Why the 1949 Paris-Roubaix Has Two Winners
from Cycling's 50 Craziest Stories
by Les Woodland
Les Woodland has been kind enough to let me post his telling of the wild finish to the 1949 Paris–Roubaix from his delightful book, Cycling's 50 Craziest Stories. To learn more about this fun book and how to get your copy (print, eBook or audio book) click here.
HOW TO WIN A CLASSIC
It’s never too far to go to see a good bike race. You don’t often come home disappointed. But equally you don’t often come home with as much to talk about as the fans who paid to sit in the vélodrome to wait for the finish of Paris–Roubaix in 1949.
There’s more to a day at Roubaix than just the finish of the mud-and-blood stars who’ve ridden from the capital. There is a program of minor races and constant news of the stars of the road who all that time are getting closer and closer. These days the crowd can see the same television pictures that you and I see at home, but in 1949 there was no live television coverage and so all afternoon the crowd strained to hear the telephoned bulletins read out over the loudspeakers. The fans knew what was happening on the road, that the leaders were entering the city, that they were approaching the track, that they were about to burst through the square tunnel that led to their last laps around the track. And they were on the edges of their seats with excitement.
Would it be one man alone, or a group? Would they be all outsiders or would the stars be there? Would their favourite be there? The tension was unbearable. Imagine that crowd in 1949, therefore, staring at the way into the track only to be distracted by a growing commotion from people who were looking elsewhere. Nervously, because they didn’t want to miss anything, they turned their eyes from the track entrance and looked for what was causing the fuss. And then, to their disbelief, they saw the race leaders coming on to the track by a side entrance, looking around to see where the finish line might be, then racing off again.
No race has ever finished in greater chaos. To this day the Paris–Roubaix of 1949 has two winners. The winners finished separately, they were separated by four other riders and they both reached the line by different routes. It took two international conferences to sort what to do about it.
What the crowd knew was that three riders had reached the entrance to the track together. There had been no time to report, though, that an official had gestured them down a side-road intended only for officials’ cars and that the riders had gone that way instead. André Mahé, Jacques Moujica and Frans Leenen soon realised something had gone wrong and they looked for somewhere to go. But the road was narrow, it was filling with other traffic, and sorting out the error wasn’t simple.
Moujica turned a tight circle, lost his balance, fell off and broke a pedal. Mahé and Leenen rode beneath the cliff-like concrete face of the outside of the track, looking for a way in, and in frustration opted for a small gate which, well, just happened to be there. And that was how they reached the banking, pushing through whatever and whomever they had to push through, then sprinting for the line.
“C’est trop bête d’en parler [it’s just too stupid to talk about],” Mahé said as we sat around a low table beside the kitchen, where his wife was making us pancakes and coffee. “There was a break. [Serse] Coppi attacked. His brother Fausto gave him a push to get him away. He wanted his brother to win. I waited a bit and then I attacked and I caught him and the break. Then I went off by myself. I was going to win Paris–Roubaix. At the entrance to the vélodrome, there were crowds everywhere, blocking the way. I looked around for where to go and I was directed round the outside wall of the track, to where the team cars had to park. It wasn’t like nowadays, when there’s television and everything. Then it was more chaotic and the whole road was blocked.
“People said I should have known the way into the track. But how do you know a thing like that at the end of Paris–Roubaix, when you’ve raced all day over roads like that? A gendarme signaled the way to go and that’s the way I went. Of course, the police never apologized afterwards.
“It was a journalist on a motorbike who managed to get up to me. He was shouting ‘Not that way! Not that way!’ And I turned round in the road and I rode back beneath the outside wall of the grandstand and I saw a gateway that went into the track, a gateway for journalists. And that’s the way I went, except that it came out on the other side of the track from the proper entrance. The bunch came in and Serse won the sprint. But then his brother told Serse to go to the judges to object. He told Serse that I hadn’t ridden the entire and precise course and that therefore I should be déclassé. But that was below him.
“Coppi wanted his brother to have a big victory. He was a great champion, Coppi, but to do what he did, to protest like that to get a victory for his brother, that wasn’t dignified for a champion. That was beneath him. A champion like that should never have stooped that low. I never spoke to him about it. Never did. Why should I?
“It marked me, though, and I still feel marked by it. I was alone. I would have won alone. I had attacked alone and Serse couldn’t follow me. I had received my bouquet and I was even in the shower when I heard the news. For me, I had won Paris–Roubaix.”
The judge, Henri Boudard, sent him on his lap of honour. What else could he do? But Serse wasn’t going to be persuaded he hadn’t won. He knew there were other riders ahead of him but he protested that he was the winner, that the others hadn’t completed the course and that he had. Novel though using another gate might be, it wasn’t part of the official route. He was sorry for them but they should be disqualified or demoted. No question about it.
Boudard wavered and then sided with Coppi. It was perfectly true that Mahé and the others hadn’t followed the right course, and that’s the least a judge should ask of competitors. So he named Coppi the winner.
“I only followed the rules,” Boudard protested as the world surrounded him with angry gestures (Frenchmen, Belgians) and grateful smiles (Italians). The organisers couldn’t miss the commotion and compromised. The judges could decide what they wanted but they would give Mahé and the others the prizes they would have won. Five days later the French federation followed suit and confirmed Mahé as winner. “It couldn’t be otherwise,” said Achille Joinard, the French cycling president.
“It certainly can!” the Italians protested and they appealed to the UCI. Now, the race was in April. It took from then until August for the UCI to decide it had no option but to cancel the race and make neither man the winner. A non-race, a rejection of responsibility, wasn’t an answer, though. It was a decision to please nobody. The UCI, now as unhappy as Mahé, Coppi and the French and Italian federations, said it would make a proper and final decision in November. The French then poured insults on Joinard’s head. They called him a traitor for going back on the decision to award the race to a Frenchman and accused him of soft-pedalling Mahé’s cause because he didn’t want to spoil his chances of becoming UCI president. That gave the scandal fresh spin. It also made a decision impossible and in November the UCI said both riders had won. And that’s the way it remains until this day, officialdom unable to decide whether coming into the track one way rather than another was as good as following the official route.
“Thank heavens there’s another Paris–Roubaix in four months,” said one official.
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