What's Cool In Road Cycling

PEZ Interviews Historian Jean-Paul Vespini!

You may not know Jean-Paul Vespini, but he knows cycling, and likely a lot more about pro racing than you ever will. He’s covered 19 Tours (so far), and as a reknowned cycling historian in France, he’s got some storiesпїЅ We asked him for six…

As the Velopress press release for this latest publication The Tour Is Won On The Alpe, tells us: “Author Jean-Paul Vespini has worked as a journalist for thirty years. He is a regular contributor to the cycling magazines Le Cycle and Cyclisme International. His books include a best-selling biography of controversial French cyclist Richard Virenque, and several cycling reference titles. He has covered the Tour de France since 1990. Translator David V. Herlihy is the author of Bicycle: The History (Yale University Press), and a former contributor to Bicycle Guide.”

Bottom line – here’s a guy, who may be unknown to English-speaking audiences, but knows a ‘Grand Tour-load’ when it comes to pro cycling. He’s the kind of guy you really need several hours with (and a couple of good bottles) to even scratch the surface of cycling tales in his memory.

Through Mr. Vespini’s perspective we learn why this mountain has “become the Tour de France’s legendary rite of passage”. He has covered the Tour de France for 19 years as a correspondent for Le Cycle and Cyclisme International, and PEZ connected with Mr. Vespini this year while he was covering the Tour, and we found out how names like Hampsten, Pantani and Hinault will be connected to the history of this mountain forever.

Lance And The Alpe
PEZ: I attended the 2004 Tour de France so your writing about the time trial up Alpe D’Huez is of special interest. That day there was a dark ominous rain shower during the middle of the time trial. And there were stories that Lance Armstrong had received death threats. So, the mood on the mountain was tense. Tell me, how would you rate Lance Armstrong’s performance that day compared to other champions of Alpe D’Huez?

J-P Vespini : Indeed, it was raining that day. And l’Alpe d’Huez offered a route as somber as the worries that were dogging the peloton. There was still talk (too much, perhaps) about doping. Naturally Lance Armstrong in particular, the overwhelming favorite who was poised to win his sixth Tour, aroused suspicions.

A face of that kind of pain was a rarity to see on Mr. Armstrong’s visage.

I saw Lance pass in front of me, a few kilometers before the summit, and I got a good look at him. I could tell that there was considerable work, enormous preparation, behind his domination. He was standing up on his bike, staring at the road. He was so engrossed with his work he seemed completely oblivious to the screaming crowd surrounding him. He was focusing only on his magical pedal strokes. He mashed his legs with incredible speed, his square face showed awesome determination: no one but he could win this stage and the Tour; he was head and shoulders above the rest. Whether he was doped up or not, I can’t say.

Jan Ullrich didn’t stand a chance that day on the Alpe against the indomitable Armstrong.

But in any case Lance was clearly in much better shape than his adversaries. Ullrich, the runner-up in that stage, was struggling. He complained, he seemed plodding, held back by the road itself. Lance, in contrast, was flying. At times the crowd watched him in hushed admiration, showing its immense respect for Mr. Armstrong.

The Badger
PEZ: Bernard Hinault had six top 10 finishes between 1978 and 1986 on Alpe D’Huez. What made Hinault so successful at Alpe D’Huez? Was it the level of his competition: Laurent Fignon, Robert Alban, Greg LeMond, Gert-Jan Theunisse and Peter Winnen or was it the physical challenge of the mystical historic mountain Alpe D’Huez? Or was it something else?

J-P Vespini: I think Bernard Hinault’s success at l’Alpe can be explained quite succinctly: he was simply the best racer of his era. He dominated professional cycling the same way Miguel Indurain and Lance Armstrong would later on. But his era was different than their’s. At that time, the greats did not focus exclusively on the Tour. Hinault was an accomplished climber, and he tackled l’Alpe the same way he did other mounts he faced.

I don’t think his dominance was directly related to the caliber of his adversaries, even if they were themselves great racers. I think it was simply Hinault’s heartfelt desire to shine on this prestigious mount. The proof ? Even when Hinhault crossed the line holding hands with Greg LeMond, the Badger still made sure he beat out his young teammate by a nose.

Il Campionissimo
PEZ: Your writing is full of wonderfully descriptive passages including “an angelic Andy Hampsten”, a “haughty Laurent Fignon”… “the Campionissimo pedaled in the saddle; caressing the top of his handlebars” and “Binda stood in his car to assess Coppi’s position before turning his attention to the beauty of the countryside.” Who is one of your favorite personalities to race up Alpe D’Huez?

J-P Vespini : I would love to have met Fausto Coppi, the Campionissimo, and to have seen him ascend l’Alpe d’Huez. All the accounts of the day assert that he could accelerate at will, he dispensed with Robic as easily as if he were blowing on a dandelion. He climbed in his big gear and showed an incredible lucidity to the point of overtaking the few cars that were following him. But above all, he had supreme confidence; as he would later relate, he did not bother to look back to see Robic lose ground; he was content simply to listen as Robic’s panting faded. Fausto did not allow himself to get distracted from his self-appointed task.

Il Campionissimo: Fausto Coppi.

Let me tell you an anecdote on this point. A few years ago, I went to Castellane Italy, and then Novi Ligure, in Piedmont, Coppi’s birthplace. There, I met Andrea Carrea, Coppi’s faithful domestique, who still sports a solid phsyique and his trademark oversized nose. A good racer in his day, he had donned the yellow jersey at Lausanne the evening before the first Alpe d’Huez stage. Andrea was deeply humbled to be wearing that prestigious jersey of champions, to the point of bursting into tears. Yet at the same time he felt unworthy of the honor, and guilty about the fact that he was wearing the cherished emblem rather than his leader (who would only claim it at the summit). When I met Andrea, more than forty years later, he still could not talk about this episode with dry eyes. He still feels a sense of confusion and remorse, as if he had committed a great sin. To me, his story evokes cyclingпїЅs epic dimension, and its quasi-religious strand. Subjugating oneself is indeed a classic Christian virtue!

The French Housewives’ Darling
PEZ: Your book on Richard Virenque is required reading in a college course titled: “A Cultural History of the Tour de France” through the University of Toronto. Tell us a little about Richard Virenque. Besides having an incredible timing – I believe he won at least two stages on Bastille Day. What makes Richard Virenque such a sports icon, and so loved by the French?

J-P Vespini : Richard Virenque won the polka dot jersey (for best climber) seven times. That’s a Tour record. He secured the last one with a dramatic stage victory (he would compile seven in all) from Limoges to St. Flour, breaking away for the last 208 kilometers one 14th of July (Bastille day, France’s national holiday). In fact, he made a career out of launching long, solitary breakaways before adoring fans. He first made his mark in the 1992 Tour, his first, in the stage between Saint-Sebastien and Pau. After the 20th kilometer, he and two others mounted a fierce attack. Although he failed to win the stage, he managed to claim the yellow jersey, the green jersey, and the polka dot jersey in one fell swoop! His tears of joy that day endeared him to the public, who found him refreshingly sincere and candid. Fans especially liked his propensity to attack.

We’ve seen some dark days in the past few years, but it was that fateful day in 1998 that forever changed bike racing.

But in 1998, his masseur, Willy Voet, was found sitting in a car filled with doping products and arrested. That was the start of the infamous Festina affair. The public (quite rightly) suspected that Virenque had indulged in drugs. But unlike his teammates, he did not initially confess. Still, the public understood that a certain reality lay beneath the lie: Richard simply did not want to become a scapegoat. He knew that all the other racers, or nearly all, were likewise doping themselves. In fact, a number of teams dropped out midway through the 1998 Tour, to escape police inspections. Much later, after more drug-related scandals, we would learn that Virenque was right: drug abuse was indeed endemic to the sport.

On October 24, 2000, during the Festina trial in Lille, Virenque finally admitted to doping. Since then, even more drug-related affairs have exploded into view. Yet the public has long felt sympathy for Virenque. In 1998, after he was banned from the Tour, I watched as fans threw stones at, and even rocked, the car of Jean-Marie Leblanc, the Tour director at the time. Posters paying homage to Virenque appeared everywhere. He became an outlaw of sorts, but also a hero. His strength was his iron will. During his confinement, sympathetic guards brought him coffee and croissants. In 1999, his distraught directeur sportif invited Virenque to partake in the Giro just to get him back in the saddle. Richard, in poor shape and depressed, initially refused. But eventually he relented, as he lined up for the start, at least. Halfway through the race, as a personal challenge, he mounted an attack and won the stage at Rapallo. Incredible !

Remember this?

Super Human
PEZ: The win by Lance Armstrong at the 17th stage of the 2004 Tour de France (from Bourg d’Oisans to Le Grand Bornand) where Lance beat Andreas Kloden and Jan Ullrich (with the help of Floyd Landis) was one of the most exciting finishes that I have ever seen in a professional bicycle race. Tell us a story about a stage race that you witnessed which brought out super human efforts by protagonists and antagonists.

J-P Vespini : I was deeply impressed by Bernard Thevenet’s heroic performance in the 1977 Alpe d’Huez stage. He began that day wearing the yellow jersey, holding leads of 33 seconds over the Belgian climber Lucien Van Impe, 49 seconds over the Dutchman Hennie Kuiper, and 1:13 over Hennie’s countryman, Joop Zoetemelk.

Van Impe attacked before l’Alpe d’Huez, in the Glandon, and tore down the descent, building up a 1:25 lead over Thevenet. Van Impe was confident at this point that he had wrapped up his second Tour, but he was rather tired by the time he got to the start of the Alpe ascent. Thevenet meanwhile, was attacked by Zoetemelk and Kuiper.

Thevenet held on to Yellow that fateful day in 1977…barely.

The Frenchman had to fend for himself, while the largely foreign crowd spat at him and jeered. He dug down deep to defend his jersey. Before the end of the climb he had overtaken Van Impe, who had just been knocked down by an automobile. The distraught Belgian held up his broken rear wheel as he awaited assistance from his directeur sportif. That was one crazy stage, Thevenet hung on to his pretty jersey that day by a mere eight seconds, and he would prevail in the Tour as well. He finished his climb in his big chainring, giving everything he had. That evening he refused to leave his room to eat supper, he was simply too wiped out to get out of bed. Outside the hotel, his fans saw the yellow jersey hanging in the window, and they exorted him to show his face but he couldn’t oblige them. By the middle of the night, however, he had recovered his strength and he single-handedly emptied the hotel refrigerator. He had saved his Tour !

As if that weren’t drama enough, that was also the year when the great Eddy Merckx suffered a stunning defeat in the col du Glandon, before mounting a memorable attack at l’Alpe in a considerably weakened state. It was extremely moving to watch this great champion make his last stand and finish the Tour in such a state of exhaustion.

Our tour guide for l’Alpe D’Huez and all things interesting today: Jean-Paul Vespini.

Il Pirata
PEZ: It truly seems like only yesterday that we witnessed the great physical accomplishments of Marco Pantani. You write: “Pantani will hurt you.” And he did, making his mark on the cycling world in 1994 riding against such greats as Indurain, Zulle, and Bugno. The 2004 edition of Alpe D’Huez was “In Memory of Marco Pantani.” What do you remember of Marco Pantani and how he influenced the Peloton?

J-P Vespini : Marco Pantani revived the myth of great climbers who are able to execute lightning fast breakaways in the hills while making up large chunks of time. At the same time, he created a personal image, that of a pirate preparing to attack – the mountains, that is. That was an appealing image for him. But in truth, he was terribly fragile. In June 1999, at Madonna di Campiglio, on the eve of the Giro’s finish in Milan, he tested positive. He was banned from the Giro, and he was utterly devastated. He he never recovered from that blow and eventually he died alone in a seedy hotel, of a drug overdose.

Pantani cut an incredible swatch of the 13.9 km of Alpe d’Huez.

I remember Pantani from his early years as a racer. He was then a minor domestique, nothing about him seemed to foreshadow a future as a great racer. But the same could be said of Miguel Indurain, who on several occasions finished the Tour more than an hour behind the winner, before he finally won one himself on his seventh try! (Indurain withdrew in 1985 and 1986, finished 97th in 1987, almost three hours behind, 47th in 1988, 17th in 1989, and 10th in 1990).

I remember the look on Pantani’s face when he strutted across the press room in 1998 wearing the yellow jersey. We were taken aback when he passed by, with his little goatee and his slim figure he almost seemed transfigured! But his eyes struck me the most: I saw in them a look of sheer determination, and also, I believe, much fear. A fear of what the future might bring, a fear of losing the Tour, and a fear of the press. And maybe even a fear that he was risking his life by doping. I still wonder if that was the case, whenever I recall that look.

Ricco looked poised to follow in his hero’s footsteps the same this year…

Today, a young Italian racer, Riccardo Ricco, who lives very near Rimini, where Pantani resided, on the shores of the Adriatic, draws inspiration from Pantani’s legacy. He climbs just like Marco did, and after finishing the last Giro in second place behind the Spaniard Contador, Ricco has already won two stages of this present Tour and he dreams of heating things up on the slopes of Alpe d’Huez [DVH NOTE : just disqualified from the Tour]

Addendum on Ricco
I recently had the opportunity to visit Riccardo Ricco in Italy, at his home in Torriana, a small village in Romagnia, not far from the famous seaside resort of Rimini, so dear to its idol, Marco Pantanti. Riccardo is a charming young man, who loves cycling and is a excellent climber. He dreams of imitating Pantani. Ricco had even created his own image; that of an arrogant racer who would announce ahead of time when he would attack, treating his adversaries like wimps. That image was working well for him and it had captured the imagination of cycling fans.

He was attacking his rivals at will and ruthlessly. He was riding in the style of Pantani…but he wasn’t clean.

He works out on “Pantani’s mountains,” that is, the same routes where the late champion used to train. The ascent that leads to his village is one that Pantani often took. Marco would regularly climb Cippo hill where one finds today a plaque in his memory. At Riccardo’s home, in the presence of his fiance Vania Rossio, the Italian cyclo-cross champion, I found a loving family that lives for cycling. Riccardo trains hard, carefully watching his diet. He eats almost nothing and gets plenty of rest. I am astonished that he would resort to drugs. He has sawed of the branch of glory upon which he was sitting. He was called to a great future: having finished second in the Giro this year. He was also a favorite in this Tour that, unfortunately, he had to quit, even as he held the jerseys of the best climber and the best youth. Was he truly doped? He denies it, but one must trust the evidence. The tests prove otherwise. He cheated, and itпїЅs telling that his entire team withdrew from the race.

Will we see a humbler, cleaner Ricco in two years?

If he continues to deny that he used drugs that’s a shame. He’ll only complicate his case. It’s already a big deal in Italy, where the press has lashed out at him, calling him a “packet of bones and drugs.” It’s a tough blow for the Tour. Several books have come out in France this year predicting the death of this event if any more drug scandals break out.

Ricco has let his fans down. The fact that he’s a young star with a future rather than an old roadie makes it even worse. It’s sad and regrettable. Cycling has taken a big step backwards, back to the Festina affair of ten years ago, when Richard Virneque got caught holding the bag and went into denial.

• Special thanks to David Herlihy who took valuable time during this year’s Tour de France to work on the translations of the questions and answers for this interview.”

• See Matt Wood’s website and cycling photography at https://www.veloprints.com.

• Get a copy of The Tour Is Won On The Alpe for yourself at VeloPress.com
– and stay tuned for our review coming soon –

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