SI Vault
Bjarne Rostaing
June 29, 1981
This week Jacques Boyer, one of the few Americans to make it in European cycling, will become the first to ride in its main event, the Tour de France
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June 29, 1981

The Biggest Breakaway

This week Jacques Boyer, one of the few Americans to make it in European cycling, will become the first to ride in its main event, the Tour de France

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In the 78-year history of the Tour de France, cycling's foremost competition and the biggest spectator event in the world, no American has ever taken part. This week one will. His name is Jacques Boyer and he comes from California. It's something like being the first Frenchman to start for the Steelers, and it hasn't been easy. Boyer's rise has been largely invisible to Americans, which is understandable. For one thing, bicycle racing is all but ignored by the media in the U.S. For another, Boyer has lived and raced primarily in France for the last eight years. Today he is the No. 2 man on the No. 1 French team, Renault-Gitane, led by the world's premier cyclist, Bernard Hinault, winner of the Tour in 1978 and '79. Boyer has become a considerable star in Europe in his own right, especially since his excellent fifth-place road finish in the 1980 world championships.

The centerpiece of that competition was a 168-mile race in the rugged country around Sallanches in southeast France. The 8.4-mile course included a 1.6-mile climb of such steepness that it simply peeled riders off the back of the pack each time around. Of 107 starters, only 15 finished, but Boyer had enough left to launch a final attack, just missing a bronze medal. Although the race was won by Hinault, at an average speed of 22.09 mph, Boyer was so impressive that the legendary Eddy Merckx, five-time winner of the Tour de France, came over to congratulate him at length, and Hinault immediately saw to it that Boyer was signed by his Renault team. Renault had recently signed another American, the spectacular junior world champion Greg LeMond of Carson City, Nev., but at 20 LeMond is a year or two from maturity. At 25, Boyer is considered ready for the rugged 25 days of the Tour.

Look at him in racing shorts and jersey and you see a well-proportioned but specialized body, with what the French respectfully call la souplesse, which means that the longer the going the looser the muscle. Boyer is 6 feet tall but weighs less than 150 pounds, 128 at racing weight, when the oxygen-guzzling, big-veined muscles stand out on his long, smoothly muscled legs. The voice goes with the body; it is cool and remote, concealing a basic shrewdness that works on both sides of the Atlantic, and his French is now superb.

Europeans see Boyer, along with LeMond, Mike Neel and George Mount, as leading a resurgence of American cycling. At the turn of the century, no one was better at the tough old sport than the Americans. In the '30s six-day racing at Madison Square Garden was very big stuff, with a following that included movie stars, politicos and impressionable writers. The young Henry Miller, who bought his bike from a pro, wrote about cycling knowledgeably, as did F. Scott Fitzgerald and Ernest Hemingway. But then the automobile took over in the U.S., and competitive cycling went into a long decline.

In the century during which cycling has been a major world sport, a variety of events have evolved for road and track, but Boyer is essentially a road racer, as most pros are today. The money is on the road. European men's amateur road racing is a pre-professional sport, like American college football, for many of its participants. "They aren't doing it for fun, beyond a certain age," Boyer says. "You're talking about supporting families, making a living."

Professional cycling has been called the most physically demanding sport. Grueling and dangerous, full of hard men fighting their way up from farm or factory, it can eat you alive. On a typical preseason training day a cyclist will put in six or more hours of riding—anything less than 500 miles a week isn't considered very serious—and these distances are slogged out in the cold and wet of late winter. Boyer will train more than 700 miles a week if he feels he needs it, much of this at racing pace.

Training per se tends not to exist after the first few weeks of the season. There is just too much racing, and most off-day rides are undertaken mainly to loosen up and aid recuperation. It's not the training but the Continental season itself, running from February through the beginning of November, that destroys unwary riders. The racing is faster than in the U.S. and on difficult, often mountainous, courses, with much steeper grades than those of the more modern American road system. Pavement can be rough and cobbles rattle the bones, break bicycles and slither out from under the hard, thin, delicate racing tires when it rains.

A race that begins at sea level with the temperature at 95° can finish on snowy mountain passes. Boyer recalls one race in which snow fell on the major climb, and eventually everyone's derailleur iced up so that only one gear was available—which didn't stop the race. Riders collapse fairly often, and it's not unusual for a man to simply ride off the road, exhausted to the point of not being able to see straight, but still pedaling. With starting fields of between 100 and 200 riders, a finish in the top 10 is a real accomplishment.

The ultimate test of the sport is the tour, or race in stages, lasting anywhere from a few days to a few weeks. Teams generally of eight to 12 riders compete, their goal to spring one or two men free of the pack to go for the finish line.

The stage race is Boyer's specialty, and you have to wonder how Carmel, Calif. could have prepared him for it. Carmel looks like a place where a bike racer might retire, a sunny green expanse on the ocean. But Boyer didn't like Carmel all that much. He arrived there at six, from Moab, Utah, a small town out of which his geologist father, Winston Philip Boyer, traveled the desert prospecting for oil, uranium and other precious metals. Living in a trailer near the cliffs and desert of Arches National Monument, Boyer and his brother, Winston, a year older, were exposed to a spare frontier reality. "We made up our own things to do," Jacques says. "We were into nature and animals, especially reptiles. We didn't see a lot of people, really. We spent all our time outside, in the hills. It was interesting, and my father is an interesting man. He grew up on a Wyoming ranch and is a good horseman. He can always find some original way to do things."

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