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French CyclingA Social and Cultural History$

Hugh Dauncey

Print publication date: 2012

Print ISBN-13: 9781846318351

Published to Liverpool Scholarship Online: June 2013

DOI: 10.5949/UPO9781846317859

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Cycling's Glory Years and their Mediatization 1960–1980

Cycling's Glory Years and their Mediatization 1960–1980

(p.159) 7 Cycling's Glory Years and their Mediatization 1960–1980
French Cycling
Liverpool University Press

Abstract and Keywords

This chapter discusses a period of great change in French politics, society and culture from 1980 onwards. With a flourishing birth rate, a younger population began feeding into the adult workforce. The younger French citizens breathed new social, political and cultural aspirations. It explains how the state's interest in promoting sport reached its peak, thus, taking the popularity of the Tour de France to new heights. Specifically, this chapter tells how professional cycling reflected new demands and constraints in the mediatization of the Tour de France. More so, it examines the changing role of cycling media and the professional cycling industry. Overall, it highlights two decades of change and continuity in French cycling. The successes achieved by cycling heroes of this time spearheaded a national system of preparing elite athletes in later years.

Keywords:   Tour de France, professional cycling, cycling media, mediatization, younger French citizens

The 1960s and 1970s were a period of great change in French politics, society and culture. Demographically, the boom in the birth rate in the late 1940s was, by the early 1960s, beginning to feed into the adult population and workforce; France was a younger country than it had been for decades, and the younger citizens had new social, political and cultural aspirations and terms of reference, some of which led to the explosion of discontent at the Gaullist state and its ordering of society that occurred in May–June 1968. Politically, the return to power of General Charles de Gaulle in June 1958 led to the replacement of the Fourth Republic by the Fifth Republic later that year and a gradual rebuilding of the apparatus and efficiency of the state as part of de Gaulle's drive to bring France into phase with the century, and to restore the grandeur that he felt was natural to France. Economically, the industrialization and growth that had accelerated from the mid-1940s produced transformations in society and the economy that prompted the celebrated sociologist and economist Jean Fourastié to suggest that by the mid-1970s, ‘30 glorious years of growth’ had created ‘two Frances’, one stagnant for millennia until 1945, and the new France of technological development, urbanized industrial society and technocracy (Fourastié, 1979). Although from about 1975 France suffered the effects of the oil crisis much like other western European nations, with inflation and unemployment, its economy had indeed been radically modernized, partly due to the leading technocratic role of the Gaullist state since 1958. The state also had a stake in sport, accompanying what have been termed a ‘première sportivisation’ in 1958–75 (Chantelat and Tétart, 2007: 33) and an ‘explosion des pratiques sportives’ from the late 1960s onwards (Attali, 2007: 63).

The Popular Front in the 1930s, then the Etat français in the 1940s and to a lesser extent the Fourth Republic in the 1950s had all increased the French state's involvement in the organization of sport and recreation (Callède, 2000). It was during the 1960s, in the early years of the modernizing, technocratic and ambitious Fifth Republic, that the state's interest (p.160) in promoting sport would reach its peak (Chifflet, 1995). As popular interest in the Tour de France continued, and was heightened by new approaches to its mediatization through television and by continuingly innovative approaches in the written press, the Gaullist ambition of creating ‘la France qui gagne’ found some realization in the resounding success of national track cycling teams and individuals in the 1960s and 1970s.

In this chapter we will examine how the professional cycling industry, in terms of its organization of the economics of competition, reflected new demands and constraints in the mediatization of the Tour de France and developments in the Tour's own continually evolving model of racing. During the 1960s and 1970s, the Tour was frequently won by French riders, whose exploits and rivalries came to symbolize themes in the ongoing modernization of French culture and society, and we will therefore look in some detail at the significance of iconic champions such as Jacques Anquetil, Raymond Poulidor and Bernard Thévenet. The duel between the often victorious Anquetil and the (almost always) losing Poulidor can, for example, be interpreted as a metaphor of France's modernization, which was rapid and ruthless, but came at the expense of various categories of French citizens (the rural working classes, for instance) who were less well-placed than others to profit from ‘the fruits of growth’. We shall also examine the evolving role of the cycling media, and consider the success of Olympic track stars such as the multi-champion Daniel Morelon.

Pro-cycling: economics and competition

The 1950s were essentially the ‘Golden Age’ of French professional cycling competition. The Tour de France, which naturally dominated the sporting calendar and the industry as a whole, had recovered from the interruption of the Occupation and Liberation and had developed into an ever-more popular summer saga of sporting heroism. French champions such as Robic, Bobet and Anquetil had recreated the myth of the géants de la route for the post-war public, and growing affluence was allowing more and more fans of cycling either to follow the Tour on their summer holidays or to absorb the burgeoning press, radio and television media coverage of the event. But the Tour was struggling to define its own rules concerning rider participation: should competitors ride as members of national teams or as representatives of commercial teams? And behind this question of the structure of the Tour lay complicated (p.161) developments in the nature of the cycling industry and its relations with L'Equipe and the Tour de France, organizers of the majority of professional races. In the 1960s and 1970s the Tour and professional cycling in general were required to change their approaches to competition, as the economics of the sector evolved.

The Tour in 1962 – a return to commercial teams

Commercial teams had originally been banned by Desgrange in the Tours of 1903–08, before being permitted from 1909 to 1913, banned again from 1919 to 1924, authorized again from 1925 to 1928, and then, from 1930 to 1962, durably replaced by national teams (Reed, 2003). Desgrange's constant innovations and changes of approach reflected his search for a way of organizing the Tour that would ensure L'Auto's control of the competition. What lay behind the issue of commercial teams was not only the nature of the Tour itself, but also who was in control of professional cycling. Desgrange was concerned that running the Tour with commercial teams tended to create a race in which true competition was stifled and perverted by strong financial interests and by the inevitable agreements between teams and their sponsors to provide results satisfactory to all. For L'Auto, the Tour had to be a spectacle of competition that the newspaper could sell to its readers and advertisers as a feuilleton sportif of uncertainty and heroism, where success could turn to failure in a single stage; but a sponsor of a commercial team was happy to see their ‘champion’ heading the classification all through the race, by fair means or foul.

Commercial sponsors could be of two main kinds: companies directly involved in the cycle industry (manufacturers of frames, bicycles, components) or businesses from outside the industry, known as extra-sportifs, seeking to use the publicity and advertising of the Tour and professional cycling to promote their products. Traditionally, until the early and mid-1950s, professional cycling was financed by commercial interests directly related to the sport, but during the 1950s the huge public interest in cycling champions such as Bobet, Coppi, Bartali and others began to attract new financial backers, keen to use cycling to exploit the development of consumer society. At the same time as these new sponsors began to appear, traditional financiers of professional cycling started to feel the squeeze of a flagging cycle industry, sapped by competition from cyclomoteurs such as the Vélo-Solex and various mobylettes and motorcycles, as well as by increasingly affordable cars.

By 1956 finance from outside the traditional confines of the cycle industry was responsible for more than half of advertising in cycling (p.162) competition, and in partnership with the riders, rather than the race organizers or the manufacturers, these new sponsors were putting pressure on the long-standing stakeholders of professional cycling to modify its organization, most strikingly through the reintroduction of commercially sponsored teams, replacing the convoluted systems of national and regional teams (and other arrangements) used by the Tour since 1930 (Calvet, 1981: 182). In a position of weakness, traditional industry sponsors worked with race organizers to modify international rulings on cycling sport: for example the Association internationale des organisateurs de courses cyclistes (AIOCC) successfully lobbied the UCI to redefine ‘groupes sportifs’ as mixed ‘industry’ and ‘hors-branche’ partnerships. The cycle industry and the new commercial sponsors also worked together to present a united front in negotiations with race organizers in the Association française des constructeurs et associés sportifs (AFCAS) (Calvet, 1981: 182).

During the late 1950s the Tour was systematically undermined by the new sponsors of professional cycling teams, which either prevented their star riders from taking part (Rik van Looy and Jacques Anquetil missed the Tour in 1960, as did Raymond Poulidor in 1961) or interfered in the competition by pressuring their riders working in national teams not to help riders sponsored by other advertisers. France arguably lost the 1959 Tour when divisions caused by sponsors within the main national team allowed the Spaniard Federico Bahamontes to win, at the expense of the French rider Henri Anglade, who was riding for a French ‘regional’ squad. Despite L'Equipe's desperately repeated claims to the effect that ‘Ce ne sont pas les champions qui font le Tour; c'est le Tour qui fait les champions’, the pressure exerted on the Tour was such that in 1962 the national teams were abolished, putting in place the model of race organization and of professional cycling overall that is still, essentially, current today.1

The recreation of cycling ‘stars’ – finance and television

During the 1960s and 1970s the new structuring of professional cycling contributed to a recreation of the sporting hero in cycling. Although Bobet, for example, in the 1950s had been an exemplary star of his era, the new organization of teams and finances in cycle sport led to a redefinition of the nature of racing and of champions. The changes that came about resulted essentially from the increased money available in sponsorship and from television's increased coverage of the Tour.

In the new commercial teams, stability of employment and of career development was much weaker than in the previous system, where a (p.163) progression through amateur riding to national team was possible and where experience could be gained gradually. The sometimes fleeting attachment of non-cycling sponsors to Tour de France teams meant that results were required rapidly (if not immediately) and that teams were built piecemeal from combinations of riders, organized as a team only in so far as the majority of the members of the squad were employed specifically to support the team leader, who was usually an already established champion. One of the automatic structuring effects of this strategy was a reduction in the number of ‘champions’ overall, as each team would normally only have a single leader (not always good enough to win major races), and if one rider and his squad were dominant, then he would be able to monopolize racing as long as his talent remained and his team was preserved intact. Jacques Anquetil was a prime example of this system in the 1960s, as was the Belgian Eddy Merckx in the 1970s and Bernard Hinault in the 1980s, and an accompanying feature of their overall dominance in the Tour and in other professional racing was a reduction in the ‘uncertainty’ (Yonnet, 1998) of competitions: for cycling fans, competition could even seem boring. Because of the amounts of money now flowing into cycling, team leaders of established ability were paid good salaries to provide results based on the support of their équipiers, and so the professional teams were structured along strongly hierarchical lines, with supporting riders being expected to sacrifice themselves to facilitate victory by a team leader. In comparison with the 1940s and 1950s, surprises in the stages of the Tour, for example, were few and far between, and the durability of what we might here term ‘super’ champions such as Anquetil or Merckx was much appreciated by their team financiers.

In an attempt to reintroduce competitive uncertainty into the racing of the Tour, in order to make the competition more exciting, its organizers invented a variety of features – sprint bonuses, time bonuses and so on – whose overall effect on the attractiveness of the event was nevertheless debatable. Often, since the bonuses and extra competitions were sponsored by the same companies that financed the teams and attracted money to the Tour, their impact seemed slight, and as with the multiplicity of competitions within the Tour as a whole (King of the Mountains, sprint jersey, leader under 21, and so on), opportunities were ample for teams and riders to ‘manage’ racing uncertainty by trading positions and bartering compromises in one aspect of the race against another.

Another innovation that partially contributed to the recreation of the cycling star was television, which increasingly in the 1960s and 1970s (p.164) became the prime medium through which the public was informed of professional racing (Wille, 2003). Television's concentration on riders as visible advertisements for their sponsors – sandwich-board men moving at 40 kph through the French countryside – reinforced the need for champions almost to ‘perform on cue’, supported by their teams, at the same time as it demonstrated that sport was subordinated to commercial interests rather than the nobility of pure athletic competition. The focus of broadcasts on the concluding kilometres of stages led to concentration on team pursuits of lone breakaways, where sponsors' jerseys and equipment could be shown to best advantage. Cycling champions of the past had certainly been associated with particular makes of bicycle or particular team sponsors, but arguably the advent of television introduced a change in the public's perception of their heroes, alongside a change in the nature of the racing itself.

New pressures to dope – new campaigns against drugs

Cycling's new financial model from the end of the 1950s and from the reinstitution of commercial teams from 1962, although in many ways improving the lot of both star and journeyman riders alike, also brought new pressures to bear on professional riders. The sociologist, economist and historian of cycling Jacques Calvet has suggested that there were three main reasons why the job of the professional rider became more difficult in the 1960s. Firstly, because commercial sponsors were keen to maximize the advertising potential of their squads, teams of riders were required to compete as much as possible during the whole length of the season and were thus more fatigued than under the old model of sponsorship, in which manufacturers and race organizers had been more sensitive to the riders' needs for recuperation. Secondly, the patterns of racing became more unpredictable and varied, with periods of calm progress alternating with extreme efforts often linked to sponsored sprints, bonus points or minor competitions, or the final televised section of a stage or race. Thirdly, competitions such as the Tour de France became increasingly intensive, with fewer rest days, more frequent tiring transitions from one ville-étape to another, and generally the requirement for racing to fit the schedules of advertisers, radio, television, the press and host towns (Calvet, 1981: 194–96).

Although doping had a long and seamless history in professional cycling (Mignon, 2003), it seems probable that it was in the 1960s, in these conditions of enhanced pressure on riders, that the contemporary phase of performance-enhancing drug-taking was introduced. Pressures on riders of all categories – champions and domestiques (supporting (p.165) riders, fetching and carrying and protecting the elite team leaders) alike – to perform at high levels throughout the season and on demand, allied with the fluid and unstable composition of professional squads where riders were hired and fired in the building of competitive units destined for success in specific races, created the context for systematic recourse to doping. Additionally, the increasingly modern approaches of riders, trainers and teams towards physical preparation and medical support meant that opportunities and strategies for doping seemed all the more ‘scientific’, rational and acceptable.

It was during the 1960s that the French state first became actively involved in the detection and repression of doping in sport, partly at least because of growing concern in professional cycling over the ever-increasing incidences of blatant performance-enhancement. Calvet suggests that doping was only identified as a problem within cycling when its negative perceptions in public opinion began to detract from the commercially attractive myth of the géants de la route (Calvet, 1981: 185). In this perspective, extrapolating from Calvet's argument, drug-taking in the period before 1962 had been tolerated and hidden by all involved (riders, organizers, sponsors) both because the attitudes of society in general were more tolerant towards substance abuse and because the commercial model of professional cycling was not of a kind or nature to be destabilized by nascent or partial concerns over doping. In the 1960s the rapid modernization of French society and social values led both to increased belief in individual freedoms and a breakdown of deference towards authority and established patterns of behaviour: it was perhaps a combination of these trends that allowed Jacques Anquetil to defend his own doping practices by declaring that it was idiotic for anyone to think that professional racers did not use drugs (he was happy to declare to all and sundry that races were not run and won on mineral water). It would seem that Anquetil was articulating the view that it was his right to organize his professional life as he saw fit, given the demands imposed on him by the stakeholders in professional cycling, and notwithstanding the bad faith and dishonesty of attitudes towards doping in the past. Additionally, of course, the status of Anquetil, as a multiple Tourwinner and national champion, and especially the personal wealth provided for such a champion by the new model of pro-cycling, gave him the sporting capital to speak forthrightly. Anquetil's other famous declaration that to win by more than a second was a waste of effort is also, intriguingly, a rational response to the system of competition in which he found himself during the 1960s: in a context where commercial concerns seemed to dominate sporting values, winning by any margin is (p.166) what matters to publicize one's sponsor (he also, perhaps cynically, defined the difference between amateurism and professionalism as residing principally in the fact that amateurs do not pay tax on their winnings).

Anquetil's carefully studied and almost cynical approach to racing was somehow ‘technocratic’, whereas the less successful style of another of France's cycling heroes, Raymond Poulidor, seemed evocative of the less thrusting France of the 1930s and 1940s. We now turn to an unpacking of the social and cultural symbolism of these heroes of the Tour.

Anquetil, Poulidor, Thévenet: the meaning of Tour champions

Sporting champions have an iconic status, and the cycling champions of France's national race exercise a particular hold over the popular imagination, as we have seen in earlier analyses of cycling stars such as Bobet and Robic. In the late 1950s, 1960s and 1970s, as the mediatization of the Tour reached new intensity, and as France continued to negotiate her developing identity in a period of social and cultural change, Tour winners such as Anquetil and Thévenet, and the ‘nearly-man’ Poulidor, took on various meanings and symbolisms, as reflections and projections of French ambitions and insecurities.

Jacques Anquetil: sporting technocratic perfection in the Fifth Republic

Jacques Anquetil: sporting technocratic perfection in the Fifth Republic Jacques Anquetil – ‘Maître Jacques’ – died in 1987 at the age of 53. Much – respectful – speculation centred on whether the stomach and liver cancer that caused his death could be attributed to the drugs that he openly admitted using during his racing career, purely to enable him to compete. Anquetil was the first rider to win four, and subsequently five, Tours: he dominated the race and won it in 1957, 1961, 1962, 1963 and 1964. Commenting on Anquetil's first Tour victory in 1957, the reporter René Dunn of the high-sales newspaper France-Soir presented his win in grandiose terms, combining some of the atavistic regionalist stereotypes common in much French sports journalism with a suggestion of Anquetil's new status as a national cycling hero:

Il est venu, il a vu, il a vaincu. […] Souple comme un Normand, têtu comme un Breton, avisé comme un Auvergnat, doux comme un Provençal, Anquetil, devenu ‘Jacquot’ – suprême test de gloire –, affronte maintenant un rôle beaucoup plus lourd que celui qu'il accomplit sur cinq mille kilomètres de route. […] Il est plus difficile de porter le costume de ville que le maillot jaune. […] A toi de jouer, Jacques! La France t'admire mais te regarde aussi. (Ollivier, 1994b: 113–16)

(p.167) Although the French public admired his success, they never accepted Anquetil quite as warmly as they did other French heroes, constantly monitoring him for signs of the fatal flaw of ‘arrogance’ that can distance heroes from their fans. And Anquetil could often appear to be an arrogant champion: as early as 1957, after his initial Tour victory, Anquetil was honoured with the award of ‘la Coupe de l'élégance sportive’, only to arrive late at the ceremony because he had over-indulged in champagne. Anquetil was a champion whose technical achievements in terms of race victories and cycling style were unquestionable, but his behaviour – as a champion in the public eye and also occasionally in the ‘privacy’ of the peloton as a competitor – was often seen as somehow infelicitous. His attachment to champagne is an interesting example of both of these mismatches between expectations and reality. Rather paradoxically, given that Tour audiences knew and accepted that riders took stimulants to help them through the race, there was simultaneously the expectation that as elite athletes they should avoid everyday pleasures such as alcohol, and Anquetil's over-fondness for champagne was interpreted as an almost insulting rejection of the principles of ‘proper’ training. Anquetil's justification of his behaviour was simple, but no more likely to win favour, or allay suspicions of arrogance: ‘Ce n'est pas de propos délibéré que je mène une existence contraire aux principes établis en matière de préparation cycliste, je ne fais que suivre ma nature’ (Ollivier, 1994b: 119).

Anquetil's image was of a champion whose domination was frequently so total and whose apparent confidence in his abilities was such that they constituted ‘insolent facility’. In the 1961 Tour he won the yellow jersey on the very first stage and retained it until the end of the race.2 The ease with which Anquetil achieved his Tour wins produced a reputation – noted, for example, by Miroir des Sports journalist Roger Bastide – for ‘la froideur de la perfection’, and comment in the sporting press that he had transformed competitive cycling into an ‘exact science’ from which uncertainty, emotion and suspense had been banished (Ollivier, 1994b: 175).3 Whereas Bobet's treble of wins had had the potential to produce a similar disaffection in the cycling public in 1955, the situation had been saved by spectators' admiring awe at Bobet's duplication of Thys's three wins in a row and by the champion's invariably friendly and positive image. But in the 1960s, as French society began to question the technocratic drive of the new Fifth Republic in a process that would ultimately lead to the crisis of confidence that was May '68, Anquetil's calculating approach to racing tactics rendered his successes flawed in some way – in 1962 whistles of disapproval sounded as he (p.168) arrived at the Parc des Princes finish of his third victorious Tour. Anquetil once summed up his difference from Bobet in terms suggesting an attitude towards competition that was informed more by ego than by sporting panache: ‘Quand j'ai perdu une course, je n'en fais pas une maladie comme Bobet, mais je mûris une revanche que j'obtiens assez souvent’ (Ollivier, 1994b: 119). Foreign champions such Gaul, Bahamontes, Gimondi and Nancini also provided foils for Anquetil's reputation as ‘Monsieur Chrono’ (a reference to his invincibility in individual time trials, riding against the stopwatch chronograph) or ‘Monsieur Millimètre’ (his tendency to do no more than was necessary to win). But in essence, Anquetil as a hero of French cycling was defined by his relations with the French champions of the recent past – Robic and Bobet – and with the French ‘nearly-champion’ of the 1960s and 1970s, Raymond Poulidor.

Anquetil was perhaps the major cycling champion whose career spanned the especially confused period of transition between widespread drug-taking in cycling being tacitly accepted by the professional cycling community, race organizers, public and state, and the period ushered in by the French law on drug-taking that became operational on 14 June 1966, leading to the infamous inaugural drug test in the Tour at the finish of the Royan–Bordeaux stage on 28 June 1966. Although Anquetil won his fifth and final Tour in 1964, he continued in competition until 1967 when the world hour record he had just established was refused ratification by the world cycling authorities (the UCI) because of his positive drug test. The implementation of the law against doping in France was patently unable to discourage drug-taking among professional cyclists, as was demonstrated by a series of positive tests, scandals and tragedies, including the death of the British rider Tom Simpson on Mont Ventoux during the 1967 Tour,4 but the new attitude of the cycling authorities and the French state transformed the culture of doping from an ‘amateur’ practice overseen by riders and their soigneurs into a ‘professional’ practice frequently supervised by doctors. Anquetil's unapologetic admissions of his drug-taking were representative of the view shared by most competitive cyclists that the physical demands of racing in general and the superhuman nature of specific races such as the Tour obliged the riders to seek artificial assistance. This explicit avowal of doping was honest and treated the spectating public as a mature audience with a sophisticated understanding of the mechanisms and processes at work in sporting competitions such as the Tour. However, seen from within the conceptual framework of competitive sport suggested by Paul Yonnet (1998), Anquetil's willingness to destroy his fans' illusion that professional (p.169) cyclists could accomplish what they did without drugs was maybe based too much on his status as a champion of the ‘official’ competition (the ‘rules of the game’ giving him five Tour victories) and belied any real desire on his part to appear (or remain) a truly ‘popular’ national sporting hero, embodying both naive and informed views of what racing and champions were.

Anquetil's popularity was complicated, involving public respect for his technical accomplishments (both in terms of races won and pedalling technique, for example pushing bigger gears than anyone else) balanced by irritation at his domination and the reduction in the uncertainty about the final result of the Tour, all mixed up with popular affection for his sens de la fête. Anquetil's weakness for champagne, his attractive blonde wife stolen from his doctor and his elegant dress sense helped compensate for his reputation as a rider whose objective was always to win, but by the smallest necessary margin.

Raymond Poulidor: social change and heroic failure

Raymond Poulidor is the prime example of a French rider in the Tour de France whose media image and reputation is that of I'éternel second. The name ‘Poulidor’ has even entered common parlance as a term designating someone who never manages better than runner-up (Calvet, 1981: 24). Poulidor's career was long, lasting from 1962 to 1976, and spanned from the early years of de Gaulle's Fifth Republic to the early years of Giscard d'Estaing's modernizing presidency. Despite participating many times in the Tour, Poulidor never won the race and never wore the yellow jersey. Although the latter part of his career saw him losing to Eddy Merckx and other dominant riders after Anquetil's retirement in 1967, Poulidor's status as a heroic French failure is inextricably associated with the career and dominance of ‘Maître Jacques’. Poulidor's public image during his career and subsequently has always been that of a quiet, modest and honest rider, untouched by allegations of doping and consistently admired for his courage and combativeness in the Tour and other races, despite the unbeatable superiority of champions such as Anquetil and Merckx. During the 1960s and 1970s his nickname ‘Poupou’ was universally recognized, and the public supported his efforts to impose himself against the ‘insolent facility’ of Anquetil or Merckx's ‘cannibalistic’ competitive spirit. As Yonnet (1998) has pointed out, popularity (even if unaccompanied by success in the technical competition of times and points) can be translated into financial gain, and since his retirement Poulidor has worked profitably as a television consultant and commentator on cycling.

(p.170) An iconic image of the post-war Tour is the photograph of Poulidor and Anquetil climbing side-by-side up the Puy-de-Dôme in 1964 – as usual, even in this most iconic ‘duel on the mountain’, Poulidor failed to beat a struggling Anquetil by enough to wrench the yellow jersey from him (Bossdorf and Bossdorf, 2001: 63). This duel has recently been expertly analysed by Dine (2008) in a stimulating discussion of the nature of Poulidor's star status. In a brief analysis of the rivalry of Anquetil and Poulidor, the sociologist of sport Christian Pociello suggests that they exemplify what he terms ‘l'effet Carpentier’ in French sport, in other words a dramatization of the relationship between competitors that is produced when there exist two rivals whose physical, stylistic, tactical and other features are completely opposed (Pociello, 1995: 114–15). Anquetil was blond, thin, northern (from Normandy), an expert in technical events such as time trials, a dominant member of the peloton and a multiple champion; Poulidor, contrastingly, was dark, heavier in build, from central France (the Limousin region), a good climber, a rider with no special influence within the peloton and a nearly-man.

The duels between top champions that the French sporting press is keen to report or even invent – as Pociello reminds us, the media (particularly some influential cycling journalists) are seduced by the interplay of signs, figures and styles that facilitates the creation of a dramatized narration of sporting stories – are exemplified by the rivalry between Anquetil and Poulidor. It is possible that the duel between these riders was never a ‘true’ reality, given the long-term disparity in their records (can Poulidor really have been ‘unlucky’ for fifteen years?). In the same way that the duel between Bobet (as his career concluded) and the emerging Anquetil in the late 1950s was ‘more theoretical than practical’ (Ichah and Boully, 1992: 217), it is possible that the rivalry between Anquetil and Poulidor was more an artifact of the fevered imaginations of sports journalists and of the two riders' desires to create public images that benefited them than a real physical contest of near equality. As the sports journalists Ichah and Boully have pointed out, as early as the 1961 Tour Poulidor was aware of the strategies required to build rivalries and success, since he declined to compete in the national French team where he would have been contracted to ride in support of Anquetil. Only from 1962 and the return of commercial teams was the fruitful rivalry between Anquetil and Poulidor able to flourish. Ichah and Boully describe how by 1963 the antagonism between the two riders had become ‘a product which sold well’, suggesting that Poulidor knew that it was in his interest, as long as he won races from time to time (so as to still appear a ‘champion’), to seem the victim of a devilish opponent. Since, as Ichah and (p.171) Boully suggest, sporting France loves the unlucky and gives herself more easily to nice losers than to insolent winners, Poulidor was the beneficiary (Ichah and Boully, 1992: 219–20).

Such a perspective on public images and the heroic status of riders in the Tour de France reflects the idea developed by Yonnet that the riders in a competition such as the Tour have a set of values that is their own, and that they operate often in opposition to those of the ‘official’ race, as defined by the Tour organizers and the French state. Jacques Calvet, whose economic study of cycling champions is pointedly entitled Le Mythe des géants de la route, is one of the few analysts to address the vexed issue of the true nature of Poulidor as a competitor. Whereas the myth that still has popular currency thirty-five years after his retirement is that Poulidor was loved for his open and courageous nature by the French public and fellow riders, while Anquetil was merely respected or, at best, liked, according to Calvet Poulidor was in reality disliked by the peloton for his ill humour and selfish tactics, whereas Anquetil was appreciated for his fair play and courtesy. Thus the public image confected by Poulidor and Anquetil together was in fact a ‘product’ for consumption by followers of the Tour based on a myth that was the opposite of sporting reality. Calvet reports that when two journalists wrote articles exploding the Poulidor myth in the mid-1960s, their magazine received such outraged mail from fans that they were asked by the editor to revert to the usual presentation of the rider (Calvet, 1981: 208).

One sociocultural and sociopolitical interpretation of the symbiotic rivalry of Anquetil and Poulidor is that they implicitly represented two antagonistic trends in French society in the 1960s, whose interplay found expression in France's national sporting event (Winock, 1987). One characteristic of true champions is sometimes claimed to be innovation, in the sense that they redefine the nature of the sport itself, and in this perspective Anquetil's greatness is confirmed both in terms of sporting records (he was the first to complete the double of the Dauphiné–Libéré and Bordeaux–Paris, in 1965) and in terms of his approach to racing. Despite his idiosyncratic approach to training he was still profoundly influenced by the meticulous (‘scientific’) approach popularized post-war by Coppi, and his technical mastery of the time trial (‘man against machine’) reflected French society's technocratic and technological modernization during the later Fourth Republic and under de Gaulle. Poulidor, in contrast, although of rural extraction like Anquetil, represented much less the new confident France of the Fifth Republic advancing towards technological and sociopolitical modernity under the guidance of national planning and a new Constitution, and much more (p.172) la France profonde of Poupou's native and still-archaic Limousin. This interpretation portrays Poulidor as the anachronistic representative – still loved as the underdog, like the other symbolic figures such as Astérix, Vercingétorix, Roland, Joan of Arc and Charles de Gaulle listed by Pociello (1995: 116) – of the France of the Fourth Republic's uncertainties and weaknesses, and casts Anquetil as the embodiment of Gaullist ‘grandeur’ in the Fifth Republic and as the harbinger of ‘la France qui gagne’. A perceptive recent study of Poulidor's ‘stardom’ has suggested that Poupou's amalgam of traditional values and modern sporting entrepreneurialism was just the kind of ‘cultural reassurance’ sought by a French public stressed by the societal changes of the 1960s (Dine, 2008: 96).

Bernard Thévenet: the forgotten 1970s

Bernard Thévenet's professional career spanned the period 1970–81, and he can be seen as a cycling champion who is representative of a transitional period both for competitive cycling itself and for French society in general. Although not a multiple Tour de France winner of the same stature as Anquetil and Bernard Hinault (who also won five Tours in the late 1970s and mid-1980s), Thévenet did take the yellow jersey in 1975 and 1977, defeating the legendary Eddy Merckx in 1977 and thereby contributing to his eventual retirement from the sport. Thévenet's career also coincided with the declining years of Poulidor's participation in the Tour, and he thus replaced Anquetil as the successful foil to Poupou's heroic failure, although Thévenet's own social origins and approach to cycle sport were in fact more akin to those of Poulidor than of Anquetil. Thévenet came from a similar background of agricultural working-class life as the older Poulidor and his attitude towards racing was arguably similar to Poupou's heart-on-the-sleeve honest endeavour. Unlike Hinault, his successor as French icon of the Tour, Thévenet was a relatively discreet and self-effacing champion whose work ethic was one of quiet professionalism in the service of his long-standing and well-established sponsor and team, Peugeot. Whereas Peugeot was a classic cycle-industry sponsor, characteristic of the essence of the Tour and professional cycling from the earliest days, Hinault rode initially for the similarly traditional Gitane-Campagnolo team (1975–77), then the innovative Renault-Elf Gitane squad (1978–83), before leading (1984–86) the iconoclastically extra-sportif Vie Claire squad set up by the mercurial entrepreneur Bernard Tapie. In contrast to the charismatic Hinault, whose personality and drive fitted perfectly with the demands in the 1980s for cycling to modernize and attract ever-increasing television (p.173) coverage and advertising revenues, Thévenet was a strangely muted hero whose star-status deserves some unpacking in future work.

Cycling/media: the Tour and TV, Le Miroir du cyclisme, L'Equipe

The 1960s and 1970s were something of a period of transition for cycling and for cycling media, as French society evolved rapidly towards complete modernization under the influence of economic growth and prosperity (albeit with some difficulties during the mid-to-late 1970s) and the post-war demographic bulge of baby-boom children reached working and consuming age. The Tour de France was, as ever, central to developments: Jacques Goddet's L'Equipe continued its traditional dense coverage of cycling sport and sport in general, maintaining its prime position as France's newspaper of reference for sporting news and comment, and through the ‘literary’ approach of the novelist Antoine Blondin, whose articles it hosted during the summer weeks of the Tour, it encouraged a nostalgically old-fashioned style of media reporting. However, the advent of increasing television coverage of the Tour also facilitated and accelerated changes in the media coverage of sport in general. While L'Equipe covered the Tour and cycling in traditional style, and television developed an evolving relationship with the race that was eventually to become almost as much a cultural artifact during French summers as the race itself, other areas of the cycling media either satisfied themselves with the crumbs left over from Goddet's near-stranglehold over events and information, or in the case of the communist Le Miroir du cyclisme, actively attempted to provide an alternative coverage of sport in general and cycling in particular.

L'equipe and Antoine Blondin's writing on the Tour

The novelist, dramatist and sporting journalist Antoine Blondin (1922–91) was a life-long passionate follower of cycling and of the Tour de France in particular. Blondin's loving daily reports on each day's racing of the Tour, published in L'Equipe from 1954 to 1982, form a body of sports journalism that exemplifies a literary tradition in French media coverage of sport dating back to the earliest days of news and sports reporting (Blondin, 1988; 1996; 2001).5 Links between literature and sport in France have always been closer than in Anglo-Saxon understandings of journalism, for example, and the Tour has been the subject of pieces by Colette (1918), Albert Londres (1996), Roland Barthes (1957), Lucien Bodard (1971) Tristan Bernard (1935), Jacques Perret (2005) (p.174) and others.6 It could be argued – and Ducoin (2003) and Augendre (2005) are typical of this perspective – that Blondin's work on the Tour also in some ways represents the peak of this literary influence in sports journalism, as he produced his œuvre in a period when the written word of the press still dominated the mediation of the Tour to sports fans, despite growing competition from television.7

Blondin was essentially of right-wing political and cultural sympathies, but his enthusiasm for sport and the Tour meant that his work was accepted by people of all ideological leanings in France for its literary qualities and passionate celebration of the Tour. The 524 chroniques that he produced in his coverage of the 28 Tours he followed for L'Equipe map out a vision and understanding of the race that is idiosyncratically illuminating. Blondin's approach to the suffering and courage of the Tour is that of a celebration of triumph and defeat set in the context of the French countryside and France's towns and regions. The tone of his chronicles is almost always humorous, relying extensively on complicated punning and wordplay of all kinds, with which he interweaves the human actors of his dramas, the locations of their travails, French history and current affairs. The complexity of the allusions and of the wordplay is such that only the most well-informed and linguistically aware readers are able to read the full meaning of his pieces, and they are effectively un-translatable from the original French.

The quality of the stage reports is all the more astonishing since they were apparently produced under the same harsh time constraints as those more conventional treatments of daily racing hurriedly filed after the stage-finish by Tour journalists writing for other daily newspapers. In a borrowing of Londres' terminology, Blondin would famously claim that the human drama of sport and the Tour obliged sports journalists to become ‘forçats du Larousse, car entre deux mots, ils ne choisissent jamais le moindre’. One of Blondin's most famous remarks on the Tour was that ‘Le général de Gaulle est le président des Français onze mois sur douze. En juillet, c'est Jacques Goddet’, which in the politically highly charged context of the 1960s was an elegant understatement of the popular importance of France's annual summer festival.8 The chroniques were also packed with evocations of national and regional history, into which were interwoven references to French literature and other classic authors of French geography and science. In a comprehensive and interesting interpretation of Blondin's significance as a sports journalist, Ruadhán Cooke and Philip Dine suggest that his work served to facilitate the reinvention of French sport in the 1950s, 1960s and 1970s within the context of France's socioeconomic modernization (Cooke and Dine, 2007). (p.175) This analysis underlines the paradox of Blondin's literary and essentially anachronistic reporting of the Tour, namely that his nostalgic attachments to a France of pre-war values and traditions and their evocation in the chroniques helped the French public in its growing enthusiasm for sport during the period of growth and modernization known as the Trente glorieuses. Cooke and Dine show how Blondin's narratives melded the old and the new France, in a joyous festive celebration of the Tour and a cultural legitimation of sport. As the journalist, writer and cycling fanatic Serge Laget has suggested: ‘Le Tour de France, c'est Noël en juillet … et le 14 juillet tous les jours’ (Laget, 2010: 2), and this ‘festive’ dimension of the Tour is certainly appropriate to Blondin's love of the sport of cycling and of the Tour as institution and surrogate family.

Television and the Tour de France: innovation

In the 1980s the rules of French television broadcasting were radically changed, firstly by socialist administrations who moved to liberalize the state monopolies in broadcasting that had prevailed since the introduction of the medium, and then by right-wing governments keen to continue the free-market shake-up of television (Kuhn, 1994: 185–203). The creation of Canal Plus in 1984 and the privatization of the first public channel, TF1, in 1986 were the prime symbols of these transformations, and both of these television stations moved to invest heavily in sport (particularly football) as a key product for commercial success. The 1960s and 1970s, by contrast, were a period of more gradual but equally significant developments in techniques and the organization of relationships between sport and television, and the Tour de France was a key sporting event whose televising contributed significantly to the evolution of sports television, as Fabien Wille, in particular, has described in an analysis of the Tour's effects on media production (Wille, 2003). From the perspective of a media practitioner, the film-maker Hervé Le Roux has also given insights into how the Tour has influenced developments in television reporting of sports (Morice, 2003). Conversely, the new medium of television also had an impact on the competition itself. Although the press and radio as the traditional media of cycling reporting and commentary mostly maintained their dominance during this period (though some of the written press suffered from new rivals, exemplified for instance by the slow decline of Le Miroir du cyclisme), television, as the direct, live representation of a sporting event, was the obvious medium for showing competition. The Tour was the subject of French television's second-ever live outside broadcast, when on 25 July 1948 the finish of the final day's stage was shown to the very few in France who (p.176) possessed TV sets. Technologies and techniques for live broadcasts were crude in 1948 and following years, and the Tour appeared on television during the 1950s mainly thanks to ‘summaries’ of racing compiled from 16mm cinema-reel footage. These ‘news-reports’ presented each day's riding as a self-contained and immediately comprehensible narrative involving characters and morals, villains and heroes, landscapes and routes, in ways similar to the traditions of written sports journalism, which would be challenged by the ‘live’ depiction of events as they unfolded which arrived in the 1960s. Between 1957 – when television and the national cycling federations disagreed over the terms of the coverage of the Tour – and 1962, the viewing public was deprived of live commentary on the race, but in 1963 the ‘contemporary era’ of Tour broadcasting was begun.

Le Miroir du cyclisme: an alternative voice?

The cycling press was always traditionally – and remains, despite competition from newer media – closely related to sport, leisure and more utilitarian forms of cycling. This long-standing partnership is discussed for example by Déon and Seray (1996), whose analysis shows the roots and development of a symbiotic media–sport ‘complex’, which has been varied in its politics and perspectives from the Left–Right quarrels between Le Vélo and L'Auto at the turn of the twentieth century, to enduring struggles of various organs with the dominant L'Equipe in the post-war period. For example, in recent decades, old copies of Le Miroir du cyclisme have become collectors' items for cycling fans, but their attractiveness to contemporary enthusiasts concerns more than simply their profiles of star riders and race reports. Le Miroir du cyclisme was, in its hey-day of the 1960s and 1970s, an important and influential alternative voice on professional cycling, providing contrasting perspectives on the sport to those furnished by L'Equipe, the ‘official’ organ of the the group that owned the Tour de France and many of the other major races. Le Miroir du cyclisme was published between 1960 and 1994, initially by the publisher ‘éditions J’, closely linked to the French Communist Party (PCF), and subsequently, from 1980, by Editions Vaillant-Miroir Sprint, also part of the PCF's media operations. The general sports magazine Le Miroir-Sprint had been founded in 1947 by interests close to the communist resistance movements (at the same time as L'Equipe was reinventing itself after the collaborationist attitudes of L'Auto), and during the 1950s it periodically brought out special numbers to cover the Tour: Le Miroir du cyclisme was an extension of this policy. The change of Le Miroir's publisher in 1980 came as a consequence (p.177) of falling sales of the magazine during the late 1970s, when increasing costs of paper, general production and postage (half of the readership had postal subions) had aggravated the decline in readership figures. Financial problems continued for the magazine during the 1980s, at the same time that its ‘alternative’ political stance on sport found itself weakened by the fact that France was now governed by socialists rather than by the Right. In 1981 the new socialist sports minister, Edwige Avice, explained the government's sports policy in numbers 308 and 309 of Le Miroir, exemplifying how the magazine had suddenly become not so much an instrument of pressure on right-wing governments and commercial interests, but more a fellow-traveller of official attitudes (Avice, 1981). But in 1992, amid continual restructuring, changes of ownership and loss-making, the founding editor and journalist Maurice Vidal abandoned Le Miroir du cyclisme, which finally disappeared in 1994. The magazine was thus at the height of its popularity and influence during the 1960s and early-to-mid 1970s, when its left-wing criticisms of government policies towards sports and leisure, and its antagonism to the worst excesses of sport-spectacle (often those organized by that symbol of capitalist exploitation of sporting ‘workers’, L'Equipe) reached a mass audience as yet still faithful to traditional sports reporting.9

One example of Le Miroir's opposition to sport-spectacle was to be found in its support during the early 1960s and again in 1975–76 for the organization of the Tour de France with national teams rather than commercially sponsored groupings; in this case, Le Miroir du cyclisme was unusually in accord with the views of La Société du Tour, which was keen to retain national teams in order to better maintain its own commercial control of the competition. Maurice Vidal (Libération), Emile Besson (L'Humanité), Yves Bordenave (L'Humanité), Attilio Camoriano (L'Unità), André Chaillot (Libération), Abel Michéa (L'Humanité) and Henri Quiquéré (La Vie ouvrière) were some of the major figures of left-wing sports journalism who contributed substantially to the magazine, and Le Miroir was a central agent in the media coverage of cycling and the setting of agendas in cycling and sports/leisure policy. Jacques Goddet's hostility towards anything or anyone that challenged his group's domination of French cycling and sport in general meant that few journalists working regularly for L'Equipe dared also to contribute to Le Miroir, but some significant figures such as Jacques Augendre, Pierre Chany and Jacques Marchand managed to do so and see their careers survive. As well as following and critiquing developments in professional racing, until the mid-1970s Le Miroir also encouraged other (p.178) aspects of cycling of more practical leisure interest to the general public. Thus cycle touring was covered in regular articles from the early years of publication until 1976; in 1972 the magazine made space in its columns for an appeal from the Amis de la Terre; in 1973 Maurice Vidal launched an early campaign (as part of the 1974 presidential election) in favour of cycle routes (Vidal, 1973). In 1975–76, however, the editorial policy started concentrating more on elite cycle sport and less on these general interest agendas, as pressure mounted to provide the readership with coverage of its principal interest.

Olympic and world success in track racing

The French track sprinter Daniel Morelon is one of the major figures of world cycling. His racing career stretched from 1962 until 1980, resulting in five Olympic medals (two golds) and seven world championship gold medals. On retirement from competition he became involved in training France's elite track riders, winning considerable success in the 1990s with champions such as Arnaud Tournant, Florian Rousseau and Félicia Ballanger. Honoured by the French state with various awards and decorations (he was made Chevalier in the Ordre national du mérite in 1966, awarded the Grand Prix Olympique by the Académie des Sports in 1972 and appointed Chevalier in the Légion d'honneur in 1995), he also figures on a postage stamp commemorating his Olympic gold medal won at Munich in 1972. The significance of Morelon's career and influence is analogous to the situation in the United Kingdom during the late 1990s and 2000s, when interest in competitive cycling initially on the track and then subsequently in the Tour de France stimulated an uptake of cycling as leisure and competition. The success of British Olympic track racers such as Chris Boardman, Bradley Wiggins, Sir Chris Hoy and others was taken up by the mainstream sporting media, and helped transform the backwaters of British cycle sport – an ageing and declining time-trial tradition and languishing cycling club membership – into a highly visible and highly commercial business activity, with British teams in the Tour de France and famous riders vying for Olympic golds in 2012. Morelon's sporting celebrity in the late 1960s and 1970s produced similar effects, and his work in coaching and managing sport has also directly and indirectly stimulated French cycling – elite and leisure – in many ways. In the early 1980s Morelon captured the French literary imagination sufficiently to be the subject of a magical-realist imagined interview by the author Georges Londeix:

(p.179) Présenter Daniel Morelon… Déja, j'hésite: ‘coureur cycliste’? Non. ‘Champion cycliste’? Non plus. Dire seulement: ‘champion’. Champion, Morelon l'est au plus haut degré. Champion nimbé d'hellénisme et de chevalerie, qui, par une extraordinaire trajectoire, s'en vient triompher au siècle de la vitesse, inscrivant même ses exploits dans le futur, au-delà peut-être de l'an 2000. Figure si pure, si éternelle, qu'on craint de l'avilir en dénombrant ses titres officiels: quatorze fois champion de France; trois fois champion olympique; huit fois champion du monde. (Londeix, 1981: 113).

Daniel Morelon's career as both competitor and trainer encapsulates a number of significant features of French cycling and French elite sport in general during the latter part of the twentieth century. Although he won major medals right until the end of his competitive career, his most important successes came in the 1968 and 1972 Olympics, when the French government was particularly keen to see sporting achievements on the world scene. His Olympic and world championship gold medals thus need to be considered in the context of the French state's new interest in sport, introduced by de Gaulle with the advent of the Fifth Republic in 1958. As a trainer for the French national track team from 1978 until 2005, supervising elite athetes at the facilities of the Institut national du sport et de l'éducation physique at Hyères in the Var department in the south of France, and at Vincennes in Paris, Morelon was again instrumental – in a different capacity – in realizing the French state's ambitions for national sporting success.

France and the Olympics in the 1960s and 1970s

The Fifth Republic brought with it a change in the French state's relationship to sport. After the hesitations and confusion of the Fourth Republic, governments during the 1960s under the presidency of de Gaulle took sport of all kinds and all levels much more seriously, and the ministerial structures, relations with the sports federations and general principles informing the state's understanding of the importance of sport that were set up in the late 1950s and early 1960s remained broadly consistent until the 1980s (Mourlane, 2007; Chifflet, 1995; Callède, 2000). Essentially, it was recognized firstly that sport had become such a widespread leisure practice that public provision of facilities beyond what had traditionally been the case was now necessary, and, secondly, that elite sport and the success of French sportsmen and women in international competitions was a legitimate and useful expression of France's national image. In the view current at the time, these two dimensions of sporting practice and contribution to the nation were interlinked, as the ‘pyramidal’ understanding of the relationship between the everyday practice of sport by the masses saw a solid base as essential for the production of a (p.180) strong crop of elite athletes capable of representing French sport in the Olympics, world championships and other international sporting arenas. The fundamental principle of government policy was simple: encourage people to undertake sporting activities within the frameworks of competitive sport provided by the sports federations (football, rugby, athletics, swimming, gymnastics and so on), and then support more strongly than before the efforts of these federations to identify the champions who could demonstrate French sporting prowess in international competition.

What became known as the Plan de rénovation du sport français provided – over a period of some fifteen years from 1960 – the new impetus, finance, policies and infrastructure to stimulate sport in the federations and to improve France's performance in the medal tables of the Olympics and world championships. The story is often told that it was de Gaulle's exasperation over France's meagre medals haul at the Rome Olympics in 1960 – five medals in total, the worst result thus far, in an event beamed into French homes by television for the first time – that prompted the drive to develop les sports nationaux and le sport de haut niveau.10 De Gaulle's views on France's rightful place in the world in terms of international relations are well known and scarcely need repeating here, except in the summary form of his famous assertion that ‘La France ne peut être la France sans la Grandeur’ (de Gaulle, 1954: 5). The failure of the French Olympic team in 1960 was an affront to the Gaullist understanding of the – necessary – prestige and grandeur of the French state and of France itself, and fuelled government attempts to foster elite success in subsequent Olympics and sporting mega-events in general, where – in an international context in which elite sport was highly politicized by the Soviet and Eastern bloc's use of international athletics competition as part of the Cold War struggle with the USA – French athletes such as Morelon could demonstrate to both East and West how ‘strong’ France was. As Chifflet among others has described, sport was harnessed ‘au service de la grandeur nationale’ (Chifflet, 1995: 115–24). Part of the French drive to instrumentalize sport in the service of national prestige was also the organizing of mega-events in France itself, in particular the hosting of the 1968 Winter Olympics in Grenoble (Terret, 1990), but also a failed bid for the 1968 Olympics, which were eventually awarded to Mexico City (Dauncey, 2010b).

Morelon – world, Olympic and national champion sans-pareil

Although Morelon has not yet been the subject of a biography, reflecting the enduring domination of road racing (rather than track competition) in the French sporting imagination, various specialist websites provide (p.181) detailed factual information about his career, foremost among which is that of the Mémoire du cyclisme organization.11 Morelon was born in 1944 in the provincial town of Bourg-en-Bresse, not far from Lyon. He is thus a representative of France's ‘baby-boom’ generations, having spent his childhood under the Fourth Republic and reached maturity during the early years of de Gaulle's new Fifth Republic. His first truly notable success came in 1964, at the age of 20, when he took the title of French national sprint champion. This was while he was still officially undertaking his military service, and was in part due to the opportunities for training that had been offered to him – as had been the case previously for Jacques Anquetil, among others – by the army. Although he lost this title the following year, he regained it in 1966 and won the sprint championship every subsequent year until 1977. He also repeatedly won the French national team sprint titles, and dominated European Grand Prix track racing between 1965 and the mid-1970s, monopolizing first place on the podium at the GPs of Aarhus, Copenhagen, Paris, Odense and Milan. By profession originally a policeman, Morelon retired from competition in 1980 after a couple of fallow years in 1978 and 1979, winning the national sprint championships for a final time – now as a professional – as well as securing the new title of European champion. Few riders have exercised such a stranglehold over a discipline, albeit a highly specialized one, for such a period, and Morelon remains an iconic figure within French cycling for his domination of sprinting in the 1960s and 1970s.

But it was Morelon's international successes at the Olympics of 1964, 1968, 1972 and 1976 and annually at the (amateur) world championships from 1965 until 1975 that brought him fame outside France and that publicized France's new commitment to elite sport to the world. At the Tokyo Olympics of 1964, French track cycling was still in the shadow of other long-established European cycling nations. Of the seven gold medals available in cycling overall (there were five track events), Italy took three, and Belgium, Holland, Germany and Czechoslovakia one apiece. France won only two bronzes, taken by Morelon in the sprint and by his friend and tandem-sprint partner Pierre Trentin in the kilometre time trial. The return was sparse, but still a great improvement on the total absence of medals in Athens in 1960, which had been a huge disappointment since France had won two golds and two silvers at the Melbourne Games of 1956, a bronze in Helsinki in 1952 and three golds and two bronzes in London in 1948. So Morelon was, single-handedly, contributing significantly to the Gaullist ambition of grandeur nationale through elite international sport.

(p.182) In 1968 in Mexico City, France topped the cycling medals table, with four golds and a bronze, way ahead of Denmark, Italy and the Netherlands, which each took only a single gold and a handful of minor medals. The Mexico Games were perhaps the high-water mark of French Olympic cycling during the Morelon years, with victories in the kilometre (Trentin), the sprint (Morelon), the tandem sprint (Morelon and Trentin) and the pursuit (Daniel Rebillard). Morelon took the sprint title four years later in the Munich Games of 1972, but his gold was France's only medal in cycling that year as the Soviet Union and hosts West Germany dominated competition, and as East Germany also began to show promise in the discipline. The Munich Games were relatively successful for France, with a medals tally of two golds, four silvers and seven bronzes, and 17th position overall, but the message from the Eastern bloc was clearly that in all disciplines, Western nations would need to raise their game in future competitions in order to match the performances of athletes trained by the new highly intensive and scientific programmes of the USSR and the GDR. The ambitions of the Eastern bloc countries to be competitive in all sports meant that countries such as France, which had previously relied on their accumulated sporting experience in disciplines of traditional national interest – for example, cycling – required action to consolidate this inherent expertise. In 1976 at Montreal the USSR, West Germany and East Germany again headed the cycling medals table, and France managed – with Morelon now ageing at 32 – only a silver in the sprint. Overall, at the Montreal Games, France was rewarded with two golds, three silvers and four bronzes, finishing in 15th position.

Partly in response to the new demands of international elite competition, the Institut national du sport et de l'éducation physique (INSEP) – originally founded in 1945 as the Institut national des sports – was gradually developed in 1975–77 through merger with the Ecole normale supérieure d'éducation physique. The new organization had the threefold task of conducting scientific research into sports medicine, pedagogy and techniques, training high-level sports coaches and managers, and managing the preparation of national teams and elite sportsmen and women (Callède, 2000: 149–51). Throughout the second half of the 1970s, and particularly from 1979, when new director Robert Bobin gave renewed emphasis to the organization's role in elite sport, INSEP began to foster French strength in international competition. At the 1980 Moscow Games, France did indeed improve its overall performance, garnering six golds, five silvers and three bronzes. In cycling, the emerging new generation of French track stars, some of whom were training under the guidance of Daniel Morelon, began to gain success: Yavé Cahard (p.183) took silver in the sprint and Alain Bondue took silver in the pursuit, but the full blossoming of Morelon's contribution to the training of elite cyclists was not to come until the 1990s.

Le ‘tandem’ Morelon–Quintyn – making new champions

Londeix (1981) in his magical-realist evocation of Morelon's status as a champion was already hinting that his heroic influence might endure until the 2000s, and such was in fact the case. On his retirement from competition in 1980 at the age of 36, Morelon moved seamlessly into the full-time coaching of his successors in the national team, having already taken up some training responsibilities in 1978. His entry into coaching coincided with the first real functioning of the institutions and policies for stimulating elite sport that had been set in place during the mid-1970s. French track (and road) cycling in the 1980s, however, was in the doldrums: in 1984 in Los Angeles Fabrice Colas won the sole French cycling medal with a bronze in the kilometre time trial. In 1988 at the Seoul Games, France won nothing in track cycling; in 1991 Francis Moreau was the world champion in individual pursuit; and at the Barcelona Olympics of 1992 France managed only a bronze in the team road race.

Nevertheless, two of Morelon's protégés in the 1990s and early 2000s – Félicia Ballanger and Florian Rousseau – eventually garnered even greater hauls of medals than he did himself. Under Morelon's supervision (with Gérard Quintyn), France obtained significant success in international track racing, most notably with world champions such as Florian Rousseau (men's kilometre, 1993, 1994 and men's sprint, 1996, 1997, 1998); Arnaud Tournant (men's sprint, 2001 and kilometre, 1998, 1999, 2000, 2001); Franck Depine and Yavé Cahard (tandem sprint, 1979); Depine and Philippe Vernet (tandem sprint, 1983); Isabelle Nicoloso (women's sprint, 1984); Fabrice Colas and Frédéric Magné (tandem sprint, 1987, 1988, 1989); Félicia Ballanger (women's sprint and 500 metres, 1995, 1996, 1997, 1998, 1999); and Laurent Gané (men's sprint, 1999). Riders trained by Morelon and his colleagues have also won Olympic titles, such as Rousseau (kilometre, 1996, points, 2000), Gané (sprint, 1999), Ballanger (women's sprint, 1996) and Nathalie Lancien (women's points, 1996).

This success has vindicated INSEP's interpretation of its mission to provide elite champions to further French grandeur, as well as stimulating interest in competitive sport at all levels and sport as leisure. In cycling, as in other sports such as football and rugby, the system of coaching based around Centres permanents d'entraînement et de formation (p.184) at national, regional and local level, and the ‘democratic’ selection of an elite of sportsmen and sportswomen, functions in a clearly structured pyramidal hierarchy. In football, France has provided structures and coaching schemes that have consistently borne fruit (for an accessible discussion of the national coaching system as it applies in soccer, see Hare, 2003: 92–95), and in track cycling Morelon and Quintyn have been key elements (Labrunie, 1998) in similar success.

The 1960s and 1970s were a period of change and continuity in French cycling, as the Tour de France, cycling media and the professional cycle sport industry developed their models of operation with one eye on the traditions of the past and the other on new technologies of mediatization, new pressures for competitors to cheat, and the overall modernization of French society and culture which made the French public ‘read’ their national champions in changing ways. While the Tour negotiated its late modernity preponderantly in relation to its past and the heritage of media practices, ideologies of sporting effort, patterns of race organization and personas of star performers, the new success of French track cycling in this period marked the changing relationship to elite competitive sport of the French state. Although track cycling was one of cycling's oldest sporting disciplines, it was a novelty for French track riders to reach the heights of celebrity and success attained by Morelon, and victories in the world championships and in the Olympics fulfilled Gaullist wishes to see ‘une France qui gagne’ in the late 1960s and 1970s. Morelon's subsequent career as a high-level trainer and national coach exemplified how cycling contributed in later decades to the national system of preparing elite athletes.




(1) However, in a later chapter, we will see that the company that owns the Tour de France, Amaury Sport Organization, has in the 1990s and 2000s been in regular conflict with the international bodies regulating cycling worldwide in an ongoing attempt to maintain its ‘French’ control over professional cycling and to preserve the independence of the Tour de France itself from UCI oversight and interference.

(2) A feat only previously achieved by the Belgian Romain Maes in 1935, and never repeated since.

(3) This is how the Miroir des Sports journalist Roger Bastide commented on Anquetil's 1961 Tour victory, quoted by Ollivier.

(4) For a treatment of the facts and myths about the death of Tom Simpson on Mont Ventoux in 1967, see Fotheringham (2002).

(5) Blondin's contribution to the Tour has been examined in a television documentary created by Jacques Maigne and Serge Garcin, Le Tour vu par Antoine Blondin (2003, screened by France 5 on 18 June 2007).

(6) For one accessible treatment of the links between sport and literature in France, see Voilley (1998).

(7) See, for example, the commentary on Blondin by Jean-Emmanuel Ducoin published in L'Humanité (2003). The famous sports journalist Jacques Augendre has published an account of Blondin's summers with the Tour de France (2005).

(8) These two Blondinian remarks do not appear to be in his writings; rather, they are comments reported by interviewers or collaborators, and have no accurate referencing (thanks to Ruadhán Cooke, an expert on Blondin's writings on the Tour, for this clarification).

(9) Average monthly sales in 1962 were 90,000, rising to a peak monthly readership of 175,000 in 1968, before declining to 96,000 in 1983, and then falling progressively until the liquidation of the title in 1994.

(10) The failure in Rome prompted a famous newspaper cartoon (Jacques Faizant in Le Figaro) of a sullen General de Gaulle, incongruously attired in tracksuit and plimsolls, setting off to compete himself, above the grumbling caption ‘Dans ce pays, si je ne fais pas tout moi-même …’