Tales from the peloton, September 10, 2007
The first Romanian professional?
When Marius Stoica thought he was going to ride the 2007 Tour de France, he also thought he'd be the first rider from his country to do so. Now that riders are popping up from every continent on earth, that was quite something and Stoica looked forward to being a hero. Les Woodland of Cyclingnews reports on the Amore & Vita rider.
His country was Romania, a country at the very edge of Europe that people on the other side of the world have trouble finding on a map. No matter that it is one of the continent's largest nations, swimming like an angel fish out of the Black Sea, years of firm borders in the communist era mean most people know little about it other than the awful mess the dictator Ceausescu achieved. Oh, and that it was where Dracula came from.
Marius Stoica was 22 years old when he thought he was going to be Romania's first Tour rider. It wasn't the first odd thing to happen in his life. For a start, he has almost always lived in Italy rather than Romania. And second, he was a model for Calvin Klein among others until the day he joined the Amore & Vita team.
"About Mr Stoica, we deliver his licence to participate in Italy but we don't know any other performances of him." -The Romanian Cycling Federation knows little of Stoica's history
I was so intrigued that I e-mailed the Romanian federation to know more. I assume it is not a large place, the Romanian federation, because it has a Yahoo e-mail address. That is not the sign of a large operation. In addition, a former racing cyclist I met in Romania this summer said the country had a hundred races a year in his day, but since that was under the communists when all sports were encouraged, things could be less active now.
The president of the commissaries' panel at the Romanian federation in Bucharest, the capital, is a man called Valeriu Andoniu. With what I take to be less than full-hearted enthusiasm, he wrote back to say "About Mr Stoica, we deliver his licence to participate in Italy but we don't know any other performances of him. In 2007 at national road race championship did not finish the race."
Marius Stoica has therefore not impressed even the Romanian cycling bosses, let alone the people of Romania more generally. Even Ceausescu would have been pushed to make him a worker hero of the nation.
What intrigued me was a report that Stoica was Romania's first professional and that he would have been, had he not been dropped, the first Romanian in the Tour. Well, the first I still can't confirm but the second is nonsense. Because, in 1936, four Romanians called Georges Hapciuc, Virgilin Marmocea, Nicolas Tapu and Constantin Tudose all lined up for the start on July 7. They were the Romanian national team. Sylvère Maes of Belgium won, ahead of Antonin Magne of France, but not a Romanian was among the 43 riders who made it to the finish. And the frustrating thing was that I couldn't find out anything about them.
I e-mailed back to Bucharest. "These riders were not professionals," was the answer.
Hmm... So who or what were they?
Well, I've hunted through all the books I've got and I've found nothing more than their names. I've been through accounts of Romanian cycling written in Romanian but found little more. And there's no point contacting the Tour de France people in Paris because all their records from before the war vanished in the panic of the German invasion.
So, I'm going to guess. And my guess is that the four Romanians probably just happened to be working in Paris, or maybe somewhere nearby. They may have been waiters or building workers, or just possibly a handful of bike riders drawn to the other end of Europe in the way that these days Australians go to the other end of the world in search of adventure. They either knew each other and fancied a ride in the Tour de France or they all wrote separately and were put together in a team when the organiser, Henri Desgrange, got their letters. That wouldn't be so improbable because it's more or less what happened the following year, when three riders who didn't know each other and never met until the eve of the race became put together as the Tour's first representatives of the British Empire. And none of those – Charlie Holland, Bill Burl or Pierre Gachon – finished either.
Holland got a lot further than the other two but suffered from lack of support, coming from a huge empire but a tiny cycling nation. In theory the Tour, dependent now on national rather than trade teams, should have been paying all his expenses. But the British Empire, little of which spoke French, counted for less in sales of Desgrange's newspaper, L'Auto, than the French riders, and you can guess where the bulk of his help went.
But if the British Empire meant next to nothing, what then of Romania? And of riders that the Romanian federation says weren't even professionals? What help would they have got? Who would even notice if they weren't there next morning?
Well, I suppose we'll never know. Not unless you're an expert on Romanian cycling and you care to drop me a line. But until we know otherwise, we have to assume that Marius Stoica – a self-admiring man suspended for a month for not wearing a helmet, which he said ruffled his hairdo – is indeed the first Romanian professional. But not the first Romanian in the Tour de France.