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In praise of the patron

Trevor Ward
18 Apr 2019

In the general chaos of pro cycling, someone has to take charge. That person is the patron

My descent from the Col du Galibier to Bourg d’Oisans during the 2011 Etape du Tour was brought to an abrupt halt when I rounded a corner and was faced by a mass of stationary riders.

The Lycra-clad logjam extended into the depths of an unlit tunnel, from where I could hear distant sirens and see the flicker of blue lights. After about half an hour, we saw a paramedic’s helicopter rise into the air from the other side of the mountain.

Soon after, we started moving again, each one of us whispering under our breath, ‘There but for the grace of God…’

As I scoured the next day’s papers for news about the incident – two riders had been seriously injured in a crash in the tunnel – I contemplated my good fortune.

I realised I owed it to the quick thinking of someone at the front who was first on the scene and managed to spread the alarm – in a pitch-black tunnel – and bring a peloton of thousands of riders to a halt quickly and efficiently.

Whoever they were had acted like a true patron, and I remain grateful to this day. Patron – meaning ‘boss’ in French – is a title that has been bestowed upon a small number of riders throughout the history of pro racing.

The first to exhibit all the necessary qualities, ranging from physical prowess to a powerful personality, was Henri Pélissier, winner of the Tour de France and Paris-Roubaix in the early 1920s.

As well as being an accomplished athlete – he and his brothers Charles and Francis watched their diets, didn’t drink and trained for speed rather than distance – he also regularly spoke up on behalf of riders against the harsh demands imposed by Tour organiser Henri Desgrange.

Things came to a head when he abandoned the 1924 Tour in protest at its Draconian rules. He gave a warts-and-all interview to journalist Albert Londres, which appeared under the headline Les Forçats de la Route – ‘Convicts of the Road’.

‘If I have a newspaper on my chest when I leave, I have to have it when I finish. If not, penalty. To drink, I have to do the pumping myself.

‘The day will come when they’ll put lead in our pockets, because they’ll claim God has made men too light,’ was one of Pélissier’s more memorable quotes.

These days, Grand Tour riders are more cossetted than in Pélissier’s era – stages are shorter and invariably neutralised at the hint of a rain shower; team cars are at their beck and call for drinks, food and mechanical assistance – but the patron will always find something to have a grievance about.

For Fabian Cancellara (the last true patron) it was often the length of transfers between stages.

And, bizarrely, the cost of motorway tolls, as if he paid them himself from a musette stuffed with €10 notes.

Cancellara, typical of great patrons, earned the respect of the peloton for his achievements on the bike and the force of his personality off it.

It was he who effectively neutralised Stage 2 of the 2010 Tour after a mass pile-up by drifting back to the race official’s car and negotiating a deal to nullify the points at the sprint finish.

Stage favourite Thor Hushovd said afterwards, ‘I don’t agree with the decision, but Fabian made the call to stop the stage and I don’t want to make a hundred enemies in the peloton.’

A year earlier in the Giro, it was Cancellara who organised a go-slow on Stage 9 in protest at an ‘unsafe’ finishing circuit.

Speaking to Velonews after his retirement in 2016, Cancellara summed up the need for a patron in the peloton: ‘The problem is that most riders believe they are just the slaves of the team, and the teams are the slaves of the race organisers, and so on. So, no one takes responsibility for the sport. There is no leader. Each rider goes his own way.’

Born to lead

Before Cancellara, the peloton was ‘bossed’ by Bernard Hinault. Woe betide any striking farmers or dockyard workers who tried to interrupt a stage of the Tour, or any rider who threatened the natural order by jumping off the front without the Badger’s permission.

‘You are like a soldier, a general who dominates, who imposes his will on the others,’ said Hinault in an interview given to L’Equipe in 2003.

‘Some are born to be workers, others to be in charge. I could have been a warlord.’

Lance Armstrong was a patron who oozed authority and menace in equal measure, and his interpretation of the role occasionally leaned more towards mafia capo than gentleman diplomat.

Having a packed palmarès doesn’t guarantee patron status. Contador was just too reserved for the role; Cadel Evans perhaps too eccentric. Among the current roster, Froome doesn’t convey the necessary gravitas or arrogance, while Nibali is just too erratic.  

Perhaps as Peter Sagan matures he will become a contender for the position, assuming the modern-day peloton with its reliance on power meters and extreme weather protocols will still need one.

But just as I found during the Etape du Tour eight years ago, the role of patron isn’t confined to the professional ranks.

Every week, the ride captains of local cycling clubs ensure the safety and enjoyment of members by plotting routes that take into account factors including short cuts for emergencies, likely weather conditions and the range of abilities to be catered for.

These are the grassroots patrons, without whom our sport would collapse.

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