Happy birthday to Louison Bobet who was born on this day in the Brittany province of France in 1925, and died on March 13, 1983.
The French rider is best remembered for being the first to win three consecutive Tour de France titles, which he did in 1953, 1954, and 1955.
Considered a great all-around performer, Bobet also won the World Championship Road Race in 1954, Paris-Roubaix Classic in 1956, Milan-San Remo Classic in 1951, Tour of Flanders Classic in 1955 and the Tour of Lombardy Classic in 1951.
In all, he won four out of the five Monuments of cycling.
Bobet was blessed with natural ability and a smooth pedaling stroke, but to many it was his dedication that made him a champion.
Indeed, Bobet’s training practices are what made him legendary amongst his rivals, implementing a fierce training regiment that was equally focussed on polishing his sprinting skills as it did his climbing prowess.
Bobet was born one of three children above his father’s bakery in the rue de Montfort, Saint-Méen-le-Grand, near Rennes.
Word has it, that his father gave him a bicycle when he was only two years-old, and within 6 months he was able to ride distances upwards of 6 kilometers (3 miles).
Bobet entered his first race at the age of 13, a 30 kilometer event that saw the fledging young rider finish second in a sprint. After that, he continued to race in his local area as an amateur, winning a handful of races.
In 1941, he qualified for the final of what was considered the unofficial youth championship, the Premier Pas Dunlop. Two years later, he finished sixth in the Montluçon race, which was won by Raphaël Géminiani, who would later become a professional teammate and rival of Bobet’s.
After World War II, Bobet applied for a professional license after leaving the army, but was sent one for an independent, or semi-professional.
This benefitted Bobet greatly, as he was able to compete in both professional as well as amateur races, like the regional Brittany Championships while also eligible to race in the National Championships in Paris. And, the following year he captured the French National Championship title in 1946, after riding clear of the field to catch and beat the two leaders.
He subsequently turned fully professional that same year with the Stella team, which was a bicycle factory in Nantes.
Stella was a small team that rode mainly in Brittany. However, in May 1947, Bobet and two other members of the team rode the Boucles de la Seine race in Paris, claiming a solo victory by six minutes over the peloton. This triumph earned him an invitation to ride in that year’s Tour de France.
However, the unexpected toughness of the race forced Bobet to abandon on the ninth day in the Alps, during which time he was seen crying along the climbs, thus earning him the “cry-baby” in the peloton.
Veteran rider René Vietto later referred to him as La Bobette, a mock feminization of his name, while the cycling historian Dick Yates once wrote:
“He brought down the scorn of the press and everyone quickly wrote off this ‘cry-baby’. René Vietto was in the yellow jersey as leader of the general classification and he looked like he was going to win – he was a real man. As France forgot about him, Bobet went home to lick his wounds and listen to words of advice from his father.”
Bobet’s initial Tour de France campaigns were overshadowed by such luminaries as Gino Bartali, Fausto Coppi and Hugo Koblet, but during that time he succeeded in capturing the yellow jersey for a brief period during the 1948 race and finished third on the podium in 1950, along with winning the Mountains Classification that year as well.
Bobet won his first Tour de France in 1953, dominating the mountain stages of the 50th edition of the French race. However, critics were quick to diminish his feat, pointing out a void in competition, as rivals such as Koblet, Coppi and Ferdinand “Ferdi” Kübler were conspicuously absent.
The 1954 race was different, without Italians but with a strong team from Belgium this time.
The race started fast and didn’t ease up. Bobet took the lead after four days, then lost it on day eight. The jersey changed hands until Bobet again dominated on the climb of the Col du Izoard.
Winning the time-trial later cemented his lead and he got to Paris 15 minutes ahead of Kübler.
A few weeks later he won the World Champion Road Race in Germany.
He left Stella after eight years to ride for Mercier, where the team rode bikes bearing Bobet’s name, but were actually made by Mercier in their factory in St-Étienne
Bobet completed his hat-trick of successive wins in 1955, having that year won the Tour of Flanders and Critérium du Dauphiné Libéré. The strongest French rider at first was Antonin Rolland and the manager, Marcel Bidot, asked the team to ride for him. Rolland, however, grew weaker as the race approached the Pyrenees. Bobet won the Tour but with a saddle boil that needed surgery. “His flesh was full of holes”, said a report. “Dead tissue had to be removed to within several millimeters of vital organs. Nobody dared speak the word ‘cancer'”.
Bobet believed that enduring the sores during the Tour made him a lesser rider for the rest of his life.
He has 400,000 kilometers in his legs. He has conquered glory and fortune but he is badly ill. Despite the formal advice of his doctor, he has decided to ride the 1958 Tour de France. He will suffer. He knows that. In the heart of the gigantic rocks of the Cassé Déserte, Bob is arced on his bicycle, his kidneys crushed by the effort and his head, like a heavy, painful balance, oscillates above his handlebars. The sun beats down on him. Around him, the whole mountain smokes like a giant witch’s cauldron. As he breathes, what burns his throat and his lungs is the dust that rises around him… Abandoned, alone, without help, streaming with sweat, he has no other weapon against his adversaries but the mountain, the bad weather and his crazy willpower.
Off the bike, Bobet liked to portray himself like being a Hollywood matinée idol, which brought him much ribbing from other French riders.
Géminiani once said, Bobet’s mannerisms actually made him less popular even in his own Brittany. Moreover, the British professional Brian Robinson called Bobet “a private man and a little moody” and said he would sulk if things went wrong, while the French journalist René de Latour described him as, “he didn’t look good on a bike” and that he had “the legs of a football [soccer] player”.
Bobet was equally fastidious about his attire, and was once rumored to have rejected his first yellow jersey because it had not been made with the pure wool, which he believed was unhealthy to wear.
Bobet was also one of the first riders to employ a personal soigneur, a physiotherapist named Raymond Le Bert, taking his lead from Coppi.
According to reports, Le Bert booked him hotel rooms between half-stages which was against the Tour’s rules. Riders were supposed to use a dormitory provided for them. When the Tour insisted riders carry spare tires, usually round their shoulders, Le Bert gave Bobet tubulars with the inner tubes taken out, useless to ride on but lighter to carry if that’s what the rules insisted.
Le Bert said he had met Coppi, whom Bobet admired for his “modern” techniques but refused to have anything to do with drugs. But the journalist and race organiser, Jean Leulliot, remembered a dinner organized by Jacques Goddet and Félix Lévitan, the organizers of the Tour de France, for the race’s former winners. Leulliot wrote:
One table attracted particular attention. Around it were Anquetil, Merckx and Bobet, 13 victories in the Tour between them. The conversation at the table was particularly lively and Louison Bobet was being challenged for saying that he had never taken the slightest drug or stimulant. He was obliged to admit that he had drunk the small bottles prepared for him by his soigneur at the time without knowing exactly what they contained. Which produced laughter from Jacques Anquetil and Eddy Merckx.
Bobet’s career effectively ended when the car he was riding in with his brother Jean crashed outside Paris in the autumn of 1960.
Following his retirement, Bobet had a succession of businesses, including a clothes shop, but he became best known for investing in and developing the seawater health treatment of Thalassotherapy, later opening the Louison Bobet Centre near the sea at Port du Crouesty at Quiberon.
Bobet is interred in the cemetery of Saint-Méen-le-Grand, where a museum was established in his memory.
Joyeux anniversaire Louison!
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