Disclaimer: this tale is not about the forthcoming Tour de France nor the battle to save the 2020 cycling season. It’s a fun look back at a tiny summertime race few people today have ever heard of, but which had a great winner in Stephen Roche. Definitely one from the vaults!
One race that won’t feature on this recently re-started, Covid-19 affected season, is the Criterium de Chateau-Chinon, not least because the race stopped permanently in 2000. In the aftermath of the 1998 Festina affair that almost brought the Tour de France to its knees, post-Tour exhibition races like that at Chateau-Chinon were suddenly shorn of spectator interest as the general public turned their backs, and entrance-fee money, on such races - at least in France they did. Yet the 1993 edition of the Criterium, held as per tradition on the first Monday of August in the dead-centre of France, provided me with one of my funniest experiences as a cycling photographer, in what was possibly the most insignificant event I’d ever been to.
The idea, put forward by the founding editor of Cycle Sport, William Fotheringham, was to follow Stephen Roche on his journey that day, to record what only we knew was going to be ‘yer man’s last race as a professional cyclist. Believe me, it takes a lot to drag yourself back to France barely a week after the Tour has ended, when you’ve only just fled Paris for some blissful downtime at home. But the whiff of adventure was impossible to ignore, just as it had been so many times before. Six years earlier Irishman Roche had sensationally won the Tour de France, beating Pedro Delgado and Jean-Francois Bernard after a titanic battle over a marathon-like 25 stages. That Tour win in 1987 was part of a ‘triple crown’ that also saw Roche win the Giro d’Italia and World Championship in the same season. I’d had the pleasure of photographing Roche since he turned ‘pro in 1981 and felt especially proud of his Giro, Tour and Worlds victories.
Yet I knew that Roche had endured tough times in equal quantity to his successes, and I’d long been impressed at how he’d overcome injuries, illness, bad luck and a wall of quality opponents to turn his story around at the very end. He was going to end his career that evening in Chateau-Chinon, which was the key motivation for me to travel to the race. Stephen’s performances had helped build my career so fortuitously, and we’d become quite good mates along the way. I wanted to witness and enjoy the final hour’s racing of Stephen’s inspiring career.
On paper at least, the plan was simple enough. I locked up my London home and excitedly jumped into the waiting taxi. This was an assignment of rare luxury when I’d be travelling with cameras only, and be back to Heathrow on an evening flight and in time for a late supper at my local pub. What could possibly go wrong?
I took a 6.00am flight to Paris Charles de Gaulle airport and made my way to the arrivals hall where Claudio Chiappucci was due to land from Milan around the same time. Chiappucci and Stephen were the best of mates, thanks primarily to the 1987 Giro d’Italia when Stephen usurped team-leader Roberto Visentini to take the race-lead and secure eventual victory. Chiappucci had overtly helped Stephen win and in doing so guaranteed himself career-long rewards such as being paid to start in Chateau-Chinon. I’d be in illustrious company for sure, and I was really warming to the prospects as Claudio exited the baggage-hall doors and joined me on a seat where we could watch Stephen arrive outside the terminal in his car. It was barely 10.00am, we had a mere 300-kilometre drive to make, so I knew we’d be at the start well ahead of the 5pm kick-off. I might even fit in a late lunch if things really went well.
One hour later, Claudio and I were still at CDG, still watching the parking bay outside, getting to know each other in bursts of pigeon-French. It felt strange to be in such close up proximity to a celebrity I usually photographed on the Tour or Giro podiums. I didn’t speak Italian and Claudio was shy about conversing in English, but both of us were getting anxious about Stephen’s whereabouts on such a big day. It was an un-spoken secret that Stephen was ‘expected’ to win his last-ever race, so he had to be at the start just to be in the race, let alone to actually win it. This was pre-mobile phone days, a period in time when people made that extra effort to be at a rendezvous on time. Yet Stephen was un-contactable, and I got to know Claudio a lot better than I’d expected to. We made a call from a phone-box to Stephen’s nearby home but that merely led us to an answer-machine. Claudio fretted a little more and Italian curses like ‘cazzo’, 'che casino’ and 'porca miseria’ crept into our French conversation.
Eventually, more than an hour late, the terminal’s automatic doors slid open and Stephen bustled in, sweating profusely and clearly nervous of his tardiness and the knock-on effect it might have. “Sorry, really sorry”, he said in two languages, “I got stuck in traffic, there was a bomb scare or an accident, all roads to the airport were blocked”. And then my ‘working’ day began, seated luxuriously in the back of Stephen’s AMG-tuned Mercedes while he and Claudio sparked off in Italian and worked out the schedule. Or rather the re-schedule. Stephen then announced we had another passenger to collect, a member of the elite Garde Republicaine which escorts the Tour de France as well presidents and royalty. We made a pit-stop outside a Gendarmerie barracks near the peripherique to collect that guest, Pierre Guiberol. And at around midday, almost two hours late, we finally headed south on the A6 autoroute with Stephen driving, Claudio sleeping, and me on the back seat with Pierre, a happy couple whose leisurely day out was becoming less-so by the minute.
Pierre had been a motorbike Gendarme on the Tour since the mid-1980’s and had become a firm friend with almost everyone, a man whose ability to speak English set him aside and ahead of just about anyone else in uniform. He befriended both the good cyclists and the great, as well as a few blow-ins like me who appreciated his friendliness despite the officialdom of his job. Stephen had invited Pierre along as a way of saying thanks for so many years’ friendship and advice. What no-one knew was how much Pierre’s presence would help us later-on. Whatever it was that delayed Stephen earlier, it had also stopped him filling the car with petrol, which with such a fast and thirsty beast was already becoming a problem. Leaving later also meant we were doing half the speed Stephen had planned for, with holiday traffic slowing our way south. We crawled through one toll booth, then a second, before Stephen settled his nerves a bit by pulling into a service station to fill an almost-empty tank and allow everyone to buy some food inside the shop.
Claudio had been on the road since pre-dawn, and if he was even half as hungry as me then he was in trouble – and he still had a ninety-minute race to do. Pierre’s natural leadership saw him take on some of the thinking, sending us inside to buy food while he filled the car up. Stephen and Claudio were starving and grabbed biscuits, fruit, and a batch of meagre-looking sandwiches from the store, as well as some yukky-looking sugary drinks. This being the first Monday of August, half of Paris was heading south too, and a big percentage of those holiday makers seemed to be queuing ahead of us in the shop to pay for their purchases. I guessed at an extra 20-minute wait if we stayed obediently in the queue – if we did. Pierre had joined us inside, alarmed at how far back in the queue we still were. As famous and recognisable as Stephen and Claudio normally were as stars of the Tour de France, today they were anonymous civilians amongst a heaving mass of humanity who just wanted to get to a beach.
Which is why Pierre whipped out his Gendarme badge and walked to the head of the queue to explain to the check-out lady why Stephen Roche - winner of the 1987 Tour de France - together with Claudio Chiappucci - hero of the 1991 and 1992 Tour de France – needed to jump the queue. I had been discreetly taking pictures of all this without embarrassing the two cyclists. But I stopped being a photographer and became a diplomat, apologising to people in the queue for what we were about to do to them. Pierre beckoned a reluctant Claudio and Stephen to the front where-upon the goods were paid for and a series of thanks made to the inconvenienced tourists – some of whom now recognised the pair and applauded. We drove off again, with Stephen driving one-handed or with just his knees so he could swallow down some calories and create energy for the race. Pierre made a calculation that on current progress we might still make it to the start of the race, but it left little room to overcome any further delays. And still the autoroute traffic crawled along.
Pierre studied the map, as you did in that pre-historic age, and recommended that a cross-country route might save valuable time. Stephen used his credit card to pay one final peage then swung off the autoroute towards the south-east, our rapid transport capable of going very fast along departmental roads but running the risk of a speed-trap along the way. Still, we were free of the tourist traffic at last, weaving along lanes and highways, around towns and villages, egging on our driver and his mission to make it on time to his last race. Claudio was silent by now, either regretting his choice of transport or anticipating a rare day when he’d not even get to ride his bike. Pierre called out navigational advice while Stephen drove faster – and he drove as well as he raced a bicycle! I’d long since stopped taking pictures from the back seat and had adopted a serious look in-line with the tense situation. It was then that a local policeman walked out in the road ahead and ordered Stephen to pull over – we’d triggered a speed-trap camera the other side of the village and were probably in deep trouble because of it.
I listened in on a brief exchange between Stephen and Pierre, something along the lines of “Pierre, can you use your Gendarme badge to get us out of this?” Pierre clearly hated the idea, and pointed out that police typically hate Gendarmes, that they detest their elite-ness, and that he would be truly despised if he tried to use his legal superiority. Still, Pierre was out of the car in an instant, his shiny badge open to view, his explanation on the tip of his tongue, but his natural authority dampened down to avoid riling the policeman any more. For a few minutes there was a tense stand-off, and I really knew this could go either way. Pierre apologised again, and eventually the indignant policeman backed down, perhaps realising the extended hassle to himself if he booked a famous Tour cyclist who had a presidential Gendarme as a companion. It’s not every day a country policeman gets to meet a member of the Garde Republicaine. Despite the let-off, our average speed had dropped badly again, and we knew we’d never make it to Chateau-Chinon on time – a phone call had to be made.
Incredibly, the car-telephone Stephen had recently fitted in his Mercedes actually worked, and a call went through to the Mayor of Chateau-Chinon just in time. The Mayor was a big fan of Stephen and he really wanted the Irishman to be in the race and so have the chance to win. Incredibly, he agreed to delay the start for 90-minutes to allow Stephen and Claudio to get there in time. And they did. It was a great relief to get to Chateau-Chinon, and an even greater one to see that the race hadn’t yet started. While Stephen and Claudio went into the town hall to change into their racing kit, and to stuff down some much-needed food too, Pierre became the bike mechanic and got their bikes out of the car-boot and put them together, while a crowd of bemused fans looked on. The race had contracted other ‘stars like world champion Bugno, Abdujaparov, Rominger, Lino, Leblanc and a litany of other French cyclists too. And all of them had been circling the town for over an hour, entertaining spectators around the circuit while Claudio and Stephen overcame their delays from Paris.
The start saw a bit of theatre when Bugno laid into Chiappucci and Roche for holding everyone up. But their professionalism re-surfaced when the race began and the ‘stars performed their best for the fans. It was a glorious summer evening and all the delay had done was to make the crowd a little merrier than usual. The bars and restaurants around the circuit enjoyed their best business of the year. Claudio and Stephen survived the fast start despite their day-long ordeal, and when Roche attacked on a small hill on the last lap and then pulled away to an impressive 20-seconds advantage, the day had ended the way most people had expected it to – with victory to the retiring Tour ‘star who’d been adopted by the French so many years before.
Whether planned or not, Chiappucci went back to Italy on the same private jet that had brought the Italian-based cyclists to the race earlier – I wondered if he regretted not having also arrived the same way. Pierre, Stephen and I had a quick meal on the way back to Paris, and Pierre was back at his barracks by midnight. I’d missed my evening flight back to London, but it didn’t really matter. Stephen put me up at his charming Pontoise home and dropped me off at the airport next morning - job done, and a great adventure to be shared for life. Looking back on that day, twenty-seven short years ago, life as a cycling photographer had some amazing benefits. And for once it wasn’t just about the cycling.