1992 TOUR DE FRANCE, STAGE 19
Well now it seems that somebody—as likely as not some raffish, white-hot decision maker—has reacquainted the cycling argot with the noun “panache”. I got thinking about that, and I admit I was tempted by it. I was thinking about Laurent Jalabert, scratching around to articulate what it was about him. I wanted to explain the kind of bike rider that he was, and like all writers I’m simultaneously lazy and eager to please.
Panache is very seductive to cycling types. It infers a certain swagger, and we all like to delude ourselves that we have that. It’s a nice conceit, but in reality it’s wholly inaccurate in describing champion cyclists. Good bike riders may be possessed of it, but it’s my assertion that the great ones categorically are not. Coppi, Merckx and Hinault were great not because they indulged themselves, but because they didn’t. They never lost sight of the precepts of cycling and they, whether we like it or not, are the precise inverse of bullshit like “panache”. Entertainment happens in cycling, but it’s involuntary. It’s a consequence, not a construct.
If I know my French literature, panache is all about self-regard, attitude, performance for the sake of it. That worked well for Cyrano de Bergerac, but he was a seventeenth-century fictional character and Coppi a twentieth-century bike rider. They both had a big snout and a way with the women, but by all accounts Cyrano de Bergerac was a lousy cyclist. He ought to have been out doing big, long, steady winter rides, but he was too busy showing Roxane his panache.
Of course, Laurent Jalabert wasn’t in Coppi’s league, and it’s a matter of fact that he never won the Tour. However he was much, much more complete than most of those who did, and much better than big-head Cyrano de Bergerac. That’s why, for all that it evokes the Tour and the France Profonde, “panache” doesn’t speak for him. It doesn’t speak for Jalabert and so, de facto, it can’t possibly speak for cycling.
In the mid-nineties it seemed there was nothing, the Pyrenees aside, that he couldn’t make his own. He won San Remo, Flèche and Lombardy, Paris-Nice, the Vuelta and Midi Libre. By then his domination of the UCI rankings started to resemble an occupation, but the races they win, the dry statistics, are only ever a fraction of the story. The real issue is always the context, and therein lays the wonder (and quite possibly the greatness) of Jalabert…
You could legitimately argue that there have been better cyclists but none, post-Merckx, have ever felt so totemic. Gianni Bugno would probably be the closest as regards the grace, but there was an ethereal, fragile quality to his career. There was such beauty in the way he rode that you knew, in your heart of hearts, that it was too good to last. He only won for about three years, but when it happened you felt blessed. That was because as a cycling fan you were blessed, but he rode with guys like Chiappucci and Argentin. Italy had a handful of world-class riders, and any number of very good ones. There was always another Italian win around the corner, and besides Bugno was ecumenical by nature.
Jalabert’s wins were blessings for an altogether different reason. By the end of the century the French couldn’t win a bike race. The Fignons and Hinaults were long gone, and what remained was a lesser-spotted Moncoutiè, a clapped-out Brochard and a post-traumatic Virenque. French racing seemed for all the world moribund, and he alone was its life support. For five years either side of the millennium he was the only one still able—or willing—to challenge the supercharged Italians, Belgians and Spaniards.
That’s why the second of his Bastille Day stages, won in the guts of the Vosges, still resonates. This was the cyclisme à deux vitesses, and for those who were there it was a religious experience. He won the mountains prize that year, and he’d win it again the next. Those maillots à pois were beautiful, and the manner of the winning was celestial. Of more significance, however, was the symbolism he stitched into them. Their value to French cycling, and by extension to anyone who cared about the sport as a whole, was incalculable. Professional bike racing seemed intent on committing euthanasia right about then, and at times it felt like he and he alone could save it. While there was Jalabert, we told ourselves, there was hope. While there was Jalabert, cycling was still a thing worth exalting.
This, very obviously, is no polka-dot jersey. It’s his 1992 maillot vert, the first of the two he won. That’s kind of the point, because to get it he went toe-to-toe with Museeuw. When he started out he was a sprinter-roadman, a fast-finishing rouleur not so very far removed from a Zabel or a Sagan. Try to imagine Sagan winning the Vuelta.
Next, try to remember the cardiac horror of Jalabert’s crash at Armentières during the 1994 Tour. Try not to imagine just how close he came, but instead imagine Museeuw (or Zabel or Abdoujaparov) picking themselves up and reinventing themselves the way he did. Imagine Robbie McEwan first over the Peyresourde in the polka-dot. Try to imagine Museeuw beating Gontchar, Rominger and Boardman to win a time-trial rainbow jersey. Try to imagine Cyrano de Bergerac outclimbing Virenque in his polka-dot cravat, his Rapha doublet, his Spanish breeches and his Castelli codpiece.
You can’t. None of these things are conceivable. Ridiculous, all of them.
“Form” won’t do it either. Form is form but alchemy, as we have discovered, is its polar opposite. Form can—and indeed must—be earned, but what Jalabert had seemed to have been bestowed. Whilst the mortals grovelled through the dust storms of the Algarve, the blizzards at Paris-Nice and the Basque deluge, he seemed to float through the spring. He’d hop-scotch over the Alps and then, the wind at his back, ordain our cycling summer.
I guess because he just could.
He was Jalabert, and he alone just could.