Les Stylistes: Racers with a Certain Chic
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French, it is often said, is the language of Molière. But it is also the language of the Tour de France and the traditional language of cycling. As a result, cycling has inspired a host of writers. French literary giants such as Roland Barthes and Antoine Blondin have written eloquently of the sport, as have American expatriate writers Ernest Hemingway and Henry Miller. And, of course, the sport has a language all of its own, including words such as echelon, parcours, pavé, peloton and rouleur that are all part of cycling’s international vocabulary.
Words: James Startt
Images: Yuzuru Sunada
But few French words embody the insider aspect of the sport as much as le styliste. No, we are not referring to fashion designers. Le styliste instead is a special term accorded to a rare kind of cyclist, one who through a combination of factors embodies elegance over effort and incarnates beauty in motion under all circumstances.
“Le styliste is a rider who never changes position regardless of their effort,” says Philippe Brunel, a French author and longtime cycling journalist at the Paris sports daily L’Équipe. “It doesn’t matter if they are climbing in the mountains or riding on the cobbles, they never appear to be suffering. Their style, their elegance always takes precedence.”
“It’s a combination of several factors,” says Claude Droussent, former head of print and digital media at L’Équipe. “Their back is perfectly flat and they possess a silk-like pedal stroke. There is no movement when they are riding.”
According to most, history’s first great styliste was Swiss rider Hugo Koblet, whose meteoric rise saw him waltz to Tour de France victory in 1951. Glory was short-lived for Koblet, who contracted a strange virus while riding in Mexico that same year and, later, only showed glimpses of the brilliance that carried him to five stage wins in ’51. Yet it is of little matter that his palmarès (another French word!) is short. His 135-kilometer solo victory on the ’51 Tour stage from Brive to Agen—when he held off a strong chase by legends such as Fausto Coppi, Gino Bartali and Louison Bobet—remains one of the Tour’s most historic coups. French rider Raphaël Geminiani, who was in the chase group, was so overwhelmed by Koblet’s effort that he observed: “If he continues like that, I’ll have to find a new profession.” But it was not the physical exploit that so impressed viewers, but the apparent ease with which Koblet rode while others grimaced behind, earning him the nickname, Le Pédaleur de Charme.
His Brive-Agen breakaway and Tour victory left a lasting impression. A year later, with Koblet just a shadow of his former self, another Swiss rider won the Tour: Ferdi Kübler. But he would never be confused with the charmed pedaler. If anything, Kübler was the antithesis of a styliste. An emotional rider, his efforts were the product of overt grimacing and suffering. Pain was part of his game and Kübler did nothing to hide it.
Ironically, the greatest Tour de France winners are rarely considered among the sport’s great stylistes. “You know there is a certain narcissism among the stylistes,” says Brunel. “They often lack that ability to turn themselves inside out. Their style just permeates everything they do. They are the guys that look at themselves as they ride by a storefront window. But to win the Tour de France, sometimes you really do have to turn yourself inside out. It’s not just about looking good.”
There are exceptions, however, and of the sport’s five-time winners, Frenchman Jacques Anquetil is generally given styliste stature. His track background gave him a natural fluidity in his pedal stroke, while his low back and flat position made him perfectly aerodynamic. Only in his most grueling efforts—as in his battle with Raymond Poulidor on the slopes of the Puy de Dôme in the 1964 Tour—did he ever appear the slightest bit distressed.
Off the bike, Anquetil embodied elegance with his hair perfectly parted. Like Koblet, he kept a comb in his back pocket to smooth out his blond locks as soon as he’d finished a race. And no sooner had Maître Jacques showered than he seemed ready for an evening of playing cards with friends or nightclubbing at some Paris hotspot. The sport of cycling came so easily to Anquetil that he could occasionally be seen with a cigarette, perfectly poised of course between his fingers.
Early in his career, Eddy Merckx earned high points as a styliste. But that all changed after his horrific crash during a motor-paced event on the velodrome in Blois, just weeks after winning his first Tour de France in 1969. Merckx himself admits that he had two careers, one before the crash and one after. And while he still went on to win scores of races the injuries incurred forever changed his position on the bike.
Of the other Tour de France winners, Irishman Stephen Roche also gets high points. Sure he grimaced plenty as he limited his loses behind Spaniard Pedro Delgado in the mountains of the 1987 Tour, but Droussent says about Roche: “Riders would ride behind him just to gaze at his pedal stroke.”
Vincenzo Nibali has style.
At times it is tempting to confuse a styliste with a rider who has a certain style. But among aficionados such excess is considered a veritable no-no. Many riders of course have a unique style. British rider Sean Yates was nothing short of an iconoclastic racer. A tireless team worker, he could be spotted at the front of many races in the 1980s and early ’90s—with short shorts sitting high on his thigh, his brake levers low in the drops and his handlebars tilted down, he was impossible to miss. There was nothing studied or aerodynamic about his position, Yates admits today. It was simply a question of personal comfort.
Irishman Sean Kelly, the king of the classics and No. 1-ranked professional for five consecutive years in the 1980s, also possessed a style all of his own. Kelly perhaps had the pedal stroke of a styliste, but his bunched-up torso disqualified him from any such classification.
And, of course, current Tour de France champion Chris Froome would never be confused with a styliste. There is little that’s pretty about the way he rides, but his utterly unprecedented head-down style is unique to Froome. The Kenyan-born Brit instead calls to mind Czechoslovak long-distance runner and Olympic champion Emil Zátopek, who oddly ran with his arms so high that he risked punching himself. But that did not stop him from winning three gold medals at the 1952 Helsinki Olympics. Zátopek displayed a completely atypical approach to athletic form but, like Froome, he was mechanically incredibly efficient.
It is possible to be a styliste in just one area. Italy’s Francesco Moser or Belgium’s Roger De Vlaeminck were total stylistes on the cobbles of Paris-Roubaix, capable of floating seemingly motionless over the most brutal roads the sport has to offer. But put them in the mountains and they could be reduced to rubble. No, a pure styliste retains his stature in all domains. Little matter if they get dropped. Seemingly, in the true spirit of a styliste, it is better to get dropped and still look good, rather than hang on at any price.
For most longtime observers of the sport, the greatest styliste ever to grace the peloton was Germany’s Didi Thurau. A product of the track, Thurau was a three-time national pursuit champion and he had one of the most lucrative careers in the history of six-day racing. Years on the boards allowed him to ride in a perfectly compact position for hours, and when he raced into the yellow jersey at the 1977 Tour de France, he was a picture of elegance. The high mountains proved his unraveling—but that year, in a virtual state of grace, he accompanied Tour greats Eddy Merckx and Bernard Thévenet far longer than expected. “The thing about Thurau was that even when he was dropped he looked good. His style remained,” says Brunel.
After his memorable ’77 Tour, many expected Thurau to be fill the void created by soon-to-be-retired Merckx. And after he won the Liège-Bastogne-Liège classic in 1979 many thought the German would rival classic specialists Moser and De Vlaeminck. Neither expectation came to pass; Thurau preferred the limelight (and cash!) of the six-day circuit. For a true styliste, facility remains primordial.
But while les stylistes are often associated with the golden age of cycling, they can still be found today. Vincenzo Nibali possesses the grace of a styliste that he’s shown in winning all three grand tours. Cool and collected over the cobbles, he also rides effortlessly in the mountains. And the recently retired David Millar always retained high marks in the styliste category.
Of today’s professionals, the styliste par excellence would likely be Dutch rider Tom Dumoulin. A natural-born time trialist, the tall and elegant rider provides a textbook image of beauty and efficiency in the race against the clock. Like a true Dutchman, he handles the cobbles and crosswinds effortlessly and he knows how to ride within himself in the mountains. He may not yet be a grand tour champion, but as he proved on the stage to Andorra in this year’s Tour, he is capable of winning memorable mountain stages as well as time trials. Little matter how many races Dumoulin wins in his career. Already, he possesses that rare combination of power and grace to be considered a true styliste.