Flashback to 1992: St-Gervais, an intro to the Tour
Visiting St-Gervais again has prompted a recall of a day in 1992 that inspired Rob Arnold to consider chasing racing for a living. This is a personal entry about how one stage of the Tour de France impacted the editor of RIDE Cycling Review.
(Warning: a collection personal anecdotes will be found in the words that follow… they may only be of interest to the writer but they are presented on this site nonetheless.)
Turning an interest in cycling into a job…
It was 17 July 1992 and, during a backpacking trip around Europe, it was time to discover the Tour de France. We’re back at the site of where I first walked up a climb to watch the peloton pass me by.
I’ve seen many stages since and the Tour has now become part of my annual routine but coming back to St-Gervais this morning threw my memory bank into quite a work-out.
Back in 1992 it took considerable planning to see a stage. A day earlier, sitting at a bar in the Pyrenees, I watched the images on television and saw Laurent Fignon race ahead of the peloton in his Gatorade outfit. It was a long stage and the Frenchman went off on his own early and raced towards Mulhouse. He eventually took what became the final stage win of his racing career.
On the TV screen it seemed otherworldly; although I was in France and a French star was taking on the peloton in one of his final true forays at the Tour, the only real buzz came from within. I was buzzing, smiling, cheering… and I never really understood why.
The punters around me, meanwhile, simple shrugged their shoulders. ‘Ah oui… Fignon.’
What did they care? It was another part of a typical summer to the the others in the bar.
Perhaps it’s the equivalent of watching Michael Clarke hit another century (back not so long ago when he was still seeing the ball well) and after the final ball had been bowled for the day kids would go out and have a game of backyard cricket. Summertime sport lures you in and the commentary on the box offers the soundtrack to the holidays. Perhaps Fignon inspired some kids to ride their bikes. I certainly believed he had some kind of enigmatic cool and although I could never really understand him, he captivated me back in 1992.
Lazy days in front of the television never really worked for me.
After having spent a week in Luchon while on my meanderings around France I decided it was time to get back on the train and explore the country a little more.
An overnight trip from the Pyrenees to the Alps delivered me to Aix-les-Bain. I dumped my backpack at a youth hostel where I’d stay and duly got on another train to St-Gervais.
Once there, I delved into the limited funds and bought a couple of rolls of slide film and carefully loaded one into my camera.
Up the climb I went, unsure of what I’d see. It was The Tour! The big bike race that I’d only seen on television… until now.
It was a long stage and my enthusiasm delivered me two kilometres from the finish line many hours before the peloton’s arrival. In the sun I watched the publicity caravan pass and got the updates of what was happening from the speakers of the cars that sped by.
‘Tour Tracker’? Nah, there was no such thing. All I knew about the race was what could be ascertained from the loudspeakers of the cars well ahead of the peloton and from the pages of L’Equipe, a newspaper in a language I didn’t understand at all but the names and times behind them told the story.
Pascal Lino was in the yellow jersey. He’d wear it for a total of 10 days that year. He sat on a bike with such style that he captured my imagination and I wondered if he could hold off the charge of the others, the stars of the time – the likes of Indurain, Roche, LeMond, Bugno, Chiappucci… they were, after all, the five behind Lino on GC on the day of my Tour baptism. Of course he couldn’t. But never mind the result, this isn’t a story about the action, rather it’s my recollection of a transformation.
* * * * *
Inevitably, eventually, the peloton came by. The anticipation built for hours and I thought I’d found a stretch of road that had sufficient gradient to slow them down enough for me to capture a moment or two of the race on film.
Here they come!
And there they go…
It was all over in a matter of minutes. And I’m not sure I could identify a single rider other than Roche who was setting the pace at the front ahead of Delgado.
All I got were a couple of blurred photos that I wouldn’t see until September when I returned to Australia and could find the funds to have the film processed. Those images are long since lost and they are largely inconsequential. They couldn’t possibly have offered anything near the spark of memory that today’s drive up that same climb did.
Back then, as I sat on the roadside waiting for the peloton I wrote in a journal – longhand notes were scribbled down for no one but me. And I remember stating: ‘This is the Tour. This is cycling. It’s a sport I’m learning to understand – and it’s something I’d like to follow.’
I was always a cyclist. But the experience on the day that Rolf Jaermann beat Pedro Delgado and Stephen Roche to win the stage at St-Gervais at the foot of Mont Blanc changed me. I’m proud to say that I’m now a cycling writer and have been for many years.
I’d promised myself back in 1992 that I’d come back. Eventually I did.
I’ve been coming back to this race for 20 years. The scene has changed a lot and in the press room today not many would recall the day Jaermann won a stage.
It is now just one of many stages I’ve seen pass me by and in the scheme of things it’s inconsequential but it changed me and gave me some direction in life.
The backpack collects dust but my interest in his race remains. And just driving the road I walked all those years ago provides a strong reminder of what an impact cycling and the Tour have had on me as a person.
Surely I’m not alone in the flashback department. Of the hundreds of thousands who line the roads of this race, there’s surely someone out there thinking, ‘I’d like to make this my vocation.’
I did and I’m pleased about that.
– By Rob Arnold