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It’s not every Friday you get to watch a conversation unfold between three multiple-time Grand Tour winners, a current high-profile rider, a winner of 21 six-day track events, and a clothing pioneer. But that’s exactly what happened a couple months ago in an upmarket hotel just off Paris’ Champs Elysees — a boulevard where the assembled had made more than a few fond memories.
It was a unique and unmissable opportunity. Gathered together were Bernard Hinault, Miguel Indurain, Joop Zoetemelk, Urs Freuler and the young gun of the group, Nicolas Roche. The man behind the meet-up was Toni Maier, a name not as familiar as the others but, as the founder of Assos, a man of great importance in cycling circles.
The meeting was called to celebrate Maier’s 40 years in business with riders that, between them, have racked up 19 Grand Tour wins (including 11 Tours de France), 13 world championships, 19 national championships, six Monuments and an Olympic Gold medal.
It would turn out to be a roundtable discussion like no other.
Maier sat at the head of the table, leaning back in his chair, his body language suggesting this get-together was an everyday affair — a regular Friday dinner party. Sat to his right, on either end of a sofa, were Hinault and Indurain. Wedged between them was the smartly dressed Zoetemelk. On Maier’s right sat the larger-than-life Freuler, a man that now resembles the character in the Tonton-Tapis logo; a logo that appeared on the namesake team’s jersey in the early ’90s. Next to Freuler sat Roche, the Irishman becoming the centre of attention before the cameras even started rolling.
As ever when a group of cyclists come together, the conversation quickly turned to the subject of equipment. The retirees each quizzed Roche on the kit he was currently using with the BMC team. If I’d shut my eyes and didn’t know where I was, it could have easily been any mid-ride coffee shop chat — guys discussing the latest high-end rain jackets and marginal gains from the latest aero jersey.
A selection of memorabilia sat scattered on the coffee table in front of the group. Each had brought items from their personal collections, making a miniature museum of golden moments in cycling. Indurain’s iconic Banesto time trial helmet, Hinault’s distinctive black and yellow kit from his Renault days, Roche’s national championships jersey and a selection of team jerseys and shorts from years past that had either been a first in clothing development or that sported iconic designs.
Freuler had even brought along shorts he’d worn at six-day events; shorts he’d had to blacken out the ‘A’ logo on, not wanting to upset his official clothing sponsor by wearing items he found preferable.
They spoke in French, making it a slight challenge for this Englishman to fully understand. But as I soon found out, each man’s body language would give away their character as much as the words they spoke.
Maier, the man that had brought them all together, sat quietly, almost disappearing into the backdrop at times as he watched the conversation unfold in front of him. Hinault quickly (and perhaps unsurprisingly) took the role of the alpha-male of the pack, dressed in his usual jeans and a dark suit jacket. He sat perched on the edge of the sofa, shoulders relaxed, chest thrust forward, elbows resting on his knees … when they weren’t being thrown about in animated style. He’d lead many of the conversions.
Joop Zoetemelk didn’t look the 71 years of age he now is. Stylish in his suit, he sat quietly, adding to the conversation thoughtfully, his eyes often darting between Indurain and Hinault to either side. Leaning back into the sofa his hands would wrap around his right knee or drop into his lap. His quiet and shy demeanour made Indurain look almost excitable and confident by contrast — quite a surprise.
Indurain has always been known as shy; something of a gentle giant. But it was a pleasant surprise to see him so open and chatty. He was always smiling as he’d eagerly and patiently listen to the others. He’d almost always have some garment from the coffee table in his hand, inspecting it, turning it over in his hands.
Freuler looked like the businessman he is. Since retiring he’s opened a bike shop in Switzerland … and yes he carries Assos. Relaxed, confident and often with a massive grin on his face, it was clear he was pleased to be amongst the group. His jokes would be scattered throughout the conversations, and he was ready to rib any of the others at the drop of a hat.
Roche slouched back in his chair with his legs crossed, clearly relaxed among those he’d later refer to as idols. Though several generations separated him from the rest, his insight into today’s peloton had eyebrows raising at times. When talk turned to the off-season, Freuler quizzed Roche on how long the modern rider would spend off the bike.
“Not much,” Roche replied. “This year? Two, almost three weeks, not more. Two and a half weeks [of rest].”
At this Indurain, Zoetemelk and Hinault slowly sat back into the sofa. Small smiles crept across their faces as they realised that today’s generation has it a little different to those that went before.
“And you maintain almost the same weight always?” Freuler continued.
“No,” Roche said. “Now I have four kilos [more].”
“No, it’s not too bad. It’s hard because nowadays the teams demand that you’re good in January, you don’t have any time to …”
Before Roche could finish his sentence Hinault cut in: “No time to drink”.
Hinault admitted that, come the spring, he’d always get fat. Something that, as Roche noted, isn’t the done thing anymore.
“I think that the person who was a little overweight in the races was Ulrich,” Maier chimed in.
“14 kilos, 16 — no 18 kilos I think one time he put on,” added Hinault. Cue the resounding laughter from the group.
“Me? I once put on 12 kilos. 12 weeks, 12 kilos … It was my first year as a professional,” Hinault continued. “I did not touch my bike for 12 weeks. And then I lost 12 kilos in 12 weeks.”
Aerodynamics and where it started
Many of the greats have items we’ll always associate with them. For Eddy Merckx, it’s his orange and black Molteni jersey. For Gred LeMond it’s his Scott aero bars or Oakley Razorblade sunglasses. Marco Pantani had his bandana. Indurain had his white, blue and red Banesto-branded Ernesto aero helmet.
“In 1991-2 we started using more aerodynamic bikes, so we also needed aero helmets, and this was the result,” Indurain said, speaking of the helmet. “It wouldn’t really help you in a crash, but it’s definitely aerodynamic. Other clothes and helmets before moved around too much, so they developed this helmet which was quite transformational at the time … this was one of the first.”
Indurain’s Banesto team was sponsored by Pinarello, a brand known for pushing the boundaries when it came to bike design throughout the 1990s. The Pinarello Espada that Indurain rode in his hour record attempt remains a hugely iconic bike. It was the first time Pinarello had used carbon fibre.
As the conversation unfolded in Paris, it would come out that Indurain wasn’t the only one with a history of pushing the boundaries of aerodynamics. Some 18 years before the Pinarello Espada, in 1976, Maier had developed the first carbon fibre track bike. This was a first in aerodynamic profile tubing, and it was also where Maier would start to develop the Assos brand.
“The idea was to make a bike that was aerodynamic,” he said. “During that time, I was into skiing a little and other things [aerodynamic]. Wind tunnels were the latest thing …
“The best shape was a drop of water, but to make a tube like that, I told them [his partners] that they’re crazy. It’s impossible to make the tube a bit [more profiled]. But for me, I was always a little interested in new materials.
“What have they done — they’ve gone to the moon? Formula One. But it was not on the market, carbon fibre, and I said to myself ‘My god — that material, I have to find it! But how will we do it?’ But I found it. I signed [a contract] with the Americans [NASA] that I would not sell it to the East [communists].”
Eleven Tours, Three riders
Having 11 Tour de France wins between just three riders in the one room isn’t too shabby. With numbers like these, and given the calibre of riders assembled, the conversation certainly wasn’t lacking in wild Tour stories. I had predicted something of a macho stand-off between Zoetemelk, Hinault and Indurain on the subject of who had the hardest tour. But those expectations were soon shattered.
Indurain led the way with a story from his first Tour; a Tour where he’d find out exactly how fast The Badger was.
“My first Tour de France was 1985,” he said. “I was a specialist for the prologues. I rode the prologue flat out, and you [gestures towards Hinault] beat me by 1 minute.”
Hinault tilted his head with a wry smile, letting Indurain know why.
“It was in my garden,” the Frenchman said. “It was on my turf”.
Zoetemelk soon joined in with his own stories of suffering, losing, and eventually winning.
“I raced with the two greatest,” he said. “With Eddy [Merckx] at the start, because in ’70 I turned pro and Eddy was already at the top. I came second in my first Tour de France behind him. After that, second again. And after it was him [gesturing towards Hinault] … it was Bernard who arrived in the peloton. And so my second places continued”.
The group laughed in unison before Freuler reminded Zoetemelk just how many times he’d come second at the Tour.
“Six times?” he quipped, already well aware of the answer.
“Six times second,” replied Zoetemelk with a begrudging nod. Hinault quickly jumped to the Dutchman’s defence.
“But all the same he still won the Tour,” Hinault said. “I always said he had no luck. Before you had Eddy, after you had me”.
Roche and Freuler were the odd ones out at the table. Neither has a Grand Tour GC win to their name, but both have their own memories from the world’s biggest race.
Freuler had only competed in one Tour when, at the last moment, he was drafted in by the legendary Peter Post for the Ti-Raleigh team in 1981. Replacing Jan Raas, Freuler showed what he was worth by winning the sprint on stage 15 and being part of two team time trial wins.
Roche’s most significant Tour memory wasn’t about his battles in the French countryside but a memory of post-Tour crits and cheering on his idol.
“I was at a post-Tour criterium — I think I was 8 or 9, perhaps it was 1992 or 93,” said the Irishman. “Each lap as the race went by I shouted: ‘Go, Miguel! Go, Miguel! Go Miguel!’ At the end of the race, my dad came and asked: ‘Why did you not cheer for me? Why were you encouraging Miguel?’ Dad was laughing the whole time.
“And I replied: ‘Because Dad, Miguel won the Tour.’ I had not realised that my dad had won the Tour some years before!”
Being a roundtable organised by Assos, the discussion was always going to turn to clothing at some point. Barring Indurain, all the riders assembled had used Assos clothing in competition during their career. Each clearly had fond memories of coming across the brand too.
Listening to Hinault’s stories of soggy shorts made me more than a little pleased I hadn’t grown up in the era of woollen kits.
“I think that Joop was like me – we had the fortune to see the changes,” he said. “And more so with the clothing. The clothing that we had was more or less woollen, and when it rained it came down just to here [pointing to below his knees] because they were very heavy and you used to lose your shorts”.
Zoetemelk’s first introduction to the brand came via a teammate on the Mercier squad, Daniel Gisiger.
“He had good clothing, and I always had a problem with my backside, because it is not fat, and he told me to try Assos shorts,” he said. “It was like that”.
“You bought me a warm one-piece, a good thermal suit which was something magnificent: only a base layer and this body,” Freuler chimed in, speaking to Maier. “It was perfect for training in winter with very low temperatures.
“That was the thermo; we called it the ‘Thermic’,” added Maier. “With a hood like you find in speed-skating”.
Maier’s jump from carbon fibre track bikes to clothing was all down to a wind tunnel test that revealed it wasn’t so much the bike that caused the drag, but the clothing.
“In the end, when the bike was built, we went to the university’s wind tunnel [ETH University in Zurich]”, he said. “We put the bike in place, took the measurements, the balance, and it was significantly better than a standard bike that we’d been using”.
So far so good.
“After I told Gisiger ‘Get on the saddle’ he did and I watched the gauges, but we did not see a difference,” Maier continued. “I said ‘Shit!’ I left because I needed a grappa. After that, I had another problem: the clothing”.
It wasn’t your average conversation. Each of their eras had either overlapped or clashed, they’d raced each other, battled each other, learnt from each other, or looked up to one another. On that drizzly Friday they’d shared a moment together, all on the same level. All sharing the passion for cycling that still burns brightly in each of them.
While in Paris, we also caught up with Greg Van Avermaet to talk about his respect for the legends of the sport, some of his career highlights and his season ahead.
If you haven’t already, be sure to watch the video at the top of this article.