Bernie the Merckx-beater - A country hidden by a large dog - CycleBlaze

August 7, 2019

Bernie the Merckx-beater

Charolles

A threadbare bike marks the start of Bernard Thévenet's career
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A THREADBARE bike stands against a wall. The tyres are flat, the handlebar tape stained and fraying. It has the air of having been pulled from a heap of wheelbarrows and lawnmowers.

It is the bike on which Bernard Thévenet won his first race. And he went on to win many more, convincing his parents they'd been wrong to hope he'd take over the farm.

Bernard Thévenet, known as Nanard [Bernie] to acquaintances, is the man who humiliated Eddy Merckx in the mountains of the Tour de France, which he won. Such was Merckx's grip on the Tour and cycling generally that a spectator held up a sign that read "The Bastille has fallen." You'll find it on the web.

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Thévenet in his first Tour de France
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Bernard Thévenet won the Tour de France in 1975 and 1977 and ended Eddy Merckx's reign. He also won nine stages.

He rode his first Tour in his first year as a professional,  finding he was in the race only two days before it started. He is best known for attacking Merckx on the Izoard on France's national day. He rode by Merckx with three kilometres to go and the Belgian lost the yellow jersey and never regained it.

Thévenet's career faded quickly and he admitted that he had been systematically prescribed cortisone by the Peugeot team doctor, François Bellocq.

He retired to manage teams and then to start a clothing company and to commentate on television. He remains a popular figure in France.

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Thévenet was born just outside Charolles and the town has never lost its gratitude - which well it might because he left to live in Grenoble, over by the Alps.

For years, Serge Barbier has made it his job to fill a hall in Charolles' centre with memories and jerseys and bikes and even drinking bottles, each with a Nanard connection.

The entrance isn't inspiring but the museum is worth a visit
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"The one thing we don't have," he regrets, a short, genial and overweight man obsessed by his task, "is one of his professional bikes. He gave them all to the local curé, who's also a cycling fan.

"I used to ride too, but the knees won't stand it. I've had operations on them, so that's all finished, the cycling."

He tells us that Thévenet's parents didn't want him to race. They thought it was too fanciful a job and too dangerous. But then he won the first race he rode and many others as well and they accepted reality.

A tribute by fans in the Charolles gallery
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In a film of his life, Thévenet says there was no way he was going to work on the farm, whatever his parents wanted.

"I didn't dream of being a professional but I knew I'd do any job other than farming. I could see the way they were tied to the farm before dawn until evening, to the animals, working from darkness to darkness for next to nothing."

When Thévenet won  the Dauphiné, he asked his parents to the finish.

"They said they couldn't, that they couldn't leave the farm. I told them there was a small airfield 20km from home. They could fly from there and still be back to work in the evening. And only then would they concede."

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He spoke of a crash going down the Aubisque in the Pyrenees in the Tour de France. He went off the road with another rider, banged his head but got back on his bike. He was conscious but confused.

"It was cold and I thought it was February. I didn't know where I was but I saw a sign for the Tour de France. I wondered why I was riding the Tour de France in February. I asked them in the team car. 'Is this the Tour de France?' They said it was and that I'd banged my head but I was all right.

"I put my hand in my pocket for some food and found a map of the route instead. I looked at it and I saw that we had to ride over the Aubisque. I had no memory of having ridden it. So I rode on and then I saw a sign 'Finish 20km', so I called up the car and I asked them 'Am I in the Tour de France? Is the finish in 20km?'

"And they said yes, and so I rode on and finished the stage."

Two days later he won on Mont Ventoux.

Of such are champions made.

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Comment on this entry Comment 3
Suzanne GibsonGreat story! I wish I could recommend the wonderful Centrum Ronde van Vlaanderen in Oudenaarde, Belgium, where the history of the Tour of Flanders is told - but I'm sure you know it.
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2 years ago
Leo WoodlandI do indeed know it and only the tatters of my modesty forbid my publishing a picture of me and Freddy Maertens there. I'm planning to go again if I get to visit the Ghent Six this winter.
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2 years ago