Jacques Augende - Another Tour Legend

Interviewed by Denis Descamps - This article appears courtesy of RIDE Cycling Review, and can be seen in full in the Spring 2001 issue

Many legends are created by the Tour de France. This three week battle of strength and wit provides riders with the chance to etch their names into history. But there was another person on this year's Tour who reached a remarkable achievement: Jacques Augende celebrated his 50th Tour as a journalist. Denis Descamps worked with Jacques on Tour's official review - and afterwards asked him about his impressions from the past 50 years.

The 2001 Tour de France provided yet another example of why this 88-year-old race can capture the attention of sports fans all over the world. If you watched it on television and enjoyed it, then you would have an idea of what kind of emotions a few flashes of the peloton provide the spectators. Imagine then, what it must be like to see the whole thing. I have had the priviledge of seeing four successive Tours, and each one has left an indelible impression.

There are so many highlights from each Tour that it's nearly impossible to list them all. Jacques Augendre, however, has reported on 50 Tours - and he's rarely lost for words.

When I first met Jacques in 1998, I was astonished by his freshness. I don't know if following the Tour is the secret of eternal life, but it is certainly a good recipe for retaining a youthful persona.

Despite his 78 years, Jacques doesn't look a year older than 50: but he's now covered that many Tours and while his hearing is fading slightly, it is obvious that his memory isn't.

As soon as we began to talk, I knew Jacques was one of the most knowledgeable people on earth when it came to the Tour. He could talk of past and current riders just like we talk about our personal life. He has been covering this event - and many other bike races - since 1947.

I understood that he was a good source of Tour tales, but this interview confirmed just why l'Equipe newspaper dubbed him 'The Memory of the Tour de France'.

Jacques, this year marked your 50th year on the road with the Tour de France. How did your association with the race begin?

"The first post-war Tour happened in 1947. I was already a journalist for l'Equipe, a newspaper which had been created a few months before to replace the renowned L'Auto - the journal created by the same man who began the very notion of the Tour de France, Henri Desgrange.

"In 1947 and 1948, I was asked to stay in Paris, where my job was to make sure the Tour reports and all articles which related to the race were properly written. Eventually, in 1949, I covered my first Tour de France as a journalist.

"I've only missed three Tours - in 1952, 1954 and 1959 all for the same reason I missed the first post-war editions - so the 2001 race was my 50th Tour.

"I'm often asked what amazed me in 1949, and my answer is simple: to be there, to be part of the event, to be a journalist for l'Equipe. This, in itself, was enough to amaze me. More than that, however, that Tour was breathtaking! Fausto Coppi won ahead of his fellow countryman, Gino Bartali, and an up-and-coming French rider, Jacques Marinelli. Between them, the two Italians won the Tour four times and their rivalry was the stuff legends are made from. Marinelli is now the Mayor of Melun. "I left l'Equipe in '56, but worked as a freelance journalist and I covered the Tour for Le Monde and Mirroir du Cyclisme."

Of the 50 races you've reported on, which one do you think best represents the notion of the Tour de France?

"That's a hard question to answer, because every Tour is an epic tragedy. Each Tour provides a wonderful show... but I would say 1953 was the most enjoyable race. After five setbacks, notably finishing fourth in 1948 and third in 1950, French rider Louison Bobet was seen as a looser. But he won in 1953 after a meticulous reconnaissance of the route and hard training - a preparation which can be compared to Lance Armstrong's.

"At that time, there were national and regional teams. Bobet and Raphaël Geminiani of France were challenged by 1947 Tour winner, Jean Robic of Brittany team. Robic wore the yellow jersey and was known to taunt Bobet and 'Gem'. Like a boxer, he said to journalists that the French team did not frighten him and that he could not be defeated by such bad riders. During the 13th stage from Albi to Béziers, four team-mates from the French national team - including Geminiani and Bobet - attacked at the very beginning. The course was quite hilly and the breakaway's advantage grew quickly. At the finish, after a puncture and a fall, Robic had lost 15 minutes... and the Tour de France.

"In the legendary stage to Briançon, which included a trilogy of the three legendary passes - the Cols of Allos (rising to 2,250m above sea-level), Vars (2,110m) and the epic Izoard (2,361m) - one team-mate of Bobet had escaped. Between him and the peloton were Bobet, Spanish climber Federico Bahamontes and the Spaniard's main mountain rival (and the eventual winner of the King of the Mountains crown that year), Jésus Lorono. While climbing the Vars pass, Bobet was tired - almost dead - but at the top he accelerated and put distance into Lorono. I followed him on a motorbike backseat and I could see the pain on his face. He caught up with his team-mate and won the stage.

"In the famous Casse Déserte on the Izoard climb, Fausto Coppi was there as a spectator. When Bobet went past, Il Campionissimo summed up his thoughts in four simple words: 'He is so beautiful'.

"I should add that, for personal reasons, the 2001 Tour was also my favorite. But this was thanks to my friends who helped celebrate my 50th Tour. It seemed the world was my oyster!"

Which rider do you call your favourite, and why?

"Indisputably, Eddy Merckx is the greatest rider. Bernard Hinault was the most talented - a gifted rider who could win without training; 'The Badger' was a warrior. As for Anquetil, his position on a bike was nothing but perfect. He was the symbol of power, suppleness and, quite simply, was the perfect aesthetic representation of a cyclist.

"But my favorite rider is definetely Louison Bobet. Thanks to his courage, he became the best rider of his generation. Bobet was versatile, and could defeat all manner of specialists... the climber from Luxemburg, Charly Gaul (who he outdistanced on the Ventoux on his way to overall victory in 1955); he could surge ahead of one of his generation's best sprinters, Rik van Steenbergen; and Bobet could win time trials.

"Bobet always rode with panache!

"In 1950, when he was placed second overall, he launched a suicidal attack. He was caught by the bunch and then dropped out. When asked by Ferdi Kübler why he took the risk to loose his second place (which finally happened), he answered: 'I'm not interested in finishing second. I only want to win!'"

Was there a rider you believe should have won the Tour but was beaten by a lesser man? Or, to put it another way, does the best rider in the race always win the Tour de France?

"In 1919, French rider Eugène Christophe should have won the Tour. If he hadn't broken his forks, Christophe - the first rider to wear the yellow jersey that year - would have kept it until Paris.

"Since the war, however, Frenchman Raymond Poulidor was also extremely unlucky. Of course, he was dominated by Jacques Anquetil and then Eddy Merckx. But in between, in 1968, he should have won. After the Pyrénées, he was 10th with only sprinters ahead of him. The Alps were looming...

"During the 15th stage from Font Romeu to Albi, Poulidor had outdistanced Jan Janssen, Herman van Springel and Ferdinand Bracke (the final podium in 1968), but while he was on the attack, he was injured by a motorbike and forced to abandon."

The mountains are generally the showpiece of the Tour, but which climbs do you prefer: those in the Alps or the Pyrenees?

"I think the Pyrénées are more exciting, wilder and greener. From strictly a sporting point of view, I think the hardest pass and the most beautiful climb is the Col du Tourmalet (the highest climb of this year's Tour at 2,115m), where the organisers inaugurated the Jacques Goddet Memorial this year.

"In the Alps, I think the Col du Galibier, where there is the Henri Desgrange Memorial, is the other pick of the mountains.

"I also like the Izoard, located just before Briançon, where so many Tours have been lost or won... Not to mention the Mont Ventoux which is so specific and cruel. It looks like no other pass and every time it's ridden it helps create legend.

"My favourite climbs would have to be the Tourmalet, Galibier, Izoard and Ventoux - in that order."

Having had such a priviledge position during your time on the Tour, do you ever wonder why spectators come and stand in the hot sun or the pouring rain to see a bunch of riders speed past?

"That's what I would call the Magic of the Tour de France. It's something which the cycling historian, Serge Laget, summarised in three words: 'Christmas in July'. It's just part of the French patrimony and something you cannot explain. Everyone feels how hard cycling is and when the race passes through your town, you don't wonder if you should go: you just go!"

What are your thoughts on the contributions of Australian riders at the Tour de France?

"Only a few people in France realise that Australia's history with the Tour goes back to Sir Hubert Opperman. This legendary rider was the first Australian to enter the Tour and he had a strong presence. He finished 18th in 1928 and 12th in 1931. But, of the Australians I've seen, I probably liked Phil Anderson the most. He rode 13 Tours, won two stages and wore the yellow jersey twice, in 1981 and 1982. In 1982 and 1985, he finished fifth overall. He was the kind of rider the Tour needs: never defeated and always courageous.

"As for Stuart O'Grady: he's so cool, so sweet and he has such a fighting spirit. He had to face hard times and suffered several big set-backs to his career - notably when he was mugged in Toulouse or when he lost the green jersey during the last stage of the 2001 Tour - but he never looses his smile and never gives up. A rider like Stuart is exceptionally good for the Tour."

What do you consider the most remarkable event you've witnessed during your 50 Tours?

"This could be a difficult question, but, really, it's easy to answer. It was in 1989, when the American Greg LeMond won the Tour during the final time-trial between Versailles and Paris. "When LeMond started the final stage, his deficit to Laurent Fignon was 50 seconds. When he finished, he had won the Tour by eight seconds! It has been proven that he took the advantage while crossing the Place de la Concorde, that is to say, he won the Tour exactly in front of the US Embassy in Paris. One hundred metres before, he was second, one hundred meters after, he was first. Good story, isn't it?"

*Denis Descamps has worked with Jacques Augendre on the official book of the Tour de France for the past four years.

RIDE Cycling Review is an Australian publication focusing on local and European cycling racing and lifestyle. Each quarterly issue of RIDE comes complete with in-depth features, bike road tests and beautiful cycling photography.

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