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IT COULD BE SAID THAT, FOR ROBERT MARCHAND, LIFE BEGAN AT 100, deciding to celebrate his own personal centennial by establishing a record for 100 kilometers in an age category that did not even exist. Then, in 2012, he established the first of three world hour records, becoming one of France’s most celebrated senior citizens. His most recent record came on January 4 this year, when he established a new record of 22.547 kilometers for a 105-year-old. The exploit brought him tremendous national exposure in the media, not to mention a meeting with the then French President, François Hollande.
But Marchand has not always lived the life of a celebrity, and most of his days are much quieter. The survivor of two World Wars, he was deprived an education and worked a variety of jobs from fireman to farmer. Today, he lives modestly on a retirement pension of about $1,000 per month. But he still lives alone in his small apartment in Mitry-Mory, a northeastern suburb of Paris. Life has not always been easy for Marchand, but you would not know when you meet him. Happy-go-lucky would be an understatement, because he laughs non-stop. To spend a morning with Marchand, one feels simply as if you are in the presence of the happiest man alive.
Words/images: James Startt
Robert, why this sudden fascination with the world hour record? You waited a century to try it and now you have broken it three times in the last five years! Why? Because it was a challenge.
I’d done a lot of gran fondo rides like Bordeaux–Paris and L’Ardéchoise. This was something completely different. But that doesn’t mean it was easy. I had to get everything accepted by the French Federation of Cycling and the UCI. And at the UCI, for example, they had to change their material because it was all set for ages that had only two digits. The first time, I established the world hour record for over 100 years old. This year, at 105 years old, I made my third attempt. In terms of distance it was a little bit less than the previous times. But my doctors didn’t want me to go over 130 bpm during my effort. And you know, when you are riding a bike, 130 bpm is nothing! But I did it. And now I am waiting for my successor. But I don’t know who that is going to be!
You lived through nearly the entire 20th century, you lived through two World Wars. What are your memories of World War I for example? World War I? Well, to be honest, I don’t remember much when it came to the actual fighting. I was born in Amiens in 1911, so I wasn’t even three years old when the war broke out. Now, Amiens was close to the front lines and I remember when the Germans marched in. We were scared, because everyone told us that the Germans would cut off the hands of the children, but all they did was march on by.
Soon enough, though, they sent all of the kids under 15 from my region away to places that were not under siege. I was barely three, and since my father was already in the army and my mother was serving as a nurse outside of Paris, I was put with a foster family in the Allier region. Now, these people were farmers and they weren’t much interested in my education. They just put me to work. As a result I never went to school. I never was even taught to read or write. I just had to try to learn to do it myself. What a curse that was, all my life. I mean, just filling out a job application was difficult, and a job application filled with grammatical errors, well, that puts you at a real disadvantage.
When the war of 1914–1918 was over I was finally reunited with my family. That’s pretty much when I met my father for the first time, since he had been drafted into the army shortly after I was born. No, I didn’t see much of the war, but it had plenty of effect on my life.
How did you get into cycling? Well, I’ve always done sports. My first sport was boxing. I started at 14. But I’ve never been a fighter. I also did a lot of gymnastics and was even French champion one year. But I was always attracted to cycling. After the war we lived just outside of Paris and my dad would take me to the ’Cipale Vélodrome in the Bois de Vincennes to watch the races and the champions of the day. I just fell in love with cycling. I got my first bike when I was 14, and cycling has been with me off-and-on throughout my life.
Do you remember your first bike, what brand it was or anything about it? Do I remember the brand of a bike from 100 years ago? Oh, monsieur, you are funny! No, but I remember a couple of things. First it was too big for me, because I bought it from my older brother. It served its purpose though, and I had others that were better soon after.
What was it like to even have a bike in the 1920s? There were not many cars and not everybody had a bike it seemed…. Well, they were very different from today, but I can tell you we had some pretty good bikes back in the day. The biggest difference I guess was that we didn’t have any derailleurs yet. They didn’t come until the 1930s. So we had to pick our gear. I started out with a 46×18, but that was too small for me. Then I got a 47×17 and that was just right. I had a fair amount of power, I guess.
Were you a sprinter, climber or all-arounder? Well, I certainly wasn’t a sprinter. And I never climbed a mountain until after World War II. So I guess I was an all-arounder. The thing was, when it came to training, there wasn’t really any method. For example, I remember all of my coaches telling me, “Robert, the last thing you should do in a race is drink!” Can you imagine? I lost all of my races because of leg cramps. And it was only decades later that I understood why.
In my 20s I got into racing and joined a local team at Drancy. Their specialty was cyclocross. They had two really strong riders and then myself, but I just wasn’t into it. I’ll never forget my last cyclocross race. It was just freezing cold! No, what I liked was the road. And road racing back then was just huge. We could have 500 riders at the start. Can you imagine that?! When I started, I had no ambition really. I just liked riding. I would work all week. We got off at noon on Saturday and I would go out and ride. My first race, I got like 350th out of 500, but I got better and better. I started placing a fair amount and one day one of the scouts from the Levallois team, one of the big amateur teams, came up to me and said, “You know I’d sign you on, but you are too small and you attack too much. You’ll never be a champion.” When he said that I thought, “What? I’ll never be a champion. Well then, au revoir! I quit that day. I sold all of my bikes, my rollers, everything. I just couldn’t stand that mentality.
Well, soon enough, World War II erupted, and like so many, your life was once again thrown into turmoil. How did you make it through? Well, I was working as a fireman when the war started, which was a sort of national service so I didn’t have to go into the army. But that didn’t make life easy, because once the Germans took over we basically lost our salaries. At one point, because of my gymnastics background, I was ordered to teach gymnastics to some schoolchildren. But I refused, since I knew that they were all basically the children of collaborators. And for that my commander gave me a one-month prison sentence. When I got out, I decided not to continue in the fire department, but then I was in a predicament, because the Germans were rounding up people and sending them off to Germany to support the German war effort, something I had no interest in doing. Finally, I borrowed some money from my family and was able to rent a small farm and work the farm. The government allowed that because farmers were providing much-needed food. The only problem was that my farm was east of Paris, and when the Allied troops were pushing the Germans back, my farm was completely bombed. I lost everything—my crops, the couple of cows I had, everything.
Like much of France from the 1930s into the 1970s, many cyclists were sympathetic to the French Communist Party and you too have been a lifelong member. Why? The reason was simple. The communists in France were always on the side of the worker. And that never changed. After World War II, I lived in Venezuela and Canada for several years. When I came back, I bought all of the papers, and soon found out that L’Humanité [the Communist Party daily] was always on the side of labor.
It was only after you returned to France in the 1960s that you were able to get back into cycling? Yes. I started riding. At first I just enjoyed going out by myself. But then I got in with a group of friends and joined a club and we started to do cyclosportifs. I did eight Bordeaux–Paris events, Paris–Roubaix, you name it. But it was great!
Who has been you favorite cyclist ever? Oh, there have been many. I really liked the pursuit riders, and today I really like Thibaut Pinot. I was invited to an FDJ training camp and he was just so nice. He never left my side!
With all of your success in recent years you have received plenty of honors, including meeting the French president. You have seen no less than 17 presidents of France in your lifetime. Did you ever think you would meet one? No, when I was invited, I didn’t even want to go, because President Hollande didn’t do what he promised to do. But in the end I went and it was really nice. We spent 45 minutes at the Élysées Palace with him and had a good time. At one point, I told him, “You know, Monsieur President, governments are really good for nothing. After the War of 1914–1918, there was a huge housing crisis. And there is still one today. In 100 years there is still a housing crisis.” We had a good laugh.
At 105 years old you still have plenty of energy. You live by yourself, you cook for yourself, you still ride your bike…everything. How do you do it? Oh, it’s easy. Every morning I wake up and do my exercises, 25 of each. Then I get on my stationary bike for five minutes.
Robert, you lived through two World Wars, you were deprived of an education, life has not been easy… but this entire time you have not stopped laughing! No, life hasn’t always been easy. The wars destroyed my life. But what can you do. You can’t cry about it forever.
From issue 67. Buy it here.
The unique demands of gravel riding have spawned few innovations... Read more →