The Deep End
When Paul Sherwen won the 1976 Pernod Grand Prix in leafy Buckinghamshire, England, against a packed international amateur field, it set in motion a chain of events that helped to change cycling forever.
Sherwen’s commanding solo win was noticed by Paul Weigant, the director of the French team ACBB. At the time the Athletic Club de Boulogne-Billancourt (ACBB) was one the most successful amateur teams in France. Weigant had previously managed an ACBB professional team in the late fifties that included stars such as Anquetil, Darrigade and Stablinski. Now he was on the lookout for talented riders that could win races for his amateur team and move on to successful professional careers.
Sherwen signed, and moved to Paris the following year. Throughout 1977 he lived a dedicated lifestyle, focusing only on training, racing and resting. It paid off. He won amateur classics such as Paris – Barentin and finished second overall in the prestigious Merlin Plage series. His success was also founded upon his willingness to learn French, and learn the ways of the European peloton. By the end of 1977 the ambitious Englishman was ready to turn professional, and did so for Fiat.
Their positive experience with Sherwen meant ACBB were open to more English-speaking riders joining them. The club was professional in its approach and ruthless in its pursuit of victories. Nationality or language didn’t matter to Weigant and his colleagues, they only cared about seeing an orange and grey ACBB crossing the line first. If you didn’t bring in the results, you’d be sent home pretty quickly.
Between 1978 and 1982 ACBB signed a slew of young English-speaking riders, who all, like Sherwen, went on to turn professional. They were: from the United Kingdom Graham Jones, Robert Millar and Sean Yates, from Ireland Stephen Roche, and from Australia Phil Anderson and Allan Peiper. As a group they have come to be known as the Foreign Legion. Their peers, Sean Kelly and Greg Lemond were arguably more successful in their professional careers, but were, as Rupert Guinness has described them, ‘mavericks’. Kelly served his apprenticeship at the Belgian club VC Metz and Lemond at the UC Creteil, just outside Paris.
It was courageous of all of these young riders to move to continental Europe at that time. They had none of the support structure that their French rivals had. No one to wash their kit or make their dinner or drive them to races. The Foreign Legion had to be self-sufficient and adaptable. Kelly arrived in Belgium speaking hardly a word of French and one of the first words he learned was prime, because if he knew where the these intermediate sprints were he’d be able to pick up some cash prizes to pay for dinner.
Both Lemond and Kelly had such talent and propensity for hard work that they would probably have been successful wherever they chose to race, and would have been perceived as outliers, tolerated by the cycling establishment because of their palmares. But the ACBB group forged a new path for English-speaking riders, a path that widened over the years and brings us to the (relatively) multi-cultural peloton we have today.
Millar and Roche became famous for their results and their attacking-with-panache styles, but Peiper and Yates developed into super-domestiques, later into road captain roles. In the European peloton these roles are as respected as team leaders because they are invaluable in setting up victories. ACBB as connected to the professional Peugeot team, with its iconic monochrome jersey, and in the mid-eighties Peugeot reaped the benefit of the Foreign Legion’s early Parisian education. The highlight – for most British fans anyway – was Robert Millar’s fourth place and King of the Mountains jersey at the 1984 Tour de France.
After the Foreign Legion turned professional, ACBB continued to recruit English-speaking riders, but by the mid-nineties the team was in decline, partly due to the departure of Weigant. Now, for young aspiring riders it’s not necessary to turn up on a Parisian doorstep with nothing but your bike and a suitcase. There are less daunting ways to progress your career. And that’s due in part to those brave young men who wanted above all to be professional bike riders and blazed a trail for others to follow. To the Foreign Legion, we salute you!
Read on about the contrasting fortunes of Sean Kelly and Robert Millar in the mid-80s in Stealing and Stichting.