Les Enfants Terribles
[Bordeaux-Paris Part 2]
This second part to our Bordeaux-Paris story tells of the famous Pélissier brothers. When talking of this legendary family it is not possible to limit the discussion to one race. They permeated the entire sport and left behind iconic incidents that have become part of cycling’s lexicon.
Part 1:The Derby of the Road x
Part 3: The Legend, the D.S., the Domestique and an Englishman
With nearly 360 miles under their wheels, Francis Pélissier and Georges Ronsse were alone with their pacers in the 1930 ‘Derby of the Road’. Ensuring that Ronsse was beside him and in earshot, Pélissier kept shouting at his pacers “Are you sure that there is 23 x 7 on my track bike? Make sure that you are not in my way when I make the change.”
Francis Pelissier and George Ronsse
[ photos from Archive ]
Ronsse was World RR Champion in 1928 and 1929. He had won the Bordeaux-Paris in 1927 and 1928. Pélissier had won the B-P in 1922 and 1924. Both men wanted to add this 1930 ‘Derby’ to their tally.
Knowing that Ronsse was the better sprinter, Francis came up with a cunning plan. His shouts to the pacers were a smoke screen. It was tradition that as the riders reached the gates of the Parc des Princes track they would leap from their road bikes and on to immaculate track bikes for the final sprint.
Both riders had two helpers waiting with high geared track bikes at the gates to the track. Ronsse leapt from his machine and made a flawless change. However Pélissier had no intention of changing bikes. He was going to stay on his road bike and jump Ronsse right there at the track gates. Unfortunately for him a friend joined his two official helpers and as Francis came by this third helper grabbed his seat post to assist the change. The enraged Pélissier punched the hapless helper in the face as he screamed “let me go you idiot”. But by the time Francis regained his momentum Ronsse was well on his way to his third Bordeaux-Paris victory.
Thus ended an era in the story of the ‘Derby’. Apart from 1898 and 1899, the race had been paced by bicycle from 1891 until 1930. From 1931 until 1937 motorcycles were used and then in 1938 Dernys were introduced and then used until the final paced race in 1985.
Francis sobbed bitterly in his track cabin after his ‘tragic’ loss of the 1930 Bordeaux-Paris, but this was far from the last time that the name Pélissier would be linked with the Bordeaux-Paris. The Pélissier era started way back in 1919 when the eldest of the three brothers, Henri, won his only B-P. Four decades later Francis was still a director sportif leading teams in the B-P.
Pélissier brothers (l to r) Henri, Charles, Francis [ photos from Archive ]
During their active racing years the Pélissiers were true superstars of the sport. Henri Pélissier was described by Henri Desgrange as “saturated with class, but he does not know how to suffer”. Coming from a tough farming family, the brothers were frequently at odds with cycling authority. At that time this meant that the mercurial Desgrange often met his match with the Pélissiers. Henri in particular, was an activist fighting for the rights of racing cyclists for his entire racing career. His long standing feud with Henri Desgrange produced “inflamed rhetoric” from both sides and their fights captivated the general public.
Perhaps the most famous incident happened during the 1924 Tour. A very strange rule dictated that a rider had to finish the stage wearing the same number of jerseys that they started the day with. After a cold start on one stage, the day grew warm and Henri discarded a jersey. A commissaire yelled at him, “You’ll be fined”. After the race the fine was imposed, so Henri and his brother Francis quit the race. They repaired to a pub and images of the two of them drinking beer are amongst the most famous in the sport. It was during this break that the journalist Albert Londres appeared and interviewed them. His now famous article, in which Henri expressed his disgust at the way the peloton was treated, was entitled “Convicts of the Road”. Those four words brilliantly summed up Pélissier’s view of life in the peloton.
While all three brothers were prolific winners, Henri was the greatest rider of the three with a Tour win in 1922 and a string of major classics wins to his credit. His fiery nature led to his early demise when he was shot to death by his mistress at just 36 years of age.
The Wizard of Bordeaux-Paris
BP 1933 winner Fernand Mithouaed
[photos from Archive ]
A couple of years after his ‘tragic’ Bordeaux-Paris loss Francis was back at the race as a director sportif. As would be expected of a Pélissier, his approach was unconventional. In 1933 he entered a 20-year-old rider by the name of Fernand Mithouard. Pélissier believed that if he could direct a rider, who would not argue with him, then he had a Bordeaux-Paris winner. “All you have to do is what I tell you and never tell me that you are tired.” In an era when big gears were not used, Francis told Mithouard that he would ride an enormous gear. “The faster you go behind the motor cycle, the more shelter you will get”. With 200 miles still to go the riders linked up with their motor pacers at Poitiers. As predicted by Pélissier, Mithouard was soon flying away from the competition. However about 15 miles from the finish in Paris the youth was cooked and he all but collapsed on the side of the road. Totally enraged, Francis came to a screeching halt in his following car and ran to his rider now being supported by onlookers. He slapped the pathetic looking rider’s face. “Wake up stupid, you are winning the race”. The exhausted rider was somehow forced back on to his bike by Pélissier who screamed “if you get off that bike before Paris I will kill you!” The poor lad rode the rest of the race in a dream. In the center of the track as the winner, Francis grabbed his young rider not to kill him, but to kiss him joyously.
BP 1934. Jean Noret follows his motor bike pacer in 1934
[photos from Archive ]
The following year, 1934, Francis was back at the Bordeaux-Paris with another unknown rider, Jean Noret. The competition had learnt nothing from Mithouard’s win of the previous year and they persisted with small gears. By contrast Noret could not believe his eyes when he saw the size of his front chainring as he was given his bike in Bordeaux. An impassioned argument ensued with Pélissier again winning with dire threats. That year the race was paced all the way from Bordeaux to Paris. It took a while for Noret to get the gear rolling but once he hit the flat roads he was flying along at 45 mph and putting increasing space between himself and the rest of the field. At Poitiers, with 200 miles still to ride, he led by 20 minutes. He kept this advantage all the way to Paris where he finished as fresh as a daisy and established a new record of almost 30 mph. From that day on Francis Pélissier was known as the ‘Wizard of Bordeaux-Paris’.
Francis continued his work as a director sportif into the 1950’s. In fact it was he who directed the then 19 year-old Jacques Anquetil on his sensational debut in the 1953 Grand Prix des Nations time trial.
An Indelible Mark
Henri Pélissier was the biggest talent of the family. A natural athlete with a ferocious temper, he was nonetheless greatly admired by his two younger brothers. He won the 1923 Tour de France and the 1919 Bordeaux-Paris, but it was his protests that made him famous. In one edition of the Tour he abandoned the race because the organisers would not let him (or the other riders) drink an extra glass of wine at dinner!
Francis Pélissier looked up to his older brother but did not quite have his cycling talent. However two Bordeaux-Paris wins, a handful of classic wins, a couple of TdF stage wins, as well as five days in the Yellow Jersey attest to a better than average rider.
The baby of the three brothers, Charles, was the least gifted athletically but he was endowed with tremendous courage. He was taunted mercilessly while out training with Henri and Francis with them declaring “we’ll make a road rider of you if you have the guts to suffer”. He developed into a great track champion and Tour de France rider. In 1931 he won the Paris six-day at the old Velodrome d’Hiver and a week later almost won the Paris-Roubaix. At the 1930 TdF he won an astonishing eight (8) stages but his achilles heel was the mountains and so he only finished 9th on GC. The following year he won five TdF stages and wore the Yellow Jersey for two days. In all he had 16 TdF stages wins during his career. These results from ‘the least gifted brother’ clearly illustrate the class of the brothers Pélissier.
Like his brothers, Charles fought hard to raise the social status of professional cyclists. He also followed Francis in remaining linked to cycling for the rest of his life. WWII saw the end of his racing career. When peace was restored he spent much time involved with track racing and helping guide amateur road riders.
The Pélissier brothers have left an indelible mark on the history of cycling. Prolific winners, activists, renegades, they were some of the biggest sports stars of their era who contributed much to the evolution of the sport as we know it today. To the larger than life race organiser Henri Desgrange they were simply “Les enfants terribles”.
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