Words: Guy Andrews | Date:
After nine successful years as co-owner, Rapha will bid a fond farewell to Rapha-Condor-JLT at the end of the season. To mark the end of an era which saw the team become a powerhouse of domestic racing, as well as the launch of the final, special edition Rapha-Condor-JLT kit, original team member Guy Andrews pays tribute to a key force behind the team’s foundation.
« Who won last night? »
« The French Bloke. »
« Again? »
« Yes. Again. »
His name was never used; he was always ‘The French Bloke’. Because bike racers like to simplify things: Tall Guy, American Dude, Irish Fella. Names are too much detail when team-mates are catching up on race results and so the facts need to be simple.
A recent conversation with an ex-pro confirmed that, even when you are racing every week with the same riders, professionals barely pass the time of day – a nod, a mumble, a grunt maybe, but rarely a chat about the book you’re currently reading. After all, racing’s racing; you’re not there to make friends. There were riders I raced with for 10 years or more and we’d barely made it past ‘hello’. Maybe that was a sign of the times. Racers were from a variety of backgrounds and teams; so common ground was mostly about two wheels and trying to win. But conversation for bike racers is a rare thing, despite shouting and gesticulating at one another during the race.
At the finish there’s usually silence, with most taking a ‘what happens on the road stays on the road’ attitude. This is somewhat strange too, because successful bike racing is all about communication – arranging the paceline, encouraging the equal effort and swapping-off, assessing wind direction and organising an echelon.
But I digress. Racing at Eastway in east London or Hillingdon to the west of the city in the early part of this century meant tangling with The French Bloke.
He was all business – a latter-day Badger with his Gallic indifference and dismissive shrugs ¬– and he was gaining a fearsome reputation. Coming late to racing after an early junior career, this Frenchman left his adversaries filling in the gaps: “He’s an ex-pro”, they’d say, “a former French champion”, all of which added to his mystique, but also meaning his presence wasn’t always welcome. Sure enough, in competitive wrangles he was insulted, ridiculed and conspired against, but all credit to him: he never let that get in his way.
He just went out and won again.
In a break of six with The French Bloke in tow, you had no chance, unless you could slip away with a lap to go. He would win the sprint by a bike length, beating guys half his age and twice his strength, even in a break containing three from the same team.
After one such battering, The French Bloke and I started talking. He had impeccable English and me a smattering of schoolboy French. He was convivial, funny, disarming and slightly mad. You kind of wanted to dislike him as a rival for his successes but he had a way of making you like him and we became friends.
The French Bloke’s name was Dominique Gabellini. He had (and has) a clear sense of fair play that won over even the grumpiest of bike racers. He stuck up for the underdog; he’d even let a fellow escapee take the win, a strange gesture for such a prolific winner but testament to the fact that good guys don’t always come last. Sure, he talks a load of nonsense sometimes and his route finding on rides can be ‘creative’ to say the least, but he is a charming man.
He was enthusiastic and encouraging, so much so that he decided Simon Mottram (Rapha’s founder) and Grant Young (head of Condor Cycles) should start a team. I say ‘he decided’, which isn’t strictly true, but his determination was not just on the racetrack. And due respect to him because, not only was he the biggest fan and ambassador for the two companies, he recognised that they could do it differently. He wanted to ride properly, as a team, so he persuaded a bunch of like-minded Londoners to ride, including Julian Bray, Matt Seaton and myself.
That spring, the first season for Rapha-Condor, Dominique won at least twice a week. We’d lead him out, chase down breaks and generally run through walls for him. It wasn’t for the money (which was shared out amongst us all) but for the love of it, although I hasten to add I won more cash in those early months than I had done in the previous 20-odd years of relatively unsuccessful seasons.
The new team, however, had big plans. Dominique insisted we should carry on, and this group of useful has-beens had certainly been galvanised by his ability to win. We did well in a small pond but the bigger lake that Rapha-Condor wanted to swim in was way out of our depth. Riders like Ben Pochee, Brett Perez and Richard Wilkinson were drafted in and they were talented and capable. Eventually they signed Dean Downing and us old timers started to think about hanging up our wheels.
Dominique eventually stepped aside as team captain and DS and returned to smashing the crap out of youngsters on the London crit circuit. It was his enthusiasm, however, that had been the catalyst for ‘the Men in Black’.
After retiring from racing I found myself homeless (not out on the street homeless, just end-of-relationship homeless) and Dominique said I ‘must’ stay with him (which was how he put it). That was typical Dom, as he always puts his friends and family first, forcefully when required. He is as generous a host as he was a team captain but his warmth and friendship are not his only gifts.
The French Bloke is a gentleman.