Rugby and cycling might be rather strange bedfellows, but it’s thanks to a passion for the former that we got one of the great illustrators of the latter, Roger Blachon.
For 20 years, from the 1980s into the early 2000s, Roger Blachon’s droll and colourful cartoons would grace the last page of L’Equipe’s weekend magazine.
Blachon’s keen sense of the ridiculous was perfectly suited to a world as filled with paradox as cycling. His pictures showed picnicking roadside spectators settled in for the day to watch the race, only for the riders to pass by in an unidentifiable blur of paint smudges. When the Tour hit the mountains, he drew a flying eagle with a polka dot-clad rider dangling from its claws. A grumpy eaglet peers out from a nest in which you can just make out a previous victim’s jersey. “Encore de la bouffe aux hormones!!” it squawks. “Not more of that hormone-stuffed crap!!”
When Graeme Obree broke the hour record with his legendary homemade bike including cannibalised washing machine parts, Blachon couldn’t resist depicting an Obree training session at home: the bike has become part of the washing machine, and his wife is measuring his performance on the spin cycle.
Nothing escaped Blachon’s sharp gaze. “Because he understood sport so well, everything he described in his pictures was good,” recalls Bernard Fournier, the magazine’s erstwhile art director. “The trainers would be correct, the bikes, the support cars… The jokes came out of that precision.”
Athletes appreciated his perceptiveness as much as readers. Blachon’s wife Mireille recalls Laurent Fignon once buying one of his pictures, declaring, “It’s exactly me!”
Blachon was first and foremost a rugby nut, who could have pursued a career in the sport. Born in 1941 in Romans-sur-Isère, he got into the game at school, and when he moved to Paris to study drawing he joined the Paris Université Club rugby team, known as the PUC. By 1964, he was captain of the first XV, while working during the week as an art teacher in Chartres, south of Paris. The team was successful, and won the French second division in 1969. “He played because he got bored at weekends,” his wife laughs, “but he hated running and training. It was a different era, you know…”
Thanks to the club, he quickly became friends with another PUC graduate, the novelist and rugby fanatic Antoine Blondin, 19 years his senior. Blondin also happened to be one of France’s most venerated cycling correspondents, whose analysis in L’Equipe transformed the Tour de France into “a myth to be renewed every year,” as Bernard Hinault once put it.
It’s hard to think of two less compatible worlds than rugby and cycling. What does brute force and violence have to do with epic breakaways en danseuse? Where is the poetry in rugby? We’ll have to forgive Blondin—and Blachon—for being of a generation obsessed with ultra-male identity, like Norman Mailer and his boxers, or Ernest Hemingway with his lonely bullfighters and fishermen.
Through Blondin, Blachon met the other great chronicler of cycling, Pierre Chany, whose close ties to the riders and insightful reports made him one of the most significant witnesses of Tour de France history. Despite the age gap – Blondin and Chany were both born in 1922 – in no time at all the trio became a gang of inseparable lifelong friends. “They adored Roger,” Mireille recalls.
What could be better proof that France is one of the most civilised countries in the world, than the fact that it has a daily broadsheet newspaper devoted to sport, whose contributors are acclaimed writers and novelists? Or that at a certain point in the 1960s, in a café on the corner of the rue du Bac and the rue de Verneuil in the heart of Paris’s Latin quarter, you could regularly meet Blondin, Blachon, Chany, Guy Boniface—the great French rugby idol of the 1960s—the entire national rugby team, and Serge Gainsbourg? “Everyone came there,” says Mireille.
It was thanks to Blondin that Blachon got his first big break in print. Blondin was publishing a short story in Marie Claire magazine. “He told them they could have it only on condition they used Blachon to illustrate it. Roger was completely unknown at that time,” Mireille recalls.
Blachon emerged during a golden age of cartoons in the French media, when artists like Avoine, Bridenne, Siné or Loup were in demand everywhere and Charlie Hebdo was ruffling establishment feathers with its no-holds-barred mockery of politics. But of the “four or five illustrators capable of doing a weekly cartoon”, as Fournier puts it, Blachon was the only one who “really understood sport, and he loved all sport.”
Even if rugby was “his big passion”, Blachon “was also interested in cycling, tennis, golf, basketball, football, motor racing, skiing, swimming… He knew them all and he always had a gag that hit the nail on the head.”
It wasn’t just the athletes who were closely observed, but the unruly world of their fans; the determined autograph hunters, the runaway pram hurtling towards the riders, the ‘helpful’ push that looks more like a lascivious bottom-pinch, the string vests and the sunburn. You get a sense that Blachon enjoyed the chaotic stew of humanity and perhaps saw himself somewhere within that melee, often placing his signature on a spectator’s jersey.
Blachon “radiated goodwill”, says Fournier, in life as much as in his art. “His cartoons could be quite dark, but they’re always essentially warm-hearted.”
It’s comes as no surprise to learn that he also had an innate talent for friendship.
“He was very attentive to people,” Mireille recalls. “He listened. He was funny, but in a subtle way. He always found the few words that would make people burst into laughter.”
But knocking out a cartoon a week over 20 years wasn’t easy. While the picture itself might take two or three days to execute, there was the weekly trial of coming up with a good joke. “By the end he got a bit fed up with the pressure,” Mireille recalls. “Sometimes he’d say to our son [Antoine], if you can think of a joke I’ll give you half my earnings. But he didn’t like it when people gave him ideas. Sometimes when Antoine made a suggestion, it would trigger another thought that would get the picture started. And then when Antoine asked for his money he’d say, no, no, I changed your idea! It became a family joke in the end. Antoine would say that’s my drawing and Roger would say no way.”
Blachon’s images are intensely vivid, thanks to his use of acrylic paint, Indian ink and pencil. “His work with colour was fantastic,” Fournier adds. “It wasn’t simply colouring in. It was carefully worked and considered. Part of the joke was how the drawing was conveyed on the page and how it was coloured.”
Then there were the microscopic details. Mireille remembers him working on a big puzzle of the Tour de France; “It took him about a month,” she recalls, “but he said he would have preferred three months to complete it. ‘I’m having too much fun!’ he’d say. You’d have to tear it out of his hands. He loved all the little jokes.
“Every Saturday [in L’Equipe] you’d find the name of a friend really hidden away somewhere in the picture,” Mireille continues. “It became a ritual. On the jerseys of the Tour de France at one point, he put the names of all the players in the PUC.” Now there’s an interesting mental image: a rugby team moonlighting as cyclists. “It was rare when there were no names in a picture.”
Another running gag was how he’d date a picture. The Charléty stadium, the home of Parisian rugby, had been demolished and President Chirac was going to rebuild it, but there were many years of delay. So he’d date his pictures “Stade Charléty, week 21” – 21 weeks with no stadium. “It lasted three or four years until the new one was built.”
Blachon died after a long illness in 2008. “I never knew whether he really knew he was going to die,” Mireille reflects. “He never talked about it with anyone. He thought no one knew until about two months before his death.”
His friends worked it out for themselves, of course. “They knew he wasn’t well, they weren’t stupid,” she says. “He no longer looked the same—he was exhausted and had lost a lot of weight.”
Shortly before his death, while receiving palliative care in a Parisian hospital, there was a sudden burst of sound from the garden below his window. Without announcing their intentions, a brass band made up of Left Bank bon viveurs, architects and Basques – part of Blachon’s vast circle of friends – had struck up La Pitchouli, a Basque rugby anthem, in the hope of cheering him up.
More than a thousand people turned up to his funeral in Père Lachaise, where his friends Blondin and Chany had gone before.
Roger Blachon’s work lives on. This summer, as for the last ten years, you’ll find his drawings gracing all the material related to the Vittel publicity caravan. You can buy albums of his L’Equipe cartoons published by Glénat, while the German specialist, Heye, continues to sell the intensely detailed puzzles it commissioned from him.
You’ll have to comb eBay for his 1,500 piece Bruegel-meets-Carry-on-Camping Tour de France magnum opus, however, since it’s sadly out of print. But it’s no doubt a worthwhile project to occupy the long hours of enforced indolence of the serious cyclist.