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Cycling Family Relations

Sometimes Racing Is a Family Business

by Owen Mulholland

Time was when cycling was a relatively simple sport. Of course, the execution was always difficult. Being first across the line has almost always demanded talents beyond pure power. But once across the finish line, the winner, and for that matter, everyone else in the race got his or her due. Aside from the occasional argument about unfair tactics and bad luck and team duties, the finishing order fairly well reflected the riders' relative worth at a given race. Winners got to be winners and losers got to be losers. Cycling presented an arena where life was harsh but fair.

Thus far, except for some motivational exercises, psychology has been kind enough to overlook our little bastion of sport. Truly amazing, when you think about it. Little else has been so fortunate. Each of the gospels, for instance, has been mined not only for the brain lead of the author, but of Jesus himself. The latest I read concluded that Jesus orchestrated his own crucifixion, did not die, and so miraculously reappeared. This one small example barely hints at the creativity available to over-trained, underutilized academics.

Our turn will come. Of that there can be no doubt. The fertility of our field cannot be squandered forever.

At the beginning of the 20th century in a Parisian suburb, Papa Pélissier was not that atypical for his type and time. Life was about being "real", and being "real" meant "business before pleasure", an attitude that in time became such an ingrained habit there was virtually no pleasure. Up early, work, work, lunch (got to have the pleasure of eating, justified, of course, because it allowed one to continue to work) work, work, come home, eat again, collapse. Next day, repeat, and the next day, and so on; not to mention endless overtime and work on weekends. Having a family was also "work". It didn't get considered deeply. It was just something you did. Everyone else did the same, so it all seemed natural and normal. Children tend to have a different set of priorities. Play and pleasure appeal more than deferred gratification. So getting "real" meant beating such ridiculous notions out of them, and the earlier the better.

Where this formula went awry was that over time, Papa discovered the eldest of his three boys, Henri, was just as stubborn as himself. What Papa was late to discover was that Henri also marched to different values, or at least those values displaced to another arena. At first it was just transportation, but bit by bit little Henri discovered how much pleasure there was in riding a bike, especially when anatomical feedback of feeling strong led to the psychological feedback of beating his buddies up little hills. Intoxicating stuff. Of course, Henri tried to hide his growing involvement, but it was only a matter of time before his "foolishness" was discovered and Papa laid down the law, "Choose life at home or the bike somewhere else." Papa was stunned when Henri disappeared. Papa had no idea of his son's talents, desires, and devious capabilities. Henri had foreseen the inevitable, had attracted the eye of important people in local cycling circles, had lined up a little money and a place to stay, and when Papa gave him the anticipated ultimatum, Henri was ready to act. Papa cried and moaned about his ingrate son and determined that whatever mistakes he'd made in the past would not be repeated in the future.

So the next in line, Francis, was watched even more closely than his older brother. The dark shadow of WWI had just fallen across the land and Francis had little option but to follow the path his father laid out. Go to school and work in the garage, and after that try to get enough sleep and food to be able to go through the routine all over again. But once again Papa was a little less omnipotent that he had presumed. Henri and Francis had remained "best buds", and sneaked in regular training, so by the end of the war Francis was prepared to escape to the exciting world Henri had discovered.

Fancis Pélissier

Francis wins stage three of the 1919 Tour de France

Francis bolted before the ink was dry on the Treaty of Versailles. Together, Henri and Francis became comrades in wheels. They were as merciless to others as their father had been to them. In 1921 they revolted against their employer because they felt he under-appreciated them and took a job with a small rival. The contract with their new rival stipulated a modest salary unless they won Paris-Roubaix. Henri and Francis finished that race, one - two! Later in the same year Francis won Paris-Tours in a glacial snowstorm, annihilating the handful of survivors.

Both won Tour stages aplenty, and in 1923 Henri finally won the thing (a decade after his first entry), but it was in 1924 that the prickly Pélissier temperament best showed itself. Henri Desgrange, creator and dictator of the Tour de France, imposed a rule that a rider might start a stage with as many jerseys as he wished, but at the finish he had to have the same number. Conditions at the four A.M. mountain starts were much colder than the finishes eight hours later, and Henri refused to comply with such an unnecessary and bothersome rule. Henri and Francis stopped at a village midway and gave a celebrated interview to the journalist, Albert Londres. Londres titled his piece Convicts of the Road.

Francis and Henri Pélissier

Francis and Henri Pélissier enjoy a lighter moment during the 15th stage of the 1923 Tour

Charles naturally had to have his tilt at the cycling windmill, but not before crossing the fiery brook, his father. As the last one left, Charles had almost been put in chains by Papa. Charles got out, but what didn't follow was an instant rise to stardom. He clung, like an obedient puppy, to his brothers' wheels, but the results were less than France expected of a Pélissier.

To compound matters, sweet Charles surrendered to temptation. He fell in love with a beautiful lady of, er, "blemished" reputation. His brothers teased him mercilessly, demanding he choose between the real queen, cycling, and this "worldly mackerel." The papers discovered Charles' "problem" and enjoyed themselves immensely. They depicted this woman as a louse sucking poor Charles' blood. Eventually Charles threw her in a river and returned to "le velo" unencumbered.

Clarles Pélissier

Charles Pélissier in the 1929 Tour de France

He went on to a respectable career, capped by a sensational 1930 Tour de France in which he won eight stages, a record he still shares with Eddy Merckx and Freddy Maertens.

Henri was shot to death by his mistress in 1935, but Charles and Francis lived on until 1959. Both remained associated with the sport, Charles as a meet-and-greet at the six-day races and Francis as a directeur sportif. He became known as the "Wizard of Bordeaux-Paris" for all the novel ways he was able to guide riders to victory in that event. His last contribution to cycling was to help guide the early career of Jacques Anquetil.

While the Pélissiers remain the first family of cycling in terms of impact, they do not hold the record for siblings simultaneously cycling. That piece of immortality is reserved for the Pettersson brothers from Sweden. Gösta, Sture, Erik and Tomas burst on the international scene in 1967 to take the World 100k Team Time Trial Championship. Gösta was the eldest, the most talented, and the acknowledged leader. It was he who stood up to the Swedish selectors that first year and fought them when they wanted to keep Tomas off the team, believing him to be too young. "It's all of us or none of us," he declared.

There was nothing so traumatic in the Pettersson family dynamics as there had been in the Pélissier’s. Gösta's early success in cycling tempted the others. Their parents supported them in every way possible, and for the rest the boys existed on the positive inspiration of youthful exuberance, a fun lifestyle and good results.

They won three successive World Team Time Trial Championships, and, with their support, Gösta took two Tours of Britain and numerous other big races.

But things changed when they plunged into the pro world in 1970. Willpower and esprit de famille weren't enough for the younger three. After a discouraging season Sture and Erik retired, leaving Gösta and Tomas to save the family honor. Gösta won a number of races; most notably the Tour of Italy in 1971. He went on to the Tour de France that year, but eventually retired, exhausted.

osta Pettersson

Gösta Pettersson wins the 1971 Giro d'Italia

That may be surprising, considering how so many today consider the Giro to be a nice warm-up for the Tour. There was a major difference between then and now, however; his name was Eddy Merckx. In his autobiography, Merckx shows a picture of himself attacking with Gösta right behind; all the other riders are in the distance. This scenario was repeated countless times. Merckx paid Pettersson the compliment of describing him as always "very attentive." The downside of that policy, however, was that Gösta eventually fried himself. There could be only one Eddy Merckx.

Tomas retired at the end of '72 and Gösta two years later, bringing to a close the remarkable reign of this Swedish dynasty.

The Pélissiers and the Petterssons are but two of many examples that can be given of sibling cyclists. Most often, one or the other is the dominant partner, even sometimes the meal ticket for the other. ("If you want me on your team, you'11 have to hire my brother, too.")

Who but minutiae freaks remember the brother of Roger Lapédie, Rudi Altig, Giuseppe Saronni and Fausto Coppi? Even our own American scene has had such pairs. Nancy Burkhart and sister Sarah were famous for their ferocious rivalry on the track, but it was Nancy who took all the titles. Tour de France pioneer Jonathon Boyer had a talented brother, Winston, who withdrew from competition at a young age in order to devote himself to photography.

What does it all mean? Why do some persist and others not? In one case a sibling may stimulate performance and in another just the opposite happens. It's a rich field for those hooked on unconscious motivations as the source of all explanations.

Perhaps event richer quarries can be excavated in the parent-child domain. (Normally, I like to think of cyclists as controlling their destinies.) There probably are cyclists whose performance has more to do with compensating for some childhood difficulty than the power in their legs. It's not hard to see at least some plausibility of this in the Pélissier story. But what of parents who were (are?) serious cyclists themselves? Again, the picture is complicated as the following mini-biographies show.

The model of success in this department goes to the Émile Massons, senior and junior. Never has there been a better example in cycling of the old adage, "Like father, like son." Émile Masson Sr. achieved his glory in the '20s. Paris-Roubaix and Bordeaux-Paris were particularly prominent on his list of credits. He was particularly proud of his win in the 1923, 365-mile motor-paced, marathon from Bordeaux to Paris. The measure of this victory can be gauged by who finished after him, especially Monsieur Bordeaux-Paris himself, one Francis Pélissier.

Less than two decades passed before Émile Masson Jr. began making his version of the family name known in the professional world. In 1938 he won the Flèche Wallone in frightful conditions (only eight riders finished), and the following year he won Paris-Roubaix. No doubt about it, the boy was as good, if not better, than the father.

And then the war came, tearing the heart out of Émile's cycling life, just as it did to so many others. For five years Émile languished as a POW before returning home to attempt to rebuild his life.

Straightaway, he went to his father for guidance.

"Do you think I should try to race again, or would it be more sensible to forget about it?" he asked his father on his return to civilian life.

"Why not have a go, son?" was the advice. "You are in good health, and if you do not succeed, then you will have every excuse and people will understand."

Excuses were not necessary. Émile Jr. vent on to win Bordeaux-Paris.

The Belgian, Albert Sercu, almost won the 1947 World Road Championships. He cried that day,and his fears were justified. Never again would he be in a position to win a race of such stature. Sixteen years later his eyes were wet again when his son won the World Sprint Championship.

Son Patrick had a splendid career on the track, kilometer championships and records as well as a record 88 six-day wins, putting him in a very special bracket. But it was his father who gently steered him toward the road where he picked up a Tour de France green jersey, among other bagatelles.

Paul Kimmage, the fourth Irish rider in recent time to join the continental pro ranks (after Sean Kelly, Stephen Roche and Martin Early) tells the story of his introduction to real cycling. He came from a cycling family and was "made keen" to start racing at age 14.

One day his father took him out for a 60-mile training ride. His father half-wheeled him the whole way. That is, no matter how fast Paul went his dad was sure to stay a half-wheel ahead. The boy struggled to keep up. Only pure pride kept him going over the last miles, and once home, he collapsed. With a compassionate but stern voice his father almost whispered, "Now, Paul, you understand what you can expect if you get serious about cycling."

Beryl Burton and her daughter, Denise, must be the measure of all mother-daughter "teams”. Beryl is probably the greatest female cyclist of all time. Twenty-five times Britain's best time trialist, absolute holder of the 12-hour record (She caught the men setting the men's record!), twice World Road Champion, seven times World Pursuit Champion, only woman to ever ride the Grand Prix des Nations....and only mother to ever compete on the same world championship team with her daughter (1972).

Denise was but 16 then, and in succeeding years she did nothing but improve until the inevitable clash with mom. The showdown came at a British Road Championship where Beryl set the usual killer pace, which burned off everyone but daughter Denise, who then had the temerity to sprint and take the win. Shortly thereafter, Denise was living on her own.

Today they are long since reconciled, and, Denise married, they even go for rides together, but "mum" is the only one at the races.

There are endless examples of two-generation cycling families, but how about three? To my knowledge, there is only one — that of Jack Simes I, Jack Simes II and Jack Simes III. All three represented the United States in Olympic cycling events.

But there will be no fourth generation for Jack III has no children. He is, however, president of U.S.PRO. One can consider the modern generation of American professional cyclists to be his progeny, a legacy to make any cyclist proud.