Saturday, 16 March 2019

LE TOUR SNAPSHOTS 2: Sherwen's epic ride

The Tour de France is not just about the winners. There are other heroes.  Among them the domestiques. Men like the late Paul Sherwen.

 His unexpected and untimely death from a heart attack at the age of 62

 last December came as a great shock to all who knew him.

 Men like Sherwen are the backbone of a team. They are employed primarily to be of service of their team leader, to pace them back to the race after puncturing, to shield them from the wind, to mark rivals, burn themselves out in the lead-out train in the closing kilometres.  Except sometimes these guys  make the headlines.

Their suffering is often overlooked, but it provides another perspective on Le Tour, on the long and often dangerous journey around France, through the Alps and Pyrenees.

I have two stories about two such heroes from the 1985 Tour, about guys who crashed and against all the odds struggled on to finish.  One is about Sherwen as the Tour approached the Alps. The other is about Holland’s Adri Wijnands who several stages later crashed on the approach to the Pyrenees.

First, Sherwen.

In 1976, aged 19, Sherwen rode for Altrincham Road Club. He won Britain’s season-long Star Trophy series. His biggest successes included the National road title also the

 Manx International and the Archer Pernod GP plus two stages in the Tour of Malaga.

When he went to France he joined the Paris ACBB and scored a number of high profile amateur wins.

He turned professional in 1978 riding for Fiat under Raphaël Géminiani, before moving to the La Redoute team.

In 1982 he finished third in the Tour du Haut-Var, won by Sean Kelly. And also won a stage win in the season-opening Tour of the Mediterranean.

In 1983 he was second overall in the Four Days of Dunkirk, winning one stage.

In 1985 he had made the biggest headlines of his life with a heroic ride in the 1985 Tour, his last appearance in this greatest of races.

It was a feat recalled in the many tributes paid Sherwen.

Here’s is the report I filed at the time.

1985 Tour: Stage 10, Epinal to Pontarlier, 204.5km (127 miles)

This is a story about a heroic Englishman and an angry German whose troubles began at the start of this long, fast stage. The hero was Paul Sherwen, the angry German, Didi Thurau.

Their unrelated problems made the news on a day when there was no change to the top overall positions, despite seven climbs, with the toughest at the end, a second-category climb to the finish seven kilometres from the valley floor.

Sherwen, one of the most trusted and hard-working domestique in the business, crashed heavily in the first kilometre in Epinal. He hurt his back and was a few minutes on the ground before re-starting.

Because of the high speed set by race leader Bernard Hinault (La Vie Claire), determined to seal a famous fifth overall victory, the race fairly rushed the first two climbs, a third and fourth category, in the opening 20 kilometres.  The frantic pace doomed Sherwen to never regain the field.

He was so hurt that neither could he stay the pace with two La Redoute team-mates sent back to get him. It was a measure of the team’s regard for the Englishman that these two helpers were former world pursuit champion Alain Bondue and another rated Frenchman, Regis Simon.

The pair were forced to abandon Sherwen after 85 kilometres when it became clear that all three of them would finish outside of the time limit and be eliminated.

Save yourselves, Sherwen told them, a domestique to the last, always thinking of others.

And so Bondue and Simon rode Hell for leather to spare themselves from the clutches of the broom wagon.

At the finish we began formulating our day’s stories all the while waiting for Sherwen to arrive. When after an hour he still hadn’t shown, we began the drive back down the mountain road to the press room, when suddenly the evacuation halted.

A long, long time after Jorgen Pedersen (Carrera) had won the stage, the crowds and traffic blocking the descent off the mountain heard whistles shrill. They parted in waves as a lonely gendarme motard outrider appeared. And then the roadside crowds, making their way home, broke into spontaneous applause and cheers at the sight of the tortured vision winging towards them.  Cries “bravo Sherwen” rang out.

It was unbelievable, he was still riding: six hours chasing, most of it alone.

Like everyone else on the descent, our car pulled over to let him continue the five kilometres to the summit.

We’d all waited a long time hoping to see him finish and then left to get down to the press room, convinced he’d packed.

Not Sherwen.

We should have known better. Sherwen doesn’t give up easily, even when he must have known he would finish so far down he would be eliminated. According to the rules he should have been.

Wim Jeremiasse of Holland, a member of the International Jury, gave us reason to hope, saying: “He finished 23 minutes outside the time limit and the jury are deliberating because of the exceptional circumstances. It may be a good decision.”

A few minutes later, he returned to tell us: “Sherwen will not be disqualified. He can stay in the race. The points in his favour were that he crashed in the first kilometre, when the speed of the race was high. He was trying to the end, and his passage up the climb to the finish was blocked with traffic.”

Sherwen’s Director Sportif, Raphael Geminiani had waited like a father for a lost son on the finish line.

When the shattered, bedraggled Sherwen struggled across the line in a near state of collapse, Geminiani, the big Frenchman, a former star himself, threw his arms about Sherwen and in a show of emotion tore his ripped jersey off his back and helped him into a fresh one, saying: “Here, this is your very own Maillot Jaune.”

As for Didi Thurau, his fate also rested with the International Race Jury.

But for him there was only one possible decision. He was instantly disqualified from the Tour de France and fined 1,125 Francs.

The 30-year-old from Frankfurt, yellow jersey holder for 14 days in the 1977 Tour, had that morning assaulted an official!

Thurau has been upset from being docked a one-minute penalty in the time trial on stage 8, after slipstreaming France’s Charly Mottet who had caught and passed the German.

At the start of stage 10 he had asked the chairman of the jury, Raymond Trine of Belgium, why Mottet hadn’t been penalised as well, because Mottet had also taken turns pacing.

So far so good. But then it went pear-shaped for Thurau, because he then grabbed Trine by the throat and shook him, saying, it was alleged, “I will put you in hospital.”

At which point whistles blew for the start and riders mounted their bikes and everyone else bolted for the cars.

It wasn’t until after the stage finish that the commissaires were able to meet and apply Regulation 24: a fine and instant disqualification with no warning.

The rest of the stage details pale into insignificance compared to those two stories. But nevertheless, when we remind ourselves of the action at the head of the race, Sherwen’s epic chase looks all the more remarkable.

There was the attack by France’s Pascal Simon (Peugeot)

in pursuit of an eight-man break which had done clear after 138 kilometres and had gained over four minutes on the peloton by kilometre 160.

Simon’s move sparked a reaction from Hinault who upped the pace to eventually bring him back before he could reach the breakaway which stayed clear, albeit losing four men on the final climb.  The stage was won by Jorgen Pedersen of Denmark, while all the favourites finished in a 26-man chasing group. Besides Hinault, the other major contenders included Scotland’s Robert Millar, who in 1984 became the first Brit to win one of the three major overall titles in a grand tour, the mountains classification. He also finished fourth final overall, the highest placing by a Brit until Bradley Wiggins equalled this in 2009, before his history making overall victory in 2012.

And also in that elite group was Spain’s Pedro Delgado, winner of the Tour of Spain, who would win the Tour in 1988.

 And what of Sherwen?  He’d recovered by the following morning when the British press sought him out to congratulate him.

“You’re taking the Mickey,” he grinned. No we’re not, we said, and we presented him with a bottle of Champagne to prove it.

“Well, thanks very much guys,” he said, looking quite abashed.

“This is my last Tour and I didn’t want to finish by being eliminated.”

Then he quipped: “I thought I’d treat it as if I was riding a 12-hour!”
NEXT Blog: Wijnands 50mph crash.

Tuesday, 26 February 2019

Snapshots from Le Tour

There are millions of stories about the Tour de France, the world’s greatest and biggest annual sporting event.  Many of them escape our notice.

Here’s an odd tale, for starters. When British fans thrilled to the 100th edition of the Tour de France, to the second historic British victory in the 2013, someone thought fit only to moan.

Kenyan born  Chris Froome had stomped the opposition to win the 2013 edition, to  follow Bradley Wiggins’  first in 2012.   It was another great moment in the story of British cycling’s emergence from Cinderella sport to top cycling nation.  

But when the story was run in The Guardian, some bloke, a doctor,  took exception to a photo of Froome and the other top finishers for posing with celebratory cigars!

And the doc wrote to complain. He considered it wrong to give smoking publicity.

Perhaps the Doc needed to light up!  Er, a Freudian slip, that one. Meant to say, lighten up!

Fortunately, The Guardian the following day did this reader the honour of publishing my indignant response.

Here it is:

Dr Tony Jewell clearly doesn't know his cycle racing (letters, July 23) if he was  "astonished" to see photographs of Froome and other Tour de France winners with cigars in their mouths.

Once upon a time, many a top rider could be seen smoking a pipe during the early part of a long stage. When the speed picked up, he'd call up one of his domestiques and hand his pipe over to his trusty servant safe in the knowledge it would be  looked after until he called for it after the stage. The domestique would knock out the pipe on his handlebars before putting it in his jersey pocket.

The downside was it would leave a dirty brown stain on the handlebar tape.”

Of course, this is was a pack of lies. But it served to make a point. The inspiration for this daft idea  must go to  the late Gus Russell of the Merseyside Wheelers.

Gus always rode with the social section with his pipe clenched between teeth, sometimes lit, sometimes not.

But after a smoke he could be heard, back down the line, knocking out his pipe on the handlebars.

They rode very sedately, those social run members. Very slowly! Didn’t suit everyone.

One Sunday morning,  when  the training and social sections had both  disembarked from the same Birkenhead Ferry  from Liverpool, the two groups politely and sedately pedalled through the town together. Until the slow speed dictated by Gus and his crowd drove club time trialling ace Jim Clarke to distraction.

Unable to contain himself, Jim leapt off his bike, handed it to a clubmate to take hold of and keep it rolling alongside, and then ran ahead of the group, his shoe plates clattering on the road,  shouting, "come on guys, can we have a little bit more pace!"

There were a lot of long faces!

Jim reclaimed  his bike and the training guys upped the gears and sped off to leave the socials to it.

But you always hoped to have Gus for company in the Cheshire lanes on those 6am marshalling turns at the Liverpool and District TTCA 12-hour. Because, as well as having a pipe on the go, he always had his primus stove with him for a brew!

Anyway, Eddy Merckx famously enjoyed the occasional puff on a fag and he won the Tour five times, not to mention over 500 other races.

But not, we must suppose, on 70kph mountain descents when it would be difficult to keep the thing lit.

I enjoyed covering the Tour during the 1980s.

First thing’s first. If there’s three or four of you in the car it must be an estate car. Do they call them estate cars? OK, five-door car, the fifth being the huge wedge of a thing which rises up like a drawbridge at the rear. These cars have a large flat area behind the rear seats, for luggage - and washing.

That space also doubles as a dryer - where you spread out your smalls to dry. 

It is impossible to take enough clothing with you for what is a four week trip all told. For you must include the days getting to the start and away from the finish of this three week Tour of One Night Stands in Hotels when suitcase will be opened but never emptied.

So you must wash clothes as you go.

At the very least the colourful array of underwear laid out in the back can cause amusement for the spectators peering in whenever you are parked up on the route.

By the time the race reaches Paris, however, you will have begun to look a little frayed. The shirt you wear may be days old, and for those bashing stories out from dawn to dusk, there may well be several days growth of facial hair as shaving has become one chore to be dispensed with.

Walking out on the posh Champs Elyees, one of my travelling companions was only saved from being picked up as vagrant when the Gendarmes spotted his Tour accredition sticking out of his moth eaten black shirt.

Poor soul had come directly to the Tour from the Mexico World Cup, a six week jamboree and was knackered. (Football!)

It was his first Tour, too, so it was a steep learning curve. Not that you would have known reading his sparkling copy. It was entertaining, showing he had an excellent grasp of the often complex nature of stage racing. He was a pro, afterall, from a real newspaper!

To the discomfort of this particular member of the English party, some of the French hacks had scrubbed up for the final day’s stage. One even wore a very expensive white suit! Clearly, these people lived in or near Paris and gone home the night before, to shake off the weeks of travel. We viewed this as cheating. They had the left the zone before the battle had been wrapped up!

Enough about travel basics. Over the following weeks,  I’ll recall a few more action snapshots.

Thursday, 3 January 2019

Harp Hilly 100...coast and back...Basil's Balls Up Band

My cycling friend, Al, acting on information given him by his son, tells me that there are many platform zeros up and down the country, and that Redhill station in Surrey isn’t the only one, as I had supposed in my previous blog.

 A blog which made the grievous error of not being about cycling.

I am bemused, at first, to learn there are more platform zeros.  But then I quickly become bored because clearly this was only of interest had Redhill been unique in this respect.

I first met Al when we both rode the Harp RC Hilly 100 kilometre reliability trial in the Chiltern Hills, west of London. It was a damp, misty day. We were in the scratch group riding – breathlessly in my case –  with the stars like Steve Heffernan and Skol Six winner Tony Gowland.
We both got round in the allotted time, pleased to say.  Made the legs ache.

At one point when our group caught and passed a slower group the bunch swelled to near on 80 riders. The speed shot up as the scratch guys attacked down the wrong side of the road to get by and for a while it was a full on road race, to my cost.

 I got shelled in the sort out.  This was about two thirds round the hilly course in the Chilterns and I struggled the remaining kilometres to make the cut.

Al and I then rode home to London, where we discovered we were almost neighbours, living in shared flats in the Royal Borough of Kensington and Chelsea, close by Earls Court.

We’d clocked about 160-kilometers, including riding out and home, and agreed to meet up that evening to repair the damage – a few pints at the Abingdon. Nice bunch of locals, including John – LT to his friends – he was a guard on London Underground.  And there was little old Sid, usually astride a bar stool crouched forward as if riding a gee gee, as befits his former profession, a jockey.

He’d be well sozzled on gin when Al and I walked in – by which time the kindly bar staff were refilling his glass with water to keep in the saddle.

You live where, a horrified  Martyn Roach said. The time trialling and road star commuted to work up and down the horribly busy Cromwell Road, hard by my flat. I understood Martyn’s horror that a fresh air cyclist should live amongst all that traffic mayhem. I used to think that about the area until I discovered the area’s hidden charms – not to mention easy eating in the Hot Pot and supermarkets open 24 hours.

The flower seller was a character. In his 40s, always looked a bit beaten up with his half-closed eyes.

 It was impossible to make out his sales patter, “Oi, deez a bunch crahurrm a 50 pence.” Once, when I stopped to buy some flowers, I said,  what are you shouting?

“Nuffink, mate, “Nuffink!”

He was a feature, a kindly soul who would help anyone and who once foiled a robbery attempt.

I learned that after he was found in his lockup, with a single shot to the head. That was a shocking business.

So was the matter of the police shooting nearby of Steven Waldorf, mistaken for escaped prisoner David Martin.

The police from the local nick were having celebratory drink in the Abingdon when a customer who had just seen the news walked in.

“What you lot laffing ‘bout about. You shot the wrong guy…it’s on the news.”

Those stories stick in the mind, as does this, a lighter tale.

This was the press stake out of a house near the Abingdon pub one cold November, snappers and hacks making repeated calls on the pub to warm up.  The story centred on young Prince Andrew and American actress and model Koo Stark who resided there. They were dating! Good tabloid stuff.

“Don’t worry, mates, don’t worry, we’ve got a story. We’ve got a story,” an anxious reporter said to photographers after a long night when nothing happened.

Never a dull moment.

We’d sometimes go the Kensington to hear Basil’s Balls up Band. Hilarious.  Blues, rock, Country and Western. They could do it all, accomplished musicians. They’d start with a quality rendition before sending it up.

Their signing off number was Dancers Dilemma, the drummer continuously missing the beat and everyone else off key. Laugh? I nearly died every time.


Al sent me a YouTube film of them playing at Croyde, the Devon surging resort in 2014!

Obviously some changes to personnel, but the key man was still there, Randy, who played sax and was the funny man.

When I went training, I’d escape London by going west, into Richmond Park only a few miles away, and from there by way of the green corridors of suburbia into the Surrey Hills 25 miles away.

But on Wednesday there was the all day run to the coast, if I was due a day off work.

I persuaded Al to join me on one of these epics.

Riders met at a cafe’ at Kew Bridge 9:00am. Bubble and Squeak to set us up. The proprietor calling out, go on you guys, gerrout on the road!

 The bunch included pro national cyclo-cross champion Keith Mernickle and Johnny Morris (aka the Bear).

We headed off towards the coast in a fast, wait for nobody group, recalled Al. Another shattering day but you had to get the miles in.

I recall one other rider in that group,  Gerry Butterfill puncturing and stopping time and again to pump up his softening tyre on that boring rolling A24 dual carriageway  half-way to the coast.  And Keith Mernickle, spotting a group of riders in the distance calling back down the line for Gerry.

He’s stopped to pump up his tub, again, someone shouted.

When he gets back send him up here, Keith shouted back.

Gerry, riding in the hooks,  gets back on for the umpteenth time

 Gerry, Keith wants you up the front.

Up to the front goes Gerry, ever the dutiful team man.

See that group up there, Gerry, said Keith, as in the far distance figures disappeared over a short rise.

Go up there and find out who they are.

Gerry does as bid, swerving out to tuck in behind a truck…and rapidly draws away from us.

He’d have to be quick; his back wheel was swishing about as his back tyre was going soft again.

We catch him some 20 minutes later, waiting for us. He dutifully reported to Mernickle on who the guys were, then immediately stopped to pump up his tyre for fourth time!

No one waited!

Strong as a horse, Gerry.

120 mile round trip, with a stop for lunch!

Al now lives in Gods Own Country – Yorkshire which, as no one needs reminding, hosted a smashing Grand Depart of the Tour in 2014, and since then every year there is Tour de Yorkshire. And now, in 2019, such is the county’s enthusiasm for bike racing, Yorkshire hosts the World Road Race Championships to be based in Harrogate

The finish line will be near Betty’s, the famous tea and cake emporium. I imagine they will have some special treats that week, rainbow cupcakes and the like.

Tek care, as they say.

Which is something some of the new converts to cycling need to learn.

 I narrowly avoided colliding with one such as he attempted a U-turn in a blind bend top of  Box Hill.    You arsehole, I shouted.

If I’d been driving (that’s a laugh, I’ve never driven) I’d probably have had him and the next thing you know he’d be in an air ambulance.

We never used to see this sort of behaviour. Clearly he was one of the “All the gear no idea” brigade who have taken up the sport since it’s become popular. These clowns are the main reason I mostly avoid riding at weekends.

By the way, I am now selective in observing the custom of acknowledging other cyclists on the road. Those stupid enough to be wearing shorts in the winter are ignored.