As the 2016 Tour de France rolled out under the shadows of the mythic Mont Saint Michel during its “Grand Depart” in Normandy, the race leaves without one of its most faithful participants-Lucien Blyau.
Words & images: James Startt
From: Paris, France
Blyau, is not a rider, and only briefly was. But for the past 41 years, he has been the race’s most faithful, and most endeared fan. But at the age of 90, Blyau suddenly fell ill this spring, and will not be at this year’s Tour. His presence will be missed.
Unlike some of the sport’s most extravagant fans, Blyau never dressed up in outlandish outfits. And he never jumped wildly at the side of the road. There was never a hint of self-promotion or self-aggrandizement. Instead Blyau would quietly park his camper along the race route—when possible on the penultimate climb—and hand out water or cans of Coke to the riders.
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But while Blyau was no extrovert, he was easy to spot. On the roof of his camper van was a makeshift Belgian flag with the words, “Crie! Qui? Le Lion,” a play on words to his friend, former Belgian champion Claude Criquellion. And then, as the rider’s approached each day, Blyau would put on his aging team Collstrop jersey and matching cap, and wait patiently with a warm smile and a cold Coke.
Blyau, in reality, could have put on an array of jerseys over the years. Tour de France champion Cadel Evans, spent the better part of a year looking for the right moment to offer Blyau one of his rainbow-striped world champion jerseys. But Blyau preferred the fading colors Collstrop. “I know I could wear other jerseys,” Blyau told Peloton mid-way through the 2015 Tour de France. “But how would the riders recognize me? This is how they know me.”
“He’s every rider’s favorite fan,” Evans said in the days before the start of this year’s Tour. “I found him to be the dearest gentleman. I’d see him at races over the years and we started chatting. On days when I would do recon of a time trial course I would often stop for a moment along the roadside to say hello. What a fantastic warm-hearted gentleman. On the night that I won the Tour in 2011, he came to my hotel in Grenoble. Finally I was able to give him one of my jerseys.”
But while Blyau has long been the favored fan of the cyclists, he had few favorites himself, and his hand-ups came without discrimination. “I don’t know who I give the drinks to,” Blyau says. “I’m too busy focusing on their hands!”
In his day, Blyau was a good rider himself, and he even managed to secure a professional contract in 1949. But a fractured kneecap cut his own career short. Injury, however, could not keep Blyau from the Tour, and he has been a fixture on the race since 1975. “If I can’t do the Tour on a bike, then I can do it in a car,” he likes to say.
Blyau’s beverage budget is impossible to estimate. He could hand out as many as 60 drinks to riders on a single passage. But clearly he never counted his Euros when it came to the riders. “I’m happy like this and that’s what counts in life.”
“In this age, where so many are interested in getting, Lucien is interested in giving,” says Australian Allan Peiper, who visited with Blyau just last Saturday at his home in Brakel, a crossroads of the great Belgian cycling classics. Peiper knew Blyau as a professional in the 1980’s and continued to see him as a director for the BMC team. “You know riders come and go, but they all remember Lucien. He is at the heart of the Tour’s entourage!”
Blyau’s presence has been so appreciated, in fact, that he is one of the rare fans to receive accreditation from the race organizer, and the race-sticker on his camper allowed him the access to park more easily on the race course.
Turning 90 just after last year’s Tour, Blyau was looking forward to setting out on another ride around France this summer. But that was before he learned that he had an incurable cancer this spring and that a month on the road would be physically impossible.
“You know, when I left him, he was in tears,” said Peiper. “He so much wanted to be at the Tour. He wanted to be with his friends.”
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