Bordeaux – Paris, The Lost Classic

By January, your average race starved cycling fan has just about had their fill of new kit launches, stories of pro cycling teams wrangling with sponsors, and tales of just what great form some of our favourite riders are showing in their far-away warm weather training camp. Thankfully, the new season is now underway and we have some actual racing to watch, and we scan the race calendar and make a mental note of when our favourite races are coming up.

The season kicks off properly with the Tour de San Luis in Argentina – which features, among others, Tom Boonen and Mark Cavendish in tandem for their Omega Pharma Quick Step team – and the Tour Down Under, for those prepared to travel (or for the Aussies who spent the off-season at home).

Those who prefer the racing in Europe in the Spring will already be salivating at the prospect of the start of the classics season with ‘La Primavera’ in March: Milan-San Remo. But talking of Boonen, if he can stay fit and on form, fans of the cobbles will be expecting a battle royale between the Belgian legend and Fabian Cancellara at Ghent-Wevelgem, the Ronde von Vlaanderen and Paris-Roubaix in late March and early April (Slovakian Peter Sagan is also sure to make his mark in his own…ahem…understated way).

Tom Boonen at Paris-Roubaix (Photo: wikimedia commons - tetedelacourse)
Tom Boonen at Paris-Roubaix
(Photo: wikimedia commons – tetedelacourse)

Beyond that, if the slow burning drama of a Grand Tour is more to your taste, you  might already be thinking about the Giro d’Italia in May where the likes of Richie Porte, Cadel Evans and Nairo Quintana will do battle with the gradient and the elements…and of course, the Tour de France rolls out from Yorkshire in July.

All this is just the tip of the iceberg; the point I’m making is that there is an absolute banquet of racing to come. But there is one particular event which is missing, and has been since 1988…Bordeaux-Paris. It was known as the ‘Derby of the Road’ and these days is sometimes referred to as the lost classic, so what was it all about and why is it no more?

It’s fair to say that Bordeaux-Paris was all about the distance, with the route weighing in at a hefty 560km. Now, come on cycling fans, tell me you wouldn’t like to see some of today’s big names tackle 560km between Bordeaux and Paris (and yes, that is in ONE day!)

The reason this epic race dropped from the calendar – and the reason that, even if it were re-instated, the big guns would probably avoid it – is that to race such a distance requires some very prolonged and specific training. To get yourself in the kind of shape needed to win this race would mean severely restricting the other events you could race either side of it in the calendar; it would be quite a commitment to base the bulk of your season around a single one-off event.

Cyrille Van Hauwaert - winner of Bordeaux - Paris in 1909 (Photo: Bibliotheque Nationale de France)
Cyrille Van Hauwaert – winner of Bordeaux – Paris in 1909
(Photo: Bibliotheque Nationale de France)

Bordeaux-Paris traditionally took place in May up until it’s final edition in 1988, but lost a lot of it’s sheen during the 1980’s for the very reason mentioned above; it clashed with riders’ preparations for other events, particularly the Giro d’Italia in May and, at the time, the Vuelta Espana (which up until 1995 was held in April or June). For many years, however, it was a prestigious event in it’s own right and boasts riders like Louisin Bobet in 1959, Tom Simpson in 1963 and Jacques Anquetil in 1965 on it’s roll of honour. The undisputed king of Bordeaux – Paris is Belgian rider Herman van Springel, who won the race an impressive seven times between 1970 and 1981.

In it’s heyday, the riders would leave Bordeaux at 2am and head out into the darkness, paced behind a small motorbike – a spectacle which was one of the highlights of the racing calendar. This dramatic ride through the dark, as the riders headed out into the French night in the direction of Paris, was part of the appeal and the mystique of this race – one of the most gruelling events in modern pro cycling.

Francois Faber takes the plaudits in 1911 (Photo: Bibliotheque Nationale de France)
Francois Faber takes the plaudits in 1911
(Photo: Bibliotheque Nationale de France)

Looking back on the ‘Derby of the Road’ from here in 2014 it certainly has the feel of a relic from the past.  Its distance alone evokes those endless stories from cycling folklore of suffering and sporting heroism, as riders raced each other over inhumane distances in a last-man-standing battle.

So lets be honest, Bordeaux-Paris belongs where it is, firmly in the past, and to run it today in the middle of a packed pro racing calendar would be little more than a freak show.

But tell me, in your heart of hearts, that you wouldn’t love to see the likes of Cancellara, Boonen, Sagan, Martin and the rest head out into the darkness…just once…for hour after hour…and race the 560km from Bordeaux to Paris.

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7 comments

  1. I would dearly love to see such a circus as that race. Last year when Milan-San Remo was cut short, I was sorely disappointed. I felt that, while it was still a good end to the race, it lost its whole essence.

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    • Good comparison. You’re right, Milan San-Remo is all about the fact that it is nearly 300km, although it became a bit of an epic anyway last year due to that weather. There was a feature on that 2013 edition in Rouleur magazine a few months back, worth a read if you ever come across it (and you like to read about a bit of good old fashioned suffering!)

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