Tinker tailor soldier spy. The man that dragged the marketing of French cycling into the modern world did none of them but he would go on to do just about everything else, including some time at the republic’s pleasure.
Had I originally written ‘big, bold, brash and team sponsor’, you would be excused for immediately thinking Oleg Tinkov, but for once you would be wrong.
The name’s Tapie, Bernard Tapie and whereas Ian Fleming’s famous character liked two zeroes at the front of his number, the tall blond Frenchman liked to add his double O’s to the end. Of his bank balance.
I always found it fascinating that the introduction of capitalism to the sport was started by the French, the very people who considered cycling as a refuge of the working classes. The farming upbringing and poor reward for the likes of Raymond Poulidor’s generation of professional riders no longer applied. The path to more was unleashed by state-owned Renault, an enterprise where socialism and communist activism ruled the roost.
To them and Cyrille Guimard, I am truly thankful. When their idea of inspiring the proletariat was seized upon by Monsieur Tapie – taking a discarded, slightly broken Bernard Hinault and doing what he did best, resurrecting a dying brand – the currency changed forever from the franc to dollars.
The timing may have been perfect, just as it had been for his takeovers of La Vie Claire health food stores in 1980 and the Look bicycle company in 1983, but Tapie was smart: he understood the game was changing and how it was going to be played from now on.
Those with most money bought the best riders and those with less existed on talent which would inevitably be snapped up once their pedigree was established. The arrival of Greg LeMond to the shiny new La Vie Claire team in its second year confirmed the future was going to be brighter and there would be more money for everyone.
This American dream embraced by Tapie was a bit of a shock for the traditionalists like Poulidor and co, but I was happy. The only farm I knew about was Emmerdale and that had nothing to do with a peasant lifestyle. I didn’t particularly aspire to one either.
The marketing of the whole affair was where Tapie excelled. He was a showman and what he presented for public consumption was lapped up just as he knew it would.
The jerseys were like nothing that had gone before; their vehicles were supplied by Pontiac, not Peugeot or Fiat; making healthy choices was the main story and there was the subplot of Hinault showing Lemond how it was done. It was modern, fresh, inspirational – of course everyone wanted some.
Watching from the outside, Team Bernard seemed to have everything covered. On the inside, however, it was a very different vibe which I won’t go into here as it’s been well documented elsewhere. All I’ll say is if Guimard couldn’t contain Hinault’s ambitions when needed then team manager Paul Koechli had no chance – a situation perfectly illustrated by the perceived judgement held in the peloton of their respective driving skills.
With former green jersey winner Guimard, you could get as close as possible in the hope of hearing what the barked orders were, but you stayed well out the way of the Swiss-driven Pontiac barge that they used on non-Tour races because quite frankly he was more likely to be asking and not telling what was happening.
Putting all that aside, I can admit that I still bought organic bread and their lovely orange and ginger biscuits from my local La Vie Claire shop. I’d scoff the whole packet, usually after a bad kicking from Hinault or one of his new posse.
I tried some Look pedals too, but one appearance on my race bike soon had the Peugeot management telling me in no uncertain terms where my allegiances lay. Funnily enough, Peter Post told me the same story the following year as well.
If only Tapie had been as direct with his race personnel then perhaps the domination that La Vie Claire had in ’85 and ’86 would have continued for a lot longer than it did, but then again, there’s the nagging feeling he probably relished the backroom meetings and on the road shenanigans which made those two seasons so memorable. With a natural talent for doing a deal, it wasn’t for nothing that he progressed onto the world of politics and football with Olympique Marseille.
Despite his failings, we have Bernard Tapie to thank for being one of the characters who recognised the potential that cycling had in a modern context.
In a world where shareholders want answers, brand recognition points, market percentages, television exposure and return on investment, professional cycling was all rather amateur before he came along and proved there was money to be made. The racing wasn’t too shabby either.
Originally published in issue 64 of Rouleur under the name Robert Millar.