Halcyon: A Perfect Influence

Life isn’t always what you expect it to be. Jobs, people, competitions: they all surprise in some way. But I thought going into my first professional cycling team would be different. This will be perfect. Everyone will be doing their best and I’ll have to buck up my ideas. Oh, how wrong I was.
Peugeot might have been one of the biggest teams of the time with a solid reputation and an outer veneer of being totally professional, but once on the inside, I discovered everything wasn’t quite as rosy as I had envisaged. I had assumed and, as everyone learns, assumptions are dangerous.
The racing was harder than I thought and I struggled with the brutality of the final hour’s speed. Everyone seemed harder, stronger and faster than I had imagined. But then, when the cycling part of the day was over, things were very different. I thought all the guys would be resting up, taking care of themselves, doing what needed to be done to be in the best possible shape for the next race. Dream on.
I looked around me and noticed the favoured riders I couldn’t keep up with messing about. If there had been an athlete’s handbook then it would have been breached, broken and chewed into tiny pieces by my so-called peers.
Drinking, smoking, gambling and womanising were the order of the day for the cool gang. They were meant to be a shining example of professionalism for us neo-pros, but whenever any of them said they were going to bed early, the others fell about laughing and said “make sure you get back without anyone noticing.”
Earning respect from the in-crowd was more about how many drinks you could down than how much work you could do in the races, so it was no surprise I spent many a kilometre taking back jerseys, fetching gloves, bidons or arm warmers.
I thought at the start that it was just because I was new and had to prove worthiness before some acknowledgement of my existence, but watching other new arrivals trying to infiltrate the inner sanctum, I realised that I didn’t have the mentality or health to even try to be part of whatever they had going on.
In some ways I was glad that I wasn’t French, because at least I had that as an excuse for my inferiority. I accepted they were near the top of the Peugeot tree and I was at the very bottom and that some kind of warped selection process was being applied. I’d proved nothing and the pecking order said I was a possible source of amusement for the cool guys. I assumed none of that applied to the rider at the very top, the team leader for all the big races, the guy who was hoping to win the Tour de France, Hennie Kuiper.
But it did. Never mind that he’d been world champion and won Classics, the cool gang took the proverbial out of him too. Not to his face though – he spoke French too well for that and would have told them where to go – but when he wasn’t there, they mocked his slight stammer and copied his riding style.
Then they laughed and went back to messing about. Acting the clown and thinking they were being cool was more important than being as good as they could be, except for when the Tour de France came into view and selection was sought if not already assured by popularity. Then, but only then, did the cool guys behave as I thought pro bike riders were meant to.
Hennie Kuiper acted like a professional all the time. If it wasn’t for watching him go about the business of being as good as you can, then I would have been left to figure it all out for myself. The importance of having him as an example of hard work, proper training and behaviour being rewarded can’t be understated.
The few races I got to ride with him were chances to learn from one of the best, so I watched as best I could, though often I’d be getting dropped just when he was riding off into the sunset with the front group.
I observed his meticulous approach to equipment, clothing, food, and how he comported himself with us. He had respect for what his team-mates did for him, something the cool guys never showed, and he thanked everyone at the end of races.
After the big mountain stage at my first Tour de Romandie, I was the best placed Peugeot rider and Hennie looked after me without any quibble. I was a neo-pro and he’d been second at the Tour the previous year, but there were no tantrums: he moved me up in the group, made sure I paid attention and became the perfect domestique. I was gobsmacked as he was the team leader.
At the Dauphiné three weeks later, I paced him back to the lead group on Mont Ventoux when he was struggling and just as we got within sight of the summit, he jumped across and made the junction. Job done, I went tumbling back to the next group but I wasn’t upset. He did what he had to do to be with the other team leaders and still took time to thank me when I reached the finish much later.
He was second at the Tour de France that year and still the cool guys laughed behind his back. But then, they never really did understand just how talented a bike rider Hennie Kuiper was.
I wasn’t surprised he left Peugeot at the end of that season. He was too serious, too committed for most of them. I was sad to see him go because Hennie saved me from trying to be cool.
This column originally appeared in issue 58 of 1, featuring an interview with Hennie Kuiper

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