Tales from the peloton, February 12, 2007
After World War II, cycling was the most popular sport in the world, with hundreds of star riders. With the constant demand for the stars at events hundreds of miles apart, a new breed of businessman evolved; the sports agent. In an ideal world, the agent is an employee of an athlete, working to secure the best terms for an athlete and guide them through a career. In its first form though, as Cyclingnews' Les Woodland reports, the agent-cyclist relationship looked more like indentured servitude.
A friend of mine is a policewoman. It was a job she liked but talking about it was a conversation-stopper. People rarely care to find they're talking to an off-duty copper.
She couldn't say she was a surgeon or a plumber or a traveller in pills for sick horses because it might just be that the other person was as well. So she hit on a solution.
"You know those machines in public lavatories, the ones that sell condoms?" she'd ask brightly. And her new companion would agree, somewhat suspiciously that, yes, he knew what she was talking about.
"communications were poor and contracts few so that on many weekends the same star could be billed as riding in races hundreds of kilometres apart, even in different countries." - Woodland explains the pressures that created the opportunity for dominant agents to take control of cycling post World War II.
"Well," my friend would say, "I'm the woman who restocks them."
It was an even better conversation-stopper than saying she was a policeman.
Some jobs are inherently less popular than others. And ten years ago this year, there died a man whose job made him the most unpopular of all. He was a bike rider's agent. And by the time he died in 1997, he and his colleague Roger Piel had tied up so much of professional racing for decades that riders were, in the words of the writer William Fotheringham, "in a form of tied labour".
Daniel Dousset came to power because of the anarchy that reigned in cycling after the war. The sport was more popular than ever, a peak from which fell only with the advent of televised soccer in the 1960s. There were races everywhere and stars by the hundred. The trouble was that communications were poor and contracts few so that on many weekends the same star could be billed as riding in races hundreds of kilometres apart, even in different countries.
Organisers were furious when the stars didn't turn up, the spectators were angry that they'd been cheated, and the riders were cross because they'd never said they'd ride in the first place.
It was into that world that emerged a short, dark man with the faint air of a Mafia hit-man and "a vocabulary of a hundred words", as someone described him. Daniel Dousset had seen the problems of absent contracts and forgotten promises when he rode six-days and one-day meetings across France. He was no great rider - army sprint champion at best, probably - but he was businesslike and scrupulous. And he set up office in a back-room of his wife's bar close to the Vélodrome d'Hiver in Paris where he'd ridden so many races and he announced himself as a riders' agent.
We are in 1950, an era when a good many riders could add up but had trouble reading, certainly anything as tricky as a contract. Dousset was a godsend. And his empire, and that of his taller, fair-haired rival, Roger Piel, grew and grew.
The difference between Dousset and Piel, other than their lack and abundance of charm respectively, was that Dousset became the godfather that he looked. With many of the greatest riders under contract - Jacques Anquetil, Fausto Coppi, Louison Bobet, Roger Rivière, André Darrigade among others - his world went beyond securing criterium contracts and negotiating team salaries. He had the power to dictate who would ride in which team, which teams would ride which races.
It was Dousset who decided teams for the Dauphiné Libéré and the Baracchi Trophy, which he could do by simply refusing not to engage his riders if he didn't care to.
It was hardly surprising that a turf war broke out between him and Piel, who was four years younger and set up as an agent a few years later, in 1954. Each was desperate to have the better riders, a situation that suited the stars because it wasn't always wise to have the same agent as your rival. So it was that Piel signed up Raymond Poulidor and most of his team-mates at Mercier, and good-but-not-brilliant riders such as Henry Anglade.
You have to remember that when you wonder why odd things went on in races. In 1959, Anglade could have won the Tour de France while riding for a French regional team. It was normal that the French national team would try to stop him but not that they would let the Spaniard Federico Bahamontes win instead.
When you look at criterium contracts and who was signed to whom, it starts to make sense. Anquetil and the national team were with Dousset, Anglade with Piel. If Anglade won, Dousset's men (and Dousset himself, since he was on 10 per cent) would see their value drop next season. So if Anquetil couldn't win, it would be better if Bahamontes did. Baha was also with Dousset, which suited Dousset, but the important thing was that he was a useless criterium rider and therefore no threat to Dousset's rake-off and his riders' income.
By the end of the race the spectators had worked out what was happening and Anquetil was jeered when he reached the Parc des Princes. With typical cynicism, he used his prize money to buy a boat which he called "The Whistles of '59".
The end of an era
By the end, Dousset, Piel and a few lesser agents such as Jean van Buggenhout in Belgium had the sport tied up. Riders had no choice but sign with them, to do what they said, to work as their puppets. Agents could always find more riders but riders could never work without an agent - the agents saw to that.
How did it end? Through a rider called Cyrille Guimard, who had been one of Piel's men. Guimard became manager of the Gitane team, backed by a bike factory that was at that time a branch of Renault and belonged ultimately to the government. Guimard was happy to work through Piel but Renault was a giant company accustomed to more formal employment terms. When a rider fell ill, Renault became liable for his sick pay, as it would with any other employee. A bike crash was a simple work injury. But who, in fact, employed the team? Was it Renault, Guimard or Piel?
If it was Piel, then was he going to pay this rider while he wasn't racing? If Renault had to pay, that could happen only if the rider was its employee and not Piel's. Therefore it had no obligation to Piel.
A row broke out, of course. Piel and Dousset closed ranks and said they would refuse to let any of their riders start the Tour in 1977 if Renault didn't back down. They lost. The law was on Renault's side and the suffocating grip of Dousset and Piel, who had once saved the sport but came eventually to own it, was over.
Dousset died, as I said, ten years ago. Piel died in 2002. Some miss them. Most probably don't.