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Cycling’s Man In Black
No, he is not a Johnny Cash fan, but Philippe Brunel is bike racing’s man in black. By the team buses before a race, or in the press room afterwards, the French sportswriter is instantly noticeable. His flowing black hair is rigorously matched with black shirts, slim black pants and equally sober loafers. It’s a uniform that sets him apart among the cycling press, a group that, as a whole, can be described as campy at best.
Words & images: James Startt
From: Barcelonette, France
But then Brunel is not the average cycling journalist. A senior cycling journalist at the French sports daily, L’Equipe, Brunel is admired for his literary approach to cycling writing, one that combines keen historical sense with an acute sense of the mot juste, or right word.
“He’s the great historian of the Tour,” says Ian Austen of the New York Times. “He goes back into the past and finds the link to the present, and does so in a elegant manner. At his best he is very evocative. Sometimes French journalism is short on reporting, but the thing about him is that his pieces are always very carefully reported. They are very definitive.”
Brunel says simply, “I try to give shape to things. Things have changed in the Tour. Things are monopolized by those who have the money. It’s fascinating. I remember hearing Merckx or Anquetil, and they said what was on their mind. They didn’t hold back. Today things are so sanitized.”
Despite his austere persona, Brunel is quick to laugh and always generous with fellow journalists. Perhaps such openness is due to his own humble beginnings. Starting out as little more that a gopher at L’Equipe, he slowly worked his way up. “I started in the telex/telecopie room while I was a student back in 1977. That was before faxes. My job was to cut out the Telex and distributed them. But I was infatuated by cycling and often watched the races with the cycling editor. One day he said, ‘ You know cycling as well as me, why don’t you write something?’”
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Covering his first Tour in 1982, he quickly forged his own style, one that combined romanticism with astute observations spotted within the race or the sport. Riders are often likened to actors or literary characters and races are nothing less than high drama. For that, he is the multiple winner of just about every cycling journalism prize awarded in France.
“Eddy Merckx was the greatest rider, but Anquetil was the greatest personage. And Ocana was the greatest rival. Without Ocana there would be no Merckx,” Brunel says. “But the rider I always liked was the Italian Michele Dancelli. He won Milan-San Remo during Merckx’s reign, no easy feat. And I think he is the rider I would have most likely been. There was something angel-like in him, something Michelangelique. I’m a big fan Pier Paolo Pasolini, the Italian film director. One day he came to the Giro d’Italia and he says, “If I would ever use a rider in one of my films it would be Dancelli. “So it all comes together. I like Pasolini who liked Dancelli. I understood then that what interests me in cycling was sentimental and aesthetic. The rest I could care less about.”
In the 1990’s Brunel was an a big admirer of the up-and-coming Lance Armstrong, who he considered along with Marco Pantani, one of the sport’s most charismatic actors of the period. But he lost interest in the American as he evolved. “What bothers me about Armstrong is not so much the doping, but his cynicism, his cruelty,” says Brunel. “I always found it a real shame that he closed in on his bad qualities rather than focusing on the positive qualities that I saw once in a while. I always thought it was best to keep your distance with Armstrong. Getting too close was dangerous.”
This year Brunel is covering his 30-something Tour. And while he does not know the exact number, he knows that he has covered an equal number of editions of the Giro d’Italia, another race he favors.
But today, he works much as he has for decades. Magazines and newspapers fill a handbag—color black. And the pages are filled with notes or ideas that come to him throughout the day, while more developed ideas find there way to his notebook. “I’m thinking, trying to look for some new angles, because everyone seems to be writing the same thing,” Brunel says. “I always thought that cycling was a real key to reading existence. In three weeks of racing you know who is who. You see instantly who is faithful and who isn’t. In life it might take you 20 years to understand that a friend is unfaithful.”
While much of Brunel’s writing refers to the past, he admits that he admires a lot of today’s riders as well. Peter Sagan is interesting. He is the only one that understands that the Tour de France just a bike race, nothing more, nothing less. He brings joy to the sport and today there is not enough joy in cycling. Then there are great stylists. Warren Barguil has great form. The most elegant of them all is Valverde. I know he has had problems in the past, but he is the most elegant. Aesthetically he incarnates class.
Those that know Brunel, know that speaks often of elegance. It is, after all, something that inspires in cycling, as in life.
Check in daily as Startt brings a different personality to Aérogramme.