In every sport there are dead legends, in every sport there are living legends and in every sport there are the men who provide the invisible thread that binds past and present together: Jean Bobet is such a man, brother of the triple Tour winner Louison, and now a celebrated writer on the sport they enjoyed together. Here is Louison’s training partner and confidant, a man who rubbed shoulders with all the greats of the 1950s, and who was at Fausto Coppi’s funeral: a day he remembers for the fact that ‘in death as in life, others appropriated Fausto.’
Jean is what the French call, with no irony at all, ‘un gentilhomme’ – a gentleman in both senses: a man of refined tastes and a thoroughly nice person. He is not your average retired professional cyclist, but then few pros attendedAberdeenUniversityto study English, at a time when merely leaving the provinces ofEuropefor a big city was a major step. There is a delicacy in the way he talks, the words carefully chosen, sensibilities respected. The same care shows in his writing, each phrase lovingly crafted, most recently in his account of cycling in the war years, revealing how, for many French amateur cyclists, the Occupation didn’t get in the way of the Sunday afternoon en peloton.l
Our paths first crossed when I was researching Roule Britannia, my history of Britons on the Tour de France. Writing about Tom Simpson, I described a legendary picture of “the Major” wearing his yellow jersey in the 1962 Tour and elegantly supping tea from a fine china cup and saucer: it was Bobet who had set up the shot when working for the newspaper l’Equipe.
It was Bobet too who recalled the arrival on French shores of the first Britons to race in the Tour de France. The Hercules riders from whom most of the GB squad in the 1955 Tour would be drawn occupied a villa next door to the Bobets and their team for pre-season training on the Cote d’Azur: it was Jean who dredged up a killer details from the back of his mind for me: each man training with a map in his pocket in case he got left behind, the curious way they tried to speak French.
Bobet has memories of Simpson too, a star he met often when working in his second career as a journalist, having retired when he realised professional cycling was not for him. Visiting with a BBC documentary team to produce “Death on the Mountain”, one thing struck us most: Jean still spoke of Simpson in the present, more than 35 years after his death. “J’aime Tom” – I like Tom – he insisted, making the point, unconsciously, that affection persists down the years: the man goes but his personality lives.
And that was in spite of Jean’s bitterest memories of all, of Simpson sticking out his tongue at the start of the fateful stage fromMarseillesto Carpentras over Mont Ventoux to show him the pills he had taken “to help him get out of bed that morning”. To be fond of the man, to see that, to be there when he died, and still feel for him: that, for sure is the sign of a gentleman…
This column first appeared in Rouleur magazine. For more information go to www.rouleur.cc