I Love You, I Hate You, Drop Dead!

What does Jonathan Page’s performance at the recently concluded 2007 cyclocross world championships and Artie Shaw’s semi-autobiographical novel have in common? Well…not much, except that catchy title popped into my head while I was watching Page come so damned close to putting on a rainbow jersey Sunday morning. I haven’t been worked into such a berserker frenzy watching a bike race since I lost my voice at the 1999 Presidio ‘cross nationals–just one of several thousand spectators whose ravings helped propel underdog Marc Gullickson to a national title.

They call me The Vituperator: There’s nothing quite like a room full of people urging unspeakable things to happen to fellow human beings, likely upstanding citizens each, and the results of such raw, venomous exhortations. At one critical point, when Page and Franzoi were making everyone in Belgium spit beer through their nose, I believe I started screaming “DIE FRANZOI DIE!!!” just as they hit the sand pit. And lo and behold, Franzoi flipped over the bars leaving Page and Vervecken alone to duke out the world title endgame. I wished fire and brimstone would rain down on Vervecken over those last couple of laps, but that bastard’s mojo is more powerful than anything I could deliver. As an alternative, I was wondering where Trebon and Wicks were at. If they were lapped together by Page, the two tallest lads in ‘cross could “crash” in front of Vervecken and put their collective 13′ of height and super-sized rigs to good use by blocking the course. Come on, Vervecken, you’ve already won 2 world titles and have podiumed 4 other times. Can’t you toss Mr. Page a bone and ensure his livelihood for the remainder of his ‘crossin’ days?

30,000 Belgian Vituperators: I hadn’t realized the venom that Belgians feel towards the Dutch. But it was damn funny on the first lap when Gerben De Knegt Camiel Van Den Bergh rolled down one of the drop-offs to the 180 back to the stairs run-up while out in front on his own, and there was a thunderous wave of “BOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOO!!!!” all the way around that section of the course. Plus a whole lot of beer cups (empty? who knows…) heaved out on the course. And it also looked like De Knegt Van Den Bergh waved his fist in the air briefly, as if to say “Eat me, Belgium!!” That was just pure theatre.

The VIP treatment: Did anybody notice King Albert II of Belgium during the awards ceremony? He doled out the medals to the Elite podium…and he was wearing a press pass on a lanyard just like all the other schmoes on stage. Can’t the king just stroll in without any ID? I bet Eddy Merckx could.

Moto-rific: I hope that guy on the quad bike who took out Bart Wellens with an ill-timed plastic barricade ricochet had a full tank of gas. Because if he didn’t just keep on riding, like out of Belgium, then he’s probably already been “paid a visit” by the Bart Wellens goon squad.

“…Spends his winters finishing between fifth and 10th in cyclocross races”, so says Cycle Sport in their recent Ag2r 2007 team preview. John Gadret rolled in a respectable 8th on Sunday, fulfilling his 5th-10th obligation. There’s strength to weight ratio, which he’s got in spades, but there’s also pure power, which somebody weighing about 128 lbs most definitely lacks. Which is why Gadret negotiated the sand pit on foot nearly half the time, having simply run out of gas. And unless the freakiest man in cyclocross uncorks something Page-esque in his future, I think the Bobke Strut Gadret-orama will be coming to a close. At least until he shows up in Providence this October on Sven Nys’s chartered plane…and I’ll be there stalking him in baggage claim.

Coming tomorrow, or a couple of days…Lest we forget, Matt Kelly won the US’s second ‘cross medal and only world title on a frigid Poprad day in 1999. I’ll tell the story of the hooptiest bike to ever win a ‘cross gold medal in modern times.

Bagels, Base, and Beer

Former pro racer Joe Parkin once told a complaining fellow racer how he could drop those last pounds. “You want to lose weight? I’ll tell you how to lose weight. Get up in the morning and eat a bagel, go ride 100 miles real slow, come home, drink a dark beer, and go to bed.”

That sounds like a plan to me.

And just who is Joe Parkin?

Parkin’s career began with a whim, a duffel bag, and a bike joining him on a flight to Belgium, where he quickly found himself courted by professional cycling teams. His planned three-month trip to Europe turned into seven years of high-level road racing. Parkin then returned to United States, and he rode for the Coors Light Cycling Team until switching to mountain bikes and spending the next three years competing internationally for Diamondback Racing and Barracuda Bicycles. All told, Parkin is a veteran of more than 1,000 bicycle races, with highlights including representing the United States at the World Road Championships, World Cyclocross Championships, and the World Mountainbike Championships. (source)

The voice of experience…

  • 1988: Eurotop Keuken-Multifax (Bel)
  • 1989: Humo-TW Rock-Bottecchia (Bel)
  • 1990: IOC-Tulip Computers-ADR (Bel)
  • 1991: Tulip Computers-Koga Miyata (Bel)
  • 1992: Scott-BiKyle (USA)
  • 1993: Scott-BiKyle (USA)
  • 1994: Coors Light (USA)

Cyril Praet: International Man of Mystery

Fact #1…1981: Jonathan Boyer finishes 32nd overall in his Tour de France debut, riding in support of Renault-Elf-Gitane teammate Bernard Hinault. Boyer cements his place in cycling history by becoming the first American to compete in the Grand Boucle.

Fact #2…1988: Joe Parkin and Andy Bishop share the honor of being the first Americans to compete in the Tour of Belgium, finishing 10th and 31st overall respectively.

But check this out…

Cyril Praet bio, published in 1932 Milwaukee Six-Day Bike Race program

Just in case the type is too small, here’s the text of Cyril Praet’s bio as published in Milwaukee’s Second International Six-Day Bike Race (Dec. 13-19, 1932) program:

22 White Number. CYRIL PRAET, American road rider, is probably the strongest rider in the race. Praet was born in Detroit, Michigan, September 12, 1904. After the war was over, at the age of 15, he went to Europe and entered the road races around Belgium, and in two years became one of the sensations of the year. He has ridden in the tour of Belgium and the Tour de France, which is a real test of strength and endurance. This race lasts for ten days over the mountains, up into the snow, and through the hottest of climates. Praet came to America two years ago, and has never been given a chance to show his worth in a six-day race.

Approximately 48 1/2 years after this program appeared, Jonathan Boyer rode his first Tour de France. And about 55 1/2 years later, Joe Parkin and Andy Bishop make America’s debut in the Tour of Belgium. So why has history forgotten Cyril Praet, an American who apparently preceeded Boyer, Parkin, and Bishop by about half a century? Good question…and my answer invariably vacillates from a cautious “I don’t really know” to “The dude’s a fraud.”

Here’s what little I do know about Cyril Praet’s career as a professional cyclist: Praet competed in four American six-day races (1931-Minneapolis; 1932-Milwaukee, 1933-Detroit, and 1934-Detroit). Newspaper accounts shed extremely sparse light on Cyril Praet, which seemed surprising considering the palmares he claimed. Even accounts of the races in his home town of Detroit were nearly devoid of any mention of Praet, usually just the bare bones daily box score info about points won and laps taken. Here’s how Praet was described:

  • 1931-Minneapolis: “Cyril Praet (USA)”
  • 1932-Milwaukee: “Bollaert and Praet, the famous Belgium road team and holders of many foreign records, form another powerful combination who are expected to be heard from plenty during the race.”
  • 1932-Milwaukee: “Praet, who rides with Archie Bollaert, is a famous Belgian road racer and is tough in the sprints.”
  • 1932-Milwaukee: “…Cyril Praet, Belgian road champion.”
  • 1933-Detroit: “…the Detroit team of Freddie Ottevaere and Cyril Praet…”

Praet was teamed with a different partner for each of his 4 six-day events: Pete Smessart (1931), Archie Bollaert (1932), Freddie Ottevaere (1933), and Reggie Fielding (1934). He and his partners usually ended up as pack filler, although Praet did put his speed to work on occasion to win primes. Praet and his partners finished 4th in 1931, 6th in 1932, 6th in 1933, and 6th in 1934. Chicago and New York were the big leagues of six-day racing, and it appears that Cyril never made an appearance at the sport’s premier venues. The only inkling of how Praet was perceived by fellow cyclists was offered by the legendary Canadian Torchy Peden who crapped on Praet while singing the praises of Praet’s partner Freddie Ottevaere during the 1933 Detroit race:

“We riders know something good when we see it, and we know how tough Ottevaere is”, Peden said. “He has been out of the headlines because his partners haven’t been so hot. But he has the ability. Keep an eye on him.” Peden picked the slender and unassuming Ottevaere to surpass the feats of Belgian bicycle star Gerald Debaets.

Ouch. Not exactly kind words from Peden.

I’ve spent quite some time weeding through the immense amount of data collected at the French site Memoire du cyclisme, and besides the previously mentioned six-day races I could find not one other instance of Praet competing either in the United States or Europe. Memoire du cyclisme has probably the definitive rundown of start lists and results from all major road and track events of the 19th, 20th, and 21st centuries, and I could find no mention of Cyril Praet (or even a name close to that spelling) in road events such as the Tour de France, the Tour of Belgium, the world championships, various national championships, and various Euro road events between 1919-1930. That’s right, I can’t find any official record of Cyril Praet competing in the Tour de France or the Tour of Belgium. Likewise, Praet was AWOL from all other six-day races which took place between 1919-1930 anywhere on the planet. And it also appeared that Praet simply dropped off the face of the Earth after 1934. There’s no mention of Cyril Praet in any race, road or track, in the US or Europe through the onset of World War II. Did he remain in the United States? Return to Europe? I don’t know. Various genealogical resources have been coming up empty, so at this point I don’t know if he died in the US or overseas (in Belgium?).

At this point in time, I’m leaning towards Praet perhaps playing a bit fast and loose with his palmares to gain employment as a pro in the United States. After all, it’s probably no easy venture for a race promoter in the US in the 1930s to verify someone’s Euro credentials. If someone who’s lived in Belgium for about 10 years shows up in the Midwest with a bike, looking pretty fit, and with tales of Euro grandeur, then, hell, why not give the guy a shot on the six-day circuit? Perhaps I’ve uncovered the cycling version of Kid McCoy.

So for now Jonathan Boyer’s, Joe Parkin’s, and Andy Bishop’s places in American cycling history as Euro pioneers are still firm, but maybe at some point in the not so distant future I’ll have some corroborating evidence to definitively place Cyril Praet in the Tour as well as the Tour of Belgium.

Random six-day racing factoids uncovered in historic newspapers
1. Unlike any other six-day race I’ve ever read about, the 1933 Detroit six-day race put the riders on an outdoor velodrome at the mercy of mother Nature.
2. Detoit prosecutor Harry S. Toy tried to bring fraud charges against the promoters of the 1933 six-day race. Evidently, a spectator tried to watch the racing action at 3am and was denied entry. He told Toy that the velodrome was dark and as best he could tell, there was no racing taking place. Toy tried (unsuccessfully) to bring charges against the promoters since in Toy’s opinion a six-day race implies 6 non-stop days of racing. “It appears that the race was a race only when there were cash customers about and a sleeping match the remainder of the time.”
3. Diet of champions. Here’s Torchy Peden talking about what tasty food and beverages are ingested during the 1933 Detroit six-day event, “Most of our food consists of broth, vegetables, fruit and an occasional piece of meat, usually rare. We drink practically no water. But we do take gallons and gallons of unpasteurized milk and plenty of ginger ale. Water is considered heavy stuff.”

Haunted When the Minutes Drag

I stumbled across these images (and many more of a similar vein) here a few weeks ago. The subjects making up the left column seem to simply be faithful renditions of photographs, but within the right column, primarily of pros of the 1900s-1950s, the artists seem to focus on men whose cycling and post-cycling careers were awash in tragedy, and the black and white renditions of those dark moments are particularly evocative…and disturbing.

1. Francois Faber

Francois Faber

François Faber (1887-1915) was a Luxembourgian cyclist. He was born in France, but because his father was a Luxembourger, he got the Luxembourgian nationality. In 1906, he participated in the Tour de France for the first time. He didn’t reach the finish. The next year he was 7th in the Tour and in 1908 took second and won two stages. In 1909 he dominated the Tour. He won five consecutive stages, a record that is still unbroken. In his career he won 19 Tour de France stages, Paris-Brussels, Bordeaux-Paris, Sedan-Brussels, Paris-Tours (twice), Paris-Roubaix and the Tour of Lombardy. When the First World War broke out Faber joined the French Foreign Legion. On May 9, 1915 at Carency near Arras he received a telegram saying his wife had given birth to a daughter. Cheering he jumped out of the trench and was killed by a German bullet. The GP François Faber, a small race in Luxembourg, is named after him.
(Faber information found here)

2. Roger Riviere

Roger Riviere

An excellent time trialist, to the same level as the great Jacques Anquetil, Riviere was ideally placed to win the 1960 Tour de France. Gastone Nencini was in the leader’s yellow jersey but was weak against the clock. On July 10th, during the 14th stage, Riviere crashed into a ravine while descending the Col de Perjuret, sustained major back injuries, and never regained full use of his limbs. The extent of his potential can be gauged be the fact that that Riviere defeated two World Hour Record holders, Jacques Anquetil and Ercole Baldini, in the time trials of the 1959 Tour de France.
(Riviere information found here)

3. Henri Pélissier

Henri Pelissier

Henri Pélissier (22 January 1889 – 1 May 1935) was a French cyclist and champion of the 1923 Tour de France. In addition to his 29 career victories, he was known for his long-standing feud with Tour founder Henri Desgrange and for protesting the miserable conditions endured by riders in the early years of the Tour. Pélissier was notorious for being argumentative and hot-tempered, often inciting teammates and others in the peloton. After his retirement in 1928 his combative personality led to a quick deterioration in his life. In 1933 his wife Léonie despaired of living with him and shot herself to death. Two years later his new companion, Camille Tharault, shot Pélissier to death with the same gun after he slashed her with a knife during an argument.
(Pelissier information found here)

4. Abdel-Kader Zaaf

Abdel-Kader Zaaf

Zaaf, an Algerian who participated in the Tour de France four times (finishing once, 1951), is best known for collapsing in the 1950 Tour while in the winning 2-man break with his Algerian teammate Marcel Molines. Upon regaining consciousness from heat exhaustion, Zaaf remounted his bike and proceeded riding the wrong way on the course before being picked up by an ambulance. Following his final Tour de France in 1952, Zaaf disappeared into the maelstrom of his war-torn homeland. Three decades passed before he was spotted in a Paris train station in 1982. He had a sad story to tell - a soldier came to his house in the middle of the night demanding he come downtown and show his papers. Zaaf resisted and the soldier shot him in the leg. He was thrown into prison, and his leg wound went untreated. He also began to lose his eyesight from uncontrolled diabetes. When Zaaf was finally released, he recovered a small stash of money he had secreted away and came to France for an operation for his eyes. When the story emerged he was deluged with cards, presents, and money from fans who remembered his brave rides on the roads of France.
(Zaaf information from “Cycling’s Golden Age, Heroes of the Postwar Era, 1946-1967″ by Owen Mulholland, VeloPress, Boulder, 2006: pg. 87)

Images source: