A major era in professional cycling ended when the last two men to have raced the Tour de France before World War II died this year. They were both French. Pierre Cogan was five days short of his 99th birthday when he passed away on January 5 in the town where he was also born, Auray, in the western province of Brittany. Albert Bourlon was 96 when he died last month in the town where he lived most of his life, Bourges, in central France. They owed their longevity to simple ways of life in provincial communities, along with the strength of character they acquired at a time when bike racing was far tougher than it is today.
Cycling was always a passion of Cogan, who grew up in bike-crazy Brittany. He remembered seeing the Tour come though his hometown on the Brest-Vannes stage, when he was 13. It so happened that the first rider from his region to lead the Tour, Ferdinand Le Drogo, was wearing the yellow jersey that day. Indicative of the era and the locale was the pre-race announcement coming from a loudspeaker van: “Good people, hold on to your chickens, the riders are about to pass.”
Cogan made his race debut at 16 in a so-called “pardon” race around the local church, and he became so successful at these round-the-houses events that the following year he won enough prize money to buy a new convertible Citroën car. He would go on to become one of the most popular cyclists in the nation, not just Brittany, when cycling was the No. 1 sport in France.
In 1935, at age 21, he rode his first Tour de France as a touriste routier, the category of racer that competed alone without a team in the hopes that they would catch the eye of a big team director. He roomed with another touriste routier, his fellow Breton Pierre Cloarec. “After each stage, we would go to the hotel by bike with our suitcases balanced on the handlebars, jammed between out thighs,” Cogan said. “We’d take the bikes up into the room after fixing them each day. And we massaged each other’s legs. As for food, we all ate the same pre-stage meal: beefsteak, fries and red wine.” Amazingly, Cogan finished that first Tour in 11th overall—and looked set for a very successful career.
He was so good that the following year—when he raced the Tour on the prestigious French national team alongside two-time Tour winner Antonin Magne—Cogan’s teammate Maurice Archambaud “told me a thousand times, ‘You, you’ll win several Tours de France.” Also in that 1936 season, Cogan won two stages of Paris-Nice and the GP de Plouay classic, and placed second to Magne in the Grand Prix des Nations.
But Cogan was left off the national team at the 1937 Tour for reasons he never knew, even though he was stronger than ever. He suspected that the team leaders didn’t want to be usurped by a young upstart. He confirmed his strength at the end of that year by winning the GP des Nations, the then 140-kilometer time trial that was regarded as the world championship for the discipline. Runner-up was his friend Archambaud, while third place went to Georges Speicher, the Tour de France and world road champion in 1933, who won Paris-Roubaix that year.
Cogan lost his best athletic years to military service (in 1938 and 1939) and then to World War II. “Without that, I have no doubt I would have won the Tour de France,” Cogan said. “I had incredible form and I was capable of beating everyone in the mountains and time trials. I was just as good as [Tour winners] Gino Bartali and Sylvère Maes.” At the first postwar Tour, in 1947, he was a teammate of Jean Robic on the Ouest team, helping Robic to win the overall title.
“I returned to racing after the war, but at 33 it wasn’t the same thing,” Cogan said. “I’d lost my best years, even though I came in seventh at the 1950 Tour at 36.” His climbing strength was still intact, as he showed by winning a stage on the top of Mont Ventoux at the 1949 Dauphiné.
After his career, Cogan ran a bike shop for many years in Lorient, the next town to Auray. And in his later life he sometimes attended the nearby GP de Plouay, the race he won in his youth. Cogan was always jovial and remained in fine health, with an ever-present smile on his round face. He was cremated at the St. Gildas church in his hometown on January 8 at a service attended by his wife Anna, his sister in law and two of his grandchildren, along with nephews and nieces.
The Record Holder
Cogan’s contemporary Albert Bourlon was born at Sancergues, a small town north of Bourges in the Sancerre winemaking region. In his youth, Bourlon was a firebrand. He supported the far-left Popular Front political party, and at 19 he walked in solidarity with the Renault factory workers who went on strike in 1936.
Bourlon turned pro the same year, and at 21 finished his first Tour de France in 35th place. The following season, he won the Circuit de Vienne, a big national classic. But then came the war. He joined the French army and, in 1940, he was captured by the Nazis and taken to prisoner-of-war camps in Lower Silesia, Poland. There he made three attempts to escape, and the third one was successful.
While on a work duty at a train station, and using a false ID, he boarded a train east to Ukraine, then on to Slovakia and Hungary. Finally, on November 2, 1943, he swam across the half-frozen Tisza river, a tributary of the Danube, into Romania. Bourlon lived in the capital Bucharest for two years, and even won that country’s big bike classic, Bucharest-Ploesti-Bucharest, before returning to France at the end of the war.
Once home, he was awarded the Croix de Guerre, equivalent to the U.S. military’s Purple Heart, and then took up the strings of his cycling career. He raced for two leading French teams, Mercier and Rochet, and in 1947 won his local classic, Paris-Bourges, followed by two stage wins at the Tour de l’Ouest. But he wasn’t selected for the French national team at the Tour. “I was always a communist and a party member,” he said, “and that didn’t go down too well [with the national selectors].”
However, the chances are that if he had been on the national team Bourlon might not have been allowed to make the audacious move that put him into the Tour de France history books as the longest solo breakaway: 253 kilometers on stage 14 from Carcassonne to Luchon on July 11, 1947. At age 30 and racing for the Centre-Ouest team, Bourlon broke away early on a day of burning sunshine. He was hoping to win a 20,000-franc prime at Espéraza at the 50-kilometer mark—“That was twice my monthly salary,” he said.
“After 20 kilometers they told me I was 10 minutes ahead so I continued,” Bourlon said. “I raced with two bidons of tea and three vials of sugar water mixed with rum.” He took the Espéraza prime as his time gap mounted to half an hour over two mountain passes in the Pyrénées, the Col de Port and Col de Portet d’Aspet. After riding alone for more than eight hours, Bourlon ended the 253-kilometer stage 16 minutes ahead of two chasers and 22 minutes before the peloton, and collected 150,000 old francs in prize money.
After finishing, one of the first things he said to the race officials was: “You saw me this time?” He was referring to an incident two days earlier, when his name was left off the stage results and he had to make an appeal to get reinstated. Seven decades later, the name of Albert Bourlon is never likely to be dropped from the Tour record book because the length of his record solo breakaway is longer than the longest stages of current Tours.
His name will also be remembered in his hometown. A few weeks before Bourlon died last month in Bourges, that town’s new indoor velodrome was dedicated to him. The lifelong communist and bon viveur, who friends said was “honest, pleasant to be with, and passionate about all sports,” was hospitalized in late September and died October 16. He was buried in the village where he was born, Sancergues, just short of his 97th birthday.
Bourlon and Cogan. The last two men to have raced the Tour de France before World War II are with us no more.
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