Join respected author, journalist & launch magazine editor of both Cycle Sport & Procycling William Fotheringham who takes us back in time to discover Bordeaux Paris. An insane derny-paced, place-to-place event that died 30 years ago after it's final victor Jean-Francois Rault crossed the finish line.
We often think of Paris-Roubaix as cycling’s ultimate throwback event, but that is merely because it is the great survivor. The race which truly took cycling back to its formative days of insane place to place distances and motor pacing died 30 years ago when the last edition of Bordeaux-Paris was run, won by Jean-Francois Rault, a workaday Breton professional who had spent eight years on the circuit and whose only other victory was the GP de Rennes.
When the race was founded in 1891 - the first winner was the Briton GP Mills - it was of its time, an era when extreme distance was in vogue, to capture the imagination of a public that rarely travelled far from their own homes. Mills was helped by what reports described as “a specially prepared stimulant” but still took 26 hours to cover the 560 kilometres, unpaced, finishing over an hour ahead of his moustachioed countryman, Montague Holbein.
As so often was the case in the pioneering days, the pacing was permitted in the early events, initially with tandems and other cycles, at one point - terrifyingly - by cars. The point of pacers was simple: the cyclists could go faster, for longer. Those marathon events were even more spectacular if covered at speeds beyond the ken of mortal man. After the second world war, the format stabilised: the cyclists rode under their own steam from Bordeaux to Chatellerault or Poitiers, where they would pick up their pacers, the pedal-assisted two-stroke motorbikes made by Roger Derny and fils in Avenue St Mandé, Paris.
French national road race champion Bernard Gauthier (Mercier-Hutchinson) won the 1956 edition of Bordeaux-Paris.
By the 1980s, Bordeaux-Paris was living on its former glories. The big names rarely if ever turned up. The organisers - the newspapers l’Equipe and Le Parisien who ran the Tour and Paris-Roubaix - were forced to resort to amateurs to make up the field. Amateurs such as Paul Kimmage, who was hauled in at five days notice with just enough time to get in two four-hour sessions behind a scooter.
Kimmage’s description of what was the last Bordeaux-Paris ridden behind Dernys (the final 3 races were unpaced) makes an astonishing read in the 21st century. Bed at 2pm on Saturday, up at 8pm, leave Bordeaux at midnight, ride as a group to just short of Poitiers, change kit, eat a little, go to the toilet. Then pick up the pacers. Kimmage finished ninth in a field of just 13. That year’s winner, Rene Martens, was another workday pro like Rault, but he had taken a totally unexpected win in the Tour of Flanders three years previously.
The heyday of Bordeaux-Paris pretty much coincided with the golden era of cycling: 1950-1970. The winners list speaks volumes, including as it does Louison Bobet, Ferdi Kubler, Tom Simpson, Wim Van Est, Walter Godefroot. Simpson’s 1963 win was critical for the Briton, as it relaunched the British champion’s career after a difficult spell following his day in the yellow jersey in the 1962 Tour de France. (If you're curious about Simpson - you can read more about him in Tom Simpson Book - Cycling Legends #01 written and researched by Chris Sidwells).
However, it lost its lustre through the 1970s; the last Tour de France winner to take victory in the Derby was Jan Janssen in 1966. Eddy Merckx and Roger de Vlaeminck never considered it worth targeting, which made it a goal for their compatriot Herman Van Springel, who became the record-holder, with seven wins between 1970 and 1981. The 1976 win for Walter Godefroot marked the final occasion on which a true Classics great claimed victory.
In truth, the Derby was never quite the same after its 1965 edition, when Jacques Anquetil was inspired by his manager Raphael Geminiani to stage the most audacious challenge of his career, racing Bordeaux-Paris just a few hours after winning the Dauphiné Libéré, then as now the hardest French stage race outside the Tour. It was the greatest coup of Anquetil’s career, his status in France such that he was able to blag a place on a private jet belonging to the government to fly from the Alps.
Jacques Anquetil (Ford France - Gitane) won the 1965 edition of Bordeaux-Paris.
Along with Jean Stablinski, Vin Denson was one of two teammates chosen to support Anquetil as he took on the previous year’s winner Tom Simpson. “Jacques came to the hotel and some glacé cherries, rognons de veau, and had a bit of white wine,” Denson recalled. “He lay on his bed until 11pm, never slept, and by 12 he had to be in front of the crowds at the velodrome in Bordeaux.”
“On the road, he was falling asleep on his bike, we had to hold his bars to stop him falling off, and we were pushing him all the way to Chatellerault.” It was a wet, misty night, and Anquetil was determined to abandon. It took all Geminiani’s powers of persuasion to keep him in the race, and in the finale, Stablinski and his leader managed to defeat Simpson by dint of attacking him turn and turn about.
It was a close run thing, a duel lasting until five kilometres remaining, amidst crowds so large that on the Côte de Dourdan – the decisive ascent approaching Paris – Stablinski’s motorbike driver was knocked off his bike. It was delirium. That race and Anquetil’s achievement would never be matched or bettered; all that remained for the Derby of the road was 20 years of gentle decline.