As Shakespeare wrote, there are those who are born great, those who become great, and those who have greatness thrust upon them. Thirty years ago when François Lemarchand was riding the Tour de France as a domestique at the Z team he wouldn’t have envisaged that he would end up in the back seat of the No. 1 car at the great race, waving the flag to get the riders moving at the départ réel and taking responsibility for running affairs on the road.
By William Fotheringham | Image by CorVos/SWpix.com
But after the Tour’s director Christian Prudhomme was sidelined by Covid-19, that’s where Lemarchand ended up, in a classic case of the quiet, almost unknown No. 2 being thrown suddenly into the limelight. Which is amusing because during the 1990s, we would bump into each other at the start of one race or another and exchange a wry grin, as if to say, “Well who’d have thought we’d end up meeting each other here given where we were a few years ago?”
In April 1984, when I shuffled nervously into the market place of the little Norman town of Livarot for my first entrainement collectif with the local cycling club, Etoile Sportive Livarotaise, François was one of the club’s two big hitters. The other, Thierry Marie, was the No. 1 amateur in France at the time. François was just behind him, along with a third Norman, Philippe Bouvatier. It was heady stuff if – as I had – you had spent your amateur cycling career as the only bike racer in the village, or more accurately, the only bike racer in the middle of an entire county (Devon, if anyone’s asking).
The two hitters were an amusing double act. Thierry was the extrovert, the one who had a trumpet he would blow at after-race parties. He would clown around on Wednesday afternoons when we pedaled briskly around the Norman countryside in a neat crocodile two by two with the battered team car driven by former independent racer Robert Vogt chugging behind us. François was the quiet man, the one who’d come out with the wry but deadly put-down when Thierry had done clowning.
To understand how François Lemarchand ended up waving that flag at the Tour this week, it’s worth looking at where he came from in cycling terms. 1984 was quite the season for Monsieur Vogt, who had built a small-town club that, for a few months, outdid the likes of ACBB. If Thierry had been – astutely – recruited from a club in the Cotentin, François was the ES Livarot’s homeboy. His parents farmed in the green hills up above the town, in one of those elegant, slightly aristocratic farmhouses. He’d always been at the club, presumably resisting the blandishments of the bigger outfits to ride in the blue, red and white jersey, for the benefit of small time sponsors: Pizzieria Napoli, Bunel Caravanes and Didier Louis’ bike shop.
At the end of the Wednesday training in Livarot, there would be a burn-up for the town sign. Most often, Thierry and François would “adopt” the two fattest, slowest members of the club: a baker, Monsieur Chedeville, and the town’s ironmonger, Monsieur Dutac. While the likes of me just looked after ourselves, the two stars would push, pull, pace and do everything in and out of the textbook to get one of the old guys to the sign first. Then we would sprawl on the pavement outside the baker’s and devour the cakes left over from the day before.
He was a key part of that culture: the best riders, heading for the Olympic Games, winning the big amateur Classics, and clearly destined for professional contracts, behaved just like the guys with normal lives who were not headed for stardom. They went faster, but they had to mix with all of us, third cats, cycle-tourists, kids from the école de vélo. We all knew how good they were, but that was all. When he took over the No. 1 car this week, his comment was that it was a long way from being the kid on the tractor on his dad’s farm. The other thing he said was that it was a good job he’d been to the launderette as he had a couple of shirts ironed.
At the end of 1984, François turned professional for Fagor, moving on to Z-Peugeot, where he rode out his career as Z was replaced by GAN then Crédit Agricole. He never scaled the heights as a professional, but lasted 12 seasons, finishing the Tour 10 times. There were wins in French races such as the Tour de Vendée and Four Days of Dunkirk, but he is more proud of the fact that he supported Greg LeMond to the overall win in the Tour in 1990.
As a bike racer, a reliable, good-humored worker. Clearly the late Laurent Fignon thought that, as when François hung up his wheels in 1997 he moved across to Fignon’s events company which most notably ran Paris-Nice briefly before the finances got sticky. When ASO bought out Fignon, François was part of the deal. He’s risen up the ranks since then, thanks to the things he learned supporting leaders like LeMond, Jean-René Bernaudeau and Chris Boardman. A good teammate, he says, is like a Swiss army knife: you have to be able to do anything. If part of the job is helping the Tour get all the way to Paris in the middle of a pandemic, I’d be happy to have him in the driving seat.