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Even Napoleon Mellows With Age

The man once called the “Napoleon” of cycling, sits quietly in a corner of the Tour de France, zone technique, an area behind the finish line, reserved for television and radio coverage of the world’s biggest bike race. For years, even decades, Cyrille Guimard ruled the sport. As a rider he upstaged Eddy Merckx in the 1972 Tour de France, wearing both the yellow and green jersey at different moments in the race. And as a director he guided no less than three riders (Lucien Van Impe, Bernard Hinault and Laurent Fignon)  to seven Tour victories in the 1970’s and 1980’s.

Words & Image: James Startt
From: Utrecht, Holland

Virtually any rider raced under his direction says to this day that Guimard was the greatest director they have ever known. “Behind the wheel he was just light years ahead of everybody else,” says David Millar, a Guimard recruit on the Cofidis team in the late 1990’s.

“He was absolutely the best director I ever had! I was so fortunate to start my career with him,” says three-time American Tour de France winner Greg LeMond, one of Guimard’s prize recruits. “Psychologically he could really motivate riders because he studied each and every rider. He was so far ahead in every aspect. In aerodynamics for example he was already working in a lot of directions that teams have gone today.”

But while he was a formidable director, his authoritative style and Machiavellian manner fell out of favor with a sport that has become increasingly fixated on image. Guimard, it seemed, always preferred his independence. And he prided himself on his off-beat, acerbic wit.

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This year, the 68-year-old Guimard is participating in his 44th Tour. Still respected for his analysis of the sport, he commentates for RMC radio and television. “When it comes to the Tour, my libido hasn’t waned,” he says with a humor that remains his own. “But I look at it with more of a distance and often I say things that don’t necessarily go along with the show that the Tour is today. I try to keep my eye of an expert and not go with the consensus of the day.”

Like just about everybody here at the start of the 2015 Tour in Utrecht, Holland, Guimard is excited by the possibility of a great race. But his experience keeps him cautious.

“I’m worried! On paper we have the best line-up for the Tour we’ve had in years, with no less than three recent winners. But that doesn’t mean we’ll have the best race. You know, whenever we are expecting a lot, we rarely get a lot! Last year’s Tour was fantastic because so many unexpected things happened. Nothing was pre-programmed. For that to happen this year, a lot of very good riders are going to have to crash!”

For Guimard, suspense and improvisation are two key elements to a great bike race, and they are two an increasingly commodity in today’s sport. Guimard, like several veterans of the sport, laments the role of race radios, and insists that the sport would be more exciting without them. “Directors tend to think that, because they can always talk to the rider at any given moment, they can anticipate every move. But as a result, since everybody is trying to anticipate the event, the event often never even happens.”

He also insists that more teams with fewer riders would make for more open racing, as any single team would be unable to dominate in the way that they do today.

But he insists that, as he prepares for his 44th Tour de France, he remains excited by its possibilities, hopeful that epic battles will play out on the roads of the Tour between confirmed Vicenzo, Nibali, Alberto Contador, Christopher Froome, Nairo Quintana, not to mention a host of outsiders.

“I might be harden by the years of experience, but the 10-year-old kid that discovered the Tour back in 1957 is still inside me. Perhaps it is true what they say, that as you get older, you return to your youth!”

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