Eddy Merckx leads the pack in his Peugeot BP team jersey during the 1966 edition of the Tour of Lombardy. Photo credits: Mark Leech / Offside
Find out about the team that is as commandeered as "the most successful cycling team ever" join Pedr Charlesworth who explores the story behind the iconic French team containing Tom Simpson, Roger Pingeon, Eddy Merckx and Robert Millar.
Cycling, it was a different game back when Peugeot’s star riders were first battling up the steep slopes of the Pyrenees.
The first world war was yet to take place, the yellow jersey even dreamt up, and riders required resourcefulness outside the realm of cycling just to finish races. Eugène Christophe was certainly a resourceful man, meticulous in his planning, he would always be found with a 20 franc coin, chain link and spoke key in a chamois bag hung around his neck in preparation for the worst. After missing out on the overall Tour de France victory the previous year, he was leaving nothing to chance in 1913; attacking from the front on the low slopes of the Col du Tourmalet with his trusty bag swinging freely as he rode.
After launching a ceaseless barrage of attacks, Christophe’s final injection of pace proved just too much for his arch-rival Odile Defraye, causing him to retire from the competition with exhaustion. Now, over an hour clear from the rest of the field in the general classification, he could comfortably enjoy the dramatic French mountainscape unfolding before him. The procession was to last mere minutes, however, when a reckless race vehicle clipped his bike, sending him sprawling into the road and clean snapping his forks (so Peugeot claim). Weeping with anger, he shouldered the broken bike, watching the rest of the riders fly by whilst he descended the next 10km on foot to the nearest village. After locating a forge in town, he skilfully welded the mangled forks back together before completing the stage on his wounded steed.
Eventually crossing the line 3 hours after the lead pack, he was then penalised a further 10 minutes by stewards for letting a seven-year-old boy pump the bellows whilst he welded the bike. Initially judged to be too harsh, the penalty was then reduced to more ‘reasonable’ 3 minutes…
Despite Christophe never going on to win a Tour, it was these acts of cycling heroism from Peugeot riders that led the team to be ranked the most successful of all time over the forthcoming years (cycleranking.com). Starting at the turn of the century (1901), Peugeot squads performed at the very highest level for over 8 decades. In that time their stellar roster included the French talisman, Tour de France (1967) and Vuelta a España (1969) winner Roger Pingeon; 1966 Gent-Wevelgem, La Fleche Wallonne, two-time San-Remo (1966, 1967) and a Giro d’Italia stage winner, a young Eddy Merckx; Vuelta a España (1971) champion Ferdinand Bracke, and neo-pros Stephen Roche and Scot Robert Millar.
Robert Millar during stage 11 at the 1984 Tour de France - Pau to Gruzet Neige.\nPhoto Credit: Offside / L'Equipe.
Many of these (notably Merckx, Roche and Millar) went on to achieve greatness sporting other colours, yet were always grateful for their youthful years spent donning the iconic checkered jersey. Merckx, in particular, enjoyed the refuge of the friendly team and its welcoming leader after a fall out with his previous outfit, Solo-Superia, and its chieftain Rik Van Looy. Despite being a team of French origins, Peugeot was headed by popular Briton Tom Simpson. Before taking the helm at Peugeot, he had previously vanquished Van Looy in his own backyard, when the GS Solo Superia legend crashed out of the ’61 Tour of Flanders, leaving the debutant Simpson to battle his way to victory sporting a natty pair of Ray-Bans.
Tom Simpson climbing during Stage 10 of the 1965 Tour de France from Bagneres de Bignorre to Aix les Thermes. Photo Credits: Offside / L'Equipe.
Simpson continued his excellent form at Peugeot, where he nurtured a rising Merckx who would eventually be the only foreign rider to attend his funeral. Before that dark day, Simpson would become the first Briton to wear the yellow jersey, win Milan-San Remo (1964) and the World Championships (1965), on top of a victory at Bordeaux-Paris (1963). Then there was Lombardy. After being roasted by the press for straight talking about the state of race fixing in the pro peloton, Simpson let his legs speak for themselves over the Italian climbs. It was 1965, and the home hero Gianni Motta was in his prime riding for the Molteni outfit. Having broken clear from the main bunch, the pair battled their way up the concluding climb in San Fermo della Battaglia, where thousands of jubilant fans cheered on their Molteni man. Despite their support he was unable to match Simpson's pace, as the Briton surged on through the frenzied crowds, crossing the line beaming in first place. Motta was inconsolable, and Simpson, a temporary Italian villain.
Any villainous phase could not last however – Simpson was a crowd pleaser.
Often seen riding up the advertising boards on the banks of velodromes to the joy of onlooking fans; he was also a popular character in the pro peloton. Amongst the riders he commanded respect for his style and ability to endure fearsome levels of suffering on the bike. It was this ability however, that meant those closest to him thought little of the Britons complexion as he pushed hard up Mt. Ventoux, on stage 13 of the ’67 Tour. Just 1km from the summit, he dropped back from the lead group, swerving across the road before collapsing off his bike. Ignoring his managers protests to stop, he re-adjusted his toe clips and rode on, managing a further 500m before falling once more – this time it would prove fatal.
Roger Pingeon at the front in the yellow jersey at the 1967 Tour de France. Photo Credits: Offside / L'Equipe.
The Peugeot cycling team would continue on to great things in the absence of its loved leader, notably Roger Pingeon winning that fateful edition of the Tour, before emerging victorious at the Vuelta a España just two years later (1969). Performances like these would leave the team boasting a glittering palmarès, forever etched into the history books of which few teams will ever match. Peugeot, a team set up just after the wave of Dunlops pneumatic tyre swept across the world, yet, still able to retain relevance to this day, as pro tour pelotons tackling Ventoux ‘tip their caps’ and raise their helmets in respect of their rider in a checkered shirt.
A true bastion of cycling spirit - Tom Simpson (1937-1967).
Join travel writer & current round-the-world cyclist Pedr Charlesworth as he delves into the ruthless panache that made the iconic Molteni cycling team so successful with leaders Gianni Motta, Herman Van Springel, Marino Basso and Eddy Merckx.