The fastest man on two wheels: The Ruban Jaune and its very select band of holders

In the early summer of 1935 the S.S. Normandie, a brand new luxury passenger liner of the Compagnie Generale Transatlantique, raced from Le Havre to New York in four days, three hours and fourteen minutes.

It was the fastest crossing of the Atlantic in history. Normandie became the first French vessel to win the prestigious Blue Riband – an accolade handed to the ship that had set the highest average speed for the journey – and the nation celebrated.

When the streamlined ship returned home over 100,000 people waited at dockside to greet her.

To most cycling fans in France and elsewhere this may all have seemed an utter irrelevance, but to one it offered the glimmer of an idea for yet another competition, another prize and more free publicity for his newspaper.

And when it came to the latter it is fair to say that Henri Desgrange – inventor of the Tour de France and proprietor of L’Auto –  grabbed opportunities like a hungry rider does his mouchette.

The following year Desgrange introduced his answer to the Blue RibandLe Ruban Jaune.

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Tour de France founder – and sports journalist – Henri Desgrange never missed an opportunity
and came up with the idea for the Ruban Juane.

It would be awarded to the rider who set the fastest average speed in a one day race or stage of over 200kms.

The distance had to carefully and accurately measured and the time verified by not one but two independent timekeepers each using strictly calibrated equipment.

Since Belgian Gustave Danneels won the Ruban Jaune by pounding along at 41.455kph to achieve his third win in the 1936 edition of Paris-Tours, the yellow ribbon has changed hands just 11 times.

Over the same period the world hour record has been bandied about between 21 riders several of whom have held it more than once.

Le Ruban Jaune might therefore be judged to be the hardest prize to win in all of cycling, yet it is barely celebrated.

Indeed even the holders themselves seem to be oddly underwhelmed by it. The hour record has been held by some of the greatest names in the sport (Anquetil, Merckx, Indurain), the yellow ribbon by one giant of the sport, a few top class riders and several men who were barely household names in their own front rooms.

The first holder, Gus Danneels, was a French-born Belgian, who rode for Alcyon-Dunlop, where he served as a domestique to his fellow countrymen Romain and Sylvere Maes who between them would claim the altogether better known Maillot Jaune three times.

The French-born Belgian Gus Danneels was the first winner of the Ruban Jaune in 1937. 
(Gallica, BNF)

As well as the trio of triumphs in Paris-Tours, Danneels also took the bronze medal in the world championship road race a couple of times. His career ended during World War Two.

The venerable French autumn classic Paris-Tours is the race most associated with the yellow ribbon.

Run over a largely flat course in generally perfect conditions, it is relatively short and predominantly features a warm easterly tailwind that pushes the peloton along through the Chevreuse and Loire valleys to the famous 2.7km long finishing straight in Avenue de Grammont – sometimes called ‘the sprinters’ Alpe D’Huez’.

Though a few climbs have been added in the last couple of decades, Paris-Tours remains ‘a race for greyhounds’, the fastest of all the original one-day classics.

Danneels held the Ruban Jaune for just two years losing it to the Italian Jules Rossi, who also benefitted from the quick Paris-Tours course to set a mark of 42.092kph.  

Though born in Italy, the dark-haired, slender Rossi had been brought up in northern France and began his career as a teenager with one of the great French amateur teams, Velo Club de Levallois.

Danneels held the record for just two years before the Italian Jules Rossi, pictured here in the 1937 Tour de France, set a mark of 42.092kph in the 1938 Paris-Tours.

He turned pro with Alcyon-Dunlop – where he and Danneels were team mates – and won Paris-Roubaix in 1937, the first Italian to do so.

He took a half stage of the Tour de France the following year. Rossi was just 24 and great things were anticipated.

Sadly, the war took his best years from him. He won the 1941 Grand Prix des Nations time trial against a limited field, but when real racing returned to Europe he was past his peek.

He would never win again.

Danneels and Rossi had set the record on a level course that favoured sprinters. The next man to hold the Ruban Jaune would win it in very different conditions.

The 1948 edition of Paris-Roubaix saw the peloton heading north with a violent, gusting wind at their backs.

Despite the brutal cobbles and the icy cold the lead riders gobbled up the miles as a boar does beechnuts.

Six kilometres from the finish the great rouleur Rik Van Steenbergen – as large and pugnacious as a heavyweight boxer – launched his attack, overhauled Tuscan ironman Fiorenzi Magni and then out-sprinted Emile Idee in the velodrome to win.

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Rik Van Steenbergen took over the Ruban Jaune at the 1948 edition
of Paris-Roubaix.

Van Steenbergen’s average speed over some of the roughest road surfaces in cycling was a barely credible 43.612kph.

The Belgian  – known simply as ‘The Boss’ – was one of the greatest one-day riders in history, if not always the most honest.

A rugged, mercenary Fleming, he raced for cash not glory and reputedly sold races when it suited him. Since the Ruban Jaune came without a victory purse attached it’s unlikely The Boss thought much of his achievement.

By 1955 interest in the yellow ribbon like that in the Blue Riband (by that stage held by the SS United States – the Normandie had been wrecked by fire in 1942) had waned.

It was briefly revived by a superb performance by Jacques Dupont. A popular, jolly, prematurely balding pro from the Occitaine who’d won gold in the 1000m time trial at the 1948 Olympics, Dupont took Paris-Tours in 1951 and repeated the feat four years later in the colours of La Perle-Hutchinson surging to victory at an average speed of 43.666kph.

Dupont retired in 1959, still holding the yellow ribbon. He seemed to have lost it on the St Etienne to Avignon stage of Paris-Nice two years later when Jean Anastasi covered 218kms at an average of 44.917.

However, there was criticism from some quarters that the distance had not been as stringently (indeed some cycling books record it as 221kms) and though the Marseille-born Anastasi is credited in some older sources with holding the Ruban Jaune the official position – at least nowadays – is different.

Similar confusion and controversy also attached themselves to the performances of Italian Walter Martin who clocked 45.094kph in Milan-Torino, Marino Vigna who won Tre Valli Varesine in 1964 at 47.169kph and a youthful Walter Godefroot of Belgium who in the same season raced through a stage of the Tour of Tunisia at the admittedly hard to believe average speed of 53.349kph.

Despite the howls of outrage, all these claims on the yellow ribbon were rejected. In amidst the nationalistic wrangling, arguing and haranguing, Dutchman Jo De Roo broke the record time for Paris-Tours in 1962 with an average of 44.903kph, a speed which, when the dust had finally settled, was ratified by all the contesting parties and eventually and grudgingly accepted as the Ruban Jaune performance.

1962, it should be said, was very much De Roo’s year.

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Dutchmen Peter Post and Jo De Roo were both holders of the Ruban Juane in the early 1960s.

The handsome Dutchman also won the Giro di Lombardia and the epic Bordeaux-Paris and as a consequence carried off another long-forgotten prize from cycling’s past The Super Prestige Pernod International – a season long points competition the rules of which were so complex they call to mind Lord Palmerstone’s verdict on the diplomatic niceties of the Schleswig-Holstein Question: “Only two men ever understood it fully and one of them has since gone mad”.

In 1964 the tall Dutchman Peter Post – a great track rider (he was nicknamed ‘The Emperor of the Six Days’) and later one of cycling’s most revered team directors – mimicked Van Steenbergen’s achievement of winning the Ruban Jaune during the Hell of the North.

In a race packed with quality riders – Rik Van Looy, Raymond Poulidor, Tommy Simpson, Jean Stablinski, Jan Janssen, Rudi Altig and De Roo – the Dutchman took victory in a four-way sprint in the velodrome and the yellow ribbon by clocking 45.129kph.

He would hold onto it through yet more controversy.

Roger Kindt posted a new fast time when he won Milan-Vignola in 1969 but was later disqualified over an incident at doping control.

In 1969 Flemish rider Roger Kindt, who rode for the Italian Ferretti team, won Milan-Vignola at an average speed of 45.995kph.

However the Belgian was then disqualified from the race over some shenanigans at the doping control, and the race was handed to Attilio Rota who had finished too far behind to beat Peter Post’s speed.

At first French newspapers reported that Kindt had been awarded the Ruban Jaune despite the disqualification, but a month later it emerged that he hadn’t and the Dutchman was still the holder.

Even a new record time for Paris-Tours set by Netherlander Gerben Karstens in 1965 – remarkably while pushing a single gear – could not wrest the yellow ribbon from Post.

Eventually the record fell to a Fleming, Freddy Maertens. The rider known unflatteringly as ‘The Ogre’ was one of the greatest sprinters of his time, but he could ride powerfully over distance on the flat, too and in 1975 stormed to victory in Paris–Brussels at a speed of 46.11kph.

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Freddy Maertens, seen here winning a stage of the 1976 Tour de France finally beat Post’s
time in the 1975 edition of the legendary Paris-Brussels.

Arguably the least celebrated of all the original cycling ‘classics’, Paris-Brussels ran 290kms along congested roads and was described by one veteran cycling writer as ‘an eight-hour nightmare’.

The race – first run in 1896 – had originally been part of the spring calendar, but after temporary suspension in the late 1960s, it was revived in 1973 as an autumn race. Paris-Brussels (which in Maertens’ heyday set off from 85kms or so north of Paris and finished in Alsemberg in Flemish Brabant) would eventually abandon France also together and morph into The Brussels Classic.

Generally Paris-Brussels was beset by evil cross or head winds and the 1962 winner Jos Wouters had slogged to the finish at a snail-like 33kph.

In 1975 the normally unfortunate Maertens got lucky and had a stiff breeze at his back the whole route.

A brusque and awkward character who the great Briek Schotte once said rode ‘like a caveman’, the Belgian would hold the yellow ribbon for over two decades.

He would lose it to the Molodova-born Ukrainian and future Belgian citizen, Andrei Tchmil.

An old school one-day classics tough guy who never looked happier than when wearing mud as make-up, Tchmil took the record with the aid of an even stiffer than usual following wind in the Paris–Tours of 1997.

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Andrei Tchmil won the 1997 version of Paris-Tours and claimed the Ruban Jaune despite
having his average speed reduced the day after the race due to a miscalculation of the course.

At the finish line on Avenue de Grammont he outsprinted Italian-born Brit Max Sciandri to win. Tchmil’s new mark was announced as 48.929kph, but the next day it was reduced to 47.539kph after it merged that the course was actually 7.5kms shorter than the organisers thought.

Tchmil’s record stood until the great German sprinter Erik Zabel went even faster in the same race six years later.

The East Berliner, whose career had begun as an amateur in the old GDR, won 191 races as a pro including 12 stages of the Tour de France and had taken Paris-Tours for the first time at the start of his long career back in 1994.

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German Erik Zabel (right) won Paris-Tours twice, collecting the new Ruban Juane record on
the way to his 2003 victory.

In 2003 the raced over the course at 47.55kph. He’d win Paris-Tours again in 2005, but going slower.

Seven years later, again in Paris-Tour, the diminutive Oscar ‘El Gato’ Freire of Spain took the yellow ribbon from Zabel.

Triple world road race champion Freire, then with Rabobank, set a mark of 47.73kph.

Italian sprinter Marco Marcato went close to one kilometre an hour faster than the Spaniard to take to Ruban Jaune in the 2012 edition of Paris-Tours.

It would be the only major victory of an eleven-year career. Marcato claimed the win was down to newfound confidence that came with marriage.

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Matteo Trentin, the current European champion, is also the holder of the existing Ruban
Juane record, having clocked a fastest time in the 2015 Paris-Tours.

Three years later, almost inevitably in Avenue de Grammont, the yellow ribbon was stripped from Marcato by his fellow countryman Matteo Trentin of Quickstep who burned to victory at 49.641kph.

So far nobody has topped that. The Italian is still racing.

When an ocean liner won the Blue Riband it was allowed to fly a thirty-foot long azure pennant from its masthead.

Trentin, holder of the Ruban Jaune, has had to content himself with a small sticker on his crossbar.

Main image courtesy of TDWSport via QuickStep Floors Racing, with thanks.

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