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A.C.B.B.: The house that Mickey built

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It’s easy to overlook the monochromatic sign of the Complexe Jacques Anquetil on Rue Yves Kermen in the southwest Paris suburb of Boulogne-Billancourt. And it’s easy to overlook the silhouette of trophies in the dusty window of the nondescript side entrance at this aging residential complex that was once considered futuristic. But somehow it’s a fitting home for the Athletic Club Boulogne-Billancourt, or the A.C.B.B. as it is commonly known, a modest amateur cycling team by today’s standards. And yet in its heyday it was the most forward-looking club team in the world. Not only was it consistently the top squad in France but, almost unwittingly, the A.C.B.B. also ushered in the sport’s first significant wave of international racers.

Words/images: James Startt

Once inside the clubhouse, there are further clues to the team’s glorious past. An aging polka-dot wool jersey collects dust from its hangar on the wall—a memento left by Robert Millar, who, in 1984, became the first and only Scottish rider to win the best climber’s jersey in the Tour de France. Faring considerably better is a framed replica yellow jersey, signed by 1987 Tour de France winner Stephen Roche, to date the only Irishman to win the Tour. And then, of course, there are the photographs, aging black-and-white reminders of the club’s golden age.

Although the A.C.B.B. was already one of the most powerful postwar cycling teams in France, producing Tour winners like Jacques Anquetil and Bernard Thévenet, its golden age came much later. For a 10-year period in the 1970s and ’80s it ushered in a huge wave of English-speaking riders, many of whom went on to greatness in the professional ranks. In addition to Roche and Millar, there was Phil Anderson, the first Australian to wear the yellow jersey in the Tour, along with others such as Paul Sherwen, Allan Peiper and Sean Yates, who also enjoyed reputable pro careers and made their mark in the sport for years after.

The brains behind the A.C.B.B. legend was mercurial and Machiavellian team manager Paul “Mickey” Wiegant. His nickname apparently came for his affection for Disney’s Mickey Mouse character, which he often wore on his track jersey when he was a racer. By all recollections, it was his most endearing quality. Anquetil’s one-time directeur sportif on the Helyett pro team, Wiegant came to the A.C.B.B. with one thought in mind: to maintain the club’s status atop the French amateur team rankings. And it was this obsession, rather than any multicultural vision, that started him recruiting riders from overseas.

The first Anglophone to lead the charge was Sherwen, today the well-known television commentator. Sherwen became an acébébiste, as A.C.B.B. riders were known, in 1977. He got immediate results and signed with the Fiat pro squad in 1978. But, before leaving, Sherwen recommended another standout, his English compatriot Graham Jones…and soon a tradition began where the best English-speaking amateur riders gravitated to the A.C.B.B.

It’s somewhat ironic that Sherwen signed with Fiat. After all, the A.C.B.B. was foremost the farm club to the mighty Peugeot pro team. The acébébistes rode Peugeot bikes, traveled to races in Peugeot team cars and, in certain years, featured the famous black-and-white checkerboard design of the pro team on their caps and jersey. But while the A.C.B.B. team could often be confused with a professional operation, behind the scenes was a brutally competitive organization, where only the strongest—both mentally and physically—survived.

“Someone was supposed to meet me at the airport and take me to the training camp,” remembers Roche, who got his chance with the A.C.B.B. in 1980. “But when I arrived there was no one. There were no mobile phones at that time, but I had the address of the clubhouse so I took a cab to Rue de Sèvres [where the original clubhouse existed]. I got out of the car and dragged my suitcase up the street. It was late though and everything was closed when I got there so I just jumped the fence, hid my bags in the bushes and then went off to find a meal. Afterwards I returned, got my bag from the bushes and just slept on the porch. Then, the next morning at about 5 a.m., two guys stopped by. They were on their way to the training camp on the Côte d’Azur. They opened the gates and said, ‘Are you Roche? Come with us.’ I climbed into the back of a Peugeot 104 and 16 hours later I was in the South of France. That was my welcome to France.”

By all accounts, Roche’s welcome was typical for the foreign riders. And it was a first test. “I took the overnight bus from Victoria Station [in London] to Gare du Nord [in Paris],” remembers Sean Yates, who followed in Roche’s footsteps. “They said they would have someone to meet me but there was no one. I reckon it was a way of seeing how tough you were. If you passed that first test they really liked that.”

“Wiegant liked the foreign riders,” remembers current A.C.B.B. secretary Jean-Claude Le Dissez, who joined the club when Roche arrived. He remembers the Anglophone riders well. “It was just about results. Wiegant liked the foreign riders because they didn’t ask questions. They were just there to ride.”

If victory was the only thing that counted for Wiegant, for some riders it was their only way to eat. Unlike many of their French teammates, the foreigners received no monthly stipend, because they were housed for free. Extra money for food would, on occasion, be offered as an advance against future prize earnings.

“I was just completely isolated,” remembers Peiper. “The hardest thing was finding and paying for food. One day I had to make the choice between a half of baguette and a yogurt or a half of baguette and some apples. I had to make the choice of eating two things and not three because I didn’t have any money.” The Australian nevertheless persisted. After all, the A.C.B.B. was a considerable step up from his first amateur team, in Belgium, where he slept in a butcher’s shop when he first arrived.

Yates fared somewhat better. He made himself the useful lead-out rider to another British rider, John Herety, and the two raked up primes in the many nocturne criterium races that were held in the evenings during the springtime.

But while the foreign riders often struggled with the language, alienation and hunger, they got tremendous results. Not only were many of them tremendously talented bike riders, they were fiercely independent and self-sufficient at a young age. And while they were often considered a curiosity in what was then the very closed world of French cycling, these oddballs could not be denied by unfavorable odds.

In an age when there was no common currency, when there was no internet or mobile phones, these unwitting pioneers had to rely mostly on themselves. In essence, the A.C.B.B. was a university of cycling. And it was a school for life. And, as some would learn, lessons learned here proved essential for success in the pro ranks.

Australia’s Anderson raced for the A.C.B.B. in 1979, turned pro for Peugeot in 1980 and, in1981, became the first non-European to wear the yellow jersey at the Tour de France—a feat he repeated a year later. Roche raced for the club in 1980 and a year later became the first and only neo-pro to win the historic Paris–Nice stage race before going on to win the Giro d’Italia, Tour de France and world championship in the 1987 season.

“They develop a sense of responsibility when they leave their countries and seek their fortunes here,” Maurice De Muer, sport director to the Peugeot pro team said in a 1981 story titled “A Little English on the Tour” by Samuel Abt in the International Herald Tribune. “The only choice they have is to do well or go home.”

Roche remembers, however, that doing well only meant one thing: winning. Although he had good results from the start of the 1980 season, Wiegant told him flatly, “It’s not second and third places that get you pro contracts.” Roche responded days later by winning the amateur version of Paris-Roubaix. “I’ll never forget,” Roche recalls. “In the final, I was with Dirk Demol [the Belgian who went on to win the race as a professional]. The A.C.B.B. car had a broken window during the race, but Wiegant was leaning out yelling, ‘Roche, if you don’t win here you’re going home!’”

To make matters even more difficult, Peiper recalls how sometimes the fiercest competition came from his own teammates. Jealousies with the French riders could run high. “I remember racing in the Franco-Belge stage race,” Peiper says. “It was a race that, if you won it, you turned pro. I was in the leader’s jersey on the final day. We hit the final circuit and the team car was not allowed to follow. I punctured. And all of my teammates just stopped. They just pulled out! Finally, I got a wheel from a tourist. When I caught the peloton and went to the front because the second and thirdplace riders went up the road. I chased and chased but I lost the jersey by one second. My teammates let me down. But, you know, they really didn’t give a shit.”

Not all of the French riders played dirty of course. And some had real respect for the foreign riders. “They were just hungrier!” remembers Jean-François Oléon, one of the French riders at the time, when speaking of the foreign riders on A.C.B.B. Oléon, a promising amateur, was recruited by Wiegant as a first-year senior in 1980, the year Roche arrived, and the two have remained friends since. “They had a fighting spirit 24 hours a day and they didn’t ask questions. They weren’t going to complain if their shorts or jersey didn’t fit quite right. That wasn’t always the case with us French riders.”

In reality, the “Foreign Legion,” as Australian journalist Rupert Guinness called them in a book of the same name, lasted barely a decade. And rarely did more than one of the overseas riders manage to get a pro contract in any given year. But what was so impressive was the depth of talent that the A.C.B.B. produced in those years. And while Wiegant could be merciless he was also inspirational. Even today, those who rode under him, refer to him as “Monsieur Wiegant.” They’re grateful for the chance he provided. And although Wiegant was no visionary, the house that Mickey built proved prescient, as the A.C.B.B. helped revolutionize the sport of cycling, transforming it from an inward-looking European discipline to an expansive international sport.