Lapize: Now There Was An Ace, Jean Bobet (2010)

A touching portrait of one of cycle racings pre-WW1 stars

Mousehold Press 9781874739555 Paperback 180pp £12.95

Octave Lapize is one of those names, like Egg, Christophe and Huret that lived on beyond their Edwardian sporting moment because of the components to which they lent their names. That Lapize, one of the lesser known Tour winners, should merit a modern biography is a little surprising. But, as Bobet makes clear from the outset, his fascination with Lapize is very personal.

It is a compelling, and ultimately tragic story. Lapize was arguably the dominant rider, on road and track in the years immediately before the First World War. In 1914, he joined the nascent French airforce, served with bravery and distinction and in 1917, at the age of 30, lost an air duel with two Germany pilots.

Bobet has done a professional job of assembling the facts of his life from contemporary records. From these emerge a fascinating glimpse of the heady, sporting world of the 1910s when public enthusiasm for cycling (and other spectator sports) was almost boundless.

Many events that endure to this day – the Tour, the Classics and some forms of track racing – were in an embryonic phase. Others have changed beyond recognition. Paris-Brest-Paris was one of a clutch of ultra-long races, that have now disappeared from the racing callander, and the Tour’s General Classification was still a competition to collect points, rather than one of accumulated time, for example.

Lapize was not only a gifted rider – he held the French 100k championship three years running, won Paris-Roubaix three years running and won the Tour in 1910. He was also a wily businessman, running a successful cycle shop in central Paris and successfully licensing his name to a bicycle manufacturer.

He also had a good line in denunciations. It was Lapize, who after the Tour’s first ascent of the Tourmalet responded to a simple enquiry from a race organisers thus: “You’re murders. That’s what wrong. You’re criminals”.

The picture that Bobet paints of the period and of the man is engaging. It does not quite satisfy as it might, however. There is little in the way of contextualisation and occasionally the author’s respect for Lapize and his family’s feelings is maddening. Bobet’s research in the columns of old newspapers is exemplary, but with little else to leaven his account, at times it seems rather flat.

Nevertheless, it serves as a poignant reminder of both the scale of the rupture of the Great War, and the surprising ways in which that distant, ante-bellum period shaped the following century.

PS July 10

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