Lost Races: The French Riviera

I am often amazed at my French club-mates’ apparent insouciance to watching live bike racing. Generally, if the race goes past their door – as it does in this Saturday’s Paris-Nice – they’ll watch. But, if not, like as not, after having ridden in the morning, they’re more than happy to watch the live action unfold on their HD screens. They would never think of driving an hour or two to watch live racing. It’s fair to say that my cycling capers provide them with much amusement.

Tony Hewson (image courtesy of Cycling Archives)

Tony Hewson (image courtesy of Cycling Archives)

A lot of my club-mates are still very good riders who in their younger days liked nothing better than racing against the professionals who would decamp to the South of France to both train and race. I’m assured a very good local rider would do well from the primes on offer during a couple of months of the year. Indeed, read any book on cycling’s glorious history and they’ve all been down to the Cote d’Azur to race and train: the cycling glitterati. Check out the palmares of Fausto Coppi, Raymond Poulidor, Jacques Anquetil, they’ve all taken part in races on the Cote d’Azur, most of which – a bit like some of the riders – are no longer with us.

But it wasn’t just the continental European riders who were enjoying some warm weather training and racing. Here’s a short extract from Tony Hewson’s book In Pursuit of Stardom:

A temperate climate and access to good early season races accounted for the Cote d’Azur’s popularity among professionals. You could usually rely on days of unbroken sunshine, balmy temperatures and sea air rich with ozone, enough for training to become at times pleasurable. If you sought a challenge, the mountains were close at hand. For an easy day, you could pedal the flat coastal road to Cannes or St Tropez – two abreast, for there was little traffic to disturb companionable progress, and drivers, unlike back home, were considerate and gave space. As for races, there was the usual litany – Grand Prix Sigrande, Ville de Nice, Ville de Cannes and so on – to the tune of maybe two per week with a stage race (the Tour du Var) thrown in at the end. The Paris-Nice (Race to the Sun) was the culmination and Milan-San-Remo followed soon after. It was an annual pilgrimage for racing cyclists from all over the continent.

Graeme Fife in his book Brian Robinson: Pioneer also makes mention of similar races:

From the beginning of February to the middle of March (typically 10 February to 15 March) the Riviera hummed with competition, massed-start road races over distances of 165km to 198km and two shorter distance events finishing atop Mont-Agel, which towers above Monaco at a height of 1,148m: the 12.5km out of Monaco itself or the longer 36.8km by way of the Baisse Corniche from Nice. There were various Grand Prix: de Saint Raphael, de Nice, de Sigrand a Nice, d’Antibes, de Cannes, d’Aix Thermal, Catox in Marseille. Two major point-to-point races, the Genoa-Nice and the Marseille-Nice, preceded the first of the year’s classic one-day races, the Milan-San Remo, (usually around 280km), nicknamed La Primavera, “The Spring”.

When I started looking at the number of French races which have disappeared from my corner of the world, I was amazed. There were far too many to list and there wasn’t a great deal written about them other than the bare facts and the winners, whichever language you were searching in.

However, it would appear that those races were not totally dominated by the locals, or even local stars. Tony Hewson and Graeme Fife both mention the GP Sigrand. It was run from 1928-31 and then again from 1957-62 when it was also called the GP du Cavigal. Hewson placed third in the 1957 edition of the race in which only independents, rather than teams, took part. Brian Robinson won the 1957 edition of GP de Nice. I can find no records of either Hewson or Robinson stepping onto the podium in any other local races but, undoubtedly, they took part in a number. Nor did the name of Tommy Simpson pop up in my research of who won what locally.

The late Seamus Eliott (image courtesy of Cycling Archives)

The late Seamus Eliott (image courtesy of Cycling Archives)

The late Seamus (Shay) Elliot – the first Irishman to race on the continent – won the GP Sigrand in 1958 and, in the same year, finished second in the GP de Nice and third in the GP de St Raphael. He also took part in a number of the other races referred to above. Most notably, he won the GP Catox in Marseille in 1956 and was second in GP de St Raphael. In 1960 he was second in Genoa-Nice and in 1965 he finally won the GP de St Raphael.

Coincidentally, Cavigal is the name of a well-known sports association in Nice and was formed back in 1943 from combining three clubs, AS CAsino, VIctorine and GALlia. The cycling team wears a distinctive red and black kit featuring the Aiglon (eagle) of Nice. Meanwhile, the GP du Cavigal lives on as an amateur race on the FSGT calendar.

The GP de Cannes seemed to have been a popular race with the British and Irish racers. Ian Noble placed third in 1963, fellow Brummie Derek Harrison was second in 1971, the irrepressible Sean Kelly won it in 1979, as did Sean Yates in 1987, the last year it was run. Kelly also took part in GP de Peymeinade (second in 1979) and the GP Monaco (second in 1983). Meanwhile, Yates was second in Alassio-Nice in 1985. Another long-term resident of the Cote d’Azur, Stephen Roche, won Alassio-Nice in 1984. While the late Peter Head was third in the GP d’Antibes in 1969.

Joseph Magnani (image courtesy of Bike race info)

Joseph Magnani (image courtesy of Bike race info)

Delving a bit further back in the history books, it would appear Lance Armstrong wasn’t the first American rider to enjoy the benefits of training in the Cote’d’Azur. The Marseille-Nice road race, one of those mentioned above, dates back to 1897 and previous champions include Gustave Ganay, a favourite of Ernest Hemingway, and world champion Alfredo Binda. The race was won in 1935 by an American, Joseph Magnani who’d been sent to live with relatives in Cap d’Ail, not far from Monaco.

Magnani had executed a bold break to win the race in the final kilometres, after seven hours of racing during a torrential rain storm. His victory earned him a place in the professional peloton where he added to his palmares with other local victories: a 1936 victory in GP Grasse, 1937 win in Nice-Annot-Nice, 1938 victories in Marseille-Toulon and GP d’Antibes plus wins in 1940 in GP d’Antibes and GP Cote d’Azur. Although he specialised in road racing, he set a new hour record for the Nice Velodrome (long gone) when he pedalled 42 kilometres.

I’ve barely scratched the surface of those events which are no longer run as professional races in a very small part of France. Here the list runs to several pages – if we look at the whole of France, it’s almost a tome. But it’s a topic we’ll return to from time to time.

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