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Jean Robic: The little giant

Very tall men always stand out in a crowd, but then so too do very small men who reach greatness.

French rider Jean Robic was such a man; barely five foot tall one would have expected he would have been more suited to a career as a jockey, rather than a world class cyclist.

His small stature and obvious physical strength made him a formidable climber. On the decents his light weight was a definite disadvantage and he made up for this by taking chances and pushing his speed to the limit

He crashed often and it was probably because of this he always wore a padded leather helmet. Only track riders wore helmets back in those days, so it was unusual to see a professional road rider use one as a matter of course. This earned him the nick name of "Leather Head."

Robic won the 1947 Tour de France. This was the first Tour after WWII and his win was no doubt a huge morale booster for the French people. If Jean Robic was an unusual rider his win of the 1947 tour was no less unusual; he did so by winning on the very last stage without ever wearing the Yellow Jersey throughout the race.

Robic was not even in the running until the 15th mountain stage (Luchon - Pau ) when he took off on his own to win by 10 minutes over the second placed rider.

Early on the last stage Robic sprinted up a short climb to take a prime; or so he thought. He was not aware that there was a small break-away group ahead of him, and had he known he never would have sprinted.

This was not unusual back in 1947, there was little or no communication between riders and team support, in fact team support was minimal in those days. A rider could be in the middle of the peloton, and not know that a break had occurred.

Robic was joined by two other riders and because they thought they were leading, worked together, and rode hard, but when a rider dropped back from the leading group. They never caught the leading group, but because they had ridden hard all day chasing the leaders they took 13 minutes out of the peloton that included Pierre Brambilla in the Yellow Jersey who had remained back in the peloton. Jean Robic had won the Tour with the shortest overall time; Brambilla was relegated to third place.

Throughout the rest of the 1940s and into the 1950s Jean Robic held his own among other great riders of that time like Coppi, Kubler, Bobet, etc. In 1950 Robic won the first World Cyclo-cross Championship. (Left.)
He was one of my heroes when I started riding in the early 1950s. One of the most photographed riders of that era, I remember seeing so many close up shots of Robic, his face showing all the extreme pain and agony of the sport.

Other shots of him bleeding profusely from cuts to his face, elbows and knees after falling. He was depicted in cartoons riding heavily bandaged and with his arm in a sling.

I was a little surprised to find very few photos on the Internet, even on French sites. I am grateful to The Wool Jersey for the few great pictures I did find

The picture above shows Robic dealing with a flat tire in the 1948 Tour. As I said earlier team support was minimal and all riders carried a spare tubular, usually around their shoulders.

In the picture Robic has changed the tire, the punctured tubular lies in the road under his feet, as he struggles to replace the chain. Note the pump carried on his down tube, also he does not have quick release wheels but rather wing nuts on solid axels.

Also, take a look at his tiny bicycle frame. Judging by the way the top and down tubes merge together at the head tube, this frame is about 48 cm. and still his saddle is low by comparison

Another photo from the 1950s portraying his tiny stature is the one above with Swiss rider Hugo Koblet (Left.) and Robic (Center.) as they pose with World Middleweight Boxing Champ, Sugar Ray Robinson. (Right.)

Tragically Jean Robic died in a car crash in 1980; he was still at a relatively young age of 59.

A monument to this little giant stands on the Côte de Bonsecours, in France, and of course, it depicts him wearing his trademark leather helmet.

Update July 21, 07: (Picture left.)

From the 1953 Tour de France. Stage winner and Maillot Jaune on Stage 11. Robic riding for a regonal team, was viciously attacked by a jealous French National Team on Stage 12, and a crash victim on Stage 13.

Robic crashed heavily while descending the Col du Fauredon, hitting his head and suffering a concussion. He was unable to start and abandoned the race the next day.

Picture from The Wool Jersey. My thanks to Aldo Ross for all the WJ pictures.


Batman and Robin never had this problem

Road cyclists as a group are under attack again. Recently there was the New Jersey Quick Release Ban, now there is a movement afoot to ban cycling shorts in Salt Lake City, Utah. A group calling themselves Citizens for Decent Public Attire, finds the skin tight cycling shorts worn by local cyclists, offensive.

The fears of this group are unfounded and the women of Utah are safe; I can assure them that there is nothing quick release about a pair of bib shorts.

After giving this issue much thought, it occurred to me that Batman and Robin, Superman and all the other super heroes of yesteryear wore tights and never had this problem. And they were on television in an era when censorship was far more strict than today.

For example, at that time, married couples could not be shown in the same bed together. Also remember, this was children's television and had the brim of the hat been even slightly visible, there would have been hell to pay.

So how did the Dynamic Duo get away with it? It was not that these actors were not well endowed; they didn't call Robin "The Boy Wonder" for nothing.

The answer was in discrete padding in their tights that made them appear Genitalia-less. Only the slightest hint of a bulge in the pubic area, just enough to distinguish Batman from Batwoman. The result, no one was offended.

The manufactures of cycling shorts should take note; the technology to make the penis as invisible as a stealth bomber on the radar screen was there in the 1950s, and can be used again today.

It appears that Performance Bicycle may already be using this concept. (See picture, right.)

I can imagine the potential for some catchy advertising like: "The Anti-bacterial padding in these shorts is cleverly placed for a low profile, less pretentious package."

Or: "Extreme comfort level for both the wearer and the casual observer."

It also occurred to me, and again, the idea sprang from television censorship. Today anything offensive we might see on TV is Pixilated; blurred out so we can't see the details.

Here is an idea; why not print the pixilation right on the shorts in the crotch area.

Any innocent bystander who might accidentally gaze in that direction, would see the pixilation, and being accustomed to seeing this on TV would be satisfied that the matter had been taken care of.

The pixilation should be extended from the crotch to the rear of the shorts, because when those white shorts get wet, we can see your butt crack.

I should start charging money for ideas like this, but I do it for the good of the sport of cycling.



Road Cyclist’s Ten Commandments

The Vatican recently issued a set of Ten Commandments for motorists. I thought it appropriate that road cyclists have their own.

1. Pray as you cycle, but not with your hands together and your eyes closed.

2. Thou shall not run red lights, except when there is no one else around; it shall be as the tree falling silently in the forest.

3. When a motorist cuts you off, offer up the sign of the cross. One finger pointed towards Heaven will not suffice.

4. Thou shalt wave to thy fellow cyclist. If he should ignore you, offer your blessing, and not “Fuck you, moron.”

5. If three consecutive cyclists ignore your wave, you are exempt from the forth commandment.

6. If passed while climbing a steep hill by a Fred with a 30 inch granny gear, resist the urge to wish that his chain will jump over his plastic dork disc and rip every spoke from his rear wheel.

7. Thou shalt not covet thy neighbor’s ass, nor his six-pack abs, or any other part of his body.

8. Before the sun sets on the Sabbath, thou shalt shave your legs.

9. The meek shall inherit the earth. Blingy equipment that is lighter than an anorexic butterfly, will not substitute for miles in your legs.

10. Thou shalt not lie. Thou shalt not go on Internet forums under a pseudonym and boast how you blew all your friends away on an 8,000-foot climb, when the biggest hill in your area is a bridge over the freeway.


A String Alignment Test

Here is a string alignment check that will check both your frame and fork without dismantling the bike. I must warn you that this is a little tedious to set up; I did it on my own but it would be easier with the help of a second person. Not your wife, if you want to stay married.

Turn the bike upside down and rest the handlebars on two wooden blocks or stacks of books of equal height. Squeeze the brake levers and secure them with rubber bands as shown. This will hold the wheels to stop them spinning, but still allow you to rotate them.

Measure the height of the bottom bracket shell from the ground. Now rotate the wheels so the valve stems are one inch higher than the bottom bracket front and rear wheel, and positioned at the extremities of the bike. This will be your guide to where you will place the string.

Using a piece of string long enough to reach the length of the bike and back again; start at the back wheel valve stem and thread the string inside the spokes of both wheels. Tie a loop in the string at the front tire and repeat with the other end of the string from the back to the front on the opposite side of the bike.

Pull the string tight. Make a loop at the front tire and pass it through the first loop you tied on the end of the string. Pass this loop over the front valve stem and pull tight; this will hold it in place.

Now here is the tedious part; if the sting is touching a spoke, you are going to have to untie and rethread the string. Mostly you will be inside the spokes, but in some places where the string passes a spoke near the rim, you may need to be outside the spoke.

You can turn the front wheel (Steering.) until the string is touching the tire in four places each wheel, but touching nothing else. The double string should be in the center of the bottom bracket shell, (See top Picture.) but more importantly be in the center of the down tube. A BB shell can be machined unequally, but if the wheels are central the main tubes, the frame is straight.

If your bike rides fine I wouldn’t even go to the trouble of doing this test. However, if you suspect something is off, this test will show it up. Sometimes in a crash, the front wheel will turn 90 degrees to the frame and the rider is thrown over the handlebars. In this case the front fork can be pushed slightly sideways, and the wheels will not be in the same plane.

Tolerances: I would expect the string to be within 1 mm. of the tire at any point, with the wheel central between the chainstays. My thanks to Bill Talbot for suggesting this topic.


Suicide Shifters

Suicide shifters is a term I never heard until I came to the US; it is a name given to the lever operated front derailleurs used in the late 1940s and early 1950s.

I came across this rare picture from 1952 of André Darrigade (with Lucien Lauk) reaching down to change chainrings on his Simplex-equipped La Perle bike. When I started racing that same year, I used this same equipment and I can assure you there was nothing “suicide” in their operation.

The most popular lever operated front changer was the French made Simplex, (Above.) which is the one being used by Darrigade in the top picture. It simply pivoted in the center and you pushed the knob on the lever inwards toward the frame to shift up to the big ring, and opposite to shift down. Simplex also made chainrings and bottle cages (both pictured here.) The chainrings were often used with different make cranks like the Italian Gnutti or Magistroni.

Huret, (Above.) another French make, was also popular; I used this one. It worked on a helical, or screw like cam. You pushed the lever forward to go to the small ring, and back to change up.

Huret also had an interesting rear derailleur, it used twin down tube levers and twin cables. (Note: Two cables on the chainstay that also needed a double cable stop.)

(The twin levers: Left.) The large lever shifted gears, while the short lever tensioned the chain. On a smooth road, you could run the chain slack for less friction.


Another front changer I had fist hand experience of was the British made Cyclo-Benilux. (Above.) This one had a twist rod held with two clamps on the seat tube. You twisted the rod to shift up and down. I liked this one because I found I could reach behind my right leg and the knob at the top of the rod would be right where my hand naturally fell. Unlike the other changers that you had to reach between your legs to operate the lever.

None of these changers had return springs, they were manually operated both ways. Most of them had a simple friction device to hold it where you put it. But on most of them if the chain rubbed it would automatically knock the changer yoke out of the way, and no further adjustment was needed.

This equipment was simple, to the point of being crude, but they got the job done. We became used to it, and skilled in its operation. There was nothing “suicide” about it.

There are probably few people in America with actual experience of using these. (I would be interested to hear comments from any.) The 1970s generation probably gave them the name. They look more awkward to use that the actually were.

I can imagine in years to come, the cyclists who grew up with down tube friction shifters will fade away, and the “Brifter”* generation will then dub these suicide shifters.

Top picture from The Wool Jersey.
Other pictures from Classic Lightweights, UK.
Brifters* Combination brake and gear shift levers.