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Legends of Roubaix: Henri Pélissier
Henri Pélissier 1889 – 1935
The most renowned of the Pélissier brothers, Henri was not only one of the most successful interwar European racers, he was also one of the most rebellious members of the peloton the sport has seen. His main victories came at the one-day races, winning Milan-San Remo, the Giro di Lombardia twice, Bordeaux-Paris and Paris-Roubaix twice. He also won the Tour de France in 1923.
His public expressions of disdain for the treatment of riders, particularly at the Tour de France, acted as somewhat of a civil rights battle for professional cyclists during his era and his disagreements with the race authorities fired the public’s intrigue. His training methods were also against the grain adopting interval sessions and alternative forms of nutrition, one of them being not drinking alcohol during a race…
In 1921, after winning Paris-Roubaix for a second time, he requested a pay-rise from his employers. A flat refusal saw Henri and his brother, Francis (who came second at Roubaix that year), quit the La Sportive team to move to a much smaller outfit. Desgrange declared Pélissier would never grace the pages of L’Auto again stating “Henri Pélissier is saturated with class but he does not know how to suffer". However, in 1923 Pélissier won the maillot jaune and subsequently sales of Desgrange’s yellow paper reached record levels, leading to Desgrange eulogising Pélissier’s Tour victory on the front pages that summer.
In the following Tour of 1924 Pélissier discarded one of two jerseys he was wearing during a stage (early starts demanded extra insulation) directly in front of a rival team’s manager. This went against Desgrange’s rule that riders had to finish each stage with exactly the equipment they had set off with. When Tour officials heard of this they approached Pélissier at the start of the next day’s stage to check how many jerseys he was wearing. Pélissier’s reaction at being treated “like a schoolboy” was to quit the Tour there and then.
Journalist Albert Londres was following the Tour that year and found Pélissier in a café. He conducted an interview with the rebellious rider and Pélissier, amongst other things, stated:
“The Tour de France is a Calvary. The road to Golgotha had only fourteen stations, while ours has fifteen… And you’ve seen nothing yet, just wait for the Pyrenees. That is Hard labour. What we wouldn’t do to mules, we do to ourselves.”
The following day in Les Petit Parisien an article entitled “Forçats de la Route” appeared. As a consequence Henri and his brother became more popular than ever and the phrase “Convicts of the Road” became an indelible expression of the hardships of professional road racers.
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