Just who is that jolly, puffy toff?

Present day Bibendum

My road racing wheels are decked out with Michelin Pro Race tires, my ‘cross bike has Michelin Mud and Michelin Sprint tires for training. Did you ever wonder who that chubby little character on the label is who’s waving at you? The Michelin Man, aka “Bibendum”, hasn’t always appeared in his present benign, innocuous persona. Back in 1898, when Michelin only dealt with bicycle tires, their anthropomorphic tire-man was a cigar-chomping, monocled, sinister icon. Here is Bibendum’s history in a (rather lengthy) nutshell:

The Michelin Man was anything but cuddly in his earliest incarnations. He had a frightful, mummy-like aspect then, and sometimes appeared as a gladiator or a kickboxer. In the Italian market he was a grandiloquent memoirist, a nimble ballroom dancer, and an incorrigible ladies’ man. Stranger still, back then he was known as the “road drunkard.” To this day his official name is Bibendum, the Latin gerundive meaning “drinking to be done.” The name comes from the first series of posters featuring him, which bore the Latin legend Nunc est bibendum–”Now is the time to drink”–and depicted the tire man hoisting a champagne goblet filled with nails and broken glass, sometimes garnished with a horseshoe. The seemingly tortured conceit, as the ad copy spelled out, was that “Michelin tires drink up obstacles”–i.e., they wouldn’t puncture easily.

Yet what sounds today like a preposterously ill- advised advertising campaign made keen good sense at its moment in cultural history. And the quirkiness of Bibendum’s origins is part of what inspires such loyalty among his fans today.

In 1889 the brothers André and Édouard Michelin took control of a struggling rubber products business in Clermont-Ferrand, an industrial city in central France. According to the company’s official history, a bicyclist came to their workshop in 1889 with a flat tire. Pneumatic (inflatable) tires had just been invented by John Boyd Dunlop the year before. Pneumatics provided a much more comfortable ride than the alternative–solid rubber tires–but they were subject to punctures, especially since roads were so poor. In fixing the flat, the brothers discovered that the customer’s Dunlops were glued to the rims, making patches extremely time-consuming. They soon developed and patented a detachable pneumatic tire that could be repaired in 15 minutes or so. Next they pioneered pneumatic tires for carriages, and by 1895 an early automobile known as the Éclair (it looked like one) completed a 750-mile race on Michelin tires.

During this period Bibendum was in gestation. His first kick in the womb came in 1893 when André argued to the skeptical Paris Society of Civil Engineers that pneumatic tires could “drink up obstacles.” Fetal Bibendum kicked again in 1894, when Édouard motioned to stacks of tires at an auto exposition in Lyon and commented to André, “Add some arms, and you’d say they were men.”

Then, in 1897, while thumbing through a commercial artist’s portfolio, André had a fateful epiphany. It was triggered by a sketch that had been rejected by a Munich brewery, showing a legendary king hoisting a stein and uttering a Latin toast. André told the artist, who went by the pen name O’Galop, to substitute a tire man for the king. In O’Galop’s final version, completed in April 1898, Bibendum is flanked by two tattered, flaccid rivals who couldn’t hold their rusty nails. To contemporaries, the competitors’ caricatured faces were readily recognizable as those of John Boyd Dunlop and the then-chief of Continental Tire.

Image source: http://vintage.artehouse.com/perl/search.pl?search=michelin

If Bibendum was made of tires, the reader may ask, why wasn’t he black? Simple answer: Tires weren’t black until 1912, when makers first began adding carbon black as a preservative. Until then they were either a gray-white or a light, translucent beige.

Early 20th century Bibendum
Image source: http://vintage.artehouse.com/perl/search.pl?search=michelin

While it may seem astounding that a company would base an advertising campaign on a Latin motto, the Michelins weren’t wooing the masses. Both motoring and bicycling were rich men’s avocations. Accordingly, O’Galop’s Bibendum was, like his customers, quite upper crust, smoking a fat Havana cigar and wearing a lorgnette.

Early 20th century Bibendum
Image source: http://vintage.artehouse.com/perl/search.pl?search=michelin

André Michelin gave Bibendum his first speaking engagement in December 1898 at a Paris cycle show. He set up a large cardboard cutout of the tire man at the Michelin booth and hired a cabaret comedian to crouch behind it and provide in-character banter. According to a biography of Bibendum by Olivier Darman, André had specified that he wanted someone with “perfect elocution,” “keen repartee,” and “wit without vulgarity.” So large a crowd is said to have formed around the spectacle that rival vendors became enraged, pushing and shoving broke out, and gendarmes had to be called in to restore order.

Early 20th century Bibendum
Image source: http://vintage.artehouse.com/perl/search.pl?search=michelin

In those days competition was brutal, and so was Bibendum. One poster depicts him as a gladiator in the Coliseum, his sandaled foot across the throat of a writhing, bleeding tire man, with three tattered tire corpses littering the arena behind him. Competitors responded in kind. A maker of solid rubber tires depicted its own symbolic champion, a Pre-Raphaelite beauty, about to drive a huge nail into a cowering Bibendum, who abjectly begs for his life.

Early 20th century Bibendum
Image source: http://vintage.artehouse.com/perl/search.pl?search=michelin

In 1907, Michelin launched a travel magazine in Italy, giving Bibendum a regular column. In one, he wrote of a Ball of Nations he had attended, praising ladies representing various lands. According to biographer Darman’s translation, Bibendum addressed Italy: “O you sublime Madonna, Rome’s destiny, accept my homage, you whose eyes shine with the splendors of the Renaissance.” In an almost cruel postscript, Bibendum reported the crushing impact his social conquests were having on his rivals: “ashen-faced suitors with fixed smiles, living symbols of a shattered illusion.” No Pillsbury Doughboy he!

With iconic status, alas, comes a certain responsibility to one’s public. As a product succeeds, its mascot must appeal to a wider audience–and tone down his sharper edges. In the early 1900s, Bibendum swore off violence and began to strike more playful poses–say, riding a bike while flinging tires like Frisbees–and he increasingly defined himself as the motorist’s guardian angel. In a 1914 poster he assists a family with a flat by donating the biggest, choicest tire from his own midsection, as an azure sky shows through the hole left in his abdomen.

These behavioral modifications were complemented by physical ones. As the late biologist Stephen Jay Gould once observed in an essay on Mickey Mouse, successful mascots frequently undergo an evolutionary process he called “neoteny”: They develop increasingly juvenile physical characteristics, because those are the ones that we consider the most lovable and unthreatening. Like Mickey’s, Bibendum’s head over the years has grown larger relative to his body, his eyes bigger relative to his head, his jaw less prominent, his limbs pudgier. By 1925 he had discarded the lorgnette, and in 1929, during a tuberculosis epidemic, he gave up cigars too.

-from Michelin Man: The Inside Story by Roger Parloff

Time Warp

Derny racing, circa 1920s:
French motor pacing poster, circa 1920s.

Derny racing, Dortmund 2005:
Motor paced racing at Dortmund, Germany in 2005. Photo URL: http://www.stayer.de/impressionen.php?verz=Weihnachtspreis_Dortmund_2005_Fotos:_Gerhard_Ramme&bild=DSC_0190.JPG#bild.
Photographer: Gerhard Ramme
Image source: http://www.stayer.de/

I envy Edmond Hood. Whether he’s providing insight into the first salvo of Belgian semi-classics from bergs and bars, detailing his runner duties amidst recent winter 6 day events at Copenhagen, Berlin, or Ghent, or shedding light on the truly hoopty technology proliferation of derny racing, this man has an uncanny knack for illuminating the details or the side stories noticeable only to seasoned Euro pro tifosi.

Those derny bikes have a freak-in-the-basement-with-a-welding-torch quality that would make Graeme Obree proud. It also seems interesting to me that the design of the bikes as well as the dernys hasn’t changed all that much over the years (at least to my untrained eye).

Mad Money

Exhibit A:
Floyd Landis, winner of the inaugural Amgen Tour of California, collects his paycheck.

Exhibit B:
Donald Trump, the original billionaire bike race promoter.

I wonder if Floyd Landis knows that the last time a billionaire put on a bike race in the US, the winner walked away with a cool $50,000? That, of course, would be the Donald Trump bankrolled Tour de Trump back in 1989 won by 7-Eleven hardguy Dag-Otto Lauritzen. Seventeen years later, the winner’s payola seems to have shrunk significantly.

The current billionaire to finance a stage race in the US big enough to entice serious Euro talent across the Atlantic is reclusive Denver-ite Philip F. Anschutz, the man primarily responsible for making the inaugural Tour of California a reality. Just take a peak at what this guy owns, it’s mind-boggling. And despite the relative frugality of this rendition’s prize-list, I think Anschutz’s AEG (Anschutz Entertainment Group, the owner of the Tour of California) will very likely be the means to a long-lasting, world-class stage race in the United States. I think the reason that events such as the Red Zinger Bicycle Classic, the Coors Classic, the Tour de Trump, and the Tour DuPont had a relatively short shelf life is that the title sponsors were not really invested in the long-term health of professional cycling. For Donald Trump, it was sheer vanity coupled with the appealing insanity of shutting down streets from Albany to Atlantic City (and particularly Manhattan) for a bike race. For the corporate entities, once their marketing goals were met they just pulled the plug and walked away leaving a race infrastructure without any cash to continue. What’s different this time around is that AEG is in the business of sports and entertainment, and they see a niche in the US waiting to be filled. And AEG is serious about sports and entertainment. Just peruse the abbreviated version of their empire:

AEG is one of the leading sports and entertainment presenters in the world. AEG, a wholly owned subsidiary of The Anschutz Corporation, owns or controls a collection of companies including facilities such as STAPLES Center, The Forum (as exclusive booking agent for sports and entertainment programming), Toyota Sports Center, NOKIA Theatre Times Square, NOKIA Theatre at Grand Prairie and London’s Manchester Evening News Arena; sports franchises including the Los Angeles Kings (NHL), Los Angeles Riptide (MLL), Manchester Monarchs (AHL), Reading Royals (ECHL), Chicago Fire, DC United, Houston 1836, Los Angeles Galaxy and (New York/New Jersey) Metrostars (MLS), two hockey franchises operated in Europe, the Hammarby (Sweden) Futbol Club and management of shares of the Los Angeles Lakers (NBA) and Los Angeles Sparks (WNBA) owned by Philip Anschutz; AEG Marketing, a sponsorship, sales, naming rights and consulting company; AEG Merchandising, a multi-faceted merchandising company; and AEG Creative, a full-service marketing and advertising agency. 

Cycling has already been a part AEG’s world since they also own the Home Depot Center, home to North America’s only(?) indoor velodrome. The junior and senior world track cycling championships have already taken place under their management (although Erik Saunders has some suggestions about amenities). And on top of that, the Anschutz empire includes film production companies, newspapers, and the largest chain of movie theaters in the US.

At the very least, AEG is committed to a $35,000,000 investment in professional cycling over the next 5 years. Just the technology alone in their TofC website has definitely set the standard for delivering detailed stage maps, live feeds, post-stage video and photos. Nobody, not even the Grand Tours, has anything comparable. And with the apparent success of this years’s event (based on huge attendence plus positive team feedback), hopefully AEG can leverage some better coverage on ESPN for future renditions. I think they have the muscle, if so inclined, to bump up daily coverage into a more palatable time slot than this year’s graveyard shift relegation. And please, whoever is reponsible for the ESPN2 coverage should spend some time watching Euro pro cycling, say on cycling.tv, for how a professional bike race should be covered: helicopter shots, onscreen graphics detailing who’s in the breaks, onscreen time-splits, and onscreen distance to the finish will do wonders. And while I would be perfectly content to watch live events such as Het Volk and Kuurne-Brussels-Kuurne on my computer via cycling.tv, in order to cultivate the next generation of homegrown cycling talent in the US I think a marquee event readily accessible to the public is a must. I have no idea if USA Cycling was in attendence at the start and finish locations, but I surely hope they were there to facilitate the entry of young talent into the sport. I’m pretty sure several of our current Colorado-born professionals were bitten by the bike bug while watching the Red Zinger or Coors Classic, and here’s hoping that the TofC will have a likewise effect.