imagine we're in a french chalet in the foothills of the pyrenees. it's late and it's dark. the evening meal is over, and we're all gathered in the sitting room, with a log fire burning in the hearth, and a few candles dotted about the room adding to the ambience. we all have a glass of whatever takes our fancy and our host has sat down in the comfiest armchair that all but dominates the room. the tourmalet similarly dominates the horizon, were it light enough to see, and those men with the orange wigs and green and orange flags are proximitous as the crow flies, but a literal world away by road. with no television and the wind starting to make its presence known outside, the man in the leather armchair indicates that he is about to remedy the silence...
'this is not just a biography of octave lapize, but my very personal biography of octave lapize."
of course, i paraphrase, but one of the most endearing factors about this compact volume from jean bobet is that my opening paragraph is exactly the atmosphere and setting that the book inspires.
you will either have heard, or will hear much about octave lapize between now and the end of july. 2010 is the 100th anniversary of the inclusion of the pyrenees in the tour de france, in particular, that of the col du tourmalet. lapize won that year's tour, and was the first rider over the top of the mountain. what seems less well known is that he was not the first rider to ride over the summit. lapize broached the ascent both in and out of the saddle; the iconic photograph is of a dishevelled rider wheeling his bicycle past a small crowd of onlookers, over a decidedly unsurfaced track. the first man to ride over the tourmalet was behind: gustave garrigou.
the route had been surveyed earlier in the year by one alphonse steines (whose original notebooks feature in the current rapha tourmalet exhibition), a man who lied to henri desgrange and gave his assent to the traverse in july. during that 1910 tour, lapize uttered those oft quoted phrases to the man in charge, victor breyer, after descending the tourmalet around fifteen minutes behind local rider lafourcade. 'well now, lapize, what's wrong?' lapize let fly; 'you're murderers!' that's what's wrong. you're criminals.
the rewards for effort were not as clearcut as they are today: each placement at the end of a stage of the tour gained the rider an increasing number of points as we head down the general classification. thus beating your opponent into second place by a gap of over fifteen minutes would nevertheless result in a difference of only one point. with stages well in excess of 300 kilometres bobet refers to the stage from bayonne to bordeaux was a short one at 268km...the start was set for 3:30am. how many of today's tour favourites would be so keen if those strictures were still in place? on heavy steel bikes.
in most cases, the tourmalet and those famous words amount to the sum total of most cyclists' knowledge of octave lapize, but there was a great deal more to the man than that. bobet has spoken to lapize's daughter about his trip to new york to take part in six-day racing, a spectacle that proved beyond the abilities of all the europeans invited. however, when it came to the classics, octave won paris-roubaix on three consecutive occasions: 1909, 1910, and 1911. he also won paris-brussels three times in a row (1911, 1912, 1913) and is most identified with the french tricolour jersey, having captured that from 1910 to 1912. despite an inability to beat the americans at their own game on the track in new york, he carved a successful career on the european track, occasionally forfeiting days on the road in preference to the boards.
lapize also comes across as somewhat of an unpredictable fellow; more than once, bobet's race reports list octave as abandoning, oft times for no discernible reason, or at least none that we'll ever know of now.
biographies of great riders abound on the world's cycling bookshelves, but what places this on the shelf above those, is the manner and ability of its author. in a previous volume, tomorrow we ride, a book concerning the life and career of his brother louison, we know that brother jean was no slouch on the bike, but here is a man who spent a year in his late teens teaching english to students at robert gordon's college (now robert gordon's university) in aberdeen. while the original of this book was written in french and beautifully translated by adam berry, bobet's use of language sparkles throughout the 159 pages. my opening paragraph was no idle construct; throughout the book, bobet continually considers us, his readers, as a part of the narrative: where in all this was octave lapize? what was he up to?
but let us get back to the business in hand.
such devices, in the hands of a lesser writer, would come across as either pretentious or a means of making up for deficiencies in ability. here, the almost conversational nature of the story draws the reader into that mythical sitting room with its dim light and log fire. the work has been extensively researched and could easily be the basis of academic research, should one find the necessity so to do. but in fact, the last word on octave lapize has been laid before us in a manner that educates subliminally, while seeming to be mere story telling. the literary art of a true master.
octave lapize never had the opportunity to sit back and reflect on the gargantuan achievements that have placed him well and truly in the upper echelons of cycling's great panoply of champions. on 28 july 1914, austro hungary declared war on serbia, an action backed by russia, a french ally. on 1st august, germany delared war on russia, and world war one began. despite being found unfit for active service, lapize enlisted and eventually transferred to the french airforce, arriving at n90 squadron on 24th may 1917. on 14 july, octave lapize was shot down by two boche fighter planes.
a little mood music...
posted sunday 27 june 2010..........................................................................................................................................................................................................