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Trial by fire with Mavic at the 1984 Tour

Rest day #1 reading • Words/images by Richard Goodwin

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Sitting in the Tower Air 747 at New York’s JFK airport, bound for CDG in Paris, I had absolutely no idea what was in front of me except that I’d be spending two months in France working for Mavic. The only real details I knew about the trip were that the first month would be spent at the Mavic factory in rural France and the second month would be working at the Tour. Yeah, that Tour, working for Mavic neutral service. The concept was brand immersion that would then be brought back to the States to spread the word about Mavic and its “Passion for Performance.” Today, the term for this strategy is “influencer.”

Ten months earlier, working on a construction site, I’d cut open my left leg with a Skil saw. Some 120 stitches later, my carpentry career was effectively over and I restarted my cycling industry career at age 28. Amid these thoughts of timing and life, big and small, I had two main streams of consciousness: What would traveling to France as a first-time international traveler and working for a foreign company be like? And what would it mean to work at the Tour de France? These unknowns were both daunting and enticing.

It’s important to note that this trip was undertaken in 1984, before the age of internet connections, texting on a phone or any other type of communication with home other than an expensive long-distance call or a fax.

The other American selected for this odyssey was John Panick. He was a crack shop mechanic from Bakersfield, California, only slightly more rural than my native Carmel. John was a quiet, unassuming guy with a pedigree as a wrench who knew his way around a road bike. Neither of us had any neutral-support experience, but they’d school us in that—or so we thought.

It’s official! My credentials for the 1984 Tour de France.

My arrival

Our arrival in Paris is now a blur. I’d “prepped” myself by taking a few months of French lessons with a private tutor. But in Paris, among native speakers, I felt completely lost and wished I’d paid closer attention during high school French classes. The locals’ questions and answers came at a staccato rate; I’d nod “yeah” without knowing if the response was to be affirmative or not. John spoke no French at the time. Somehow, we made it to the train for a 180-mph ride to the TGV station in Mâcon, on the southern edge of Burgundy.

Arriving there on a Sunday to an empty gare we had no idea what to do or how to make a local phone call for someone to collect us. After what seemed like hours in the sweltering and humid heat, our contact, Danielle, showed up to take us to our apartment in Saint-Trivier-sur-Moignans. Adequately comfy, it was where Mavic put up team mechanics while working with the service course. Walking out onto the local department road that crossed the village, there was neither a person in sight, nor a vehicle in motion. Like most of rural France during that sweltering summer, windows were shuttered to keep the heat out and villages felt deserted—especially on Sundays. It was the law then that businesses must be closed on the sabbath. An exception was made for bars or sometimes cafés, but this village had neither. It was eerily quiet.

Showing up for a new job not knowing the language or even any of the working protocols was unnerving. Just understanding what I was being instructed to do in French required another level of focus. Each day brought new challenges and a handful of new French words. It was like two jobs in parallel: learning a foreign language and the ways of the service course.

Rise of the program

But gradually our program was taking shape. We spent the first three weeks building up the bikes for the Café de Colombia team at the Tour—30 bicycles and about 200 wheels. These were all road bikes as TT-specific machines were rarely used in the early ’80s. Beyond that, we spent shifts working in rim production and travelling to Annecy, France, to spend time working in the Mavic components factory. Components were machined and assembled in Annecy because the feeling was the locals in that area (close to the Swiss border) were more adept at precise technical work than the workers in Saint-Moignans. Think watches.

Laurent Michelon was the mechanic who ran the service course department at Mavic HQ; he was a young, punky guy. John and I would help him build all these bicycles. Was he happy about that? In terms of the work load I’m sure he was glad to have the help. In terms of working with two guys who he couldn’t communicate with and had no idea of their mechanical abilities? Not so sure.

Being an American can carry a lot of baggage in many parts of the world. Maybe it’s the way that American exceptionalism sets you up for failure or ridicule. Laurent was a hard worker and great at his job, but it was also clear it was his department and he loved giving us crap. He’d walk up to you while you were working and after observing you for a few minutes he’d exclaim: “Pffffft, Reagan’s boys.” And then laugh.

The most challenging part of the language disparity was never knowing the big picture. We had no idea of anything that was going on in advance unless someone took us aside to explain in remedial French what you’d be doing from one moment to the next or what might be on the horizon.

Thrown into the fire! Mavic support ready to roll.

Trial by fire

The third weekend brought the sudden announcement (to us) that Mavic would be providing neutral support at the French national pro road championships to be held in Plouay in western France. Off we went with our drivers (two cars, two drivers, two mechanics). Nervous? Sure. There had been no formal training about how to change a wheel during a race or what the race protocols were regarding neutral support. Trial by fire in a 200-kilometer day of racing on a circuit in Brittany. My first wheel change was for a rider trying to get his sponsor some visibility in an early solo break. It went off without a hitch except for the fact that he was upset and cursing that his team car didn’t cover him. A super in-form Laurent Fignon won the title and our car was the only car covering him on live national television. Nerve-racking in our first race? For sure!

Rural life was chill. We had a car at our disposal and weekends were spent exploring the region on bikes or with the car. One thing was certain: If any foreigners arrive in a village this small, the entire village knows you’re there. We were these odd celebrities. One weekend we hooked up with some locals who were about to be conscripted for military service. The tradition was that you drove around to say goodbye and have a drink with your village friends before you left for boot camp. By midnight we were all reasonably sloshed after having stopped at a dozen or so local homes and farms. Some of the people we met hadn’t seen an American since the war. Their enthusiasm and welcoming demeanor were unforgettable.

Every day at the factory we spent time working on the Café de Colombia team bikes. As we got closer to the start of the Tour, John and I were asked to drive some of the bikes and wheels to the Colombian team, which was racing the Route du Sud as prep for the Tour. We loaded as many bicycles and wheels as we could onto a Mavic station wagon and headed onto the A7 autoroute. The race was in the Pyrénées and the equipment drop was to be made in the medieval city of Carcassonne, a five-hour drive from Mavic HQ. After the first 20 kilometers on the autoroute we ran into an unmanned péage (a tollbooth). Not knowing what to do, I began throwing change into the basket for coins. At some point, the barrier lifted and we were able to pass with a line of pissed-off drivers behind us. Freeway driving in France is very organized and respectful. Right lane—grandparents and cars taking the exit, center lane—speed limit, far left lane is dedicated to Ferraris doing 150-plus kph. Lesson, watch your six for blinking headlights.

Radio Colombia

Arriving before that day’s stage finish we started looking for the Colombian team. Shimmied up a telephone pole was a Colombian journalist doing a live radio transmission. He never stopped broadcasting in his frenetic Spanish the entire time we waited for the stage finish. We connected with the Colombian team manager to drop the bicycles and grabbed some lunch. When we returned to the finish line some hours later to fetch our car, that Colombian journalist was still up the phone pole carrying on about the race!

We departed for the Tour the night before the prologue in Paris. Our drivers Jacky and Piero met us at the factory the day we left. Piero was an ex-pro from the ’60s and Jacky had previously been a gofer for the Coop-Mercier team. Over the course of the Tour, we’d discover how un-psyched they were to be caretaking two non-French speaking Americans. I get it now; they had their own agenda for the race. Show up, cover the race and get plowed at night.

The drive from Mâcon to the edge of Paris was fine. Following Piero through the city to our hotel was everything but fine. Driving at breakneck speeds through the city, we got dropped by not making it through a traffic light. We finally found the hotel using a Michelin map about an hour later. I was furious—our first day with them was not promising. Were they testing our mettle, just being jerks or completely oblivious as to what they’d just put us through? Oh, and the driving instructions were: Take it easy on our car—it had been cobbled together from two support cars that had been in accidents and the engine was new.

Our race bible.

Here comes the Prologue!

The day of the Tour prologue, Patricia, the Mavic owner’s daughter, greeted me to personally deliver a letter from back home in California. Tearing it open, I was confronted with a “Dear John” letter from my wife asking for a divorce, 6,000 miles from home and about to start the biggest bicycle race in the world. I folded the letter, jammed it in my pocket and thought “let’s do this!”

There were two Mavic cars in the race. One to follow the breaks from a lead position in front of the peloton and a second that covers for team cars that have been called up front. John and I would alternate between front and rear cars during the race. I grabbed the race guide and counted backward from the last stage in Paris on the Champs-Élysées. I gave John the honor of starting out in front. That would put John in the front car on the first stage and me in the front car on the last stage into Paris. I’m divulging that strategy here for the first time. Sorry, John.

Piero had a friend who somehow managed to get his car into the official Tour caravan just in front of the peloton. Allegedly, his connection was that he was the agent for Reynolds tubing in France. The upside to his presence was that his trunk was stuffed with booze. Champagne, wine and whisky—on ice. More than once, he dropped back to our car and gave the international hand gesture for let’s have a drink. Extended thumb pointing toward your mouth with your fist facing the sky. Words were exchanged and we pulled away from the caravan and jammed at speed to the first gendarme vehicle in the race caravan. Hand signal to the gendarmes and we all pulled over for a chilled glass of champagne. With the cops! Try that today at the Tour! After 10 to 15 minutes, the race would approach and we’d hop back in our cars and rejoin the race caravan.

Here is an example of our drivers being party animals of note. On a stage in the South of France, my driver for the day in the second car was Jacky. As he staggered toward the car before the start he tossed me the keys and said, “Tu me conduis.” You drive. Thankfully, we didn’t have a UCI commissaire in the car that day. Jacky spent half the stage snoring in the back seat while I mastered the job of driving in the Tour de France caravan.

It was a boy’s club

The Tour was very much a boy’s club at the time; it only started to change when the 7-Eleven team brought a female soigneur to the race in 1986. It was so restrictive that women were not even allowed in the race, except in in the publicity caravan, where they tossed souvenirs, samples and other goodies to the roadside masses. But my boss’ daughter, Patricia, would sneak into one of our support cars by putting her hair up under a baseball cap, wearing big sunglasses and sitting low in the back seat next to the mechanics. Running parallel with the men’s Tour that year was the first Tour Féminin. We never crossed paths with it until Paris when the women’s winner Marianne Martin shared the podium with Fignon.

Another surreal moment after a stage was an invitation to dine with Miss France. I’m thinking, “Miss France? This has got to be a mistake. We’re the lowly neutral support mechanics. It’s because we’re Americans?” We met her at the restaurant; she was beautiful, well-mannered and spoke English. I was recently single, right? Turns out, we were staying at the same hotel, same floor—keep dreaming, lowly mechanic.

If the race stayed together, avoiding a nap in the back seat was challenging. Piero found it amusing to pull the car over in a feed zone and encourage someone to give you a blast from a bidon of water right in the face.

A snapshot from the road of Greg LeMond donning the World Champion jersey that he won in 1983.

Into the mountains

Mountain stages were insane. Inevitably, the race would explode over the course of three or four cols. The gap between the leaders and the gruppetto could be an hour. That’s a lot of distance to cover for any assistance. On the crowd-packed climbs, following the leaders or a break, you could sense our car tires running over toes and the bump of body parts against the outside of the car.

My “assistance” moment of note was a wheel change for Reimund Dietzen of the Teka team who punctured on the descent of the Col de la Madeleine. The race radio crackled that he needed a rear wheel and gave his dossard number. It seemed to take forever to catch him. When we came upon him he quickly realized the Mavic car was behind him. He’d been descending on a flat tire at about 40 kph, not lose too much time. I jumped out of the car and sprinted to him and performed an adequately fast wheel change and pushed him on his way.

The smart riders dismount and hold up the rear of the bicycle while the wheel is replaced. The not-so-smart riders think it’s a faster wheel change while straddling the bike with one foot clipped in with the chain under tension. Nah, get off the bike if you want a quick wheel change. Wheel changes were infinitely easier during that era. All brakes could be opened at the caliper. Frames differed only by their dropouts—aluminum or steel. At all times you kept two sets of wheels pre-gapped for either type of dropouts.

VIPs in the car

Now and then, we’d have a guest in the car—which was clearly VIP status. There were only a few days when car rides for VIPs were available; and they were in high demand. For the mechanic in the back seat, this was a significant imposition. A second body meant you had far less room for the cooler and the four wheels you needed to keep at the ready. During the stage finale into Bordeaux, with the car careening through 90-degree turns, the mostly melted contents of the ice cooler ended up on my nethers. I rose up in the seat to not sit in the water and ice and then started tossing ice out the window as fast as I could, not even thinking that I was probably nailing spectators lining the finishing straight with ice in the face. Postrace, I looked like I’d had an accident in my shorts.

Before every stage I’d go down to hang out at rider sign-in. This was before team buses allowed riders to hide from the press and public. I was friends with the Skil-Sem team as my friend Jock Boyer rode for them and he had connected me with this Mavic Tour gig. I got to be friendly with Sean Kelly and would hold his bicycle while he added his signature to the start list. Pure adulation.

I’d raced in the 1970s and had been a subscriber to Miroir du Cyclisme and International Cycle Sport. I had devoured the results and history of the sport for years before I arrived at the Tour. Every day I had moments of “I’m standing next to a past or current champion of the sport.”

The 1984 Tour was the dawn of a new kind of international presence at the race. Beyond the Colombians, there were two Americans, Boyer and Greg LeMond—this being his first Tour, finishing third behind Fignon and Bernard Hinault. The writing was on the wall—there’d be a North American winner of the Tour before the decade was out.

Miss France.

Nearing Paris

As the race approached Paris, there was an individual TT stage into Villefranche-sur-Saône. This was in Mavic’s backyard and owner Bruno Gormand seized the opportunity to host a dinner at his mistress’ restaurant for all the directors of his teams. Between those using just Mavic rims and those that were fully Mavic equipped, it was almost half the teams at the Tour. To show off his future international intentions, he invited his two American mechanics to join the Michelin-starred soirée. Sitting at the same table with this A-list of European cycling team leadership was an epochal experience.

I’d also come across ex-pros working in the race itself. This may have been the year Coca-Cola replaced Perrier as the preferred postrace beverage by the stage winners. The guy running the Coke truck was none other than Roger Pingeon, winner of the ’67 Tour. I found his job below the level of a previous Tour winner. But until LeMond began to disrupt the pay scale for Tour winners, this was probably a lucrative gig for Roger. I guess I thought if you won the Tour, you were financially set for life—not so.

As John and I dosey-doed our way between cars toward Paris, the final day arrived for the finish on the Champs-Élysées. Fignon and his Renault-Elf team had completely dominated the race winning 10 stages, the team classification and the maillot jaune. The last stage was a big procession and Bruno came up from the factory for the celebration. As I left my hotel before the start I grabbed a yogurt from the breakfast buffet and put it on the floor in the front seat of the car and forgot about it. When the stage started, Bruno took his place in the front seat while I moved to the back with my wheels. We entered Paris on a typical hot, muggy July day. As we began the final laps of the stage up and down the finishing circuit, there was a loud “pop” from the front seat and Bruno exclaimed: “Merde!” That yogurt I had smuggled aboard had blown its foil lid and blasted what was now kefer all over his shoes and socks. Whoops!

I still got the gig though. I’d come to the Tour with no expectations beyond the race itself. If there was a role for me in the company, what that could be, or where it would be, was never stated. But lo and behold, there was to be a future for me within Mavic. I spent the next eight years helping to build the brand in North America and putting Mavic Assistance into the American racing scene with Mitch Clinton leading that effort. In 1992, we worked Paris–Roubaix and the Barcelona Olympics. Those were some amazing years to work for Mavic, and my tenure with the company cemented a love for France that I still embrace. It was an honor to be part of that era in one of the few French companies that survived the fall of the bicycle industry in France.

Sadly, this year, for the first time in almost a half-century, the yellow Mavic support cars will not appear at the Tour. It’s heartbreaking to think of this race without the institutional presence of Mavic. Especially having been a part of it in its earliest days. Chapeau, Mavic!