Living legend: A chat with 106-year-old record-breaking rider Robert Marchand
Being a cycling journalist (I use “journalist” in the loosest possible sense), there are a few rules I like to stick to. One of the biggest is that asking a current rider for a selfie is a definite no-no. You’ve got to keep an air of professionalism about you … even in a sport where people dress up in brightly coloured Lycra.
But on Sunday February 11 I broke that rule. Not with any superstar of the pro peloton but a true living legend of the sport. And you know what? I don’t care.
At either end of life, people are happy to tell you their exact age. Young kids will exclaim “I’m four and a half!”. The old will proudly round up their age: “I’m 89 on my next birthday!”. In between we often aren’t as keen on telling the truth.
Robert Marchand has no issue in saying exactly how old he is. He’s old by anyone’s standards. Impressively old. When he utters the words “J’ai 106 ans”, no further explanation is required. It might be the only time in your life you’ll hear someone say that.
It’s grin-inducing, and especially so when it comes from a wide-smiling man dressed in that bright Lycra we’re all so keen on.
Now 106 years old, Robert Marchand has found a level of fame in recent years. His endeavours on the bike have captured media attention worldwide, and not just the cycling media. Last year Marchand set a new hour record for his age group, one that, not surprisingly, had never been attempted before.
At his local velodrome, France’s nation velodrome in Saint Quentin, he covered 26.927km. Not long after that his doctor recommended that Marchand should “calm it down a bit” — the strain he was putting his body under wasn’t quite advisable for a man of his ripe age. His announcement that he’d be retiring from record-breaking attempts came shortly after.
4km to say goodbye
Jump forward to Sunday February 11 2018 and Marchand was back on the boards for one final time. The plan wasn’t to take on the hour record but for a short jaunt around the track. An unofficial but personal challenge — a 4km goodbye ride.
It was the final round of the French national winter track league and the organisers had made time in the day’s busy schedule to fit in Marchand’s ride. The soundtrack to the ride was the drone of multiple rollers whiring in the background, and a commentator’s booming voice announcing Marchand’s progress. With each lap, the drone of rollers lessened and the noise track-side increased.
As Marchand crossed the line, well-wishers swarmed, the crowd cheered and a group of journalists, all vying for Marchand’s attention, honed in on the 106-year-old. We all feared that, at 106 and with a few kilometres in the legs, Marchand would be too tired to stand around and answer a plethora of questions. How wrong we were.
Local media, French national TV and radio stations, written press and even NPR from the U.S. watched as Robert hopped off his aged but beloved Giant OCR, took a breather, then slowly smiled as he took in the scene around him.
For his age, Marchand’s impressive spritely. He jogged from the stairs leaving the track-side to the far end of the track, where he then refused offers to sit down for the duration of the interviews. At no point did he look fazed — rather he acted like a seasoned media-trained professional, albeit with slightly reduced hearing. As each journalist leaned in, shouting their question into his ear, Marchand talked freely and honestly.
Back at the turn of the last century
Marchand’s life story is quite the tale. He was born in Amiens, a small town in the north of France, in 1911, the same year as Ginger Rogers, Ronald Reagan and former French president Georges Pompidou.
For many of us, first memories are formed around the age of six or seven. But for some, earlier more intense moments have the ability to get lodged. For Marchand, it’s the memory of German troops invading his hometown during the First World War. For his own safety he was whisked away to a farm in the Rhone-Alps, a safehaven where, at the tender age of about four, he worked as a farm hand, ducking below the cows to clean dirt from them.
At the age of 14, he took up cycling, building his own bike — a hodgepodge of parts he DIYed together. His training grounds were the roads around Paris and the famous Velodrome d’Hiver, a track that no longer stands, but that has its own place in history.
“At the time cycling was the king sport,” Marchand explains. “Six-day track racing attracted enormous crowds.” In those days a capacity crowd could reach 20,000 spectators.
The Velodrome d’Hiver has a much darker history too. In July 1942 the venue’s keys were seized from then-owner Jacques Goddet (the director of the Tour de France at the time) and used by the Nazis to imprison 13,152 Jews before they were sent to internment camps and later, to Auschwitz.
During the Second World War Marchand spent time in a prisoner of war camp. It’s not a period he likes to dwell on. Once home from war, it wasn’t long until he found himself back on the bike, and riding as a professional.
His most significant result came in 1946 at the Grand Prix des Nations. Local knowledge obviously helped — the race started in Versailles and covered 142km on the roads of the Ill-des-France, Marchand’s longtime training ground. Back then the race was regarded as the unofficial world time trial championships. The winner that day was a certain Fausto Coppi. Marchand came in seventh.
Come 1947 and change was in the air. Marchand had initially planned on moving to Australia for work but his plans were soon scuppered due to the closure of Australian ports. The way Marchand tells it, there was a sense of fear that the Japanese would attempt a follow-up to their 1942 attack on Darwin. Research seems to reveal that mass minesweeping was underway at the time, clearing thousands of undetonated mines that had been planted in the waters surrounding ports. That operation lasted until 1948.
Instead of heading to Australia, Marchand, with the help of his grandmother and grandfather, applied for a Venezuelan visa. Soon enough he was on his way to South America.
Venezuela and beyond
For eight years Robert lived and worked in Venezuela, working as a truck driver and on sugar cane plantations. Marchand chuckles when he’s asked whether he rode in Venezuela. “The country was 50 years behind,” he says. “They had no roads to ride on!”. If only gravel bikes existed then.
Talking with Marchand it seems he was happy in Venezuela. In 1953, however, the political climate forced Marchand’s hand — he decided that returning to France would be a wiser move than staying in Venezuela under a dictatorship.
Once home it wasn’t too long until itchy feet got the better of Marchand and in 1957 he emigrated again, this time to Canada where truck driving was swapped for work as a lumberjack. Three years of chopping trees in the ‘frozen north’ were enough for Robert and again he headed back to France.
It wasn’t until 1978, at the age of 67, that cycling reared its head again for Marchand. At an age when many are starting to wind down their efforts on the bike, Marchand ramped his up.
With cycling back in his life, he soon found his way back to the events of old, ticking off gran fondos, sportives and Audax events as the years passed. He managed to amass a pretty impressive palmares, including eight Bourdeaux-Paris, four Paris-Roubaix, three Marmotte sportives and an amazing Paris-Moscow ride at the not-so-young age of 82.
Over the past few years, if you’ve seen a photo of Marchand riding, he’s likely in his distinctive yellow and purple kit. This kit is in fact from the L’Ardéchoise sportive, one of France’s premier sportives, now in its 27th year. Though Marchand resides in the outer Paris suburb of Mitry-Mory and rides for the local club, the Ardeche-based sportive is his official sponsor. There’s even a climb named in his honour along the route.
And yes, Robert has ridden it several times. The last time he tackled the 10km climb (that rises 450m to an altitude of 911m) was back in 2014 when he conquered the hill in a pretty nippy 56 minutes.
But it’s Marchand’s recent exploits on the track that have many people’s (and the UCI’s) attention. So much so that the governing body twice had to create a new age category to house Marchand’s cycling feats.
In 2012, when Marchand covered 24.1km on the UCI’s own velodrome in Aigle, Switzerland, they officially created the ‘Masters over 100’ age category. As if to make sure it was a genuine category and that it had more than the single record under its banner, Marchand rode 100km in 4:17:27 in September of the same year.
Four years later the UCI created the ‘Masters over 105’ category when, aged 105, Marchand went for an hour record attempt, covering 22.547 km at his local track. After finishing the hour he claimed: “I could have done better. I didn’t see the clock for the last 10 minutes. Otherwise, I would have gone a little faster”.
Fast forward to early 2018 and, assuming Marchand sticks to doctor’s orders, we’ve now seen him on the boards for the last time.
It was an absolute honour to chat to and watch Marchand on the bike. He’s lived a life — on and off the bike — that is eye-opening no matter whether you’re a cycling fan or not. It’s hard to fathom the changes he’s seen in his lifetime, not just in cycling but in the world as a whole. And as with any big name that eventually announces their retirement, it’ll be sad not to see Marchand in action any more.
As for that photo of Marchand and I? It’s the screen saver on my computer.