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The giants of the Giant of Provence

July 24, 2009

‘If it is true, as Victor Hugo says, that ‘martyrdom is sublimation, a torture that consecrates’, then Louison was quite right. His consecration in Avignon was, in my view, the crowning moment of his career.’
(With thanks to Resonance FM’s peerless The Bike Show)

AS the centrepiece of a sporting memoir this sentence from 1950s French cycling legend Jean Bobet has to rank as the greatest ever written.
It’s beautiful, not simply because is supremely eloquent, but because it encapsulates the cut throat beauty of what it takes to succeed in Grand Tour cycling and physical courage of the greats. Please read the full extract linked below, it is the greatest piece of sporting memoir ever committed to print.
Bobet, speaking about his brother Louison’s heroic 13 minute win on Mont Ventoux in 1955 en route to becoming the first man to win three consecutive tours, opens up a world where men actually take themselves to the very edge of physical endurance. Men, who ‘fall off the black ravine’ as Jean puts it.
The Ventoux has a special place in pro-cycling, its much quoted lunar landscape and 22 kilometre climb at between 6.5%-8% in baking Provencale July (Tour) heat drags everyone to the limit.
Tom Simpson, who died within sight of the summit in 1967, illustrates that most often wrongly used of sporting clichés: he made the ultimate sacrifice for his sport.
Simpson did, but too often cyclists whose short careers are full of the glory of extreme physical exploits in the full glare of the public for minimal rewards, are also among those that make that ultimate sacrifice, either during or soon after their racing lives have finished.
The great Eddy Merckx took his hat off at the memorial of Simpson in a heroic winning ride which took him to his own physical limits in 1970s tour en route to his second triumph (of five) in the race. It was an example of the supreme brotherhood of the peloton then which has been shattered too often in recent years by the classlessness of modern (American) athletes.

On the Ventoux today, someone is going to race off for their own consecration, and that may be just for a second, third or fourth place on the tour or even much less. They race for small rewards, more often than not, simply a place in cycling’s hallowed posterity. It may just be the crowning moment of a cyclist’s career.
How many of us would be willing to write ourselves so painfully into history thanks to one supreme effort, and how many of us will pay the price of either Bobet, Merckx or Tom Simpson?
Read Bobet’s memoir of Ventoux from the Bike Show here

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