Remembering Super Prestige Pernod, the season-long battle for title of best rider in the world
Perfection, in the game of Jenga, where you pile brick upon brick to build a tower, comes just before the final brick is added. The difficulty is in predicting what the final brick will prove to be — it is, literally, a fine balancing act — before the whole edifice comes tumbling down.
I thought about Jenga when searching for a metaphor for the 2017 UCI WorldTour. But it isn’t so much an intricately balanced structure as a mélange. It’s a dinner with too many courses, a recipe with too many ingredients, a jigsaw with too many pieces. What it provokes, apart from confusion, are pangs of nostalgia for a simpler, more straightforward time.
There was such a time. When I began following cycling in the 1980s there was a structure and shape to the cycling year that made sense, and a season-long competition that meant something — rather a lot, in fact. It was called the Super Prestige Pernod and, between 1959 and 1987, it recognised the best all-round rider in the world.
The best all tried to win it, and most did: Jacques Anquetil (four times), Eddy Merckx (seven in a row), Bernard Hinault (four), Greg LeMond, Francesco Moser, and Sean Kelly (three in a row). The last winner was Kelly’s countryman, Stephen Roche, in 1987. Thereafter, a ban on alcohol sponsorship of sport in France made the Super Prestige Pernod as dead as Paris-Brest-Paris. (As an aside, doesn’t it seem odd that France, admired for her mature and healthy relationship with alcohol, has for so long outlawed alcohol sponsorship?)
Different incarnations of a season-long competition have followed ever since, but none has captured the imagination of the public or riders in the way the Super Prestige Pernod did.
I asked Kelly, the three-time winner, if he could put his finger on why it meant so much more to win than its successor, the World Cup, or the WorldTour.
“Well,” Kelly said, “it’s true that all the top riders went for it. They really wanted to win it. It was a big thing, because it included the best races, classics and stage races.
“But,” he added, “the real fact was that the prize money was very good.”
Typical Kelly, injecting some cold-hearted realism into my nostalgic yearning. Nevertheless, wistful nostalgia is what I feel when I look at the latest incarnation of the WorldTour, with its bloated calendar (37 events, numerous clashes) and races strewn across the globe, like the aftermath of a game of Jenga.
The Super Prestige Pernod, and what it meant, is best summed up not by the list of winners but by a single image: the finish to the Tour of Lombardy in 1983. It’s one of the best cycling pictures, showing a a desperate, four-up sprint, each man with his head down, lunging for the line.
Kelly won, at 27; it was the first of his ten Classics victories. But there were two races going on that day. Alongside Kelly is Greg LeMond in his newly minted rainbow jersey of world champion. LeMond is glancing to his right; he is second, about three inches behind Kelly and just ahead of Adrie van der Poel, who in turn pips Hennie Kuiper.
The other race was for the Super Prestige Pernod title, and the coverage of the Tour of Lombardy reflected that. It provided not so much a subtext as a wider context. It gave the race additional and deeper meaning. It was often the way at Lombardy. One of the most memorable Lombardy/Super Prestige climaxes was in 1979 when Hinault embarked on a 140km break to snatch the prize from under the nose of the dashing Italian, Giuseppe Saronni.
Four years later, LeMond was leading going into Lombardy, with 205 points, with Kelly fourth, at 160. Saronni and Jan Raas were second and third, and, on paper, any of the four could win (there were 60 points for first, 40 for second). Raas was an early casualty, withdrawing from the race, then Saronni was dropped on the Itelvi climb, where LeMond also struggled, though he regained contact on the descent.
On the run-in to the finish in Como, Kelly got some help from Roche, though they were on rival teams. Roche sat on the front of the 18-man leading group, keeping the speed high and the race together for Kelly, the quickest finisher. In the final kilometre, Moser went for a long one, but the two Dutchmen, Van der Poel and Kuiper, were on to him. Then Kelly launched his sprint, followed by LeMond, and there was the blanket finish captured so brilliantly in the famous photograph.
In winning, Kelly moved up to second in the Super Prestige standings, but LeMond’s second place was enough for him to earn the right to attend the awards ceremony in Paris, don the rainbow-coloured sash awarded to the winner (which resembled the rainbow jersey, but was actually the colours of the Pernod brand) and pick up the trophy (and prize money).
Kelly insists that going into Lombardy he was thinking of winning the battle, not the war. “I didn’t expect to win the Super Prestige. It was always going to be difficult for me against LeMond. LeMond had a very strong sprint. We had some fierce battles.” (Indeed they did. Although Kelly was the renowned sprinter, LeMond could sprint when he had to. Having run him close in Lombardy in 1983, six years later he deprived Kelly of the honour he most craved, a rainbow jersey, when he beat him in another close finish at the world championships in Chambéry.)
The Super Prestige Pernod evolved from the Challenge Desgrange-Colombo, founded in 1948 and named in honour of Tour de France founder Henri Desgrange and Emilio Colombo, one of the Giro d’Italia organisers. It was run by three newspapers: L’Equipe, of France; Gazzetta dello Sport, of Italy; and Het Nieuwsblad, of Belgium.
Initially the season-long competition only included events in these three countries: Paris-Roubaix, the Tour de France, and Paris-Tours; Milan-San Remo, the Giro d’Italia, and Tour of Lombardy; the Tour of Flanders, Flèche Wallonne, and Paris-Brussels. The Tour de Suisse was added after a year; Liège-Bastogne-Liège, a surprising omission, became part of the competition in 1951, as did the Vuelta a España, in 1958.
When the organising newspapers fell out, Pernod, makers of the liqueur d’anis, took over and the competition expanded and became more international. Paris-Nice, the Dauphiné Libéré, the Tour of Catalonia, and Tour de Romandie were added. Still, the focus was on a relatively small number of high-ranking races, with the points system favouring riders who actually made an impression — you scored if you finished in the top 10. By way of comparison, in the 2017 World Tour, points are awarded for 60th place at the Tour of Guangxi.
It is a measure of the prestige of the Super Prestige Pernod that Roche, the final winner in 1987, lists it among his greatest accomplishments in a year in which he did the treble of Giro, Tour, and world road title.
“For me it was the best system there’s been — the best definition of a world champion,” says Roche. “In a way it meant more than the world road race, because it recognised the best all-round rider of the year. It was a real, genuine reflection of that. There was never any argument. If you won the Super Prestige, you were the most complete rider in the world, like Peter Sagan is now. Okay, so Sagan won the World Tour last year, but nobody cares.
“The balance was good with the Super Prestige in terms of the way the points were awarded,” Roche continues. “I didn’t understand why it ended. OK, the sponsor went, but I don’t know why the system changed. If it isn’t broke, why fix it? They tried making it better but nothing’s ever reflected the best all-rounder the way the Super Prestige did.”
The World Cup was its successor, with Perrier replacing Pernod as title sponsor. It’s too easy a joke to say that this diluted the competition. But the successor, which launched in 1989, was an emasculated, decaffeinated version: it marked the UCI’s first efforts (ongoing) to make the sport more global. New events were added in Great Britain, Canada, and Japan. But the biggest change was that it only included one-day races. There was some continuity; Kelly was the first winner. Since the birth of the UCI ProTour, in 2005, and the name change to WorldTour, in 2011, both stage races and one-day races have been included, sometimes with overlapping dates.
Roche, the final Super Prestige Pernod winner, mourns its demise. “I knew it was stopping, so I knew I’d be the last winner,” he says.
“What I remember is the ceremony at the end of the year in a theatre in Paris. I remember it well because I met the rugby players, Serge Blanco and Jean-Pierre Rives, who were there because Pernod sponsored the French team. We had a great time. I stayed in contact with Serge and Jean-Pierre. To this day, every two years, when Ireland play France in Paris, we get together.”
Sad to say, but Roche’s biennial rugby rendezvous in Paris might be the only legacy of the Super Prestige Pernod.
About the author
Richard Moore is a freelance journalist and the author of books including In Search of Robert Millar and Slaying the Badger: The story of the 1986 Tour de France. He is also a former racing cyclist who competed for Scotland at the 1998 Commonwealth Games and for Great Britain at the Tour de Langkawi. He is the co-presenter of The Cycling Podcast.