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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"I didn't mind," Boyer says. "I was having a good time. I really loved France."

But in 1975 Wiegant and the ACBB didn't exactly take good care of their American. Four stage races and 90-odd starts blew him out, though he continued to finish well. The pace caught up with him in the 16-stage Tour of South Africa. His race diary tells the story, less in the words he wrote than in the deterioration of his writing and grammar. Wiegant had wasted another kid, people said, and Boyer went back to Carmel bone-tired for the first time in his career. Typically, he nevertheless held down two and at times three jobs, working days and nights.

The year 1976 was "terrible," Boyer recalls. "My first really bad year. I felt used, too much racing the year before. You don't know that while you're doing it, but then the tiredness keeps coming back." One result was his failure to make the 1976 Olympic team. "The ACBB sent him back for the Trials with pneumonia," says Oliver Martin Jr., the Olympic road coach. "He had been a shoo-in for that team." Boyer took the diagnosis philosophically. When he felt better he went back to France, salvaging his season with a couple of Italian wins.

Then Boyer returned to Carmel to think things out. He decided he needed a new affiliation, and that it would be the Union Sportive de Créteil, Maurice Moucheraud, director. Boyer achieved 10 early-season 1977 wins, the most important being the 99 miles of Paris-Ezy, in which he kicked ACBB butts hard in a race that club had won seven consecutive times. He moved in with Moucheraud, who couldn't believe Créteil's good luck. He was right: Lejeune-BP, Créteil's pro affiliate, snapped Boyer up in midseason to ride back-up for team leader Lucien van Impe, the 1976 Tour de France winner. Boyer was issued pro racing license number 007, to the delight of the press, his initials even being J.B. Because of his father's Wyoming ranch, however, their nickname for him was The Cowboy.

In the very difficult Dauphiné Libéré that year, Boyer established himself as "mountain lieutenant," No. 2 man on the team. He had an ugly high-speed crash in 1977, on a mountain descent, which left him sprawled bloody and nearly unconscious over a stone wall at the edge of a cliff. But he recovered and made a quixotic last-minute decision to enter the world championship in Venezuela, competing for the U.S.

There, he punctured a tire and had to drop out, and not long thereafter he felt the effects of a classic South American intestinal affliction that bothered him all winter. He recuperated slowly, though as usual working at three different jobs.

When the '78 season opened, van Impe had left Lejeune. Boyer was spectacular in one stage of the Tour of the Mediterranean, but after that it was all downhill again. He was the best Lejeune had, but with the Venezuelan bug still in his system, he was no replacement for van Impe. Goaded by the resentment of his teammates, he drove himself ferociously. He ate well, but found himself losing weight. Clearly, he was sick, but among bicycle racers illness isn't uncommon; while a man may ease up for a while, basically he is expected to "ride through it." However, the bug in his gut seemed to be preventing him from digesting what he ate. French doctors couldn't cure him, and the team wasn't sure he was really that sick, so he went on doing what he does best. He pushed himself. Silent, bone-weary, losing weight, still very proud, he never quit.

"The guys on the team were really down on him. They'd tell him, 'You're not really sick,' and so forth. It went on and on," says Winston, who was there to watch his brother ride. Boyer went into the '78 Dauphiné in late May in this condition, and on the big mountain stage he stayed with the leaders over the major climbs. Then, near the finish, he self-destructed. "When he came in, I'd never seen him like that," says Winston. "He didn't know where he was. Being Jock, he started the next day, but he only got about 12 miles down the road. He was wiped out."

In mid-June 1978, Boyer went to see Dr. Wha-Ja Kim in Monterey for intensive acupuncture treatments. And as far as anyone can tell, this, plus some antibiotics, is what finally worked. "People smile, you know," Winston observes, "but he was sick before going to her, and afterward he wasn't."

Hardly had he recovered from the intestinal disorder when he developed a general infection that culminated in a kind of sore throat that extended from the bronchi up to the mouth and gums, and he literally couldn't swallow. This illness very nearly killed Boyer. Despite bed rest, his condition deteriorated. "For a week he couldn't even drink," says Winston. "Two or three spoons of soup a day was all he had. One doctor said tapeworm, another said herpes, another said strep throat. He was down to 118 pounds. I was afraid for him."

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