War, the Tour and adventure: Randolph Braumann's tales from journalism's golden age
Randolph Braumann passed away on August 21 at the age of 85 after a long and colourful life. The respected German journalist cut his teeth in cycling, covering the Tour before dicing with death, dictators and warzones. This is an extract of a feature which originally appeared in issue 38 of Rouleur.
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Bild first sent Randolph Braumann to the Tour not because he knew something about bikes but because he spoke French better than the other guys on the sports desk. In Paris before the start, Braumann happened to meet a man whose restaurant on the Rue Montmartre was a shrine to Spanish racer Federico Bahamontes, the “Eagle of Toledo.” As a sponsor, the restauranteur had the right to drive his car in the race caravan; Braumann rode in the back. “I rode in that car for years. Every night, I ended up in Bahamontes’ hotel, with his whole troop,” says Braumann.
The Tour at the time wasn’t the media and promotional circus it is today. “There were 20 international journalists, at most,” Braumann says. The race caravan was as good as unregulated, with team cars dodging in and out of the peloton. One foggy day on the Col du Tourmalet, for example, cars ended up parked or crawling along all down the descent. Frightened riders had to scream through the fog as they descended to let the caravan know they were coming.
Journalists typically arrived at the finish ten minutes before the riders, dashing to the finish line to interview the winners or set up appointments at team hotels for later that evening. Bild’s deadline in those days was 4pm, so Braumann’s stories were often called into the office a day late, increasing the urge to add colour and drama to his dispatches despite tight space constraints. In the days before fax and e-mail, reporters had to dictate their stories to stenographers back in the home office. Phone lines were a precious commodity the traveling press fought over.
Braumann slides a folder full of clippings he’s saved for decades across the table. I read them carefully, working through the German to get a feel for the tone and style. One piece, written from the 1962 Tour, captures the post-race scene at a German sprinter’s hotel in a few spare, telegraphic sentences: “Dinner in Montpellier’s Hotel Metropol. As an hors d’ouevre, Rudi Altig is introduced to a mediocre ‘Miss Paris.’ He shoots me a look. ‘I’ve had it up to here with these birds who apply the green jersey to me every day. Strange Misses they have here. But I guess it’s part of the business.’”
The yellowed, fragile clips tug me back to another era of journalism, an era when writers and riders were on the same team. It’s a total departure from the adversarial feel I get sitting down with sources today, visibly free of the careful scrutiny of press liaisons and brand managers.
Take this staccato dinner-table exchange, not long after Altig’s “mediocre Miss Paris” exits stage left: “How do you see the last week playing out? 2800 meter mountains?” Braumann asks the German sprinter. “’I’ve got a plan. A fantastic plan. Come a little closer – but you’re not allowed to tell anyone.’ … It’ll be hard for me, but nothing will be revealed. In a few days, we can talk about it. The plan isn’t safe. But if everything falls into place, we’ll be bringing a jersey from this Tour de France home to Germany. If not the yellow, then at least the green for the rider with the most points. P.S. – Rudi Altig’s plan has a lot to do with riders Vannitsen, Baldini and Graczyk. (Friday: The answer to the riddle.)”
In other words, stay tuned, Dear Reader, for the next installment, available tomorrow at a newsstand near you. Notice the use of the first person, singular and plural – it’s not Altig’s jersey, it’s ours, brought home to Germany.
Cheering on the home team was part of creating heroes, of course, but Braumann wasn’t interested exclusively in Germans. Tom Simpson, Rik van Looy, Jacques Anquetil (“Biggest Star since Coppi!” the headline of Braumann’s profile screams), anyone who might inject personality into coverage of the race. “It was a consensus, it was planned. We were making a newspaper in a new style,” Braumann says. “We were looking for people we could keep going back to, people the public can engage with.”
It’s a reminder of the vital role journalists played in creating the sport’s mythos, building legends out of a contest to see who could ride a bike the fastest and farthest. “They Aren’t Thinking of Money: The beautiful and redemptive end of the Tour de France,” reads one headline from the end of the 1962 Tour.
“What is money, next to the feeling of winning? Against the feeling of being loved? You can’t put a price on the adoration of the 35,000 people in the Parc des Princes Stadium, just as you can’t put a price on the wagging of a dog’s tail.”
Braumann goes on to recreate the moment when the stadium loudspeakers called Tom Simpson’s name: “He got on his bike, to take his lap of honour. He was smiling. And then the 35,000 began to call his name. First in small groups, then with greater force.
“And Tom began to feel, that under these loud shouts could be heard softer, more honest tones of the heart. They amazed him. Him, Tom Simpson from England.
“Suddenly he wasn’t smiling any longer. His head sank, and tears rolled down his long, pointed nose.”
Braumann carried the love of telling personal stories that captured a larger truth with him when he left sports reporting behind at the age of 30. (“I didn’t want to be some grandpa at 60, still interviewing 18-year-old swimmers,” he says.) Eventually he landed at a German weekly called Stern that played second, cheekier fiddle to the staid Der Spiegel.
At Stern, Braumann’s command of French took him quickly from sports reporting to covering foreign news. At the time, the world’s war zones were mostly Francophone. Between 1965 and 1975, Braumann covered crises on three continents. He was on the Israeli front lines during the Yom Kippur War. He covered Angola’s civil war, Bangladesh’s war of independence and the Iran-Iraq War. He joined Cambodian troops on elephants not far from the Vietnamese border. On assignment in Bangladesh, he disguised himself as a Red Cross worker to document a massacre of civilians; he later told another reporter it was the worst day of his life.
Over the years, Braumann interviewed a rogue’s gallery of dictators and warlords: Saddam Hussein, Idi Amin, Mobutu Sese Seko, “Papa Doc” Duvalier, Robert Mugabe. Muammar Quadaffi gave him a gold Rolex Oyster. A few years later, moonlighting as an aid worker, he used the watch to bribe a customs official in Ethiopia into letting a planeload of relief supplies donated by Stern readers through the Addis Ababa airport unmolested.
“That was the golden age of print media. Stern, Spiegel, Paris-Match, the Sunday Times, the Sunday Telegraph,” Braumann says wistfully. “Money flowed in rivers.” The lines between journalist and spy could be blurry; Braumann was debriefed regularly by the German intelligence service and says he met with MI6 agents from time to time to share what he learned in the field.
Money and well-placed friends were no protection from danger, and Braumann had his share of near-misses. In 1970, he was trapped in an Amman hotel for nine days during Jordan’s “Black September” civil war. A fellow Stern reporter managed to negotiate a cease-fire that let the prisoners escape.
While in Amman, Braumann interviewed Palestinian Liberation Organization founder George Habash. The interview sat on his editor’s desk for months – until Habash, then the head of a Marxist splinter group called the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine, masterminded the hijackings of four passenger jets and the capture of more than 300 hostages. Braumann’s interview ran in the magazine under a made-up quote (“We want to start a Third World War”). The article so angered Habash that Braumann was sentenced to death in absentia.
Barely a year later, on a sweltering September night in 1971, he and a friend went dancing at the Tu-Do Club in Saigon. Moments after they sat down behind a pillar, the club exploded in a flash of light and a thunderous roar. “The whole place blew up,” Braumann recalls. “There were 36 dead, lots of wounded and one person unhurt – me.”
Braumann had spent so much time in war zones that he stopped paying into his retirement account, convinced he’d never live to see 65. Sitting in his Goerlitz living room, snow-white hair lit by the pale winter sun streaming in the window, it’s clear he has no regrets. “It meant I had to keep working, I guess, which was maybe a blessing,” he says.
Oddly, Braumann says he found that being a war correspondent sometimes recalled covering the Tour. Not because of the “epic battles” and “bitter rivalries,” most of which have more to do with the efforts of journalists than the realities of the peloton. Rather, Braumann felt like a part of a family. He likened three weeks following the Tour to the weeks he spent covering American troops in Vietnam, hunkering down each night with hundreds of GIs, facing the dark jungle from behind a network of trenches and foxholes.
“You’re in a closed society, a united group. Together versus the world. It’s the same at the Tour: 200 people, all together,” Braumann says. “If I had to say what ties cycling and war reporting together, I’d say that sense of solidarity you feel in a group of fellow combatants.”
We talk about the Tour, the struggling media industry, the nearby Polish-German border. I’m still not convinced that pressure and competition explain the risks he took as a younger man – there are easier places to find stories, after all. I ask again what it was that made war zones so irresistible, despite the physical and personal toll. “Adventure. It was always all about adventure,” Braumann muses. “I was always on the knife’s edge.”