Tour de France 21 Stories: Stage 13 Recce

Stage 13: Bourg-Saint-Andéol—La Caverne du Pont-d’Arc

In November last year Robert Marchand, the current world hour and 100k record holder, went to check out the route of today’s stage. He rode 22k out of the 37.5k route but got a lift descending the Col du Serre de Tourre because he was having difficulty with his brakes. The final climb up to the caves of Pont-d’Arc, he reported, “is going to be hell”.

Marchand is a specialist in efforts against the clock, but he can also climb—there’s even a col in the Ardèche named in his honour. If you’re wondering why you can’t place which team he rides for, or why he hasn’t been touted for today’s stage, or why, indeed, you never heard about Wiggo’s hour record being broken, it’s because Marchand is 104 years old.

He waited until he was 100 to break his first hour record in the Masters 100+ category— which the UCI established, at his request—in Switzerland in 2012. The same year he set the 100k record having spent 4 hours 17 minutes and 27 seconds on the track in Lyon. Not one to rest on his laurels, two years ago he bettered his hour record by almost 3 kilometres when he covered 26.927k in the brand new Vélodrome de St-Quentin-en-Yvelines, South West of Paris.

Marchand came to cycling later than most. First of all a promising gymnast, he won the French national ‘pyramid’ championship in 1924 when he was 13 years old. The following year he bought his first bike and entered his first race, which he won, although he rode it under a false name because he was too young for the 15+ category. He was told he was too small to pursue a career in the sport, however, so focused on other things.

He worked as a fireman in Paris in the 1930s, became a Communist and rallied for the Popular Front, the legendary French left wing alliance, in 1936, then, following the Second World War, moved to Venezuela, where he raised chickens, became a truck driver, and planted sugar cane. He returned to France in the 1950s, had a brief stint in Canada as a lumberjack, then settled in Mitry-Mory, not far from the Charles de Gaulle airport North East of Paris, in 1960, where he became a market gardener, then a shoe salesman and finally a wine merchant. Marchand clearly likes to save the best for last.

He took up cycling again when he was 67, taking part in amateur races such as the Marmotte, Paris-Roubaix and the Ardéchoise. He rode eight editions of the 600-kilometre Bordeaux-Paris and, at the age of 81, rode from Paris to Moscow.

He has become a role model for younger riders, such as the British sapling Sidney Schuman, who at 85 is young enough to be his son. Inspired by Marchand, Schuman discovered there was a gap in the record books for riders between 80 and 100, so in 2014 set a record of 28.388k for the hour at the Olympic velodrome in London.

The next challenge for Wiggins, perhaps, after the Olympics? He can take a 50-year breather in the meantime: it’s always good to recover between efforts.

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