Inspired by the greatest cyclist of all time, Eddy Merckx, he’s already ridden the routes of the 1973 Milan-Sanremo, Tour of Flanders, Gent-Wevelgem, Amstel Gold Race and Paris-Roubaix. We caught up with François for a chat.
Why did you take on this adventure?
That’s the big question! The yachtsman Robin Knox-Johnston was the first man to sail solo around the world, and he said, talking about the feats of another yachtsman: ‘He had an idea, so he made it happen, it’s as simple as that.’
That’s more or less the best answer I’ve found. More seriously, I think I did it because I wanted to write. I’ve read a lot of French writers about cycling, who have inspired me, and I wanted to write about cycling myself, but I didn’t want to do something that had already been done.
A lot of people have ridden a Tour de France and then written about it.
I wanted to do something different.
The trigger was when I was talking to a cycling writer I met a few months ago, who has undertaken similar adventures, and he was talking about riding Milan-Sanremo, his favourite race. That’s how the idea took hold, and from Milan-Sanremo I got to the Classics as a whole. In the Classics, the name that springs to mind is obviously that of Eddy Merckx. He has the best palmarès. That’s how the project was born.
So you’re riding all the Spring Classics, plus Paris-Tours and the Tour of the Lombardy. Why 1973?
Because I did some sums! It’s difficult to know which year is a champion’s best year, so for all his years riding Classics only I gave him one point for a win, two for second place, three for third and so on… and the year he had least points was 1973.
It’s funny, Parisien magazine wrote about the project and they interviewed Merckx himself (in French). When they asked about 1973, he said ‘Let me think’, and he agreed it was a big, big year. He knew his palmarès by heart. In 1973 he won almost everything: Amstel, Roubaix, Liège, Lombardie, and was second in Flanders. It was an incredible year.
How did you find the routes?
It wasn’t easy! I spent a lot of time researching in the national library, in newspapers from the era. The most difficult was Amstel Gold Race, because it wasn’t well known in France. People were far less interested than they were in Paris-Roubaix or Milan-Sanremo. But social networks helped me a lot. I posted on Facebook and within 20 minutes someone in my network had sent the information. The passion collectors have is amazing.
I was a bit hesitant to share the routes and my data on Strava. I didn’t want to make it too much about the performance. But I found that all the magic of the adventure and the preparation were also present in searching the archives and mapping the routes on Strava. I feel a bit of that poetry when I trace my routes, share them and then look at the stats of what I’ve done. There’s a performance angle, sure, but there’s also something poetic.
Also, I couldn’t have done it with a paper map. When you do 200 or 300km in March, and the days are short, you don’t want to be out on little roads in Flanders having to take your map out every time you need to turn left or right – it would be fatal!
The technology is great for that. And then when you share it, see people following you, looking at the routes, it’s a real joy.
What do you think about when you see the pros out on the same roads, doing the same races?
I haven’t had time to watch them much, I’ve been out riding! But it was funny, the day I was riding the Tour of Flanders, there was the Gent-Wevelgem pro race at the same time, and we were basically side by side. The weather was horrible, very windy and rainy, and they were suffering really badly. I stopped for a minute in a cafe and watched them on TV for a moment, it was great.
Do you feel like you understand better what they do?
Yes, in a modest way. ‘Chapeau!’ to them, I say. What they do is crazy. When you look at Merckx’s programme in ’73, Sunday he did Flanders; Wednesday, Gent-Wevelgem; Paris-Roubaix the Sunday after, and then Amstel before leaving for the Tour of Belgium. It’s just crazy. They obviously go a lot faster than me, but then during that Tour of Flanders I was out there in the wind all on my own…
What was the most difficult moment?
That was the end of Milan-Sanremo. The weather was bad then too, and the light went very early. I had some journalists with me and we were taking photos the whole way along. 10km from Sanremo, I was riding in the dark, that was a bad time. But apart from that, so far it’s all been a pleasure.
When we first talked you described the challenge as ‘exhilarating’. What did you mean?
Yes, it’s exhilarating. I’m not a champion. I am doing this with only my leg power and very little backup, and there are many, many people who can ride faster, longer and better than me. But what’s exhilarating is passing through all these mythical places. The Mur de Grammont, the Oude Kwaremont, the Turchino, they’re magic places, and it’s magic to see them by bike.
It’s also exhilarating to ride on the same roads as Merckx and all those others: my original idea was this would produce something interesting and full of emotion, and it would give me something to write about. And it’s working. An example, not even about Merckx: I stop wherever I am every 100km to take a photo, on the spot. And the first one, during Milan-Sanremo, was in a town called Tortona. And that was where Fausto Coppi died.
He’ll be finished with the Spring Classics in June, then there’ll be Paris-Tours and the Tour of Lombardy to finish in the autumn. His calendar is here.
Chapeau, François, and good luck!