Ken Laidlaw 1961: view from L’Équipe

I recently posted Ken Laidlaw’s famous image, leading Stage 16 of the Tour de France 1961 as my Picture of the Day.

It is interesting to read the celebrated writer Antoine Blondin‘s¹ somewhat poetic account in L’Équipe of the racing on 11th July 1961.

In the streets of Luchon circulate unrecognisable champions, wrapped in gowns borrowed from the thermal spa establishment. You couldn’t differentiate them from a grey grandpa (pères blancs) or a ghost. Here is Laidlaw, a Scottish ghost as his name indicates, and a specialist, who lulled us with the fabulous hope during the last fifteen kilometres, to witness a race haunted by something other than the fear of being unable to take up the challenges of the next day.

Laidlaw attacked on the climb out of Luchon and led until 8km to go, eventually finishing in 19th and winning the most aggressive rider of the day award- one of Scotland’s greatest days in the world’s greatest cycle race. It is slightly depressing then, to read Blondin’s next passage.

What is left of him if you peel away the moment of glory? Absolutely nothing – three hairpins were enough to reduce him to the state of a wandering wreck. The gown fell on his shoulders like a candle snuffer and, as if midnight falls, he turns back into a pumpkin.

What a shame that one of Scotland’s bravest rides in the Tour be regarded with such crushing disdain. The plucky loser mentality is often ingrained in the national sporting psyche- witness David Millar’s escape in 2009 which fell at the very last hurdle. The greatness of the sport of cycling though, is that these brave losing feats are genuinely celebrated- the Lanterne Rouge being a case in point- despite Blondin’s dismissive view of Laidlaw’s escape.

1. Of Blondin, Bernard Hinault, said:

He never interviews anybody but just records his impressions of what he’s seen and what he feels. Sometimes René Fallet[4] was with him. They both love the Tour and, in simple language, they turn it into a modern epic, a troubador’s song, a crusade, as they describe its beauty. The most banal event becomes significant to Blondin; he has only to see it and write about it. He raised the status of the Tour by giving it his own cachet; it became a myth to be renewed every year. No matter how predictable the race, he could maintain the interest in it.[5]
  • michaelshires

    Les Peres Blancs referred to in Blondin's piece were also known as Les Missionnaires d'Afrique, a Catholic missionary order set up in the mid 19th century, who wore white robes. Luchon is a spa town so presumably the reference would be to the towelling robes available at the spa.
    L'Equipe was always known for its dramatic prose, and Blondin's style is an example of the elaborate writing, which helped to colour the descriptions of the Tour in the days before mass television coverage.
    Blondin covered his first tour in 1954, covering a total of 27 “grandes boucles”, which he followed from car 101, usually in the company of Pierre Chany, a fellow L'Equipe journalist, and Michel Clare.
    The loves of Blondin's life were said to be cycling, drink and his mother, though his love of panache also made him a great supporter of the Parisian rugby club, Racing Club.
    When Blondin died in 1991, a fellow journalist, Renaud Matignon, of Le Figaro, commented: “Son foie surmene cachait quelque cirrhose du coeur”.
    Blondin wrote an autobiography entitled “Monsieur Jadis”, and his great friend, Jacques Augendre, has recently published an excellent biography, “Un Singe en Ete”, which besides being a lyrical homage to Blondin, contains a number of memeorable quotations. Another of Augendre's compilations, La Pendule de Pepe le Moko, also quotes extensively from Blondin's writings about “la petite reine”.