Third Edition News for January 23, 1997

Robert Chapatte RIP

Veteran French cycling journalist and former pro rider Robert Chapatte died aged 75 during the night of January 19/20 in La Pitie-Salpetriere hospital, Paris. His funeral obsequies took place today, January 22, in Neuilly-sur-Seine, near Paris. A full-page obituary in L'Equipe included tributes from Tour de France organizer Jean-Marie Leblanc; other former riders including Jean Bobet, Bernard Hinault, Eddy Merckx, Raymond Poulidor, Jean Stablinski, Bernard Thevenet; 1996 Tour stage winner Cyril Saugrain; and journalist colleagues.

Robert Chapatte rode 11 seasons in the professional peloton between 1944 and 1954, riding both road and track. On the track he was an exponent of l'Americaine (the two-man points race Americans and Brits call the Madison) often riding at meetings at the old Velodrome d'Hiver in Paris, his home city. A true "local boy" (French =3D "titi" =3D lad, street arab, a typical young person of a particular quarter, cf New York, London, Sydney or other great city) of the south-eastern quarters of Paris, a bit of a dandy and with a ready wit ("plein de gouaille" -- lit: "full of banter") who was very popular with the spectators. He picked up the nickname "Chapatte de velours" (word play -- I think! -- on "patte de velours" -- literally "velvet paws", but part of the French expression "faire patte de velours" meaning -- of a cat -- "to draw in its claws" And then again, "Cha" pronounced thus but spelt "chat" is of course French for cat!). L'Equipe notes that it was more than word-play -- Chapatte had a velvet-smooth pedalling style that he'd learnt on the track.

On the road, Chapatte took part in five Tours de France (1948--52), most often in the Paris--Nord Est regional team. In 1949 he rode in the French national team in the Tour finishing 16th. Other respectable performances in La Grande Boucle included 28th in the 1948 edition. Chapatte was a useful climber -- one of his principal victories was the Circuit des Pyrenees in 1949. Other victories included the Grand Prix d'Esparaza 1952 and the Circuit des Deux-Ponts at Montlucon. Chapatte has the distinction of being the first rider to be interviewed on French TV, when the Tour de France arrived at the Parc des Princes in 1949. His Parisian "street credibility" was amply demonstrated when he rode his last race, the 1954 Paris--Tours. Arriving at the finish to find journalist Pierre Chany (whose death we reported last year and whose funeral was the last public appearance of Chapatte, who began to suffer circulatory problems in 1994) puffing away on a cigarette, Chapatte bummed one from him and lit up. "You see," still wearing his race jersey he said to Chany,"this is the first cigarette I'm smoking since giving up racing."

Chapatte's career as a cycling journalist began that same year with reports for the newspapers L'Aurore and Le Provencal and commentaries for Radio Monte-Carlo. In 1955 he followed the Tour de l'Ouest for Radio Monte-Carlo in the company of a then not particularly friendly rival, Georges Briquet of radio station RTF. During one stage the two reporters accidentally exchanged microphones, finding themselves sending reports to each other's radio audiences. This broke the ice --- Briquet took Chapatte onto the RTF team and he stayed with them until 1959. He then turned to TV, reporting cycling for it until 1968 when in the aftermath of the May 68 evenements (l'Equipe does not say what part Chapatte played in the popular political upheavals of that year when student demonstrations almost coalesced with the workers into a revolution) he was effectively banished for seven years -- banished but with happy memories of "marvellous years" there -- to radio station Europe 1.

Chapatte returned to TV sports broadcasting in 1975, a career that continued until 1985, the year after which he became a consultant to the Tour de France. Asked in 1986 whether he'd be preferred to be remembered as a racing cyclist or a sports journalist, he replied: "I prefer recognition as a pressman, because it was a much more complete career, even if it was the sport that formed me."

The tributes to Chapatte are vivid. Jean Stablinski recalls that riders relished being at his side when the peloton was rolling steadily along because of his funny stories. Jean Bobet also spoke of his comic talents, and Eddy Merckx recalls the 18 days when he was preparing for his world hour record sipping tea and chatting with Chapatte each morning and evening. Bernard Thevenet has one favourite memory: "In the big Pyrenees stage of the 1970 Tour de France I was trying to get up to a lead group that included Merckx. Chapatte, who was then doing commentaries from a radio motorbike, dropped back and advised me: 'Get your breathing right, the guys in front are cooked!' I won the stage. Twenty-six years laater I still remember the scene."

"Robert had a big heart," says fellow journalist Thierry Roland, "and from a professional point of view he wasn't big, he was immense. With the naked eye, he was capable of giving you the names of the first 15 over the line when a stage finished with a sprint."

But let the last words go to 23-year-old Tour stage winner Cyril Saugrain: "I never met him but I remember him. When I was a little boy in front of the TV I used to adore this man who told stories about the Tour. With his great voice, his style, he communicated his passion, his enthusiasm."

It's Almost Here

Up to their eyeballs in EPO or not, the European professional peloton will be on the road in just two weeks -- so let joy be unconfined. In the theoretically balmy south of France (tell that to the riders who battled last year with snow, icy rain and wind) the season kicks off with the traditional opener, the one-day Grand Prix d'Ouverture _La Marseillaise_ on February 4, followed immediately by the five-stage Etoile de Besseges (February 5--9). Both races will be contested by 16 teams, including all seven French squads.

The GP d'Ouverture follows a new route between Vitrolles and Aubagne.

The Etoile de Besseges stages are as follows:

February 5: Stage 1, Nimes--Nimes (143km)
February 6: Stage 2, Sete--Sete (138km)
February 7: Stage 3, Saint-Florent-sur-Auzonnet--Les Fumades (142km)
February 8: Stage 4, Lauden--Lauden (139km)
February 9: Stage 5, Molieres-sur-Ceze--Besseges (142km)