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Gitane, the French team that gave us Bernard Hinault

In-depth
2 Jun 2020
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Over its decades of sponsorship, the French team could boast Van Looy, Anquetil, Van Impe and Hinault among its roster of superstars

Words Giles Belbin Photography Danny Bird

Despite being recognised as one of the greatest climbers ever to have turned a pedal at the Tour de France, Lucien Van Impe had failed in seven attempts to win the event. The problem was Eddy Merckx, Van Impe’s compatriot, whose presence loomed over the recent history of the race and who had won five of those seven Tours.

In 1976, however, Merckx was injured. Van Impe was still not favourite to win the race – most people had the previous year’s winner, Bernard Thévenet, as best placed for the win, followed by Joop Zoetemelk and Luis Ocaña.

But Van Impe had pedigree – he had already claimed the best climber prize three times (he would win it six times during his career) and had twice stood on the final podium in Paris.

Van Impe had worked on riding against the clock and was all too aware of how time won in the mountains could easily be lost on the flat.

He was also feeling the effect of the presence in his team of a new director, Cyrille Guimard, who had taken the place of Jean Stablinski at the helm of Gitane, bringing with him new methods and creating, initially at least, a more harmonious environment.

‘Last year I had two valuable teammates, Alain Santy and Mariano Martinez,’ Van Impe said on the eve of the race. ‘But they were not fit for the Tour. The team lacked cohesion.

‘Under Guimard this is changing and while I won the Critérium de la Polymultipliée in Sens [a one-day race held in the run-up to the Tour], it was the result of good team work… for the first time, I am entering the Tour to win it.’

Van Impe started his assault on the race in the Alps, taking yellow on Alpe d’Huez after a famous duel with Zoetemelk in what was then only the mountain’s second appearance in the race.

Four days later the Belgian lost the jersey when Thévenet’s teammate, Raymond Delisle, attacked on Stage 12 to Pyrenees 2000.

Delisle’s attack was apparently made at the suggestion of none other than Guimard himself, the wily Gitane director keen to remove the responsibility of defending the race lead from his team for a few days.

Van Impe was reportedly furious with his team boss, who told his rider to leave the race if he didn’t like how he was managing things.

Two days later Van Impe followed an attack from Ocaña some 80km from the finish at the Pla d’Adet ski station to reclaim the jersey, with Ocaña doing much to help open the gap between Van Impe and Zoetemelk on the road.

Whose idea this move was remains the subject of some conjecture, with Guimard quoted in Ed Pickering’s book, The Yellow Jersey Club, as having to implore reporters from the Belgian newspaper Het Volk to drive up to his rider and tell him in Flemish that ‘if he doesn’t start riding he is going to lose the Tour, the idiot’, such was Van Impe’s initial reluctance to follow Ocaña.

For his part Van Impe is quoted as saying he always knew he could take the jersey on that stage, reflecting that ‘Guimard always takes credit for it’. Either way, the Belgian held the jersey to Paris and Gitane secured the biggest prize in cycling in Guimard’s first season as a director. Perhaps unsurprisingly, Van Impe moved teams the following season.

Looking further back, Gitane’s foundations lie in the 1920s when Marcel Brunelière, a blacksmith and mechanic from Machecoul, southwest of Nantes, began making cycle components under the brands GMB and Marbru. He moved into assembling complete bikes before registering the Gitane name in 1929.

In the late 1940s Gitane entered the sport as a title sponsor. In 1953 the outfit launched the professional careers of Jean Stablinski and Rik Van Looy, both future World Champions.

Van Looy in particular would go on to forge a spectacular career as a Classics rider, winning all five Monuments and Paris-Tours. While those victories came once he had moved on, it was with Gitane that the ‘Emperor of Herentals’ claimed his first pro win, at Kortenaken, in what was his debut professional race.

After a period co-sponsoring teams such as Rapha and Saint-Raphaël in the 1960s – a very successful time during which Gitane bikes helped Jacques Anquetil win the Tour and the Giro and Tom Simpson the Tour of Flanders, among many other races – the company returned to title sponsorship in the 1970s. 

It was with Gitane that a young Bernard Hinault entered the peloton in 1975. Two years later, and with Van Impe now having left, Hinault broke into the very top level of the sport, winning the 1977 Gent-Wevelgem, the Dauphiné Libéré and the GP des Nations.

However, the team’s biggest win that year came in Liège-Bastogne-Liège when Hinault followed a late move made by Belgium’s Andre Dierickx, a rider the Frenchman initially considered a stronger rider than himself.

As the end of the race approached, Guimard drove up to his young team leader and asked how he was feeling. Hinault answered that he was flying.

Guimard advised Hinault that when it came to the sprint to open up first, then slow, then accelerate hard. The plan worked.

‘I couldn’t see any finish banner,’ Hinault reflected after the race. ‘Then I knew that I’d got it. Thanks to Guimard!’

It was the first major win of what would be a remarkable career, but Hinault would never win the Tour in Gitane colours. After the 1977 season Renault assumed title sponsorship, the team becoming Renault-Gitane.

– This jersey is part of Paul Van Bommel’s collection of memorabilia, on display at the Bike Experience Centre in Boom, Belgium. Go to deschorre.be/develodroom.html