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Tales from the peloton, January 23, 2006
Norbert Peugeot: The inventor of the training camp
With professional cyclists riding as individuals in the early 1900s, one man decided to defy a culture of individualism and promote the concept of teamwork, creating the very first training camp. Les Woodland profiles Norbert Peugeot.
I've only once known a man called Norbert and he hated it. The moment he could, he changed to something totally forgettable, like Brian. And to be honest, who could blame him? A more enlightened nation would have had a law against it in the first place.
But a little bit of cycling history rides on a man called Norbert. You may like to think back to him when you envy all those springtime pros who already have a suntan on their legs and a ripple in their calves. Because old Nobby invented the idea of training camps.
Some people say it was Rik van Looy who did it in the 1950s, taking his overweight Belgians off to the Mediterranean to work off the winter layoff people then thought essential. Why grind down the blubber in grit-in-your-pants Flanders when you could do it in the sunshine of Nice? But it wasn't him, I'm afraid, because Norbert Peugeot got there way back in 1907.
Old Nobby, as you'll have guessed, wasn't unconnected with the bike factory of the same name. An ancestor called Armand Peugeot had started it in 1882 and not long afterwards he spotted the advertising potential in sponsoring riders. In that, he was pitched against another bike-maker, Alcyon, and the two firms fought out supremacy in the Tour de France for decades.
Now, you have to remember that teams in those days weren't as they are now. The riders were paid - in some ways they got more money than they do now, depending on how you work these things out - but they were hired as individuals. They all wanted to win, they were all employed to win and team spirit was unknown. Until Nobby.
It dawned on him one day that he could put one over on Alcyon if he took a personal and not just a commercial interest in cycling. He showed riders how to train and together they planned tactics. In 1907 he did something unheard of and took his team to ride the course of Paris-Roubaix so they could plan where to attack Alcyon, see they could expect to fend off counter-attacks.
And as you'd expect, it worked. The winner was a man called Georges Passerieu, all wide mouth and stumpy chin, who'd been runner-up in the previous summer's Tour de France after only a few months as a professional.
Until then Passerieu had been a motor-paced rider. Nobby Peugeot's assessment was that that made him good at riding fast but useless at sprinting. So the only way to win, Nobby told him, was to go alone. And that's what Passerieu did. He outjumped the favourites at Douai and he'd have swept majestically into the track at Roubaix had a policeman at the entrance not insisting on checking first that he had a licence plate, that he'd paid his bicycle tax.
Only when the plate was confirmed as in order would the policeman open the gate and let Passerieu in. The second man, a hulking Belgian called Cyrille van Hauwaert, was already on the track as Passerieu crossed the line.
Other riders were terrified of van Hauwaert. Not only was he big and insensitive and spoke in grunts but he had at least once brought down the whole bunch in full flight by ignoring a marshal.
Van Hauwaert wanted to ride for La Française, a bike company in Paris, turning up there with his clothes in a cardboard box and speaking no French. La Française's big boss looked at him in horror and chucked him out. Come Paris-Roubaix, he wished he hadn't been so abrupt. Van Hauwaert, who'd already won the new Milan-San Remo, signed for Alcyon.
Peugeot were rattled. Norbert emptied his wallet and sent his team to the south of France. It was April 1908 and the world's first bike-training camp was created.
This ought to end as fairy tales end. Sadly it wasn't to be. Peugeot was laughed at for wasting his money, tiring out riders and doing things differently. And van Hauwaert won Paris-Roubaix for Alcyon, not untypically hitting a groundsman on his way into the track, crashing, climbing back and wobbling to glory.
Nobby may have regretted spending his cash. I don't know. Anyway, the war started in 1914. Bike factories went over to war production and many were destroyed by bombs. There was so little money come 1918 that the remaining businesses ran a joint team, La Sportive, to keep the idea of pro cycling alive. La Sportive won the Tour in 1919, 1920 and 1921 and got French racing got back on its feet. But I've never heard of follow-up training camps.
Not until the 1950s, anyway, when Mediterranean towns like St-Tropez, Antibes and Cannes spotted the professionals training on their roads and organised pre-season races for them. The circuits went into the hills, down back to the sea, then back up again, and attracted huge crowds.
The stars climbed off when they'd done the distance they wanted and came back next day to do it all over again. But that was the stars. Lesser riders saw it as a chance to bust a gut and earn some money, because for them their contracts didn't start until Paris-Nice.
Now, of course, the winners of Milan-San Remo and Paris-Roubaix will have more riding in their legs by February than the old stars had by April. And back then, riders often didn't have cars. Now there are cheap flights from every airport. It takes little more time to fly to Australia or South Africa than it once did to catch a train from Belgium to the Riviera.
There still are training camps in Spain and on the Riviera, of course. The irony is that they are now the half-bike, half-holiday resorts of amateurs who have more cash in their pockets than any 1950s professional ever did. The world has changed and Norbert Peugeot will never know just how much.