Wednesday, June 11, 2014

Robic Who?

I couldn't find a soul in the town of Bensecours, adjoining Rouen, who had heard of Jean Robic, let alone where the plaque was hung commemorating his attack on a steep climb leading to their town that launched him to victory in the 1947 Tour de France.  Robic's win was one of the most dramatic in the one hundred editions of The Race.  He overcame a three-minute deficit on the final stage to win the first post-WWII Tour, after it had been on hiatus for seven years between 1940 and 1946.

If not for his bold attack, an Italian, Pierre Brambillia, would have been the victor, almost as catastrophic as a German winning.  Brambillia was so distraught over his calamitous defeat that he buried his bike in his garden and swore he'd never ride again, though he did.  Robic was a national hero for preserving French honor and sparing it the ignominy of an Italian victory. A cathedral in his home town still displays his Yellow Jersey.  The cathedral in Bensecours has a plaque thanking him for his triumph.  And reputedly there was a plaque on the climb honoring him as well.

I would have thought that Robic would live strongly in the hearts of all the French, but all I drew from those I asked about him were blank looks rather than smiles of delight.  I presumed that every French school child would have had driven into their noggins multiple times over the years every detail of Robic's feat by teachers and parents and sports announcers.  His conquest could be compared to any of those of the country's legion of legendary generals and knights, from Napoleon to Joan of Arc. It may be a bit much to expect that their graduation at some point hinged on knowing all The Tour de France winners along with all their Presidents and Kings and Queens, but surely they'd be expected to know all the French winners of The Tour.

Robic's victory is certainly one that would stand out, especially at the time after the country had been deprived of its beloved Tour for nearly a decade.  Its return meant life was back to what it once was.  And Robic made for a most memorable character thanks to his litany of idiosyncrasies.  He had a pronounced diminutive stature, so much so that he would be handed a bottle of lead at the summits in the high mountains to put in his water bottle cage to help him keep up with his heavier opponents on the descent.  He was also the lone rider of his era to wear a leather helmet after fracturing his skull in a crash in 1944. He wasn't exactly handsome, branded with the nicknames "Kid Goat" and "Hobgoblin of the Brittany moor" and "Leatherhead."

The first person I asked about Robic's plaque was at the start of the climb along the Seine River, not much more than a mile from downtown Rouen, where Joan of Arc had been burned at the stake.  He was the owner of a discotheque.  He looked like a guy who would have his finger on the pulse of everything that mattered in these parts.  When he had no clue what I was asking about, I thought I might have been butchering the pronunciation of Robic, so I wrote it out for him.  Still the name didn't register even a spark of recognition.  He suggested I ask at the Culligan water-softener store next door since their service would give them an intimate knowledge of the area.  The two people still there at seven p.m. were also thrown for a total loop by my query.

It was most likely the plaque would be at the summit of the climb rather than at the bottom, so I set to it.  The climb began through a working class neighborhood of tenements.  When I saw an older guy, who looked like he could have been a lad sixty-seven years ago when Robic charged up this hill, I stopped to ask him about the plaque.  He thought I was the one with encroaching senility.   The first half of the 1.2 mile climb was a five percent ramp.  After a kilometer, its half way point, it steepened to a nasty ten percent, just what Robic needed to drop Brambillia.

Back in 1947 the peloton reached this climb half-way into a fairly flat 160-mile stage that began in Caen.  The final eighty miles to Paris duplicated the very first long bike race in 1867, though it had started in Paris and ended in Rouen.  Robic had several breakaway companions to help him build a thirteen-minute gap on the disheartened Brambillia by the time he reached Paris.  Brambillia couldn't muster any help in the peloton to help him catch Robic, no one wishing to aid an Italian.

The climb summitted on a pleateau leading to several blocks of shops typical of any French town, though none selling bikes.  I continued at my plodding pace gazing left and right for a plaque or sign or memorial, but there was none to be seen.  I stopped at a bakery and neither the owner nor the two customers registered any recognition of Robic.  They suggested I ask at the city hall in the morning.  I continued into town past an Antoine de Saint-Expéry park and streets named for Jules Verne and Victor Hugo and Charles de Gaulle, but nothing to Robic.  I tried a pharmacy and an out door cafe and flagged down a jogger, all to no avail.  

So I dug out my iPad to see what I could find.  It was unclear if the plaque had been placed here or at the finish in Paris.  At this point, I didn't need to see a plaque.  I had made the climb and paid full homage to this significant site in Tour lore.  And I had more than paid my respects to Robic a year ago when I visited his grave just south of Paris.


It was after eight p.m. now. I tried not to feel disappointed that I couldn't add another plaque to my collection of those I have sought out all over the country, though it wouldn't be the first that have eluded me.  I have yet to find the plaque on a house in Granges honoring the founder of Motobacane and a plaque to the father of Davis Phinney in the Alps and a plaque honoring Bernard Hinault's world championship win on French soil.

I'd begun my day of biking over twelve hours ago, but late as it was I still had two hours of light to get out into the countryside to camp and plenty of energy left in my legs even though I had biked over  eighty miles already, my best day since departing Cannes two weeks ago.  I was dealt another steep climb in excess of ten percent exiting Rouen, giving my legs another end-of-the-day test. It was a strain, but not a stinging one as some of the climbs these past two weeks had been, a great sign that the legs are coming around and will most certainly be ready for The Tour when it commences in just over three weeks.

It was about ten miles to Quincampoix, the town where five-time winner of The Tour Jacques Anquetil is buried.  I had no choice but to keep riding, as there was no undeveloped patch for camping in Rouen's series of adjoining small communities.  When I reached Quincampoix after nine p.m. I was greeted by a sign in the town center to the cemetery.  I was delighted to be able to track down the grave before dark under still sunny skies, as this far north it can turn murky and rainy on a moment's notice.  I had begun the day in a dense fog and had had periods of light drizzle until the sun prevailed in mid-afternoon.  The way to the cemetery also led to a sports complex named for Anquetil.

I quickly discerned that the cemetery was too recent to contain the grave of Anquetil, who had died in 1987 at the age of 53 from cancer.  I would have to put off the grave until the next morning.  After a less than ideal campsite below a superhighway,  on my way back to Quincampoix I noticed a marble slab at the turn into the town center with an etching of Anquetil on his bike and a list of his chief accomplishments--five Tour de France wins, two Giros, one Vuelta, and a series of time trial victories, his specialty. Up near the top of the two columns of his many triumphs was his Dauphine Liberé win coupled with winning Bordeaux-Paris immediately afterwards.  "L'Equipe" pronounced  it the greatest sporting achievement of the 20th century back in 2000 when everybody was making lists of all the highlights of the just ended century.  The monument also gave Anquetil credit for setting the hour record even though it was never certified, as he refused to take a drug test afterwards.  



I next went to the city hall to ask about his grave.  It was right next door in the cemetery surrounding the cathedral.  I had biked past it the evening before, but the walls were so high around the cathedral I hadn't noticed the tombstones.  Anquetil's grave was nothing out of the ordinary blending in with all the rest in the middle of the third row to the right after one walks through the gateway to the cathedral.  As with most of the graves, there was a picture of the person interred.  The photo of Anquetil on his bike made his grave easy to spot.



I have found my way to the graves of six other Tour winners--Garin, Robic, Coppi, Bobet, Fignon and Pantani.  As at all of them, I felt a swirl of emotion--respect for their accomplishments and thanks for the great efforts and sacrifices that led to them distinguishing themselves and brining much joy to me  and countless others, a little sadness at their departure, and happiness for making the effort to enjoy this moment.  And all those emotions propelled and stuck with me for the rest of the day, not only remembering Anquetil's legacy, but also reflecting on the six other graves I had visited and all the circumstances surrounding the visits.  It had me looking forward to the next, whoever's it might be.



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