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Re-Cycle: When the Pelissier brothers ruled Roubaix

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Henri Pélissier and brother Francis

Image credit: Eurosport

ByFelix Lowe
10/04/2020 at 09:23 | Updated 10/04/2020 at 10:28

Felix Lowe recalls the fraternal feeling of 1921’s Paris-Roubaix, won by Henri Pélissier ahead of his brother Francis. It remains the first and only time in cycling history that siblings have finished on the top two steps of the podium in one of cycling's fabled Monuments.

Set against a backdrop of renewal and recovery, when cycling was battling back from the destruction of war, two brothers pulled off a famous, unparalleled one-two in the 1921 Paris-Roubaix in spite of a bounty on their heads for trying to break away from La Sportive, the suffocating consortium which then governed the sport.

Over ravaged roads and land destroyed by almost five years of war, Henri Pélissier had won the 1919 edition of Paris-Roubaix before coming back to repeat the feat two years later, this time ahead of his brother Francis, his most dependable domestique.

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If the race was far from the most vintage edition of what soon became known as 'The Hell of the North', the subplot of Henri Pélissier's eternal spat with the authorities who ran his sport added extra piquancy to proceedings – spiced up even further by the fact that Francis joined him on a final podium that didn't so much rock the boat as provide the iceberg which sunk La Sportive's Titanic.

Significant brother

Cycling history is peppered with familial dynasties and fraternal combinations. Simon and Adam Yates are the most recent example. Maurice Garin, the first man to win the Tour and a double Paris-Roubaix winner, had two brothers – Ambroise and César – who both finished runner-up in Roubaix, while the first victor of the Vuelta a España, the Belgian Gustaaf Deloor, returned the next year to double up ahead of his brother, Alfons.

Also in the Spanish race, brothers Emilio and Manuel Rodriguez came first and second in 1950, five years after their older brother, Delio, won the first post-War edition (with a fourth brother, Pastor, finishing 15th).

More recently, Luxembourg brothers Fränk and Andy Schleck finished behind Cadel Evans on the 2011 Tour podium. Today's WorldTour boasts six sets of brothers – including the Yateses and the Izagirres (Ion and Gorka) – while the likes of Nairo Quintana (Dayer), Vincenzo Nibali (Antonio), Oliver Naesen (Lawrence) and Esteban Chaves (Brayan) all have younger brothers in the sport.

Some of cycling's biggest names have relied on a brother as their most loyal domestique: Miguel Induráin might have not won five Tours without the calming presence of his younger brother, Prudencio; the great Fausto Coppi was a shadow of his usual campionissimo self after the death of his younger brother Serse, who was also the winner of Paris-Roubaix in 1949; and Sagan might have not won three successive rainbow jerseys without Juraj by his side.

But on only one occasion have brothers finished first and second in one of cycling's five Monuments, a record now stretching back 99 years to the day Henri and Francis Pélissier upset the authorities to take a face-slapping one-two. Not in the Roubaix velodrome – because it had not yet been built – but in a nearby stadium, interrupting a football match in the process.

Who were the Pélissiers?

There were four Pélissier brothers: Henri, the eldest, Francis, Jean-François and Charles. Jean-François died during the First World War, but the other three became famous cyclists – although Charles's heyday as one of the best sprinters in the peloton overlapped only briefly with his two trailblazing brothers.

Their father was like a character from a Balzac novel – a cattle farmer from the Cantel region in the Auvergne who had uprooted to Paris in the search of riches where he built a flourishing milk empire. Arriving in wooden clogs, old Pélissier finished up a leather-booted millionaire. He certainly looked down at his sons' decision to prioritise cycling over delivering milk, viewing the humble bicycle as the work of the devil.

But Henri, who left home aged 16 to pursue his dream, was a tenacious chap and forged ahead despite the wishes of his father – his early successes and escape from the daily grind acting as an inspiration to Francis, who soon swapped cattle for cycling and joined him in the peloton.

It is said that training and nutrition set the two Pélissiers apart from their contemporaries, although their tactics were hardly revolutionary by today's standards: they simply over-ate before races and abstained from alcohol while riding.

Cantankerous, chippy and the possessor of a centre-parting of commendable rectitude, Henri was something of a trade unionist at heart. He was the first rider to stand up to the power of race organisers and equipment manufacturers and lived in a permanent state of war against anyone involved in the sport. That included, at times, his fellow riders, whom he once famously described as "work horses" to his "thoroughbred".

"He was the Lance Armstrong of his era in some respects," says Tom Isitt, author of Riding in the Zone Rouge: The Tour of the Battlefields 1919 – Cycling's Toughest-Ever Stage Race. "He was a very feisty character, constantly fighting with [Tour de France director Henri] Desgrange about everything, moaning about the distance of races and about La Sportive. He could pick a fight in an empty room. Probably that was why he was such a successful racer – because he was aggressive and not afraid to wade in and do his thing."

This argumentative and hot-tempered streak might not have washed with the public had Henri not backed it up with the fact that he was very good at his trade.

As the Dutch sociologist Benjo Maso explains in his seminal book, The Sweat of the Gods: "Henri Pélissier could afford this attitude because he was not only the best, but also the most popular rider of his day. And because his stubbornness gained him even more public support."

Pélissier won the Giro di Lombardia twice, Milano-Torino and Milan-San Remo before coming runner-up in the 1914 Tour de France, trailing the Belgian Philippe Thys by just 1'50" – a tiny gap in those days.

After the Great War put his career on hiatus as he swapped bike for bayonet, Pélissier flew back into the fold from service in an aviation division to win Paris-Roubaix in 1919 in a race that covered entire landscapes still blown to smithereens.

Such conditions saw the race earn the sobriquet 'The Hell of the North' as organisers visiting the area before it began made the following chilling report: "We enter into the centre of the battlefield. There's not a tree, everything is flattened. Not a square metre that has not been hurled upside down. There's one shell hole after another. The only things that stand out in this churned earth are the crosses with their ribbons in blue, white and red. It. Is. Hell!"

Indeed, Henri Pélissier described the 1919 Paris-Roubaix not as a race but a "pilgrimage". His victory notably involved climbing onto a train and hopping out the other side after the stationary locomotive blocked his way, with compatriot Honoré Barthélémy and that man Thys breathing down his neck.

His brother Francis came sixth that day, before both Pélissiers took to the start of the Tour de France. Henri won the second stage ahead of Francis before the roles reversed and Francis, in his first year as a pro, won Stage 3 ahead of Henri. Neither brother completed the race; in fact, although Henri had come runner-up in 1914, he entered the 1921 season having failed to finish four of his five Tours.

Setting the scene: beef with La Sportive

The Great War tore through Europe and left cycling in disarray. The Pélissiers lost their brother Jean-François, and many champions did not survive the hostilities. Among those to lose their lives were Tour de France winners Lucien Petit-Breton (1907 and 1908), François Faber (1909) and Octave Lapize (1910), the latter also a triple-winner of Paris-Roubaix in 1909, 1910 and 1911.

Many bicycle factories that sponsored cycling teams in the early 20th century had suffered or been destroyed during the war. With little money in the coffers to sponsor conventional cycling teams, the La Sportive consortium was created to bring together the main French manufacturers, such as Alcyon, Automoto, La Française and Peugeot, with the aim of sharing the cost of equipment and rider salaries.

As a result, half of the peloton was united under the banner of La Sportive – including Henri and Francis Pélissier, who had been forced to sign a two-year contract worth 300 francs per month. Although the consortium allowed them to bring home double the wage usually commanded by a skilled worker, the brothers felt hard done by and demanded that their sponsor pay them more for their services.

But La Sportive, which was led by the authoritarian Alphonse Baugé, a former rider and directeur sportif of the Peugeot team before the war, held firm. As a result, Henri approached a new frame builder, Pierre Maisonnas of the JB Louvet team, to discuss a future collaboration. When Maisonnas was hesitant, Henri made the following promise: "We will win you Paris-Roubaix."

The actions of Henri and Francis angered Baugé, who delivered a firm communiqué to his riders at La Sportive: "These two should not win a single race, and especially not Paris-Roubaix! The ball is in your court."

Isitt explains the fractured dynamic ahead of the 1921 race:

No one was really happy with the situation that saw 140 professional riders all in one team – all on identical bikes with identical tyres. It was never going to suit the Pélissiers because they were a slight rule unto themselves. They didn't want to be a part of that, thrown in with all the other La Sportive riders, so they ostensibly rode the 1921 Paris-Roubaix as isolés – single riders – even though they were still on La Sportive bikes and tyres.

Caught between these two worlds, the Pélissiers took to the start in the colours of La Sportive without enjoying any of the perks. As independent riders they would be excluded from any team support – plus they were now marked men. The only solution was a victory, which would have won them a contract with JB Louvet. Otherwise the two dissidents would find themselves unemployed and probably forced to go into exile in Italy.

Desgrange gets in on the act

Baugé was not the only authoritative figure to incur the wrath of Henri Pélissier. After winning Stage 2 of the 1919 Tour de France ahead of his brother, Pélissier, the race leader, was on the verge of quitting the Tour the next day before being forced to continue by director Henri Desgrange. He obeyed orders and rode back from a 45-minute deficit to finish behind Francis in the sprint for first place before making his famous comment about being a thoroughbred.

He would have quit the race that night at the Brittany town of Morlaix, but he did not have enough money for his train fare back to Paris.

Angry at being described as ‘work horses’ by the race leader, the remaining 23 riders ganged up on the Pélissiers in Stage 4, speeding away after they stopped to change bicycles. The brothers were then reprimanded by Desgrange for working together when trying to pursue the leaders. Henri lost more than 35 minutes at the finish; Francis, more than three hours.

To make matters worse, Henri had a further dispute with Desgrange after the latter refused him an extra glass of wine at the reception after the stage. Indignant, the two brothers finally threw in their musettes.

It's perhaps worth adding that Desgrange himself had a twin brother, Georges, who was once deliciously described as having "the air of a defrocked monk" and being "totally devoid of all ambition" by Jacques Goddet, Desgrange's successor as race director of the Tour.

The bitter feud between the brothers and Desgrange continued in 1920 when Pélissier, having won the previous two stages, was penalised two minutes for throwing away a flat inner tube illegally during Stage 5 of the Tour. Pélissier objected to the penalty and immediately stopped the race – prompting Desgrange to publicly criticise his big-headedness.

In a savage character assassination published in his paper L'Auto, Desgrange implied that Pélissier had the strength, but not the moral fibre required to win the Tour:

"Henri Pélissier is saturated with class but doesn't know how to suffer. He has a big belly when the Tour de France requires the stomach of a skinny cat", he wrote, before lampooning him for having "the nervousness of a pretty woman".

He is a rider with a lot of talent but who doesn't know what to do with it. He can win many competitions, but he will never appear on the glorious list of Tour winners.

Desgrange was not only the director of the Tour; Paris-Roubaix was also under his jurisdiction. And when the Pélissiers arrived without warning in his office a few days before the 1921 race to discuss their desire to break from the consortium, he listened but promptly dismissed their protestations. He vowed then and there that they would never again appear on the front page of L'Auto, only to eat his words when Henri subsequently emerged as champion.

Trainspotting and ‘a beautiful tussle’

The 22nd edition of Paris-Roubaix took place on Sunday March 27, 1921. After signing on from 4:45am at the suburb of Suresnes, west of the Bois de Boulogne, 140 riders departed at 6:15am. Because of the 14kph speed limit in Paris, the riders soft-pedalled behind the official cars until they reached Chatou on the other side of the meandering Seine, where they enjoyed a 15-minute break at the Café des Sports ahead of the 7:10am start.

The weather was apparently ideal for racing, the roads described by L'Auto as "pas trop mauvaise" – not too bad. It's also worth mentioning that all roads were cobblestone or grit back in those days, so there were no specific sectors of pavé like we see in the Hell of the North today.

By the time the riders arrived for a pit-stop at the Café de la Terrasse in Pontoise, 33km into the 270km race, the peloton had shed around 40 bodies. There soon followed an incident involving a train. As reported the next day by L'Auto: "A driver who certainly had no sporting knowledge stopped his train right in the middle of the course, then proceeded to manoeuvre his locomotive very slowly."

This sparked "a beautiful tussle" between the riders, reported the newspaper:

They went everywhere – some in front of the train, some behind, some even underneath the carriages when the train finally came to a stop. All the favourites found themselves back together within a few kilometres.

The first major attack then came from Jules Masselis, who passed through Beauvais at 82km with a gap of two minutes over a 60-man peloton led by Honoré Bathélémy.

At 10:25am Masselis' lead was up to six minutes as he passed through Breteiul. But the Pélissiers combined on the front of the pack to reel in the lone leader ahead of Amiens at the half-way point. There were still 45 riders out ahead as the riders took advantage of a two-minute neutralisation at the first feed zone – "to the greatest joy of thousands of sports lovers who had come to watch the passing of our kings of the road", reported L'Auto, which estimated that 10,000 spectators had come out to see the riders pass through Amiens.

Entering the final 100km, the first major test of the day arrived in the form of the Côte de Doullens. This was where the first selection was traditionally made in the Roubaix of old – and it was here that the Pélissiers made their move.

The attack of the Pélissiers

As they had agreed beforehand, Henri and Francis Pélissier upped the tempo on the climb of Doullens, riding clear with Frenchman Romain Bellenger and the in-form Belgian René Vermandel, winner of the Tour of Flanders a fortnight earlier. Among those distanced was Paul Deman, the defending champion.

Bellenger crested the summit in pole position to pocket the 100-franc prize, half a bike length ahead of Henri Pélissier. Francis followed, like his brother’s shadow, with Vermandel in turn on his back wheel.

After the summit, they were joined by Belgians Emile Masson, Hector Tiberghien and Léon Scieur, who would go on to win the Tour de France later in the year. The riders were now crossing the devastated regions where – even in 1921 – the Graves Registration Units were still recovering bodies of the victims of the First World War.

"For a lot of them it must have been very emotional," says Isitt. "Like the Pélissiers, most of the French and Belgian riders would have been under arms at some point."

Aided by a tailwind, the brothers kept up a murderous pace. Bellenger and Masson were the first to drop back after puncturing before Arras, with around 70km remaining, retreating to form a chase group alongside Belgians Marcel Buysse and Thys.

It was no coincidence that so many of the top riders at the time were Belgian. Often the sons of farmers or agricultural hands, they were used to training on surfaces far worse than the poor excuses for roads in northern France. This made them more capable of coping with the hardships of the one-day Classics and the Tour than their French counterparts, who mostly came from an urban milieu.

But the bourgeois brothers were tearing up the rule book that day. On dry country roads throwing up dust and causing many riders to puncture, their pace had Tiberghien, Vermandel and Scieur struggling in their wake – and regularly blinded by the effort of holding wheel.

Vermandel seemed to be the only one capable of handling the Pélissiers, who took turns trying to swat away the last man who stood between them and a priceless one-two. The pace was so high that the leaders were half-an-hour ahead of schedule at Séclin, 25km from the finish. On the ropes, Vermandel tried to strike a deal with the brothers in which they would cease hostilities and leave things to the final sprint which Henri, as the best sprinter, would inevitably win.

But the pugnacious Pélissiers were proud souls; they did not want to take any undue risks and refused. Eventually, with 8km remaining, Henri made his move with a decisive attack on the Hem climb following a softener by Francis.

A report the next day in L'Auto describes how the final kilometres of the race played out.

The epilogue of the drama was rapid and poignant. In the middle of an immense crowd, through a thick cloud of cars and spectators, Henri Pélissier powerfully pulled clear on the small cobbled climb of Hem. In a blink of an eye, Henri had a gap of 50m. Francis dug deep behind in pursuit but, unfortunately, he almost immediately saw his tyre give up the ghost. Vermandel darted off in turn in pursuit of the escapee, but 50m later his tyres, too, exploded.

The finish in Roubaix was held at the Stade Jean-Debrulle, whose 1895 cycling track had been replaced by a football pitch. It was not until 1943 that the current concrete bowl of the now famous Roubaix velodrome was built at a nearby site.

When it was announced in the stadium that Henri Pélissier was leading the race, a football match – the final whistle for which was expected to have been blown well before the end of the race – was interrupted, and the players stopped to greet the finishers.

Pélissier crossed the line 40 seconds clear to secure his second Roubaix victory in three years. Behind, there was a fierce dual between his brother and Vermandel – both of whom were riding on the rims following their earlier punctures, with the resurgent Scieur closing in fast.

After two nail-biting laps inside the stadium, Francis held on for second place by just two seconds as Scieur pipped his fellow Belgian Vermandel for third.

The aftermath: the ultimate embarrassment

Following his victory, Henri Pélissier was accosted by a journalist who asked him to share his impressions of the race. His reply was short: "My eyes hurt. Is that all?"

Once the dust settled, Henri was just as happy with his brother's second place as with his own victory. His only regret was that he and Francis had not finished arm in arm. "Without the puncture at the end," he lamented, "we would have finished together, holding each other by the shoulder!"

To which a race commissioner immediately countered: "Well, you must bless this puncture. For if you had crossed the line holding each other by the shoulder, I would have downgraded you both for illicit agreement in the race…"

In the changing rooms afterwards, Alphonse Baugé, the sports director of La Sportive, was furious and severely chastised his riders for failing to defeat the Pélissiers, whose one-two was the ultimate embarrassment to the consortium they wished to leave.

And, faced with the result, Henri Desgrange was forced to swallow his words. The next day, the names of the Pélissier brothers were peppered through eight columns on the front page of L'Auto.

In typical Desgrange style, however, the paper did not lead with the news of Henri Pélissier's Roubaix win. Neither was there a direct mention of either brother in the bold headline on the bottom-right-hand-side of the page. Instead, the header read: "The 'Greyhound' Triumphs" – using the winner's nickname – while Pélissier was also pointedly described as "the ace of La Sportive".

In an act of compunction that would have had Desgrange tearing out what remaining hair he had on his head, however, the article itself pulled no punches when it came to praise the Pélissiers in the face of "the foreign coalition".

Victory went to the best man of the lot over the distance, to the one they call 'The Greyhound of the Road', to our great Henri Pélissier, who was followed, by just a few seconds, by his brother Francis. This beautiful fraternal victory was very well deserved. It confirmed the general opinion that, in his current form and in good conditions, Henri Pélissier is unbeatable over the distance of a Paris-Roubaix.

The article continued: "In the conditions, victory could not elude him. We wish a great bravo, then, to the winner and his brother, who has once again shown himself to be worthy of his older sibling."

There were also bravos dealt out to Scieur for his "remarkable courage", Vermandel, "who had a superb race", and to Bellenger and Tiberghien,"who were simply spiffing". The latter was even later described as racing with "extraordinary brio".

And yet, the paper couldn't resist alluding to the consortium controversy by subtly chastising Henri the dissident from biting the hand that feeds, the winner being described as racing "on a La Sportive bicycle and with La Sportive tyres" with no mention whatsoever of JB Louvet.

Indeed, the overall tone was that of syrupy sycophancy towards the Baugé-led consortium, with the paper's final bravo offered to "the great national brand of the Consortium of Constructors whose victory today can count among its most beautiful".

"Did La Sportive not occupy the first 16 places?" L'Auto asked with baffling incredulity. "It must be a record, of which our friend Alphonse Baugé must be proud."

As if to hammer home a point, the article then talked about the top riders from the Bianchi-Dunlop team – Marcel Buysse and Jules van Hevel – whom they studiously noted "must have punctured at least four times".

What happened next?

A fortnight later, the Pélissier brothers were at it again at Paris-Tours. In an epic race that played out under violent gusts of snow, with only eight finishers from the 64 who started, the duo zipped clear from the outset before Henri faded, leaving Francis to battle it out with Eugène Christophe and Louis Mottiat for the win. The last rider came home more than four hours in arrears.

With the brothers now officially outside the consortium, it was another bitter blow to La Sportive, which wound up at the end of the season as individual manufacturers returned to the fold.

Still having trouble digesting Desgrange's scathing criticism, and not exactly welcome following their split from the consortium, neither Henri nor Francis rode the Tour de France for the next two editions. But they returned in 1923 when, nine years after finishing runner-up, Henri finally rode into Paris wearing the recently-introduced Yellow Jersey – ending 12 years of famine for the French.

In the same year Francis finished his only Tour, coming 23rd in Paris. After two national champion titles, Francis won the opening stage of the 1927 Tour and wore the Yellow Jersey for five days before abandoning. It would be his final appearance in the race – two years after Henri, the only Frenchman to win the Tour between 1911 and 1929, made his final appearance in the race, citing the Dantesque conditions that Desgrange imposed on the riders.

It was something Desgrange seemed to take a perverse pleasure in.

In Henri's penultimate Tour, in 1924, the brothers had withdrawn over a dispute regarding jerseys – Desgrange apparently had not allowed Henri to remove a layer when the sun came up following a cold and early start.

That night, in a station at Coutances, the brothers gave an infamous interview in which they said they were "treated like beasts in a circus", described themselves as "slaves" and boasted of being forced to ride on "dynamite" – using all manner of substances from cocaine to chloroform to keep awake in the saddle. It was here that the legend of "the convicts of the road" was coined by Albert Londres, the slightly naïve journalist who got the scoop.

Off the back of the wave of popularity that this article elicited, Henri set up cycling's first trade union in response to Desgrange's idea of standardising the contents of musettes at the feed zones. The moral, clearly, was: never stand between a Frenchman and his food. But, after Belgian members of the union refused to strike at Paris-Tours, it disintegrated.

Francis retired four years after Henri, in 1932, but by now the fraternal focus had switched to the younger Pélissier brother, Charles, who had established himself, after a slow start, as one of the Tour's best sprinters – winning a record eight stages in 1930. All three Pélissiers had ridden Paris-Roubaix together in 1926, while Charles would finish third a year later and second in 1931.

In retirement, Francis became manager of the Mercier and La Perle teams in the 30s, 40s and 50s, most notably nurturing the emerging talent of a certain Jacques Anquetil (a man for whom the standardising of sustenance would have been a bitter pill to swallow).

Charles was the most handsome, popular and charming of the Pélissier brothers – he even got on well with Desgrange, despite the sordid (yet entirely believable) rumours of an affair with his wife. He was a dandy both on and off the bike who reportedly started a craze for white cycling socks. After a brilliant career, the younger of the brothers became a commentator for Radio Luxembourg before working in public relations and journalism.

As for Henri, the future was not so kind. Having hung up his cycling shoes, his life soon spiralled out of control. In 1933 his long-suffering wife Léonie could no longer face living with such an angry man and shot herself. Two years later, his new partner turned the same gun on Henri, killing him instantly.

But, because Pélissier was attacking her with a knife at the time, she served only a one-year suspended sentence for manslaughter. “It was,” says Isitt, “the perfect ending for him.”

To this day, no brothers have ever repeated the achievement of Henri and Francis Pélissier by finishing first and second in Paris-Roubaix – nor, indeed, in any of cycling's Monuments. It is a record that is likely never to be matched.

Unless, that is, the Yateses can pull off something extraordinary in Liège or Lombardia. Over to you, chaps…

-- Written by Felix Lowe. You also can subscribe to the externalRe-Cycle podcast by Eurosporthttps://feed.pippa.io/public/shows/re-cycle-the-cycling-history-podcastNone for audio episodes of the most compelling stories from cycling history.

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