Bicycle Racing—Its Ups and Downs
STRUGGLING, puffing, pedaling, yet not really feeling the fatigue, I was sure it was all worth it. After a 15-mile [25 km] climb, at the summit of the Great Saint Bernard Pass, between Switzerland and Italy, I was in the lead. My coach signaled from his car that I was a few minutes ahead. Already I could picture myself winning the stage and even donning the leader’s yellow jersey.
In front of motorbikes and cars, I raced down the other side at a reckless speed. Halfway down, I took one of the curves too quickly. My back wheel skidded out from under me, and I flew off the road. I painfully finished the stage, but it was good-bye to the yellow jersey and glory. I did not win the 1966 Tour de l’Avenir.
How My Passion Grew
I was born in Brittany at the end of the second world war. In western France cycling is very popular, and the region has produced many champions. As a boy I used to watch the local races and never missed the Tour de France on television. Seeing the riders laboring up through breathtaking mountain passes and hurtling down the steepest of slopes, I thought they seemed like gods.
At 17, I decided to try it. With the help of a bicycle dealer, I bought my first racing bike secondhand. I had a full program: training every Sunday morning and before and after work during the week. Just two months later, my heart pounding, I stood at the start of my first race. I would have won it if the pack had not caught up with me just 30 feet [10 m] before the finish line! For the rest of that year, I finished among the first 15 in almost all my races.
My 1962 season was short-lived. After three months of competition and several victories, I was called up for 18 months of military service in Algeria. After my return to France, I spent 1965 readapting to cycling. But the following season, I was firmly determined to experience the joy of once again receiving the winner’s bouquet.
From March 1966 onward, it was one victory after another. Each time that I came in first or second in a race, I gained points that would eventually move me up to a higher category, where competition would be stiffer. However, at the time, I was working with my father sanding floors. The work was very tiring and prevented me from devoting as much time to cycling as I would have liked. So when I reached the number of points required to stay in my category, I satisfied myself with the bonus money I earned during the remaining races, but I would allow myself to be beaten so as not to move up a category.
In view of my results, three teams offered me racing contracts. I refused so as not to leave my father. However, the most insistent coach persuaded my father to grant me a week’s leave to compete in a difficult race in the Pyrenees mountain range along the French-Spanish border. I placed respectably, so we continued on into Spain, where I won the amateurs’ Tour of Catalonia. A few days later, I competed in the Tour of the Balearic Islands, won the first stage, and donned the leader’s jersey, only to lose it on the last day in a time trial because my team dropped out.
Then came the Route de France in the Nice region. I excelled in many of the stages and won the trophy for the best hill specialist. Because of such good results, I was selected as one of the top ten riders and was invited to represent France in the Tour de l’Avenir, the amateur version of the Tour de France.
During those two months, the only news my family received had come from the sports pages of the newspapers. Thinking of my father and the fact that he had given me only a week’s leave, I refused the offer and returned home. But my coach and a sports journalist convinced my father that I was one of France’s bicycle-racing hopes, so he let me go. I thought I was dreaming! Just a few months earlier, I was a third- or fourth-category amateur, and now here I was chosen for the most important amateur bicycle race in the world! As I mentioned at the outset, a fall ruined my chances in that 1966 Tour.
In 1967, I won about ten rallies, competed in the Paris-Nice race, and finished fourth in the Tour du Morbihan, in Brittany. In 1968, at the age of 24, I signed my first professional contract, joining Dutch rider Jan Janssen’s team. We competed in the Tour de France, and Jan won it that year. In the meantime, after a time trial in Rennes, Brittany, I met Danielle, who had come there to see her first bicycle race. It was not to be her last, for we got married the following year.
How I loved those days—the team spirit, the nomad’s life, seeing new towns and scenery every day! I did not earn much money, but it did not matter because the pleasure of racing was so satisfying. I did well in various trials and hoped to win one of the big races. However, I began to realize that an enormous gulf separates amateur and professional cyclists.
The Great Champions . . . and the Others
During the 1969 season, I teamed up with famous French cyclist Raymond Poulidor. I raced the great one-day classics—Paris-Roubaix and the Flèche Wallonne, in Belgium. I kept up with the best cyclists in the mountain passes, finishing reasonably well in several stages. Yet, more than anything else, I enjoyed winning the local rallies in Brittany before the throngs of spectators I loved.
But contrary to my hopes, like many others I was not blessed with the physical capacities of a great champion. In a strenuous stage of the Tour of Spain, I had to drop out because of snow and rain. There I realized that the great champions have just that much more, that something special that enables them to endure both scorching heat and freezing cold. I was not in the same class as Eddy Merckx, for example, the Belgium champion who dominated cycling at that time. He outclassed the rest of us by far. In fact, I virtually saw only his back during the races in which he took part.
Solidarity Among Racers
Solidarity existed even among competing teams. I personally experienced this during one of the most difficult stages of the 1969 Tour de France. The previous night, we had arrived at our hotel exhausted after a series of strenuous mountain stages. The alarm clock rang at seven the following morning. As usual, a copious breakfast was awaiting us three hours before the race.
At the start, there were about 150 of us, everyone relating his ups and downs of the past few days, though taking care not to reveal team strategy for the race ahead. It was going to be a grueling day. This stage left from Chamonix, at the foot of Mont Blanc, for Briançon, with 140 miles [220 km] of alpine roads and three major passes to cross.
Right from the start, the pace was very fast. On my way up the 6,509 foot [1,984 m] Madeleine Pass, I knew it was not going to be a good day for me. It was raining, and as we gained altitude, the rain turned to snow. At the summit, six of us from different teams were already several minutes behind the leaders. Frozen, we started down the descent, our fingers so stiff we were hardly able to brake without putting a foot to the ground. Down below, an official signaled from a car that our late arrival would undoubtedly get us eliminated. I was completely disheartened at the thought of seeing my Tour de France ending in a place I loved most, the mountains.
Although our efforts seemed doomed, the most experienced cyclist among us encouraged us not to give up. He roused our spirits, got the group into formation, and suggested that we take turns cycling up front. We pressed on. When we arrived at the supply post, it was closed, but we did not mind sharing what little food we had left.
When we were down in the valley again, hot weather gave us renewed strength. The hours ticked by, and there before us lay the two other great obstacles of the day—the Telegraph and Galibier passes, 5,479 feet [1,670 m] and 8,678 feet [2,645 m] high, respectively. On the ascent, a marvelous surprise awaited us. At a bend in the road, through the spectators, we could make out a multicolored mass. Yes, we had caught up with the others. We passed some who had given up and others who appeared to be pinned to the ground. I spotted one of Belgium’s young hopes on foot, exhaustedly pushing his bicycle. I caught up with my team leader and finished the stage reasonably well.
All of this taught me an important lesson I have never forgotten: As long as the finish line has not been crossed, the race is neither lost nor won. Moreover, I will never forget the spirit of mutual support that existed, even among competing teams.
First Contacts With the Bible
In 1972, I had my first contact with the Bible’s message. A cyclist named Guy, who had recently left professional racing, dropped in for a visit and spoke about his new faith. I told him that I was not interested and that everyone believes that his own particular religion is the best one. Guy showed me a few verses from the Bible and answered my objections by saying that since many religions say their beliefs come from the Bible, it should be easy to test their beliefs against the truth of God’s Word.
I had heard of the Bible, but being a non-practicing Catholic, I did not think it had anything to do with my religion. Still, I felt our conversation had come at an opportune time because one of my wife’s relatives, a Catholic missionary, was coming to visit, and we could discuss all of this with him.
My wife’s relative confirmed that the Bible was truly the Word of God. Yet, he told us to be wary because, according to him, Jehovah’s Witnesses were fine people, but they were misleading others. When I saw Guy again, I asked him about this. He explained that contrary to what I had been taught in the church, the doctrine of the immortality of the human soul is not in the Bible. (Ezekiel 18:4) He also asked why the relative did not use God’s name, Jehovah.—Psalm 83:18.
I was astounded to learn that God had a name. When we showed these verses to my wife’s relative, he said the Bible should not be taken so literally. Our discussions with him went no further, and Guy returned to Paris, where he worked.
Guy came back to Brittany one year later and paid us a visit. He renewed our discussions by showing us that the Bible was also a prophetic book. This encouraged us to study it more closely. Our discussions began to become more regular. Yet, Guy had to be very patient with me, since my life still revolved around cycling and all that went with it—friends, supporters, and so forth. Also, being from Brittany, a region deeply attached to religious traditions, our families were opposed to our new interest in the Bible.
In 1974 my racing career ended abruptly with a road accident. This made us think about what was truly important in our lives. My wife and I decided to move away from our hometown and the influence of our families. At that point we started attending meetings regularly at the Kingdom Hall of the Dinan Congregation. Both of us progressed in the truth, and we were baptized in 1976.
Since then I have had the opportunity to speak about the Bible to several bicycle racers of my generation. Also, when I go from house to house, many people recognize me and enjoy talking about my career in bicycle racing. However, some are not as enthusiastic when I speak about the Kingdom message.
Today, when I feel the need for a good workout, I go riding with my family. During these moments, I appreciate the truthfulness of Paul’s words when he said: “Bodily training is beneficial for a little; but godly devotion is beneficial for all things, as it holds promise of the life now and that which is to come.”—1 Timothy 4:8.—As told by Jean Vidament.
[Box/Map on page 16, 17]
The Tour de France
The world’s most famous bicycle road race, the Tour de France started in 1903. It covers from 2,500 to 3,000 miles [4,000 to 4,800 km] and takes about three weeks, now finishing in Paris. About 200 professional contestants take part in this race, which passes through the French countryside with a few incursions into neighboring countries. Crowds of spectators along the route cheer the racers.
Each day the rider with the shortest overall time dons the yellow jersey. The overall leader on the last day is the winner.
Some of the shortest stages are time trials, in which individuals or teams race against the clock. In the team time-trial section, a set number of riders belonging to the same team must finish the stage as a pack, all at the same time.
Tour de France bicycle race
[Picture on page 16]
In 1968, at the age of 24, Jean Vidament competed in the Tour de France
[Picture Credit Line on page 15]
Mike Lichter/International Stock