A warm and illuminating memoir by a rider with unique access to the European stars of the 1950s
Mousehold Press/Sport And Publicity 9781874739517 191 pp paperback £12.95
Jean Bobet’s story is an amazing one. A talented Breton scholar, in January of 1952, he was working towards a PhD at the University of Aberdeen. A letter from his elder brother, however, persuaded him to give up academia, return to France and to become a professional cyclist. He plied that trade for the rest of that decade, scoring one or two big successes, such as overall victory in Paris-Nice, and enough highly creditable placings in classics and grand tours to make him out as a major talent.
His brother, of course, was Louison Bobet, three times Tour de France, winner and among the most dominant riders of that epic decade of racing. Jean’s memoir then, while in no way a biography of his brother, does cast a good deal of light on the great rider’s life on, and off the saddle.
Post cycling, Bobet earned his living as a journalist, so his ability to focus on revealing scenes and turn a memorable phrase is considerable – aided, incidentally, by a first-rate translation by Adam Berry.
The narrative is broadly chronological, starting with family life and early races, Bobet’s victory at the World Student Games in Budapest, through his years at Louison’s side to the end of both of their professional careers and working lives beyond. There is much granular detail about life as a professional in those days.
But Bobet’s most memorable lines are reserved for his simple joy of riding. Here he is on ‘the thrill of la volupté‘ (pleasure). “The voluptuous pleasure you get from cycling is something else. It does exist, because I have experienced it. Its magic lies in its unexpectedness, its value in its rarity. It is more than a sensation because one’s emotions are involved as well as one’s actions. At the risk of raising eyebrows, I would maintain that the delight to cycling is not to be found in the arena of competition. In racing the threat of failure or the excitement of success generates euphoria at best, which seems vulgar in comparison with la volupté“.
This penetrating discursiveness, not to mention his eye for period details, marks Bobet’s book out in the top rank of writing about cycling. Indeed, given its quality, and success (it has already been reprinted twice) perhaps some of the author’s other writings will be translated.
TD Jan 12