons of doctors and chemists.”

In the pages of Sporting Cyclist, which was published for a dozen years, until early 1968 and became quite a cult item among cyclists in North America, readers learned about the world of continental cycling from the inside. Wadley was good friends with many of the leading cyclists.

One was Britain’s first Tour de France stage winner, Brian Robinson, whose Tour diary (expanded by the editor) chronicled a race in which Robinson finished 14th overall. It formed the complete September 1956 issue of the magazine.

Another was Tom Simpson, whose career Wadley had followed since his days as an amateur track racer in northern England. Wadley wrote many stories about “Mr. Tom” — including devoting the whole of the February 1966 issue, following Simpson’s famous victory in the 1965 world pro road championship. But a short piece he wrote about a rest day in Andorra at the 1964 Tour was just as revealing. Here’s an extract:

I came across a Peugeot team driver [who] told me that Tom Simpson had just gone over the road to the field where the team’s cars and vans were parked. “Going for a ride?” Tom asked. He was strapping a spare tyre on the saddle. “Yes; later on. I have to go to see Louis [the St. Raphaël team mechanic] to get one of their bikes.” “You don’t have to do that,” said Tom. “Have one of ours…. Why not come out now with me?” An invitation not to be missed. Tom rode with me down to my hotel. While I was changing, my French press car colleagues came to talk to le sympathique Tom…. “Did you know that I ride the Tour on my wife’s handbag?” he was asking as I rejoined the party. “It’s true. I am using a plastic saddle, but it is covered with a bit of one of Helen’s old leather handbags. It is perfectly comfortable even in the hottest weather.”

Simpson was probably still using that saddle a year later when he became the first “Anglo” to win the coveted rainbow jersey. And if it hadn’t have been for his friend Jock Wadley writing about the European road-racing scene for the previous 30 years, Simpson may not even have been on the start line.

I’ll write more about Mr. Tom’s 1965 world title victory and its influence on English-speaking riders in another column.