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Summer holidays in the Dordogne, cycling with my family when I was 11 years old. Hot, empty roads. Cruising ahead, I imagined winning a stage of the Tour de France; stopping to wait for the others, I was perfecting my ever-so-professional insouciance. Already, my career path was set. I would become famous. Even the French motorists seemed to be acknowledging this fact by giving me an encouraging beep. Not quite sure how to react, I responded with a shy English schoolboy smile and prayed that they didn’t stop to ask a question.
When I later told my parents about the friendly drivers my mother said that perhaps it was the jersey they were reacting to: Wasn’t it quite well known in cycling?After my classic English shyness came her classic English understatement. The jersey I wore every day (handwashed in the afternoon and dried in the evening sun) was white with a black checkerboard design across the chest, above it the legend “Peugeot.” The neck and sleeves had a black trim. It remains one of the most iconic jerseys in the history of cycling, instantly recognizable and, for a generation of cycling fans, powerfully nostalgic.
My love of bike racing began in the summer of 1984 when, in the middle of school holidays, I happened across television highlights of the world road race championships in Barcelona. The following July, I watched the Tour de France on Channel Four, a daily dose of color and heroism, with a charismatic British rider at its fore in the high mountains. Of course, I admired the pugnacious attitude of Bernard Hinault, the panache of Laurent Fignon and the robustness of Sean Kelly, but there was something magical in the way Robert Millar could dance up a Pyrenean climb. Here was the joy of watching a pure climber. An escape artist. That he had a sardonic sense of humor that chimed with some of the best British television sitcoms of the time only added to his appeal.
The genius of the Peugeot jersey design lay in its monochrome simplicity. It stood out from the peloton’s riot of color by having none. Modest and classy. And if we want to get psychoanalytic about it, perhaps that swathe of white subconsciously symbolized innocence, newness. There was something refreshing about Scotland’s Millar, and his jersey was part of that. Yet, for all that it was new to this 11-year-old, by 1985 the Peugeot team was actually drawing close to the end of a long and storied past.
Peugeot was involved in bike racing from the very start. A family company producing a diverse range of metal products, from kitchen implements to industrial fixtures, and then bicycles, motorcycles and eventually automobiles, Peugeot was an industrial powerhouse from the middle of the 19th century. It’s still based in the Montbéliard region of France, close to the Swiss border. The family had a keen eye for a PR opportunity and in 1903 Hippolyte Aucouturier rode a Peugeot bike to victory in Paris–Roubaix and Bordeaux–Paris. In the following years, riders such as Lucien Petit-Breton and Louis Trousselier brought the Peugeot team its first tastes of victory in the Tour de France; and though the DNA of the team was thoroughly French, it was happy to hire talented foreign riders. In 1922, the Belgian Firmin Lambot won the Tour de France for Peugeot.
Flanked by various co-sponsors, the Peugeot team continued to perform at the highest level after the disruption of World War II, with leading riders such as Charly Gaul, Pino Cerami and Ferdinand Bracke. The 1950s, however, represented a relatively lean period for the team, with no grand tour wins and only a handful of major one-day races. In early 1963, a new jersey arrived when the squad switched from its customary blue-and-gold to black-and-white checkerboard. It would remain all the way through to the team’s eventual demise more than 20 years later.
The late ’60s were a heady mix of tragedy and triumph for Peugeot. When Tom Simpson joined the team in 1963 his talent and personality gave the team a much-needed talisman. Success too, as Major Tom soon racked up victories in monuments such as the 1963 Bordeaux–Paris and 1964 Milan–San Remo. In 1965, Simpson won the world road race championship in San Sebastian despite having a relatively weak Great Britain team; his value sky-rocketed. Other teams tried to poach him from Peugeot, but the French team’s contract was iron-clad. Simpson wasn’t going anywhere. That autumn he became only the second man to win the Tour of Lombardy wearing the rainbow jersey.
After a prolifically successful amateur career, Eddy Merckx began his professional career with Rik Van Looy’s Solo-Superia team in April 1965, shortly before his 20th birthday. His first season was successful, but Merckx was unhappy in a team in which he was mocked by his teammates—and where he later claimed he learned nothing about racing. For the following season, Merckx’s manager negotiated a contract with Peugeot-BP for his young protégé, earning 20,000 francs per month. Merckx quickly repaid Peugeot’s investment with his first victory in Milan–San Remo, a feat he repeated in 1967. The young Belgian enjoyed the supportive atmosphere at Peugeot, and though he was to leave for a bigger salary with the FAEMA team in 1968, he has spoken warmly about his time at Peugeot, particularly the way Simpson mentored him.
The 1967 Tour de France was won by a Peugeot rider, Roger Pingeon, but he was in the colors of France because that Tour was raced with national teams. And his victory was utterly overshadowed by the death of Simpson, his regular Peugeot teammate, on the slopes of Mont Ventoux.
After Merckx’s dominance of cycling during the late 1960s and early ’70s, it was a Peugeot rider, Bernard Thévenet, who loosened the Cannibal’s grip, winning the 1975 Tour de France. And though Thévenet won again in 1977, Peugeot seemed to be losing ground to rival French team Renault, run by the brilliant and autocratic Cyrille Guimard. Renault’s star rider was Hinault and after Le Blaireau’s Tour wins in 1978 and ’79, Peugeot was under pressure to find a new star.
The Athletic Club de Boulogne-Billancourt, based in the western suburbs of Paris, was founded in 1924 and grew in strength over the following two decades, driven by the ambitions of its legendary sports director Albert Gal. After World War II, Gal wanted to establish a professional team and recruited Paul Wiegant to run the squad, which was sponsored by Helyett Cycles. Over the following years riders such as Jacques Anquetil and Jean Stablinski rode for Wiegant’s ACBB professional team, but by the mid-1960s the French cycle industry had begun to stagnate, sponsorship became harder to secure and the team folded. Wiegant’s focus returned to the ACBB club, and he set himself the target of developing ACBB into the best amateur team in France.
His method was simple. He ran the operation in the same way he had run the professional team. Discipline, teamwork, commitment and, above all else, results were expected of the riders. In return Wiegant offered them a well-trodden path to professional contracts. In the late 1970s the team was sponsored by Peugeot, effectively making ACBB a feeder team for the professional squad.
As a finishing school for amateur racers, ACBB was interested only in creating winners; its targets were the French amateur classics, such as Paris–Evreux, which Millar won in 1979.
Wiegant knew that scouts for the professional teams would be at these races. He also understood that professional teams would value new recruits who had begun to learn their trade. Raw talent was fine, but it was better to buy a refined product.
The stream of English-speaking riders who joined ACBB through the early ’80s came to be known as the Foreign Legion. After British riders Paul Sherwen and Graham Jones successfully graduated to professional teams, Wiegant struck even more luck in 1979 when he signed Millar and Phil Anderson. The Scot and the Australian were very different types of rider but both had worked hard and sacrificed a great deal to get such an opportunity, and they weren’t going to let it slip through their fingers.
They knew that Wiegant was ruthless. He had been known to send underperforming riders home from the February training camps in the South of France, effectively ending their careers. So the new recruits made sure to impress their new boss in the early-season training races; Millar won the Grand Prix de Grasse and Anderson the Grand Prix de Sanary. With their places on the team cemented, Millar and Anderson battled through nepotism and the hostility of their French teammates to each build a palmarès that would snag a professional contract. Both riders signed for Peugeot at the end of 1979.
Ultimately though, Peugeot’s team in the 1980s proved to be only another finishing school, albeit at a higher level than ACBB. Like Merckx, early success came to Millar and Anderson at Peugeot, which developed their skills before they moved on to other teams. Peugeot seemed to be mired in internal feuds, petty squabbles and poor leadership, whereas their chief rivals (Renault and Panasonic) had the kind of unity and self-belief that only a fearsome directeur sportif can create.
In the 1985 Granada TV documentary about Millar, “The High Life,” Millar meets with the talented young British rider Joey McLoughlin from Liverpool, then riding for illfated British formation ANC-Halfords. Peugeot directeur sportif Roland Berland has made McLoughlin a contract offer but McLoughlin is undecided. “What do you reckon on this Berland bloke?” McLoughlin asks Millar, as they slouch over their bikes in blazing hot sunshine in Italy, the day before they’ll ride the 1985 world road race championship for Great Britain.
Millar shrugs: “Depends how you take him. I can’t say anything right now because I know a few things; but the team’s okay.” Hardly a ringing endorsement. After the worlds, Millar signed for Peter Post’s Panasonic team. McLoughlin stayed with ANC-Halfords, though three years later he moved to Team Z, which rode Peugeot bikes. The last year that Peugeot was the team’s title sponsor was 1986—the final year of those iconic black-and-white checkerboard jerseys. More than 80 years of cycling history had come to an end. All that remains are results in the sport’s history books, replica jerseys and, for me, memories of long summer days rolling through the countryside of the Dordogne.