Facts, Facts, and More Facts
Green as a pea pod at my first Tour de France in 1977 — actually the first bicycle race I had seen; why not start at the top? — I relied on that hallowed gift, the kindness of strangers.
One was Emile Besson, a reporter for the French newspaper l’Humanite, who sat beside me in the press shed and explained the basics of the prologue. Another was Claude Sudres, the Tour’s press chief, who eased the path to accreditation and to a place to work, send my story by Telex, and then sleep.
The prologue town was Fleurance (centre of the canton of the department of the Gers, seven times host to the Tour from 1973 through 1983). After the prologue was won by Didi Thurau (Dietrich Thurau, German, born Nov. 11, 1954, German champion in 1975 and 1976 etc. etc.) I decamped to the next day’s stage finish in Auch (the prefecture of the Gers on the Gers River, the former capital of Gascony, which, three times through 1977, welcomed the Tour.)
After lunch in Auch, I returned home to Paris, ignoring the finish of the stage, which was won by Pierre-Raymond Villemiane, (Frenchman, born March 12, 1951, French champion 1980, laureate of the Promotion Pernod in 1977 etc. etc.)
Thanks to the coaching from Besson and Sudres, I could fill my report with all sorts of insider details, right? I really knew my stuff, didn’t I?
Just kidding. My first effort was acceptable but crude, heavy on local colour, light on facts. All the citations above are not from my initial story but from a wondrous book in French, The International Dictionary of Cycling, published in 1993, updated in 1995 and compiled by Sudres, that I recently found, long forgotten, in a box at home.
Beginning with Aalst (town in Belgium and the start of the Escaut-Dendre-Lys race, thus named because its route is situated in the valleys of those three rivers; winners from 1947 to 1965 were etc.) and ending with Albert Zweifel (Swiss, born June 7, 1949, world cyclocross champion from 1976 to 1979 and in 1986, Swiss cyclocross champion in 1976 etc.) the book is, to put it mildly, comprehensive.
Who, for example, won the Six Days of Québec in 1964? Severyns-Gillen is the answer; Emile Severyns rates a listing of his own also, as does Lucien Gillen.
What did Marcel Queheille, French, born March 16, 1930, accomplish? He won a stage in the Tour in 1959 and finished second in the Midi Libre the next year. To continue just under Q, what were the Quatre Pavillons? The site just outside Bordeaux, heading to Angouleme, for the official start each year of the Bordeaux-Paris slog.
What, for another example, was the Promotion Pernod that Villemiane won? It was part of the Prestiges Pernod competition that lasted throughout the season, comprising Super Prestige Pernod for all riders regardless of nationality, Prestige for French riders only and Promotion for French riders with no more than two years’ experience.
Before listing all winners of all Prestiges, the book notes that the awards began in 1958 and ended in 1987 when France banned liquor advertising, like those for the anise aperitif Pernod, in sports. (Not noted is the spectacularly boozy gala ceremony at which the laureates were feted each year. Pernod, they knew how to throw a party.)
Races, male and female riders, teams, start and finish sites, officials, journalists, inventors (Tulio Campagnolo, the modern derailleur in 1933), pioneers, equipment, they’re all in the book. As an ad said, it includes 1,849 riders, 452 teams (Birmingham-Executive Airways, English team, existed only in 1987; Peugeot, French team, formed in 1896, continuing to compete since then), 512 races, 557 sites and 335 climbs (Cou, French Alpine pass, altitude 1,116 meters, first transited by the Tour in 1969.)
All that, plus an 11-page compilation of cycling slang and a list of more than 50 sources. It’s all there in 380 pages.
The book is also packed with memories, of course. Nothing seems to be missing with a notable exception: Sudres himself, too modest or indifferent to write his own citation. Let’s do it for him.
Claude Sudres, French, born Oct. 4, 1931, died Dec. 25, 2005, manager Gan-Mercier team 1972-76, Tour de France press chief 1980-89, Paris Palais Omnisports press chief 1984-94, author of several cycling memoirs and dictionaries.
Sort of dry, no? Let’s add, as he didn’t for his entries, a personal judgment: jaunty, sardonic, invariably friendly and obliging, a good fellow to be around.