An article in BicycleQuarterly No. 54 outlined the life and career of Jean Hoffmann.
|Jean Hoffmann. From pdw|
Chances are, unless you’ve read BQ 54, you haven’t heard of him. I hadn’t either, until my copy of the magazine showed up in my mailbox. On the other hand, anyone who has followed bicycle racing for as long as it takes to lap the Arc de Triomphe has heard of someone who “served in the trenches”, if you will, with him.
That compatriot is none other than Jacques Anquetil, the first five-time winner of the Tour de France.
|Jacques Anquetil. From Ina.fr|
They rode for the same team—the legendary Raphael Geminiani —though not at the same time. They did, however, serve together with the same French Army battalion in Algeria. (At that time, even such luminaries as Yves St.Laurent had their careers interrupted for mandatory military service.) Although Hoffmann crashed and was dropped after the 14th stage of the only Tour he rode, in 1959, he arguably was, in his own way, as much of an iconic figure of French cycling in the 1950’s and ‘60’s.
In those days, someone who won amateur hill-climbing competitions like the Poly de Chanteloup or rode at or near the head of a major randonnee like the Paris-Brest-Paris could garner nearly as much attention as the professional riders who won multi-day racers (which France certainly didn’t lack!) enjoyed. In fact, Hoffmann was known in the cycling press—a major part of the French media at that time—before anyone heard of Anquetil.
It didn’t hurt Hoffmann’s popularity that he so dominated the qualifier for the Poly—on, as he recalls, a heavy old bike with a single chainring and “way-too-large gears” at age seventeen that Rene Herse loaned his own bike to Hoffmann for the actual competition. It almost goes without saying that Herse was delighted to have Hoffmann on his team—so much so that he gave Hoffmann a velo de service that was chromed, like Rene’s own, rather than the typical Herse blue (a lovely color, by the way) other team members received.
After riding on Herse’s team for a few years, Hoffmann couldn’t resist the urge to race. He quickly found success, mainly because of his climbing abilities. One of his major successes was winning the climber’s jersey in the 1955 Peace Race, often nicknamed “the Tour de France of the East”. He was selected to ride in the 1956 Olympics. But, fate intervened: He—and Anquetil—were drafted.
After completing his military service, Hoffmann continued his racing career, turning pro in the year he rode his only Tour. He would retire from racing after three years. He never stopped riding, though: He rode gentleman races—which pitted young riders against older ones and gave the latter a handicap based on his age—as well as rides like the Audax and Randonee Paris-Brest-Paris. Today, at age 81, he does a 50 km ride (which includes at least one climb) every day.
Interestingly, he rides a Look carbon bike. He has no interest in machines like the one he rode for Herse’s team in the ‘50’s. In those days, it was the most technically advanced bike available; being a racer at heart, he moved on to what technology offers today.
As we all know, Jacques Anquetil not only rode in the Tour; he would become the first cyclist to win that race five times. No one disputes that he is among the handful of greatest racers of all time: in the same league as Eddy Mercx, Bernard Hinault, Gino Bartali and a few others. He retired in late 1969.
In contrast to Hoffmann, Anquetil did not come to racing from the world of randonees and other such endurance rides. He also didn’t retreat to that milieu. In fact, Anquetil got on his bike only three times after retiring. “I have done enough cycling,” he declared. He died in 1987, at the age of 53.
After reading the BQ article, I have the impression that Jean Hoffmann might live to be 100—and won’t stop riding!