The Derby of the Road
[Bordeaux-Paris Part 1]
After joining my first cycling club during the early 1960’s, I soon discovered the world of racing. In England at that time club racing was predominantly focussed on time trials. It was not long before I also learned of road racing, and in particular of the great races on mainland Europe. The Grand Tours and the Five Monuments completely captured my imagination. Having never seen mountains, I was drawn to the epic battles that raged each year in the Pyrenees, Alps and Dolomites. In the same way the cobbled classics were then, as now, totally fascinating.
In addition to this predictable menu of gourmet races, I soon learned of other incredible events and at the top of my list was the Bordeaux-Paris. Known as the Derby of the Road, this now defunct classic attracted the world’s top riders. First run in 1891, the race was almost always a paced event. Over the years bicycles, tandems, cars and finally the legendary Derny motor cycle were used to provide the pacing. In an era when long distance bike races were the fashion, Bordeaux-Paris stood alone. At 350 miles (560km) it was by far the longest race on the calendar.
George Pilkington Mills
[photos from Archive ]
The organisers of the inaugural 1891 event planned for the marathon to last several days and made arrangements for accommodation and food along the route. George Pilkington Mills, an English amateur racer, had other ideas. He raced through the night and reached Paris in just over 26 hours. His victory set the seal and thereafter the race was always considered a one-day affair.
Historically Britain has had lean pickings at the elite level of cycle racing, but at the dawn of cycle racing British winners were relatively common. The second British winner of the Bordeaux-Paris was the hugely talented Arthur Linton from Wales in 1896. He reached Paris in a state of near total exhaustion. As it happened, Henri Desgrange was a spectator that day and it is said that the completely pitiful sight of Linton triggered his imagination. Many believe that the idea for the Tour de France was born at that moment. As we know, Desgrange’s ideal Tour was to be a race so demanding that only one survivor would reach the finish in Paris. Sadistically, Desgrange took no note of the fact that the 24 year old Linton died just two months after his greatest victory from exhaustion induced typhoid fever.
Bordeaux-Paris was run continuously (apart from breaks during WWI and WWII) from 1891 until its eventual demise as a pro race in 1986. In the modern era with races getting shorter and contract money and prizes dramatically increasing the B-P could not compete. Often clashing with other major events on the calendar, the time demanded for special training made no sense to the big name pros. The prize money also became a central issue as the purse was little more than that for an average short criterium.
When Distance was King
In the era leading up to WWI, long distance cycle races were standard fair. Distances in excess of 400 kms were common in the Classics and stages of the early Tours. Historians tell us that prior to WWI the average European citizen rarely travelled further than 25 miles from their home their entire life! In our modern inter-connected world it is hard to imagine the sheer awe and fascination experienced by spectators seeing cyclists pass through their town or village on a journey covering hundreds of miles in a single day.
During those early years it should also be remembered that bicycles were leading edge technology. Unlike most evolving technology at that time, bicycles were within reach of most working families. It is no surprise therefore that these facts created a huge commercial opportunity. Consequently numerous bicycle manufacturers started to sponsor cyclists and organise the first trade teams. Competition was intense and endless stories abound of dirty tricks and clandestine activities. One legacy of that era is the beautiful collection of artistic and usually fanciful posters promoting cycling products.
The manufacturers loved the long races because this was their platform to demonstrate the reliability of their product. Naturally this environment led to increased innovation and then, along with the appearance of the motor car, provided the demand for better road surfaces.
From 1891 until 1911 pacers led the B-P for the entire distance of the race. After 1911 the formula regularly changed with the pacing not taking over until well into the race. Bicycle pacing ceased in 1931 when motor bikes took over and then in 1938 the Derny appeared and stayed as the official pacing vehicle until the race faded away in 1986.
After 1939 the race was un-paced until mid-way through the race. Poitiers and Chatellerault were most frequently used as the rendezvous point. On race day these towns were the scene of tremendous spectator interest. The ambling bunch would take the opportunity to refresh, strip off warm woollen clothing and fill up with food and drink before setting about the serious business of racing. Coming into town the little peloton would be cruising along at about 18 mph. After latching on to their Derny pacers the pace would rapidly get up to nearly 40 mph as they left town.
As a transition phase, Poitiers or Chatellerault would parallel the dramatic change we see today at Troisvilles in the Paris-Roubaix. Here at about mid-race, the riders encounter the first cobbles and the mad rush to get there first is always a high point of the day. It is also here that most people consider the real race begins. And so it was in Poitiers or Chatellerault on Bordeaux-Paris day.
[photos from Archive ]
The development of the Derny addressed long standing challenges with the Bordeaux-Paris. Human powered pacing required frequent changes of crew and was thus expensive. Motor bike acceleration and deceleration, created by overall low gear ratios, was not compatible with a closely following cyclist. To offset this a roller was fitted behind the rear wheel. The motor car also proved totally unsuitable as a pacing vehicle. The Derny (known as a ‘cyclo moteur’) was a hybrid between bicycle and motor bike. Its 98cc two stroke engine worked with an integral clutch and two speed gear box. Capable of pulling strongly at low revolutions, the speed could be varied precisely ‘on throttle’ without clutch slipping or very much gear changes. Fitted with bicycle cranks and pedals and a single very high gear ratio, the Derny rider had to pedal at all times. The end effect was that the Derny was effectively a motorised bicycle.
While the Derny became synonymous with the Bordeaux-Paris, they have long been used for many other races on both the road and track. Today they can be seen at some special road events but most often at track races. Anyone who has seen original Dernys in action will testify to perhaps the biggest of it’s design flaws. The exhaust silencer and the gear box make a highly distinctive and extremely loud racket. However on race day this trademark cacophony adds considerably to the excitement of the race.
With the advent of motorised pacing, speeds went up and the overall race time dropped. However, the typical Bordeaux-Paris race day still lasted between 15 and 16 hours for the winner. To arrive in Paris at a time to attract maximum crowds, the race typically set off from Bordeaux at 2:30AM. Even at this uncivilised hour huge crowds would gather in the night darkness to capture a glimpse of their heroes. On average the field consisted of between 12 and 15 invited riders.
Before setting out, each rider’s bikes (including spares) were scrutinised with particular attention paid to the distance between bottom bracket and front wheel axle. Limits were strictly stipulated in order to prevent riders from getting closer to their pacers through a shorter wheelbase. About 250 kms up the road the Dernys and their riders were put through an even more rigorous inspection. Again wheelbase was a key measure and the objective was to ensure that every rider/Derny combination afforded everyone the same aerodynamic advantage.
The Derny riders were subjected to a frisking worthy of any modern airport security check. Padding of any sort was strictly prohibited. The typical Derny rider would be a large man to create maximum wind protection and each racer would have at least two Dernys for the long trek. Most of the men were former racers and were central to achieving overall success. They would often dictate on-road tactics and encourage their riders to ride harder, slower or simply help them through a rough patch. Many of these ‘entraineurs’ (pacemakers) had careers going back 40 years or more. They knew the roads, race dynamics and how to draw the maximum out of their racers.
BP 1931. Van Rysselberge follows his motor bike pacer in 1931
[photos from Archive ]
While the first half of the race was typically run at a brisk club run pace, this was the hardest part for most riders. Once Bordeaux had been cleared the race disappeared into the darkness of night. Lights from support vehicles, press and marshals pierced the gloom and cast eerie shadows. The riders would be bundled up to keep warm and making sure that they ate and drank regularly. Nature breaks would be arranged under a group agreement to keep the bunch intact. An unwritten law dictated that nobody attacked until the ‘real race’ began with the Derny pacers.
As dawn slowly revealed the surrounding countryside everyone started thinking about the next phase. With the warmer day time hours riders stopped to remove bulky clothing and by the time they all reached the rendezvous with the Dernys everyone was in normal race attire. Piotiers or Chatellerault would be a hive of activity as the Derny teams, their mechanics, organisers, press and a huge crowd awaited with eager anticipation. With news of the impending arrival of the riders 25 to 30 Dernys would roar into life. The noise would completely shatter the morning peace and with the arrival of the racers confusion would reign as each rider looked for his pacer. The chaos would soon subside as the paced bunch rode away from town as a well disciplined peloton. In fact there would be two pelotons. The first would comprise the racers with their pacing Derny. Just behind them would be the second peloton of back-up Derny pacers ready to take over should the lead Derny falter for any reason.
Early breaks by ‘lesser’ riders would often be allowed, but eventually they would typically succumb to accumulated exhaustion. With about 150kms or so of the motor paced section covered, the big action could explode at any time. The killing fields usually lay in wait through the dreaded Chevreuse Valley leading to the outskirts of Paris. A series of climbs, and especially the St. Cyr de Dourdan climb, would turn legs into lead. Eventually the climbing ended and the long run downhill to Versailles carried the leaders into the streets of south west Paris where they would be greeted by a thunderous roar at the Parc des Princes track.
A Breed Apart
Anyone who has ridden very long distances in one day knows that at some point you will hit a very rough patch. The rider who surmounts this ‘defaillance’ best will usually end up as the day’s victor. Having achieved that, all that is left is to maintain composure through the awards ceremony and being mobbed by the press and well wishers.
For most racers, a super long marathon ride is something rarely to be tackled more than once in a racing career. But the long list of Bordeaux-Paris winners proves yet again that professional racing cyclists are a breed apart. There are many double and triple winners. However one name stands above all others. Between 1970 and 1981 Belgium’s Herman Van Springel won the Derby of the Road no less than seven times. Van Springel was a highly accomplished rider boasting a TdF 2nd on GC (1968), a TdF Points Jersey (1973), Giro 2nd on GC (1971) along with many classics victories.
Seven time B-P winner, Herman Van Springel
In its day Bordeaux-Paris held tremendous prestige. Great Grand Tour and Classics champions populate the list of winners and the stories that go with the race history. Francois Faber, Henri and Francis Pelissier, Eugene Christophe, and George Ronsse were great pre-WWII winners. In the post war ‘Golden Age’, Wim Van Est, Ferdi Kubler, Louison Bobet, Tom Simpson, Jacques Anquetil, Walter Godefroot and Herman Van Springel are names that jump out of the list of winners.
In common with all great cycle races, the Bordeaux-Paris produced many great battles and has left us with stories that tell us a lot about the race and the riders. In the next editions of CyclingRevealed.com we will recall a few of these great stories from the Derby of the Road.
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