This story begins on an autumn day in southwest London. I’m visiting with my first editor and mentor J.B. (“Jock”) Wadley at his snugly furnished home. His wife Mary has prepared her usual immaculate afternoon tea, while Jock has just returned from a French bike race for les anciennes gloires (“former celebrities”)—and he can’t wait to tell me about it.
The event was in Germigny-l’Évêque, a small town near Paris. “The mayor is Jacques Duchaussoy, who’s also a driver at the Tour,” Jock says. “His daughter is married to Zoetemelk.” That would be Joop Zoetemelk, who’d just won the 1980 Tour de France. “So the weekend was part celebrating Zoet’s victory and part celebrating the Tour’s old stars. Barry Hoban won the race and then there was a big banquet for about 100 of us…lots of food and wine…we were right next to the Champagne region.”
After the multi-course meal at Le Gonfalon restaurant, Jock adds, the partying continued. In one corner, Jacques Anquetil was playing cards with Louison Bobet. At the bar, former Tour rivals Pierre Brambilla, Jean Robic and René Vietto were reminiscing over drinks. Jock says that Robic was in fine form, telling tales from his lengthy career: “His 1947 Tour win is still one of the sport’s great stories—and then he won the world cyclo-cross title. As a climber he was probably as good as Gaul and Bahamontes….”
Jock says he learned later that, after he’d gone to bed, tempers frayed at Le Gonfalon and, against the advice of his peers, Robic decided to head back to Paris in the wee hours, giving a ride to the wife of another ex-pro. “Robic didn’t make it back home,” Jock says. News reports showed that around 3:30 a.m. on October 6, 1980, just before reaching the town of Villeparisis on Route Nationale 3, Robic’s Audi 100 crashed into the back of a stationary truck at an estimated 55 kph. Both he and passenger Lianor Sanier died instantly. Police said there were no skid marks on the road, so it was speculated that a drink-groggy Robic fell asleep at the wheel. He was aged 59.
The major French national newspaper, Le Monde, wrote that the nature of Robic’s death conformed to his reputation as a daredevil who had collected “skull fractures, crashes, wounds and bruises throughout his cycling career.” Indeed, in Robic’s very first pro season, 1944, a crash suffered in Paris-Roubaix marked the remainder of his 18-year career.
Robic fell heavily on the tram tracks in Amiens, managed to continue, passing rider after rider, but about 30 kilometers later crashed again, flatted and abandoned. He and his bike got a lift to Paris in a tarpaulin-covered truck, he then rode through the city streets to where he was staying with his aunt, ascended in the elevator, rang the doorbell—and collapsed on the floor. Rushed to the hospital, he was diagnosed with a fractured petrous bone at the base of his skull. Robic was hospitalized for weeks and, after returning to competition, he always wore a leather “hairnet” helmet, earning him the nickname “tête de cuir” [“leather head”]. His more popular sobriquet was “biquet” [“my pet”], derived from “Robiquet”—a moniker other racers used for Robic because of his small stature: just under 5-foot-3 and 130 pounds.
A CYCLING PASSION
Robic’s father, also named Jean, was a skilled carpenter from Radenac, a small village in Brittany. After serving in the army during World War I, he decided to help the citizens of the country’s most affected region, the northeast, moving with his wife Rose to Concé-les-Vouziers in the French Ardennes. That’s where the couple’s fourth child and first son, Jean, was born on June 10, 1921. When little Jean was 3 years old, the family returned to western France, first to Rennes, and then back to Radenac, midway between Vannes on the coast and Mûr-de-Bretagne in Brittany’s central highlands.
Robic’s dad had a passion for cycling. He was a decent weekend warrior and opened a bike shop in his hometown—giving his son a first contact with the sport. The teenage Robic was apprenticed to a wheelwright, riding an old bike to work. He even did some races with his dad, though not too successfully. It was his mom who most recognized her son’s obsession and bought him a new bike frame.
Racing as a beginner, Robic won three local races and became one of Brittany’s best juniors by winning a national championship qualifier. He was still the wheelwright’s apprentice, but he wanted to be a bike racer. His dad was against his moving to Paris but, in early 1940, he allowed him to go and live with an aunt. Robic found a job at a bike shop and started competing in cyclo-cross. Lightly built and with a good turn of speed, he won a dozen road races that spring before Hitler’s army invaded France and took Paris in June.
Robic returned to Radenac for a year, until the German occupation of France was complete and road, track and ’cross racing resumed—though international races, including the Tour de France, saw a long hiatus. While the war still raged around Europe, France remained relatively calm until its liberation in August 1944. Through those years, Robic sometimes had to avoid recruitment by the Nazis, moving daily to different addresses. He still raced at the weekend, taking podiums in several amateur road classics and scoring a significant fourth place in the 1941 International—one of the few major ’cross events still organized. He earned a pro contract for 1944.
Robic showed his improving ’cross form, winning at Puteaux and placing second in a point-to-point race from Versailles to Paris. But his rookie road season was a bust after his nasty crash in Paris–Roubaix. Back to full health, and sporting a leather helmet, Robic was unstoppable in cyclocross the following winter. After a string of victories and a second place in the iconic Butte-Montmartre race, which scaled the 200-plus steps to the Basilica of Sacré-Coeur, he went on to take the French national ’cross championship at Fontainebleau.
In September 1945 he returned to Brittany for a series of criteriums. After winning six of them, Robic celebrated with his parents in Radenac. The next day, after visiting Vannes, he returned home just as his father was being wheeled in from the fields on a cart. An oak tree he was sawing down fell in the wrong direction and crushed his pelvic area; he died in severe pain on arrival at the nearest hospital. As a result, Robic’s mother moved to Paris to be close to her son.
With the war over in Europe, sports became a much-needed outlet for populations wanting to forget the past and be enthused by the future. Sports events drew record crowds and though road cycling had no stadiums to fill (except at a few race finishes), the French public was ready to find new heroes. Enter Jean Robic.
There was still no Tour de France, but two new five-day races grabbed the fans’ attention in 1946: the Ronde de France and Monaco–Paris. The Ronde opened with a flat stage from Bordeaux to Pau in heat-wave temperatures. After Robic took fourth place behind three Italians, he told reporters: “I suffered like a martyr today. My fractured skull isn’t completely healed, and I have a permanent headache. Damn this heat!”
Asked about the next day’s stage in the Pyrénées, he said, “The Tourmalet and Aubisque, are they so hard? I’ve never seen mountain climbs before….” But on his first-ever contact with high mountains, Robic was second over the Aubisque behind French-based Italian Pierre Brambilla; but on the long, flat second half of the stage Robic was suffering. On the third day, across the sun-blasted roads of the Languedoc, he had to stop and lie down when his nose began hemorrhaging. The bloodstained Robic continued, way down, and completed the stage before heading to the hospital. He even started the next two stages—but when he crashed on a descent after climbing the Galibier and Croix-de-Fer in the Alps, Robic had to quit. The French public now knew about the courage of little “Biquet.”
The Galibier and Croix-de-Fer were also on the route of Monaco–Paris, put on by the organizers of the still-absent Tour de France, but this time Robic was at the front with four others. He then dropped them over the last three climbs through the Chartreuse to finish the day 14 minutes ahead of his pursuers! On overall time, he remained two minutes behind the race leader, the powerful French national team’s René Vietto. Robic had just two teammates left on his West regional squad, but said he’d try everything to win overall.
On the final stage into Paris, Vietto was suffering with a saddle sore and put his teammate Apo Lazaridès in the early breakaway, while the other five national team riders chased down all of Robic’s attacks. Lazaridès won the race but the next day’s newspapers headlined the third-place finisher: “They assassinated Robic!” Fans love an underdog, and they loved it when Biquet said, “Yes, I know the others think of me as a joke, but we’ll have a chance to talk about that next year.”
There wasn’t a second edition of Monaco–Paris, because the organizers brought back their Tour de France after an eight-year absence. Robic was thrilled. He again opened the year with ’cross victories—first at the prestigious International in freezing, snowbound conditions in Luxembourg, and then at Montmartre, where he broke clear the first time up the Sacré-Coeur steps. That form didn’t translate to winning road races; but Robic had a plan. “I’m preparing for the Tour my way,” he wrote in Miroir des Sports magazine. “While the others are racing flat out, I’m focusing on the first 100 kilometers of each race and then abandoning. I’m improving my form…and also building up my reserves. I’ll next push that up to 150 kilometers and then, in June, comes a serious challenge: the Critérium du Dauphiné….”
Robic’s methods didn’t impress the French national coach, who left him off the long list for his Tour team. But at the Dauphiné, a new weeklong race in the Alps, Robic won the second stage with a solo break into Annecy and placed fifth overall. A few days later, and four days before he would start his first Tour with the West region team, Robic married his sweetheart, Raymonde Cornic, the daughter of a Paris barkeeper whose café was patronized by the Breton riders. To his bride, Robic said, “I don’t have a dowry to give you as I am poor, but in one month you will be the wife of a Tour de France winner.”
Such avowals were typical of Robic, who had a strong belief in himself. That confidence would prove important at the upcoming Tour. He wasn’t among the prerace favorites—his veteran teammate Pierre Cogan was considered stronger, along with the national team’s Vietto and Édouard Fachleitner, Italy’s Brambilla and Aldo Ronconi, and Belgium’s Raymond Impanis. They all said they’d wait for the Alps before making a serious move, but the irascible Robic declared: “If we wait and miss the breakaways, we could all be an hour back before the mountains.”
Robic showed he wasn’t going to wait around when he chased an opening-day breakaway, finishing the stage just behind the two top Italians and minutes ahead of the other favorites. Things didn’t go so well on stage 2, across the cobblestones of northern France and Flanders on a broiling hot day. An early break contained Impanis and two Belgian teammates, along with a vigilant Vietto and four others. Robic was stuck in the peloton, where dozens punctured. Vietto astonished everyone by attacking from the front group and racing the last 147 kilometers solo to win the stage 1:31 ahead of Impanis…and more than 10 minutes ahead of Robic’s chase group.
The Italians fought back on the Tour’s longest stage, 314 kilometers through the Ardennes to Luxembourg, where Ronconi won the stage after breaking clear with Brambilla, Cogan and Vietto. Robic, who had to defend the chances of teammate Cogan and lost another 10 minutes, again suffered in the heat. Fachleitner even stopped for 20 minutes to shelter from the sun and eat a sandwich!
That night, Robic received a letter at his hotel from his bride, saying: “Show them you’re the strongest!” The next day, he did just that. He broke clear with Ferdi Kübler on a late climb; slalomed across the tram tracks in Strasbourg that resulted in the Swiss rider crashing; and won the stage to gain back three minutes and move into sixth overall.
Three days later, Vietto still held the overall lead by 1:22 over Ronconi, while Robic was ready to show his climb skills. On the first alpine stage, his early attack was thwarted by a flat before tackling the last three climbs. With more than 50 kilometers to go, Robic overtook everyone over the Granier, Cucheron and Porte passes—where he made his successful attack in the 1946 Monaco–Paris in the opposite direction. This time, he topped the Porte alone and won the stage in Grenoble by almost five minutes from Brambilla, Fachleitner and Ronconi—who took the lead from Vietto. Robic was up to fourth.
Referring to the yellow jersey, the Tour’s erudite race director, Jacques Goddet, wrote in L’Équipe: “Vietto had it, Ronconi has it, Robic will have it!” However, Robic paid for his efforts the next day, suffering badly on the alpine climbs of Glandon, Croix-de-Fer and Galibier—until he got a second wind on the run-in to Briançon. He conceded eight minutes to Brambilla, and six to Ronconi and Vietto. The rest day at Briançon energized Robic and he attacked from the start of stage 7, leading a small breakaway over the Izoard and Vars climbs; but bad luck wrecked his chances. Robic flatted twice on the Vars descent, had two more flats coming down the Allos, but still reached the finish at Digne in fourth place—two minutes behind Brambilla and six behind Vietto, who retook the yellow jersey. Robic was now in fifth, but a whopping 18 minutes down.
That gap grew to 23 minutes on the next stage to Nice, but Robic wasn’t disheartened and wrote a letter to his mother, saying: “Tell everyone there that I still have good morale; the Tour isn’t over. If there’s the slightest chance, I’ll take it. But I’d like a bit more luck, because without all those punctures I’d have pulled on the yellow jersey long ago.”
But by the rest day in Luchon, before the final mountain stage, Robic was still 23 minutes back. There was unrest among his teammates, some of whom were saying he was “too big for his britches.” At the team dinner, Robic almost came to blows with one of them, but he remained as confident as ever. In the morning, he told reporters: “I will beat everyone today! I’ll attack from the start and finish alone!”
Good to his word, Robic went straight to the front when the stage began up the Col de Peyresourde. Only Brambilla, Vietto, Lazaridès and Italy’s Primo Volpi could match him. He then dropped one after the other, with Brambilla the last of them to lose Robic’s wheel, 4 kilometers from the summit. There were still 185 kilometers to cover, including the giant climbs of the Aspin, Tourmalet and Aubisque, but Robic never faltered. Asked how he retained his inspiration and strength over that marathon distance, Robic said: “I looked for reference points along the road—say, a lady wearing a sunhat—and sprinted for it. I thought about my wife Raymonde and my little mother Rose, imagining them cheering me on under a tree at the end of the next straightaway. And I’d sprint towards them. And I’d continue this imaginary game, making myself go even faster.”
By the finish in Pau, Robic had taken 10:53 out of second-place Vietto and earned a total of five minutes in time bonuses, to move within eight minutes of the yellow jersey, albeit still in fourth place. But with a week left in the Tour, Robic told his doubtful teammates: “I feel that nothing’s lost yet. I’m irresistible!”
Even so, the time gaps stayed the same till the final rest day at Vannes, in his native Brittany. On the menu for stage 19 was the longest individual time trial in Tour history: 139 kilometers from Vannes to Saint-Brieuc, via Mûr-de-Bretagne. This was Robic country, and he prepared well for it. While his colleagues enjoyed a leisurely lunch by the beach, Robic went motor-pace training, making repeated flat-out efforts to simulate the next day’s stage. For the TT itself, he chose a large-for-the era 49-tooth chainring (front derailleurs were in their infancy), planning to use a 16 sprocket for most of the course, and shifting to the 14 for the finale.
Cheered on by tens of thousands of his Breton fans, Robic was fourth fastest when he raced through Locminé, 10 kilometers from his hometown of Radenac, and he moved up to second after climbing the double-digit slopes of Mûr-de-Bretagne. Robic finished as runner-up to an impressive Impanis and moved into third overall—after yellow jersey Vietto completely blew and lost 10 minutes to Robic. The new leader, Brambilla, was about a minute ahead of teammate Ronconi and three minutes up on Robic. Two stages remained.
On the first of these, urged on by his home fans, Robic kept attacking, maybe a dozen times, but Brambilla wouldn’t cede. It seemed that the final stage, 257 kilometers from Caen to Paris, would be a formality for the Italian. That looked likely when an early seven-man break, with no danger men, went minutes clear before reaching the feed zone at Rouen. Robic was one of the last men to collect his musette. The pace was slow. Riders focused on putting sandwiches in their rear pockets or transferring their aluminum water bottles to handlebar-mounted cages. A few minutes ahead was one of the day’s steeper hills, Bonsecours, climbing through 500 vertical feet (150 meters) in just over a kilometer on a dead-straight road.
“Everyone was out the saddle,” Robic told French journalist Jean-Paul Olivier. “I saw that Brambilla was stuck in the middle of the group. So, instinctively, I took off…on my 49×18. I gained about 50 meters before Brambilla emerged…and caught me. I sat up. He sat up. He thought I was done, but just as quickly—bam!—I went again and took 40 meters. He caught me again. We were just about cooked. Others were closing…and then Fachleitner came past us. Steady, not hard. That’s where Brambilla made a mistake. He chased right after Fach even though he wasn’t recovered from chasing me. He got within 10 meters—I was on his wheel—but then lost 20, 30 meters. He’d cracked. I was just a block of suffering too but went past him, hard, and managed to join Fach.”
That was the defining moment of the 1947 Tour de France. The finish in Paris was still 140 kilometers away, but on the ensuing plateau Robic recovered enough to work with Fachleitner, who was the top man on the French national team after Vietto’s TT collapse. Within 20 kilometers the two Frenchmen had gained almost two minutes on Brambilla’s chase group, which was then absorbed by the peloton. But the GC battle was still delicately balanced.
There were rumors after the stage that Robic offered Fachleitner money to help him gain the three minutes he needed to win the Tour. But, in a later interview, Robic said: “Fach saw that I wasn’t too fresh and laid his cards on the table. ‘Give me 50,000 francs and I’ll ride for you!’ That was equivalent to two après-Tour race contracts…. I said okay. Then, a little later, he added: ‘I want 100,000!’”
Robic agreed to the increased demand but, shortly after, Fachleitner’s teammate Lucien Teisseire dropped back from the breakaway with a double mission: to help Fachleitner gain the six minutes he needed to leapfrog the Italians onto the final podium and try to get rid of Robic and give Fachleitner a chance of winning the Tour. They achieved the first of those goals, but Robic was too tenacious to lose sight of Fach’s back wheel…and as a crowd of 40,000 cheered them home in the Parc des Princes stadium, with the Italians 13 minutes behind, Robic was hailed as the Tour’s first postwar winner by a 3:58 margin over Fachleitner, with Brambilla in third at 10:07.
Robic’s bride was there to greet him. He’d kept his promise. The Tour winner’s prize was half a million francs.
HIGHS & LOWS
Robic would race the Tour another nine times, and three times showed the form that won him the race in 1947. In 1949, he won the big Pyrenean stage into Pau, and he was the only climber to challenge Fausto Coppi and Gino Bartali in the Alps, placing third to the Italian icons at Briançon and Aosta, before placing fourth overall. On the Tour’s first-ever mountaintop finish, at L’Alpe d’Huez in 1952, he was the only rider to match Coppi—taking second place 1:20 back. He then won the stage over Mont Ventoux into Avignon and placed fifth overall. In 1953, after taking a brilliant solo stage win at Luchon in the Pyrénées to wear the yellow jersey for a day, he crashed heavily on a fast descent in the Massif Central. Robic suffered a concussion and, covered in blood, managed to finish the stage but could not start the following day.
Throughout his long career, Robic remained competitive in cyclocross. He again won the Montmartre race in 1948, was second at the International the following winter and had his biggest success in 1950. This came at the first-ever UCI ’cross worlds, held in the Forest of Fontainebleau, southeast of Paris. Thousands came to cheer the French national team. Robic had a slight cold and said he felt “a little weak”—so he had a glass of port to fortify himself! Then, over four laps of a 5.8–kilometer circuit, he followed every move by the multiple French champion, Roger Rondeaux, as they shouldered their bikes on the steeper ups and downs. “No one could have dropped Robic today,” Rondeaux said. The championship ended in a two-man sprint, with Robic winning easily in 51:44, at an average speed of 26.965 kph. The Swiss, Italian and Belgian riders claimed that their ’cross courses were harder, but they were no match for the French, and it was Robic who donned the first cyclocross rainbow jersey.
Robic continued his racing career to age 40, much against the wishes of his wife, who wanted more help with the café-restaurant they owned in the Montparnasse district of Paris. They had three children, but after their divorce, Robic went through hard times and took an office job in an ex-pro’s moving company. When Robic once asked a journalist “What do you think was my greatest feat?” the expected reply came: “The ’47 Tour, surely.” Not so, replied Robic. “My greatest exploit was repairing my car’s gearbox in the middle of the night, alone on the road, 300 kilometers from Paris, where I had to start the French national championship in the morning. Many riders have won the Tour but I don’t know many champions that are also good mechanics.” Robic loved fixing cars…and it’s tragically ironic that it was in a car that he would die.