27 mars 2018

Sharing bike rides


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Pierre Labardant never rides alone. Whether with his fellow cyclists, under the banner of his website Gravillon, or with the “higher” spirits that surround him, he loves to share and cultivate his passion for bikes. He doesn’t ride for sport, so much as for culture and for love. An encounter with this fan of the bike, and of art on a modest scale. 

The first bike

My first bike was blue. And it was a racing bike. Blue like Bernard Hinault’s Gitane. Blue like the Alpine Berlinette of my childhood. Of that French blue that was the only one that could be given the names "Manufrance" and "Raymond Poulidor" and I was so proud of it. My parents had bought this marvel for me during a business trip. My father was a gunsmith and often went to the French capital of arms and cycles to renew his stocks. Those long-distance journeys from my birthplace in the south-west brought about two very important encounters. One was with the Greens of the ASSE, the leading European football club in the seventies, those stars in the jersey printed with the MF (Manufrance) logo. And one with steel and the French bike –would I perhaps have been a French Trump, an early reactionary and protectionist? No, I don’t think so. I’m usually pretty open to the world, to progress and discovery, but ever since then, this memory seems to have made me want to wave the flag when it comes to my choices. A few years later I was unfaithful to "Poupou" when I was given my first white chequered Peugeot. All right and proper. Like Bernard Thévenet. This Lion on wheels was the first of a series that I continued with avidly for several decades. In the end it was only quite recently that I managed to break the spell by buying my first carbon bike, a Look KG 361. The machine that another French hero, Laurent Jalabert, rode so brilliantly in races. The (great) loop closed!  

Bike rituals 

I don’t really have any habits. I just make very sure I see that everything’s OK for me and for my fellow riders. So it’s always me who thinks to take a pump, a spare inner tube, a bit of cash and a bite to eat. Some people might say I’ve got a few obsessions. I’m also the photographer in the group, so I always have my mobile phone to hand to record the rides and put the photos up on the gravillon.net site that I set up, and on the social networks that I run. I often make people – probably sometimes to their great exasperation – wear elegant clothing, to look good in the saddle and to pose carefully in their surroundings. Appearances, always appearances. 

Cycling and elegance 

I expect a lot of myself. That allows me to do so with others. I tend to keep to a very pure, simple style. In daily life as well as on the saddle, colour doesn’t figure prominently in my wardrobe. I like black and dark colours. Sometimes a moment of extravagance will lead to something in red or blue, but still in darker shades. It’s probably a last stand before I go for the fluo that well-meaning people advise you to wear in order to be visible and supposedly safer. When we set off on collective adventures, for the most part related on Gravillon, I try to encourage the others to keep to this discipline. We are sometimes lucky enough to receive the support of generous partners such as Louison Bobet, and this enables us to adopt a group style and to be a real team, riding for our jersey on the road! 

I try to apply the same rigour in my pedalling style. When I was a teenager, and began to suffer during the ascents, I made myself steer a straight course, upright and dignified, as though I was being followed by a sports reporter riding pillion on a motorbike, and I tried to gauge my own form. On seemingly interminable climbs, I made sure to pedal roundly, and to keep my knees at the same distance from the frame. A kind of psychological rigidity drove me to check the position of my foot at the moment of rotation and to straighten up my bust. As far back as my cycling memories go, I’ve always maintained an awareness of these points of carriage. In the end I’ll probably never know if the rigour, probably excessive in a rider who never intended cycling to be a career plan, has borne fruit…

In the cyclist’s imagination

Probably my father. I tend to worship “ordinary” heroes rather than the stars of the peloton. I prefer to refer to people I’ve been lucky enough to be with rather than those I couldn’t match wheel for wheel. I began cycling with him. He had his moment of glory in local races and when he had to retire prematurely from the sport, I was swept up in his wake. Like it or not. Protecting me as we rode. Bending me into the slopes by intensifying the rhythm. I can still hear the prodigious advice he gave me at the time. Advice that I find myself repeating now to my novice cycling friends. But the ingratitude that comes with adolescence turned me off cycling, since stupidly, I could only see it as a sign of submission to the family, and hence an obligation that I had to shake off. The Atlantic coast nearby was a promise of more intense summers, between days of surfing and evenings on the beach. I came back to cycling very late, at first through a penchant for vintage. Those famous steel bikes lifted down from the attic walls of the family house began to take me to training sessions where the wool jerseys congregated, such as the Anjou Vélo Vintage organised in Saumur. Bit by bit I finally traced my way through the history of cycling, to finish up riding into the present. These days the two worlds exist side by side. I ride on the traces of legends when I take part in events such as the Tour de Rance Vintage and rub shoulders with cycling tourists who watch as the cream of local talent, in multi-coloured jerseys, displays its prowess. I’ve made my peace with the bike. And more importantly, with my father. I’m finally following through what he began, then had to give up under family pressure to find a  “real job.”  I go over the passes that he was only able to follow by watching the peloton of the Tour on TV or in magazines. I ride on machines that he would love to try out. I meet people in the world of cycling who take him right back to a wonderful period in his life. And finally he belongs to my peloton.

The terrain 

I’m lucky enough to live by the sea all year round. The iodine in the air and the beauty of the sun on the ocean add to the pleasure of riding in La Rochelle. And there’s such a change when you cross the bridge onto the Ile de Ré, which these days is so much in demand. But monotony is often not far away. There’s no variation in relief along the coastline. You have to go further to find the first foothills. You have to get organised to go over the first passes. That’s why our troupe of Gravillon(s) sets out every year to tackle the famous high-altitude cycling routes. Our recent conquests include the Pyrenees and the ranges of Auvergne. The elevation gain figures register wildly on the counters in such circumstances. And it opens our eyes to landscapes we aren’t used to. The first passes I went over, during a Pyrenean campaign, remain a particularly special memory for me. The more so since I hadn’t made the easiest choice. That day, I went for the Soulor and the Tourmalet at the handlebars of a steel bike weighing over 11 kilos, in a somewhat approximate stage of development and with neglected adjustment mechanisms. Time goes slowly at such moments. And I began to wonder whether the whole enterprise was entirely necessary. The doubts faded when I reached the summit and disappeared completely as I came down, as the “excess weight” allowed me to fly with the wind and overtake my fellow riders, like Nibali in his best form on the descent. The experience of that first day, backed by the advice from a local on this stage, prompted me to be more careful though, to exchange the heavy machine for another robed in carbon, and aim for the Tourmalet the following day. A decision that was rewarded by a fanfare arrival at the summit. And something of a coincidence, in the presence of the “banda” like the one that, with the sound of a bugle, had accompanied Octave Lapize as he reached the summit of the “Giant”, coming to reclaim the bolts to his high-altitude pedestal. A resounding memory! 

The philosophy of effort

There are times when I like to be alone. When I need to think, and to let go of any passing worries. When I don’t feel like talking and don’t want to follow the rules and discussions in the peloton. A sort of withdrawal into cycling. An essential escape.  I can also find that calm behind the handlebars of my motorbike. That said, I love the time spent with my bike-riding friends. It probably owes a lot to cultivating the friendliness of the southwest where I was born. And because our riding sessions often include a debriefing that’s both an apéritif and a party. It’s a tradition among friends that began when we used to run the marathon. Every long-distance effort would be punctuated by a good meal - a veal blanquette and a few well-deserved drinks. For us, sharing is our religion. Our bike rides—and I’m sure it’s not just us – are a pretext for long discussions, projects and schoolboy jokes. We weren’t trained in conventional riding, and none of us has ever belonged to a cycling club. Our training is a bit anarchic. The rules are vague. And that sometimes means we’re on the receiving end of reproaches from the cycle-grumblers that we meet along the way. As long as our behaviour doesn’t endanger safety, we’ll carry right on, and be proud of our attitude towards cycling with its slight whiff of punk. We don’t see the bike only in its sporting dimension. The bike is a culture that doesn’t only rely on being behind the handlebars. It is also present in writing, graphic arts and photography. It deserves a place alongside the best of “modest art” that you find in such extraordinary artists as Hervé Dirosa.

In practice

I always used to be a cyclist with no particular aim. I had no idea of the passion that drives you to ride in all circumstances, on all terrains and in all weathers. But then my life forced me to find this strength, following a terrible event that shook the whole family. These days, I’m possessed. By a passion, of course. It was with me before, but it didn’t make me ride in the rain. At that time I always had a good excuse to put off going out for a ride. Now, there’s a presence that goes with me. This presence makes itself felt when my legs balk at turning, or when pain is a sign that the body wants to stop. In 2017, a few weeks after the event that had left our whole family grieving, I decided to cross the Pyrenees from east to west, in the project Over the crests,a test of strength for the calf muscles. And above all, for the mind.  It was a defining moment in my cycling “career.” Before, I had only ever ridden for pleasure. The casual approach. But now, there’s a new dimension that guides me. Mystical? Philosophical? I can’t put a finger on it. I don’t look at the landscapes in the same way. I see signs in the setting sun. I hear voices speaking to me in the wind. I’d far rather climb to the summit of a pass, like that day in July when I found myself weeping at the foot of the Tourmalet Giant, than to stare at a yellowing photo feeling sorry for myself. It’s a discipline for life, another way to keep and cultivate a memory that I try to share with my children. I belong now to the Fireflies family and I serve their cause. It’s a cyclists’ collective that rides to raise money for research into leukaemia and other destructive cancers. It brings together people from many professions in the cinema and communications, and organises exceptional tours to attract media attention and generate donations. The Fireflies Tour is a major event held every year, and brings together dozens of cyclists under the colours of the collective to ride from Geneva to Cannes, going over the most beautiful of the Alpine passes. The key word (-tag) is #forthosewhosufferweride! It motivates me, makes me forget all those insignificant concerns and to ride for people who are really in need of help!

Louison yesterday and today

I’m impressed by the record of the champion’s wins. When you look him up on the net or in what’s been written about his career, it seems as though he would never stop. The titles and victories that he accumulated makes your head spin. But it’s the man himself rather than the racer that I find fascinating. And all the accounts express this same fascination. When you read the writings of his brother Jean, whom Antoine Blondin nicknamed his “brother’s mask,” you discover a universe that is nothing other than totally admirable. Elegance behind the handlebars is one thing. Louison Bobet also cultivated elegance inn his everyday life. Simple values such as politeness and courtesy. “Values that we’re losing!” I could exclaim, thus adding to my record as a reactionary. I can take that on board. I still have much to transmit to my children, and that includes the essentials of good behaviour that I insist on. The strength of the Louison Bobet brand, whose colours I’m fortunate to wear, is to have positioned itself in line with this heritage. This new French range illustrates all the characteristics of its inspiration in the modesty of the colours, the performance of the fabrics and the elegant lines. These jerseys are like no others. That’s what I like about them. A sobriety that stands out. Is that a paradox? No, more a rare chance. An opportunity to ride with that touch of difference. In the end, the Louison Bobet is the counterpart in textiles to all that we hold dear on Gravillon.


I could dream of setting off on projects and cycling adventures that my friends François Paoletti and Matthieu Lifschitz are involved in. But I have other priorities. The love of my children and my “dear one” means that I want to be available for them, so my ambitions remain modest. My biking news is more focused on developing our site gravillon.net. It’s very successful now, and we’re hoping that it will continue to open up to further developments. I’m looking at all the possible directions it could go in order to reach a new high point and reap the fruits of so much good writing and visual work that we’ve put into it since 2013. But I’m very careful not to lose sight of our absolutely essential independence. I’m also going to take advantage of the return of spring to launch an attack on the heights of the Basque Country with some of my separatist friends. That’ll be at the beginning of May, into scenery that I’ve ridden through so often on my antique motorbike during the famous Wheels & Waves. We’re going to spice up our cycling year and compare our speeds with those of the Pottoks in full gallop. A Euskadi trip, on the slopes of the passes of Burdincurutcheta and Jaizkibel, which will give us an opportunity to work on our elocution and our Scrabble scores!


Photos : Pierre Labardant by Nicolas Fritsch for Louison Bobet © 2018

Location : La Rochelle / Ile de Ré (17) - France

Extend stories with Pierre on his diary blog : Gravillon.net

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