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In praise of memorials

Trevor Ward
15 Sep 2017

Plaques, statues and shrines to cycling’s fallen heroes are scattered all over Europe's mountain roads, turning any ride into a pilgrimage

In the mountains of the Pyrenees, if you were to make the 100-mile journey from the simple brass plate commemorating the crash that cost Luis Ocaña the 1971 Tour – he was leading Eddy Merckx by nine minutes at the time – to the plaque commemorating Wim van Est’s plunge down the side of the Aubisque in 1951 – ending his stint as Holland’s first-ever wearer of the yellow jersey – you would pass a sculpture, plaque or sign roughly every 10 miles. 

They’re almost as ubiquitous as the brown signs on British roadsides imploring us to visit various tourist attractions, although it’s arguable whether the statue of Marco Pantani atop the Colle della Fauniera in northern Italy is sadder than the Pencil Museum just off the A66 in Cumbria. 

They come in all shapes, sizes and designs, ranging from the monumental to the subtle, from the poetic to the prosaic.

‘Because they are privately commissioned, either by family, friends or fans, they struggle to attract the talents of a decent sculptor or artist,’ says Eddy Rhead, cyclist and publisher of design journal The Modernist.

‘Limited budgets mean the scale and the materials used are, at best, modest.’

Two-wheeled pilgrimage

It’s often the simpler memorials that are the most moving, and if you’re in the Alps, Pyrenees or Dolomites, a pilgrimage to a remote sculpture is as good an excuse for a bike ride as any.

Consider Ocaña’s plaque on the Col de Mente, on which is inscribed: ‘Monday 12 July 1971 – Tragedy in the Tour de France – On this road, which had been transformed into a muddy torrent by an apocalyptic storm, Luis Ocaña, the yellow jersey, abandoned all his hopes against this rock’.

What was effectively ‘a racing incident’ became pivotal in the life of a man who was blighted by bad luck and so obsessed with his arch-rival and nemesis that he named his dog ‘Merckx’.

The incident haunted Ocaña right up until the moment he shot himself shortly before his 49th birthday. Could any form of memorial or monument have truly done it justice? 

Just a few miles away, on the Col de Portet d’Aspet, a much more ornate memorial commemorates the last rider to die during the Tour – Italian Olympic gold medallist Fabio Casartelli, who suffered fatal head injuries after a crash in 1995.

Jointly funded with the best of intentions by the rider’s team and Tour organiser ASO, the sculpture is certainly unmissable, although whether it’s a beautiful representation of a winged bicycle wheel or a jarring oddity amid all that Pyrenean lushness is a matter of opinion.

One hundred metres away, at the exact spot where Casartelli suffered his fatal collision with a concrete block, his family later erected a more modest plaque.

Casartelli’s bike, complete with crumpled forks, now resides at the church of the ‘patron saint of cycling’, the Madonna del Ghisallo, near Lake Como in Italy.

Containing bikes, jerseys and sundry other artefacts donated – posthumously or otherwise – by some of the most famous figures in professional cycling, the church is a living memorial and bears an inscription every rider can relate to:

‘And God created the bicycle, so that man could use it as a means for work and to help him negotiate life’s complicated journey.’

Although this year’s Tour chose not to ascend Mont Ventoux to mark the 50th anniversary of the death of Tom Simpson, that didn't stop hundreds of riders paying their personal respects at his handsome memorial just a kilometre from the summit, near the point where he collapsed and died during the 1967 race.

Recently given a facelift, the stone monument is regularly adorned with votive offerings, including caps, water bottles and flowers.

Its impact comes from its proximity to the scene of the tragedy, though an equally poignant shrine is housed in the more modest surroundings of the sports and social club in the town he grew up in.

But whether you’re remembering the 29-year-old rider on the sun-bleached slopes of Ventoux or in a noisy bar in Nottinghamshire, the frisson of emotion is the same, the goosebumps equally pronounced – such is the power of
a memorial, whether it be a hand-carved sculpture or a collection of faded photographs.

Just a few hundred metres further up the mountainside from the Simpson memorial, incidentally, is a much more modest monument that few riders even notice as they grind their way towards the summit.

One-way journey

It commemorates the death of Pierre Kraemer, a formidable long-distance cyclist who, diagnosed with incurable cancer, decided to make a final, one-way journey up the mountain on his bike in 1983.

It could be argued that we don’t need ‘bricks and mortar’ memorials to remember the great and good from cycling’s history (especially if they’re aesthetically underwhelming).

It may often seem that if there’s not a lump of roughly-hewn rock marking the spot, then nothing of note could possibly have happened there, a bit like the modern cyclist’s mantra, ‘If it’s not on Strava, it didn’t happen.’

Maybe cycling could learn from the composer Gustav Mahler. His grave in a Viennese cemetery is marked by a plain tombstone on which is inscribed nothing more than his name. No dates, no biography, no eulogy.

The simplicity is in accordance with his own wishes: ‘Those who come to find me will know who I was. The rest do not need to know.’

There are roads and passes in the mountains of Europe where momentous things happened during bicycle races.

Those who visit these far-flung sites will know their significance. The rest don’t need to know.

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