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Phil Anderson is an icon of Australian cycling. His successes paved the way for several waves of Australian talent since he retired in 1994. His career peaked in the 1980s, in which years he became the first Australian and non-European, in 1981, to wear the Tour de France yellow jersey as a member of the French Peugeot-Esso-Michelin team. He wore the yellow jersey again for nine days in 1982 with the same team before riding out a career that included five top 10 finishes overall (twice fifth) and two stage wins, plus many other victories.
At this year’s 21st Tour Down Under, Anderson’s legacy was celebrated in a different way, with his original 1982 Peugeot bike – a bike he found by chance on Facebook and has since had restored. The Peugeot was in a display of classic bikes at Saturday’s Tour Down Under Legends Dinner in Adelaide.
From March 18 to mid-September this year, Anderson’s historic 1981 Tour yellow jersey will be in an exhibition at Le Musée National du Sport in Nice, France celebrating 100 years of the Tour de France ‘maillot jaune.’
On the eve of this year’s Tour Down Under, cycling journalist Rupert Guinness caught up with Anderson, whose 1981 yellow jersey feat inspired Guinness to cover cycling. Guinness, the co-host of CyclingTips’ daily Tour de France podcast, asked about Anderson’s careful rebuild of his old Peugeot, the careers of Caleb Ewan and Richie Porte, his memories of Paul Sherwen, and more.
Anderson’s life now is focused on his bike tours, discovering new trails for gravel riding and with his partner Anne Newell, and operating their beehive in Apollo Bay where they live on Victoria’s picturesque Great Ocean Road. But in time, he has also learned to appreciate the long journey he has ridden.
Rupert Guinness: Your retrieval of the Peugeot bike that you rode in your second Tour de France in 1982, after all these years, is an interesting story, can you tell it?
Phil Anderson: I was contacted at the 2018 Tour Down Under on Facebook by a bloke, Thierry Legrand, who said he was in possession of an old bike of mine. I immediately contacted James Sage, curator of the historical displays seen at the Tour Down Under Legend’s Dinner, for advice. I met James after he contacted me to organise having a 1989 Zullo bike [that Anderson rode when on TVM – ed] of mine in his display for the 2017 dinner. I purchased and collected the bike on April 3 last year from Thierry, whose father was a supporter of the Peugeot team in the 1980s.
Thierry’s father used to invite our team to change and shower after a semi-classic at his home in Fourmies, in the north of France. Our team director Maurice De Muer gave him a number of ex-team bikes as a gesture for his friendly support. On collection, it was evident it had been used and neglected for 35 years by the paint chips, gutter rash on rims, and scratches on the brake callipers, head-stem, bars, and cranks. The plan was for a total frame repaint.
First stop was to have the frame decals inspected by an expert in Coffs Harbour. But after close appraisal, Greg Sotley believed the paint was in excellent condition, and that it would be more valuable with the original pearlescent finish. He sent it to Peter Fleming who did an excellent job touching up a couple of chips and scuffs.
Meanwhile, I met up with ‘retro’ component restorer Chris Howard of East Bentleigh, in Melbourne, who removed some of the scratched componentry. Going into Chris’s workshop is like walking into an 80s bike collection. I’m sure I’ve ridden in a peloton with many of the bikes he has in his collection.
At first you thought your Peugeot was one of your 1981 bikes. What made you figure that it was a 1982 model?
The crown on the fork. They branded it out in 1983, which was my last year with the team. It was a Reynolds 531 frame and it has got the old French group set on it.
The French didn’t have one groupset like with Campagnolo, which had a full groupset like the Record with a derailleur, brakes, everything. In France, one company made the brakes, one company made the cranks, and there would be one that would do the rear cluster. So what they did, all these companies – and you don’t see this very much now – they got together and agreed, ‘we’ll all pitch in and call it Spidel.’ It was a conglomerate of all these French companies. It only lasted three or four years and then they started bickering and then the whole thing fell apart. It was hard to find (now), but that made it all a bit more special too.
How has rediscovering and rebuilding your Peugeot helped you reflect on your career?
Look at the shape the riders were then and how they have changed. We were big burly blokes. We were so big compared to the little guys going around now. I don’t know how we did it. Now they are riding at 100-110 revolutions, but back then there was no spinning. It was always pushing these huge gears around. When you look at the old Youtube videos, at my era or to Eddy Merckx’s era, everyone is just pushing gears at 30 to 40 revolutions. Chris Froome would have a heart attack if he had to push those gears up a hill. We had six speed and the smallest front chain ring you could get was a 42, and the smallest gear we had was a 42 x 23. We would use the 23 going up the mountains or in the classics going up the Koppenberg in (the Tour of) Flanders … Just riding this bike again recently, I gotta say that I am amazed we did what we did. But then I guess we all had to.
Did your search for the bike trigger your reflections?
I think that happens, especially now. I get reminded of those days on social media when people post those old photographs … there is more curiosity, more questions. I have a couple of old bikes, bikes from when I was on TVM, when I was on Motorola. But I didn’t have one from my first team, Peugeot. It is possibly the rarest.
It was at a time when cycling wasn’t what it is now. At Motorola with the Eddy Merckx bikes, you could buy these at the bike shop and order them in the Motorola colours as a merchandised product. Back in the 80s – or early 80s – Peugeot didn’t really do that. I was told, ‘You are not going to find an old race bike, the best you can find is a pure replica.’
Even then, the Tour de France didn’t merchandise yellow jerseys. They only way you could get the yellow jersey was to win it. ‘Mini velos’ were about the only merchandise around then. But when you are racing you are never thinking about keeping a bike for posterity. You are just thinking about next season or what you have to ride next season.
You still have your 1981 Tour leader’s yellow jersey. It is a time trial skin suit you wore in stage six from Nay to Pau. It is not only the first yellow jersey worn by an Australian, but also the first by a non-European. Have you given yourself time to think about that and appreciate that achievement?
Certainly over time I have. It had always been something worn by Europeans. It opened up a lot of gates. It wasn’t long though. Greg LeMond was there. I am proud of what I achieved. It changed the tide I guess. To see where it has gone now. We haven’t seen a French winner for decades now. You look around now though and see it is not even a European race. English is (now) the second language of the sport. It won’t be long until English is the first language. I never thought I would see an Australian winner of the Tour, but Cadel Evans took that further. After me, there were eight or nine Australians who wore the yellow jersey, but Cadel got to keep it.
How many yellow jerseys would a wearer receive then?
We would get three a day. There was the one they gave you on the podium which had the Velcro strip down the back. Then you got a long sleeve and a short sleeve (jersey), but of course, I got the skin suit. I think for that first year I only got the one with the Velcro at the back and the skin suit. The next year, 1982, I got heaps of them [Anderson spent nine days in yellow]. You certainly didn’t get them for the sponsors. I gave most of mine to my teammates who busted their arses every day. I remember giving one to Bernard Bourreau, ‘le petit frére.’ He was a hard worker, and he bloody cried. But every day I would give one to teammates. Eventually, everybody got one. I have lots of white [best young rider jerseys]. After I lost the yellow to Hinault [in 1981] I wore the white until Peter Winnen took it [at L’Alpe d’Huez on stage 17]. I still have quite a few white jerseys.
You had a long rivalry with French legend Bernard Hinault, a five times Tour winner and in 1985 the last Frenchman to win the race. He didn’t take it too well in 1981 when you claimed the yellow jersey on stage five to Pla d’Adet, especially when you sportingly offered him a Coke can to drink from on the final climb and he swiped it away. It escalated in the 1985 Tour when he accused you of causing his crash in the finale of stage 13 to St Étienne. He has often spoken of you and the issue in the years since when asked. Have you ever spoken to him about all this in a private?
I think he is just a bloke who needs a bit of spice in his life. I don’t know. I saw him at the 2013 Tour Down Under for a chat, but not really about all that. He probably likes bringing it up because there is not much else to talk about.
Maybe he was just an angry person basically (laughter).
I had just come from Australia and wasn’t suppressed by the history of the sport. He was probably upset that I didn’t just bloody tip my wheels the way everybody else does.
There are many who are particularly keen to see how Australian sprinter Caleb Ewan goes now that he has left Mitchelton-Scott for Lotto–Soudal. There will be huge expectations on him to win major races, including at the Tour which he is scheduled to race for the first time this year. Anything less than big wins may receive less compassion or understanding at Lotto-Soudal than what he may have experienced at Mitchelton-Scott. Do you think this is true?
That is right, but in the same regard, he will have the support of a whole team. He won’t be turning up to a race and hearing, “We are only going to give you one rider or two riders because we are all riding for the Yates boys.” That will be good for him. It is what he needs. It will be telling if he cracks under the pressure. It is something he had to do. If GreenEDGE couldn’t support him, he had to leave. He is still young, yet to reach his prime. He made the right decision.
What about Richie Porte who has also left teams, BMC for Trek-Segafredo? It will be a huge year for him too.
Richie has won a lot of races. He has won the Tour de Suisse, Tour de Romandie and Paris Nice, has some great results, but he has been paid to lead the team in the grand tours. He has had a lot of opportunity and when things sort of went his way and he had the opportunity he didn’t sort of embrace it. He has possibly only got, how many Tours left?
I don’t know. I am not losing confidence in him. I hope he has still got it in him. He is possibly the only rider we have got for the GC. He has come so close, but last year and the year before he was sitting pretty and then [he crashed out on stage nine]. It was the same in 2017. He came into the Tour looking pretty and destined to certainly finish in the top five, then he had that awful crash on the descent [on the Mont du Chat.] I don’t know. My theory is that while these riders are fit, I don’t think they have race fitness. Physically they are fit, but I don’t think they have the skills. They go on these training camps and then they come out to race once a month or whatever. They are so nervous and they have so much pressure on them, they just bloody drop the ball. They only race 40 or 50 days a year, compare that to our days. Sean Kelly would race 130 days a year. I wasn’t quite as heavy, but still did 115 or 120 days.
We were racing three times as much as these guys. So you get to a race, but haven’t got the pressure every time to perform because you have a lot of these races throughout the year, but also the skillset. You are more used to riding in a big bunch because you are doing it three times as much as they are now. I don’t know what it is with Richie, if it’s luck or … you would think you would be ok in the skill department. But look at Cadel. He had some shocking years too.
So maybe it is just a matter of time. Everybody thought Cadel’s best years were behind him, but then he comes out, the cards fall the right way and there he is.
Who is the most valuable cyclist in the sport then?
Possibly Peter Sagan for his flamboyant delivery of his performances. He seems down to earth. He is an exciting rider to watch race and be with media. It’s always a surprise to see how he reacts or responds to it all. It’s refreshing.
There has been much discussion about the future of Team Sky with Sky announcing it will pull out its sponsorship after this year. Whatever the team’s fate, what do you think its eventual legacy will be after an existence that has been marked as much by doping controversies and questions over its training and management practices as its successes?
I think it will be positive. People’s memory of the controversy or the unfair size or balance of their team compared to the budgets of some of the other team will fade. People will just remember them as a dominant team. There will always be skeptics, but the general public five or 10 years down the track will have memories of it as a strong team like the TI Raleigh team, as dominant teams have been, like the Panasonic team, Renault with Hinault and Fignon.
What about the problem of doping? In that area, do feel that cycling is in a better place now than it was before?
There are always going to be concerns. There are always going to be questions. Every year, the moment there is an outstanding result, the eyebrows go up and people start questioning it. But I think it is a lot better now with the [biological] passport and testing, not just competition testing but pre-season and with what the teams have to facilitate to get their license. But you would think when a rider first gets interested in cycling, gets their first license, maybe at that stage a rider – maybe even a 15-year-old – should do some testing and those results can be put in front of his passport. It is something that should be considered. There has to be a way to see a rider’s pathway from a young age or early in their career, before it is manipulated at any level. But with teams and riders, there are always going to be those that try to cheat the system.
Lastly, at the Tour Down Under, one noted absentee is former professional cyclist and television commentator Paul Sherwen who died recently. Your careers go back to the early 1980s when, at different years, you were both members of the ‘Foreign Legion’ at the amateur Athletic Cub de Bolougne Billancourt (ACBB) in Paris. What are your memories of him?
PA: I was very fortunate to be one of the few English speaking riders in the peloton. First time I met him I was at the ACBB, 1979. He came down with [former ACBB member] Graham Jones from the north of France. He met myself, Robert Millar and Neil Martin. Graham was on Peugeot then and Paul was on La Redoute. They told us what it is like to be a pro. We went out training on the roads around Paris where we were living. The following year Robert and I turned pro. There were maybe half a dozen riders who spoke English, and we were never in one race together. But there would always be someone to seek out and chat with. Paul spoke very good French, better than I could and I would get him to ask questions for me. Actually, in my first professional race, he pushed me off. The Grand Prix de Cannes.
In those days we did a lot of training camps down the south of France and there were a lot of races there. Paul’s hand slipped off his handlebars. He was coming down to fall and he saved himself by pushing himself off me. He caught my jersey, put himself upright, but in the meantime I was down (laughter). He had big hands and had a good grip on my jersey. But after that, it was always, ‘what is your next race going to be?’ He would always say, ‘You have to do the Tour de Corse,’ and he said it about three times in a race!
I would see him coming up to say it and I would say, ‘It’s the third time today you asked me about Tour de Corse.’ Every time I saw him since … like last year, he would ask it. I’ll miss him. He was always chirpy, positive. He will be hugely missed.