Saturday, March 10, 2012

John Wilcockson and the Puy de Dome

I've been reading John Wilcockson for over thirty years, first in "Winning" magazine and then in "VeloNews," as well as quite a few of his books and even via email. He doesn't reveal too much of himself, but I've still come to know him a bit. He is most certainly an authority on the Tour de France, having covered it since 1968. But the first thought that comes to my mind when I see his byline is that this is a man who was hard core enough to have biked The Tour route before he became a journalist, as did Graham Watson the photographer, and as I have done the past eight years.

He rarely mentions his bicycling exploits. It wasn't until a few days ago when I read his book "23 Days in July" about the 2004 Tour de France that I learned he was there on the Puy de Dome in 1964 with his bicycle when Jacques Anquetil and Raymond Poulidor battled it out shoulder-to-shoulder in what many consider the most dramatic stage in perhaps the greatest Tour of all time. That certainly had to be one of the great moments in Wilcockson's life. It gives me a thrill to have a small connection with someone who was there, imagining the thrill he must have been experiencing, and also all the pleasure it gives him whenever he remembers the occasion.

I've missed out on a great deal of pleasure over the years having been unaware of this until now. It is a badge of honor that he can truly be proud of. Henceforth it will be what I'll immediately associate with Wilcockson. And whenever his name comes up in conversation, I'll want to blurt, "Did you know he was on the Puy de Dome in 1964 as a fan," knowing that it will grant him instant respect from any aficionado of The Tour and will give whoever I am talking to a glow of pleasure remembering that storied stage and imagining what it must have been like to be there and could direct our conversation to other memories of such splendor.

I'm always happy to recall being on L'Alpe d'Huez in 2004 for the time trial between Lance and Ullrich and Basso when Lance was going for Tour title number six. Every cycling fan in the universe had been looking forward to that time trial from the moment The Race route had been announced the October before, all wishing they could be there. People began gathering on the climb days ahead of time. It was the largest crowd by far ever on L'Alpe d'Huez or perhaps any Tour mountain climb. Thousands of Americans were on hand and almost an equal number of Germans, all in a state of supreme ecstasy.

The Tour has returned to L'Alpe d'Huez three times since and I've been there each time. Those there are always in awe of the gathered throng of humanity, but I have to tell them that its not even half as many as were there in 2004, and as exuberant as everyone seems, it doesn't compare to what it was like in '04. My tent-to-tent squatter's campsite at the foot of the climb and my morning ride to the summit with thousands of others past all the frolicking Germans with their boom boxes blasting out drinking songs and people still painting the road and the orange-clad Dutch going berserk, everyone just super energy-charged, all remain vividly etched in my memory. That was truly an electrifying experience, as no doubt it was for Wilcockson to be on the Puy de Dome in 1964. He too was at the focal point of millions of racing fans all over the world, all wishing they could be there.

I don't know how he resists mentioning it from time to time as comparison to other great moments in Tour history or to comment on fan intensity or the great attraction The Tour has or what it was like in the old days or to firmly establish his credibility. Other writers find reason to bring it up. Making a reference to it would not be out of place at all, especially with his personal connection. Some might consider it boastful, but not me. Part of his resistance may have to do with his English roots. Even though he has been based in Boulder for many years, he may have retained a certain English reserve. His writing is generally very straightforward, not venturing off on personal or historical asides. He is not one to embellish his writing, unlike French cycling writers, who can launch into outrageously lyrical and grandiose prose, elevating the heroic exploits of the riders to mythic status. He goes easy on the adjectives and the pomposity, sticking to the point.

His VeloPress books on the 1998 through 2001 Tours, that I have recently read, are all quite clinical journalism, almost painfully so. They each follow a simple formula of a few profiles of the main contenders and their build-up to The Race and then seemingly dashed-off stage reports written immediately after each stage with a minimum of analysis or color. Those books deliver the facts but not much else.

But after reading "23 Days in July" on the 2004 Tour, it was clear that he was hand-cuffed in writing those books, getting a book out as quickly as he could and sticking to the bare minimum. But this book had a different publisher, Da Capo Press, unleashing him and allowing him to write with genuine depth and perspective, delving into the lore of The Race, mentioning the accordionist Yvette Horner and La France Profonde and Red Smith's 1960 visit and the great French sports writer Pierre Chany and many of the other small features of this great cultural event that fully define it. One gains a much greater understanding of The Tour from this book than all his VeloPress books combined. For the first time in all my reading far and wide I learned what towns have to pay to host a stage start or finish. No book or newspaper or magazine article I have read has ever mentioned it. I've asked people in tourist offies of Stage cities what they've have to pay and they don't want to say.

Wilcockson put the question to Tour director Jean-Marie LeBlanc. He puts the figure at 120,000 euros. It is the same amount for every city regardless of size. He explained, "We don't set the price too high because we don't want to attract only the big cities. But its high enough that only the serious candidates come forward." They usually have a pool of just under l00 cities to choose from every year for the 35 or so they need.

Wilcockson supplements his usual fine reporting with a wide range of worthwhile background material. If I had known what valuable insights it had to offer, I wouldn't have put off reading it all this years. And I would have had an enhanced appreciation of Wilcockson as a cylist. Not only did I learn he was on the Puy de Dome in 1964 from this book, but also that he raced in Brittany for a couple of summers in the mid-60s. Though he became a journalist and didn't have as much time to ride his bike, the bike hadn't lost its allure for him In 1979 when the "Sunday Times" that he was working for went on strike during The Tour, he took advantage of his freedom to go to The Tour on his bike once again. He didn't have a tent, but was staying in hotels. One evening in the Alps the hotel he was planning on staying at was closed for renovations, so he had to continue on for several hours in the dark. He arrived at Bourg d'Osians at the foot of L'Alpe d'Huez at two a.m. Everything was closed up forcing him to sleep on the wooden bench of a bus shelter. That earns him another "chapeau."

I've seen Wilcockson from time to time at The Tour off in the distance, usually scampering to snag a rider for a question or two, but have never had the chance to meet him. I will make a genuine effort this year. Hopefully he will be there, but it won't be for "VeloNews," as he and several other senior writers were let go after last year's Tour. His expertise will be missed. He's still writing though. It was nice to see him in the latest edition of "Peloton" magazine writing about Greg LeMond's triumph in the 1989 Tour.

And for the record: This book includes five very telling incidents of crying, once again attesting to the deep emotional commitment of the riders. The first is Jan Ullrich after an out-of-competition drug test in May of 2002 the day after he took ecstasy in a discotheque. He says in his autobiography "All or Nothing" that he knew he was going to test positive. After the inspector left, he "cried uncontrollably, terrified that his girlfriend would leave him."

Tyler Hamilton is a crying culprit twice, once over having to put his dog Tugboat to sleep during the 2004 Tour and the other when he tells his director Bjarne Riis that he will be leaving CSC for Phonak right after the 2003 Tour in which he finished fourth. Hamilton revealed, "When I had to tell Bjarne, it was awful. We both cried." Hamilton chokes back tears telling Wilcockson about it, and adds, "It was terrible, just terrible. It was probably one of the worst days of my life."

A domestique for the Belgian Lotto team, Christophe Brandt, cries when he learns he has tested positive for methadone during The Tour. And there is a photo of Fabian Cancellara after his Prologue victory pulling his just won yellow jersey up over his face to hide his tears of joy.

And for my final research topic: the spelling of L'Alpe d'Huez. It is properly spelled with the capital L fifteen times but without the L seven times. Two are excusable when quoting Lance on page 244 and Christian Vande Velde on page 254. One of the five other L-less spellings was on the back cover of the book.


skippy said...

Disappointed to see you have forgotten that I told you the amounts that Rotterdam and Brussels paid for the TDF to visit ! Also whilst in the Tourist office in Britany I mentioned the cost and reason why the 2011 TDF edition started there ! Don’t you recall the Europecar HQ was in the village ? Sure I showed you the photos and location .
Not sure if I have met Wilcockson during the various Pro Tour events . 2004 I made the climb in the morning then returned to the start as I was trying to arrange some gear . As I waited for the Conti Guy I arrested the clown that shoved Lance , as he arrived at the foot of the L’Alpe first pitch , beside the stream bridge . Cops lost interest after a while , and he was allowed to wander off whilst I continued to await my man who donated 5 tyres !

george christensen said...

Skippy: Nice to hear from you. I know the Grand Departs such as Rotterdam pay a million euros for the privilege, but no one likes to acknowledge what other towns pay. Those who work in the tourist offices of Ville Etapes always shy away from that question, as not all residents are in favor of paying for the honor of hosting The Tour, even though the town will reap a huge economic payoff from the 4,500 people who are part of The Tour entourage and the thousands of fans drawn to their town. And the town will become known all over the world. Its not rare for a even smaller town to be so happy with being part of The Tour that they return as a stage city soon after.