clock menu more-arrow no yes mobile

Filed under:

Olympic Gangster, by Matt Rendell

Olympic Gangster

Title: Olympic Gangster: The Legend of José Beyaert - Cycling Champion, Fortune Hunter and Outlaw
Author: Matt Rendell
Publisher: Mainstream Publishing
Year: 2009
Pages: 352
Order: Random House
What it is: The third part of Matt Rendell's Colombian trilogy: a biography of France's last winner of the Olympic road race and an examination of how his life intersected with Colombia's history in the second half of the twentieth century.
Strengths: As well as some great cycling stories you're unlikely to have read before, Rendell's biography of Beyaert is a ripping yarn full of larger than life tales.
Weaknesses: The book could probably have done with a bit more time in the cooking, a chance to step further back from the story and view it from a distance.

I've not lived long, but I've lived more than other people of my age.
José Beyaert, 2004

By the final Friday of the 1948 Games - the Austerity Olympics, as they've become known, especially in this age of Austerity II - British cyclists were drinking in the last chance saloon. As hosts, this was meant to be their moment to shine. And the head of British cycling had pledged that they would shine, shine like an arc light: not a single gold medal, Briton's were promised, would leave Britain's shores. Things didn't quite work out according to plan. On the track in Herne Hill the French took the kilometre and the team pursuit. The Italians took the sprint and the tandem. Save a little bit of shrapnel - bronze in the French victories, silver in the Italian - the hosts were hopeless. The road race was to be their final opportunity to keep even one of cycling's gold medals in the UK.

British officialdom's distaste for road racing impacted upon the choice of a route for the Olympics road race: it was all to be run off on a closed circuit in Windsor Great Park.

Olympic Gangster

L'Équipe described the course in withering prose:

"The finish line, which is perfectly clear but scarcely any wider than the rest of the route [five metres], follows Breakheart Hill, which isn't six hundred metres long and has an average gradient of four per cent, although the final hundred metres touch eleven per cent.

"The setting is pastoral. You cross meadows and woods bathed in sunlight, their greens singing a chromatic symphony. Shafts of sunlight filter through the foliage and pose sweetly in the road like paintbrushes!

"Put briefly, this little frequented road, passing no villages and compromising only a few B-roads, is an excellent promenade for lovers or for ladies and young women whose physicians have prescribed a little gentle bicycling.

"It's also wonderful propaganda for the countryside around London. But it isn't worthy of an Olympic road race."

On race day, the weather pissed on picturesque pastoralism's propaganda parade, sporadic rain turning into a torrential downpour about halfway through.

Olympic Gangster

The race itself is told in detail in Olympic Gangster but let's jump to the conclusion. A group of eight are clear of the peloton, the Italians leading the chase behind for their man, Aldo Ferrari, fooled by the belief that France's Alain Moineau was the man to mark and everything would come together for a Ferrari-Moineau sprint. The eight are: Nils Johansson (Sweden); Gerrit Voorting (Netherlands); Lode Wouters and Léon Delathouwer (Belgium); Bob Maitland and Gordon Thomas (GB); Jack Hoobin (Australia); and José Beyaert (France)

Johansson had been away since the first breakaway, early into the first of seventeen laps of the 11.45 kilometres circuit. Voorting went clear of the pack on the third lap. Delathouwer, Thomas and Beyaert made their moves on the eighth lap. Maitland seems to have made moved on lap ten, along with Wouters and Hoobin. Others had come and gone from the pointy end of the race - a series of breaks chasing one and other before finally coalescing somewhere in the second half of the race - but these eight are the guys who stayed the course, and how long they were out there.

Here's Beyaert's description of the finish, as recounted to Matt Rendell in 2004:

"I saw it this way: if I wait for the sprint everyone will be on my wheel because I'm a sprinter, and I'll have no one's wheel. So I made a little acceleration from the front with two kilometres to go [before the base of Breakheart Hill], just to start things off. That put me at the front of the line. I reached for my bidon. You know how it is: one drinks, everyone wants to drink. So I reached for my water bottle and when I saw that two or three of them had reached for theirs I threw it away and attacked. They were off guard. By the time they reacted I led by fifty metres."

Olympic Gangster

And that was that. From the base of the drag up Breakheart Beyaert went clear and stayed clear at the finish line. France had just won back-to-back victories in the Olympic road race (albeit it with twelve years separating the two). They haven't won another since.

Olympic Gangster

Olympic Gangster is the third part of Matt Rendell's Colombian trilogy. That series began with Kings of the Mountains: How Colombia's Cycling Heroes Changed Their Nations's History, offering up a brief history of Colombian cycling, both at home and in Europe, and continued in A Significant Other - Riding the Centenary Tour de France with Lance Armstrong, a look at the 2003 Tour de France, as seen through the eyes of one of Lance Armstrong's USPS domestiques, Victor Hugo Peña. (Last year Rendell added a fourth part to the trilogy, Salsa For People Who Shouldn't and even if you don't know your clave from your clavicle and prefer people who dance on the pedals rather than the dance floor, it's well worth looking out for, both for what it tells you about Colombia and for what it tells you about Rendell.)

What do most of us know about Colombia? Most all of us know of Pablo Escobar and the other narcos and the wealth and power they amassed on the back of the West's grá for Colombian marching powder. Many of us know about Colombian climbers, the fifty and sixty kilogram mountain goats from Lucho Herrera and Pacho Rodríguez through to Mauricio Soler and Rigoberto Uran. Quite a few us know Colombia through the stories of Gabriel Garcia Marquez. Beyond that, I think it's fair to say, most of us know very little, really.

One of the cool things about Rendell's four part trilogy is that, through stories about cycling (and salsa), he has broadened cycling fans' knowledge - our understanding - of Colombia. It's surprising sometimes the things you will learn reading cycling books, things that gone far beyond cycling, far beyond sport. A lot of the time Rendell does play to the stereotypes we know - the criminality and a certain romanticised exoticism - but at the same time he tries to untwist those stereotypes, turn them from cardboard cut-outs to stories with real depth and breadth. He contextualises them.

In some ways, the story of Beyaert's Olympic gold medal is a cheap hook on which a publisher can hang a book and sell it to a market that (in 2009, when Olympic Gangster was first published) mostly only understood cycling through the success of Britain's track stars. And, I'll admit, I've used it here too as a cheap hook on which to hang a review I've been meaning to write since taking up the task of reviewing cycling books a couple of years back. That the Games are now on in London was simply an opportunity for me to finally get around to a task that other distractions - life and the current heavy flow of new cycling books - were stopping me from dealing with. So what else is there in the story - the legend, as Rendell purposely refers to it as in Olympic Gangster's subtitle (The Legend of José Beyaert - Cycling Champion, Fortune Hunter and Outlaw) - of José Beyaert?

Olympic Gangster

Beyaert was born in the north-eastern French city of Lens, south-west of Lille, in 1925, to a French mother and Belgian father. The family moved to one of Paris's tenement slums, and then on to Pantin, north of the city (pointless factoid: two Pantinois rode the 1933 Tour: Speicher won the maillot jaune, Ernest Neuhard finished as the lanterne rouge. Maybe one day that will earn you a pint in a cycling pub quiz). From those early years it might be possible to find the roots of Beyaert's wanderlust, an excuse for his restlessness, a feeling that he was always an outsider: a man who was too French to be Belgian and too Belgian to be French, and in consequence somehow found himself at home in Colombia.

Through the war years - the tears of Occupation - French cycling continued even as the Tour 'rested' and Beyaert rode his first amateur race, Paris-Coulommiers, shortly after his sixteenth birthday. Fields in those days varied, sometimes a couple of dozen riders making up the peloton, sometimes the peloton was three or four hundred strong. Beyaert's successes on the road translated into lucrative appearances on the track. He became a regular at the Vél d'Hiv, one of Paris's seven vélodromes, paired in the Madison with Roger Rioland. And, during the Occupation, Beyaert also became something of a reluctant resistant, transporting arms during races and while on training rides.

As he progressed through the amateur ranks Beyaert graduated from the local club in Pantin, Jeunesses Populaires et Sportives, to the Athlétic Club de Boulogne Billancourt - the famed ACBB - before returning to the JPS after Helyett came on board with sponsorship. That moved - from JPC to ACBB - was partly on the advice of the club's president, Achille Joinard, then the president of the French cycling federation and later to become boss of the UCI. Like Beyaert Joinard was a resident of Pantin and - through a friendship with Beyaert's father - seems to have taken the young rider under his wing. This is a feature of Beyaert's life: his ability to hook up with movers and shakers at all levels of society.

After his victory in the Olympic road race, Helyett signed Beyaert to their trade team. He was feted in L'Équipe as one of the stars of the future. By the end of 1949 though L'Équipe were getting frustrated with their vedette, already choosing to refer to him as "the ex-Olympic champion."

The story of the next two seasons - 1950 and 1951 - could easily fill up the rest of this tale, but let's summarise it briefly by saying it's a story of how the cycling machine, with its unwritten rules and strict hierarchical structure, can chew up and spit out riders. Beyaert rode well, if without adding much to his palmarès, and became a fans' favourite, fêted for his amiability, his ability to take a licking and keep on smiling through. Beyaert ends his first Tour de France on his knees, but nominated y riders and journalist alike as one of the race's friendliest riders. In his second Tour he jokingly steals the yellow jersey and is involved in one of the 1951 Tour's more colourful moments: the peloton's dip in the sea at Sainte Maxime. If you're at all curious about these years in cycling's history - the era of Coppi and Bartali, of Hugo Koblet and Ferdie Kübler - there are tales told in Olympic Gangster which you'll want to read. One particular story is that of René Vietto as a directeur sportif at Helyett, Roi René coming across as a lot like Roy Keane, one of those astonishingly gifted athletes who simply wasn't suited to managing those with lesser talents (at one stage Vietto threatened to come out of retirement, claiming that even at his age and without training he'd put in a better showing than his Helyett charges).

As exciting as the cycling stories are the real meat and two veg of Olympic Gangster is Beyaert's Colombian years. Toward the end of 1951 Beyaert got an invitation to go and race in Colombia and, once there, found something that life in France wasn't offering him and began to cut his ties with Europe. Much of this story is based on interviews Rendell did with Beyaert shortly before his death, supported by Rendell's own research in Colombia to establish the veracity of Beyaert's claims and fill in the many blanks in the story. Those interviews - just eight hours in all, spread over a few days seven months before Beyaert's death - are what Olympic Gangster is really about: Beyaert was a raconteur. As Rendell puts it, he was a man who lived his life for the stories he'd be able to tell about it.

Many of those tales are, to put it politely, rather tall. Beyaert is your classic unreliable narrator. And this is - for me - one of the most enjoyable aspects of Olympic Gangster. In The Death of Marco Pantani Rendell offered up this suggestion as a way of dealing with the uncertainties of modern sport, where results can get rewritten long after races have concluded:

"It requires another way of seeing, a double vision or off-centre gaze, like Inuit looking into snow, in which surface appearances are taken not as reality but as gateways to potentially unpredictable truths. We mustn't abandon ourselves to the ecstasy of closure, but must cultivate the more restrained delights in unknowing."

Olympic Gangster is, in a sense, a book-length exploration of that theory: it delights in unknowing. In searching for the truth behind some of Beyaert's stories - some of which are actually true and most of which are least rooted in truth - Rendell opens up gateways into other stories. In looking at Beyaert in the Vuelta a Colombia we get told a story about one race commentator who's habit it was to advise certain riders when and where to attack and then, during his commentary, presciently predict those moves. In considering Beyaert's probable involvement in the Colombian cocaine trade we get to learn the role played by French gangsters in its birth (a story which dovetails with the truth behind The French Connection). Through an exploration of Beyaert's time as an emerald trader we learn the roots of another classic crime caper, Jules Dassin's brilliant ciné noir flick, Rififi (based on a novel by Auguste le Breton novel, an author who became a friend of Beyaert).

Several other films and books pop in and out of the story, such as The Day of the Jackal and Papillion. In looking at the latter Rendell tells the tale of Charles Hut - who may have inspired some of the stories in Papillion - a cyclist who was about to turn professional with Alcyon in 1920 but ended up becoming a real forçat de la route, sentenced to twelve years hard labour in France's South American penal colony, this three years before Albert Londres told the French public about the conditions there in the pages of Le Petit Parisien and, later, in Au Bagne. Hut dreamed of escape, maybe making it to New York and riding in Madison Square Garden's Six Day race. He attempted an escape but was caught and got another five years. In 1937 he did escape, and stowed away on a liner to Cherbourg, where he was immediately re-arrested. Two years of touring French prisons ended with Hut being returned to Guiana. Four years later, another escape, this time Hut making it all the way to Cuba (and, briefly, Miami). In Cuba - where he stayed seven years, five of them in gaol - Hut hooked up with Ernest Hemingway, failing to entice Papa to put his story on the printed page. Hut eventually returned to France and then moved on to Germany, where in the mid fifties he told his tale to a French journalist who published it in book form.

Now those books and films might seem like cheap pop culture hooks to keep you amused during the gaps in Beyaert's own story. Or - uncharitably - they might seem like padding to fill out what is, essentially, a relatively thin tale (Hut's story, for instance, fills six pages, at the end of which Rendell suggests that Beyaert probably knew of it before commencing his own South American adventure in 1951). But, really, there is more to them than that. Olympic Gangster is, at heart, a story about story telling. In constantly pulling the story back to books and films loosely based on true stories Rendell is quietly negating the difficulties in actually believing the stories Beyaert told about his life: yes, Rendell is saying, the truth matters. But so too does the story build upon its bare bones. Rendell is also, perhaps, lamenting the fact that no one really got to do with Beyaert's life what had been done with the likes of Hut. (Beyaert did become a fictional character in some of Le Breton's stories and became The Frenchman in some of Gabriel Garcia Marquez's writings, a peripheral character who never - until Olympic Gangster - got to fill the centre of the stage.)

Here's another thing I like about Olympic Gangster: many cycling books reference Roland Barthes but how many do you know of which quote from one of Barthe's disciples, Susan Sontag? Here's Rendell using Sontag to explain some of the lure of Beyaert's story:

"The vey act of telling our lives redefines the way we live them. José was one of those people who largely live to tell the tale. In other words he constructed his existence according to the rules of fiction, in which (unlike in life) something always has to happen. He was never one to sit and read when life was out there, waiting to be lived, but it did seem to me that he had something of that fictional character with 'an odd autobiographical habit which led him to compose in his mind from time to time a short sentence about himself containing a subject in the third person and a predicate in the past tense' [Sontag, Where the Stress Falls]. Which, it goes without saying, made the prospect of writing his story irresistible."

All of that may seem to suggest that Olympic Gangster is somewhat esoteric and high-falutin'. It isn't. That's just one way in which it can be read. An option you don't have to avail of. You can simply read Olympic Gangster as a ripping yarn about a former cyclist who became a fortune hunter, enjoy the stories of the lawless frontier of Colombian emerald traders and loggers in the sixties and seventies and drug smugglers in the seventies and eighties. And - if all you want is cycling - there are stories aplenty which add colour to what you already know about the forties and fifties, and about Colombian cycling's explosion onto the Continental scene in the eighties. Whichever way you choose to read it, Olympic Gangster has much to offer.

In re-reading Olympic Gangster in the shadow of today's Games, does the story have anything to say about modern Olympians? The Games today have little or nothing in common with the Games of the past. Today, they're a Reality TV spectacular, full of tales of tears and triumph, back stories of victory over adversity. But in one way they are still the same. They still produce heroes who are briefly fêted and then quickly cast aside in favour of the next new thing. After his own fifteen minutes of fame and glory Beyaert wasn't ready to exit the stage quietly, return to obscurity in the wings. How many of today's Olympians will find themselves facing a similar fate?