Peace, politics, and the peloton

IssueSeptember 2009
Comment by Jeff Cloves

During the Second World War, BSA Cycles made folding bicycles for paratroopers. Thus, the machines descended into occupied Europe attached to the backs of terrified soldiers suspended beneath graceful silk canopies.

It’s hard to imagine a more surreal conjunction of mechanical ingenuity, inspired sewing and blind trust in morality. Mortality, though, would be a better word and ironies abound. BSA stood for Birmingham Small Arms, which manufactured Lee-Enfield rifles for the “poor bleedin’ infantry” of the First World War.

The badge on my cousin Paul’s first (second-hand) bike was emblazoned with the three stacked rifles trademark of BSA Cycles. Paul’s dad, meantime, was a Second World War conscientious objector in Wormwood Scrubs. Our parents would not allow us toy guns even though “the war” informed most of our games and filled our drawing books. Instead, we made our own bows and arrows and catapults.

When I first started writing for PN in the late ’60s, a strong pro-bicycle philosophy existed among its contributors and was reflected in their words. PN’s ethos celebrated “small is beautiful” and “the gift economy”. Its green commitment was all of a piece. That even the peaceful bicycle should have been commandeered for warfare offended us all.

In 1973, PN published a little booklet – The Pedal-Power Pocket Book and Kerb-side Companion – designed to encourage cycle use as well as providing useful gen on recycling cycles. And all for 5p. PN was ahead of the peloton (the main bunch in a cycle race).

I take for granted that PN readers walk or use bicycles whenever possible but before I get to the hub of this piece, here’s some background. I come from a cycling family. Before I could walk I was strapped in a sidecar attached to mum and dad’s tandem. We only had bikes and we used them for everything: work, school, shopping, visits, outings, camping holidays. I was a cyclist by birth.

Now, if you’re interested in cycling, Tomorrow, we ride by Jean Bobet (Mousehold Press, 2008, £12.99) is the book for you. Even if you have no interest whatever in cycling, I bet you’ll be gripped. As for me, any book which starts with a quotation from the poet/songwriter, Jacques Prévert, can hardly miss. Jean Bobet is the younger brother of Louison Bobet, the Frenchman who became the first rider to win le Tour de France three years in succession.

Jean Bobet is a retired (he’s now 89) racing cyclist himself. He raced wearing glasses and, because he held a degree in English literature, was regarded as an “intellectual” by his copains de la bicyclette. His book is about his love of literature, his love for his brother, and their shared love of cycling.

After they stopped racing they continued to cycle together almost to the week of Louis’ death. Jean’s writing is quirky and even odd (could be the translation) but it has rich personality. It’s a philosophical, social, and cultural commentary on their life and times, and often very moving. Years ago I wrote of how, in Wheels of Chance, HG Wells captured the sheer joy of cycling better than any book I knew. In that regard Jean Bobet is his equal:
Cycling is delicate, intimate and ephemeral. It arrives, it takes hold of you, sweeps you up and then leaves you again. It is for you alone. It is a combination of speed and ease, force and grace. It is pure happiness.

When Jean was called up for French national service he was in a privileged position and given complete freedom to train and race. Then suddenly he fell from grace. His military papers arrived claiming he was guilty of “communist activities” and considered to be a “deserter”. In fact, student Jean had met Louis Aragon – a prominent Communist intellectual – and in consequence:
I delivered two or three sporting stories to the journal Les Lettres Françaises [Aragon was its editor]. In 1952, that student cyclist did not know that the witch-hunt led by the American Senator McCarthy would not spare the French, or at least certain circles in France.

The class structure of cycle racing and its regional basis reigned for a couple of decades after the war – now it’s controlled by global capitalism – and Jean’s account is fascinating and exciting.

Any French rider who won le Tour was propelled to the summit of the social heap. He was compelled, though, to be accessible to his public. It was expected and demanded. A champion sometimes raced in local as well as national events. He was a “man of the people” and “the people” shook his hand in the streets.

Cycling was political too. In Italy, the magnificent Fausto Coppi was seen as a man of “the left” while his rival, Gino Bartali, was the man of the Catholic church. The Soviet bloc denied its racers access to le tour and instead set up its own propagandist “peace race” in which East European champions met (lesser) West European champions and the ideological war was again fought by proxy.

In 1953, Jean Bobet was riding in the Tour of Italy:
As the kilometres went by, the restiveness, then the excitement and finally the hysteria of the Tifosi thronging both side of the road, led me to guess, and very soon to feel, that Coppi was on my tail. With a deafening roar press cars and photographers’ motorcycles shot past me, sirens wailing. He had arrived. He passed me on the left. He did not notice me. He was riding on a cushion of air. His long legs were whirling round and his hands on top of the handlebars. He was sublime. I strove desperately to keep him for a moment in my sights. I saw his sky-blue Bianchi jersey, the sky-blue support car in which his mechanic, the faithful Pinella, balanced a spare bike over his shoulder. This image will never be erased.
One day, in a cloud of golden dust, I saw the sun riding a bicycle between Grosseto and Follonica.

Topics: Culture
See more of: Jeff Cloves