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Impossible Until It Wasn’t

Samuel Abt Tekst Samuel Abt Gepubliceerd 19 August 2019

While he was on duty as director of operations of the Tour de France, Albert Bouvet was a man of few words. One of them was “impossible,” always shrieked on the race radio or face to face after a violation of his rules for conducting a safe and orderly race; a few more were “it’s not possible,” sometimes shrieked, sometimes uttered in a tone of wonderment at how not possible it could be.

When he felt a bit less laconic, Bouvet could say, “Car 37 (or some other number of a press, official, or team car)  “see me in my office after the stage.”  That meant trouble for the driver who had come too close to a rider or failed to make way for a car with higher priority: a dressing-down at least or a suspension of the right to travel in or ahead of the peloton.

Photo: Cor Vos

In those long-ago days, most people in the small press corps shadowed the riders, especially in a breakaway, noting their tactics and facial expressions. Since there was no internet, some reporters composed minute-by-minute accounts of the stage and so had to travel with the peloton. Other reporters simply came along for the free lunch then provided at Kilometre 92 by the 92 department of France (sausages and cheese, sometimes hearty fare like industrial cassoulet and lots and lots of dreadful wine). Some villages along the route also offered buffets to all comers.

Overseeing this maelstrom was Bouvet’s job. For three decades, he did it with iron authority and that booming voice. When he retired in 1995 at age 65, he was replaced by two men, each soft spoken. Kilometer 92 and the village refreshment tables were disappeared, and the press corps, guests, and hangers-on were encouraged, nay, prodded to zip far ahead of the race to a free lunch at the finish. It worked. Traffic was much reduced.

Bouvet still attended the race, now an honored guest in an official car, and everybody pretended that things were running terribly without his stewardship. “Impossible,” he surely would have bellowed at the flattery.

His ties to the sport ran deep. He was the man tasked with finding a new cobblestoned stretch in Paris-Roubaix, which he did with Jean Stablinski: the Arenberg Trench. He was also the man who helped uncover the 21-hairpin route up to Alpe d’Huez. (Those ties ran in his family. His son, Philippe Bouvet, became a splendid writer about cycling for the newspaper l’Equipe. A mild-tempered type, Philippe showed that sometimes the apple does fall far from the tree.)

Photo: Cor Vos

Before he became a grandee in Tour officialdom in 1967, Bouvet had been a journalist, mainly about cycling, for three years and before that a rider and a good one, especially on the track. He was the French champion in pursuit from 1958 through 1960 and again in 1962 and 1963, second in pursuit in the world championships in 1957 and 1959. On the road, Bouvet supported  Jacques Anquetil in his first of five Tour victories in 1957 for the Mercier sponsor and had a spot on the podium himself in more than a handful of races.

Sleek in his youth, before he developed jowls and a big belly, Bouvet was nicknamed “The Bulldog of Fougères” for his fighting spirit (plus his home town in Brittany.) Never did he demonstrate that spirit better than in 1956 when he won his one big road race, Paris-Tours, the sprinters’ classic with its nearly-three-kilometer-long  flat section on the Avenue de Grammont to the finish.

Paris-Tours, first conducted for professionals in 1906, has long been a rhinestone among the sport’s crown jewels. The main problem is its terrain. The flat roads through lovely countryside have no challenges besides autumn headwinds. (When the winds blow from behind, the race speed is stratospheric.)

So, over the years, the route has been sometimes shifted—starts and even finishes in Blois, Versailles, Chaville and Creteil.  Last year, 12.5 kilometres of gravel roads through vineyards were added to jazz up the last hours of racing.

His obsession was not his victory in that race but the failure of any French rider to duplicate it.

The race has no glamour. But, as Nietzsche said, all strong men have their weak spots and for Albert Bouvet that was Paris-Tours. His obsession was not his victory in the race but the failure of any French rider to duplicate it.

“Forty-one years,” he sputtered in an interview in 1997, “Forty-one years I’ve been waiting. For 41 years, it has been a very sad story. Very sad.”

Up through Bouvet’s victory, a Frenchman had won the autumn classic 28 times.  Since then, zilch, nada, niente. Winners included Belgians, Italians, Dutchmen, Germans, an Irishman, a Dane, and an Australian. What next? An Eskimo?

“Impossible,” Bouvet said, “not possible. Very sad.”

The years roll back to 1956, and he is riding Paris-Tours against his will. A short time before, he finished second in the Grand Prix des Nations, a long time trial, and was offered 60,000 francs (less than €1,000) to race on the track in Rennes the same day as Paris-Tours. “Sixty thousand francs, even old francs, you don’t refuse that,” he remembered. But his Mercier team insisted he ride Paris-Tours, in which he had finished 25th the year before, winning all of 5,000 francs, so he rode it.

About 40 kilometers from the finish, Bouvet attacked with an Italian, built a small lead, left the Italian in his dust, and held off the pack for 25 kilometres. “Near the finish, I was this close to dropping the adventure, to sitting up and letting them catch me. I didn’t believe I could do it.” His prize money came to 700,000 francs.

Now, he was standing near the finish in 1997, rooting for a Frenchman, any Frenchman, to break the spell. Instead, in a two-man sprint, Andrei Tchmil, a Ukrainian who was born in Russia and was seeking Belgian citizenship, nipped Max Sciandri, an Italian who rode as an Englishman. In that stew of nationalities, there was not a French gene; the highest ranked native son was 22nd.

“I hoped,” Bouvet said. “I allowed myself to hope.” He looked up at the sky and spread his arms wide, beseechingly. “Maybe next year.”

Photo: Cor Vos

And so it came to pass. The next year, 1998, Jacky Durand, a Frenchman—not a Spaniard,  Swiss, or Samoan—won Paris-Tours. Another Frenchman, Richard Virenque won in 2001, and yet another, Frederic Guesdon, won in 2006. Before his death in 2017, at the age of 87, Albert Bouvet could have said, softly for once, in awe, “impossible.”

Cover Photo: Cor Vos