Book Review: Olympic Gangster: The Legend of Jose Bayaert Cycling Champion,
Fortune Hunter and Outlaw
The latest offering from Matt Rendell, is a biography of the 1948 Olympic Road
Race champion Jose Beyaert. Olympic Champion he may have been, but it is what
Beyaert did after hanging up his cycling shoes that makes his story quite
In three year's time the eyes of the world will be on London for the Games of
the XXX Olympiad, when the city will become the first ever to host the modern
Olympics for a third time. The first, in 1908, contained no cycling road race,
but in 1948, London hosted the games for a second occasion and this time there
was indeed to be a road race: 17 laps of a 11.45 kilometre circuit around
Windsor Great Park.
The route caused consternation on the continent. Britain was not renowned for
road racing and the cycling communities on mainland Europe questioned the
ability of the British to organize such a prestigious race. The concern grew
when l'Equipe sent a reporter to scout the proposed route. As Rendell tells us,
his report was not favourable, writing disparagingly that, "...this little
frequented road...is an excellent promenade for lovers or for ladies whose
physicians have prescribed a little gentle bicycling. It's also wonderful
propaganda for the countryside around London. But it isn't worthy of an Olympic
Copyright Matt Rendell, Mainstream Publishing Company
Not that Frenchman Jose Beyaert cared. Selected to ride for the French team,
Beyaert was not considered the country's best chance of gold by l'Equipe who ran
a headline instead proclaiming the chances of Beyaert's team-mates Jacques
Dupont and Alain Moineau. But at the end of the race it was Beyaert who was
among the leaders. Dupont had changed bikes against Olympic rules and Moineau
was busy marking a couple of Italians that were not to feature in the race's
climax. Beyaert meanwhile, fearful of being marked in the sprint, opted to
attack some 2 kilometers from the finish. Amazingly he held on to take the gold
medal by some 3.6 seconds. His life was never to be the same again.
Born in Lens, north-east France, on the 1st October 1925 to parents Jose and
Marie, Jose Beyaert (named after his father), like so many cyclists, was brought
up in a poor, hard-working family. Jose's father, Jose Senior, a cycling fan,
held an amateur racing license and actively encouraged his children, Jose Junior
and brother Georges, to partake in sporting pursuits, initially boxing and then
It was during the Second World War that Jose, with the family now living in
Paris, rode his first race at age sixteen. Quickly realising he had talent,
Beyaert was soon racing seriously as an amateur, competing both on the road and
in track events at the legendary Velodrome d'Hiver in the French capital.
Riding road races during the war brought unique dangers. Riders were made to
carry arms for the Resistance during races, hidden in their food bags, Beyaert
telling Rendell, "..if we'd been caught we would have been shot."
After the war Beyaert continued to ride as an amateur, finishing eleventh in
the 1947 world amateur championships before going on the claim the gold medal in
the 1948 Olympics and turning professional in time for the 1949 season.
But Beyaert's European professional career was short. He rode as a
professional on the continent only until 1951. During that time he rode many of
the one-day classics, including Paris-Roubaix, where he was in with a chance of
winning before puncturing in the final kilometre. He rode as well, the Tours of
Italy and France. Indeed it is an incident in the 1950 Giro d'Italia that gives
us perhaps the biggest insight into Beyaert's personality as a rider and as a
Italian hero, Gino Bartali, patron of the peloton, had decided there were to
be no attacks on a particularly hot day. Beyaert, keen to profit from the cash
prices on offer for the intermediate sprints, took no notice. So Bartali sent
one of his henchmen to have a word with Jose. Rendell tells us how Beyaert
recalled the incident over 50 years later:
" 'What are you playing at?'
"'I don't know about you. I'm taking part in the Tour of Italy!"
"'If you attack again, I'll punch your ******* face in."
"'Many have tried, very few have succeeded. Try your hand."
"'At the next sprint I attacked all alone. No-one moved in the peloton
because they knew what was coming. Corriere [the henchman] came to find me. He
made the mistake of raising his hand. I saw it coming. When he raised his hand
to punch me, boom! I ducked inside and threw myself at him and when I fell on
him I caught him by the hair. I trapped his head against the ground and I put
one on him. The peloton came past slowly. No-one said a thing'".
The confrontation prompted a visit from the great man Bartali himself and
Jose was given the Patron's blessing to ride for a number of sprints.
This self-respect and determination not to be wronged or to be taken
advantage of is a theme that is returned to time and again throughout the book.
In 1951 he visited Columbia, starting a love affair with the country which
would lead to him spending the vast majority of the rest of his life in South
America. He arrived to participate in the opening of a velodrome in Bogotá and
then, in January 1952 he competed in and won the second Tour of Columbia.
Jose and his wife Louisette moved to Columbia and the rest of Jose's life
would be, if anything, even more eventful. He fathered a child with his secret
lover and pursued a number of opportunities, becoming coach of Columbia's
cycling hopefuls, trader in fine emeralds, owner of logging concerns,
businessman and, with Louisette, restaurateur. Inevitably such practices would
lead to connections with a criminal underworld and , whilst never explicitly
alleged, Rendell's book implies that Beyaert may well have been party to
sinister events - the book's rear cover suggesting Jose turned "perhaps even
hired killer." Beyaert telling Rendell himself that, "I've had an incredible
life...a life that's special," and then "There are things I can't tell you" and
"I have done things that are only to do with me."
Rather than a biography of a cyclist, Rendell's book is more an in depth look
at the life of a man who led a quite extraordinary life, the early part of which
just happened to be as a cyclist. The second part of the book is wholly centred
on his life in Columbia, a country with which Rendell has close connections; he
owns a house there and has written books and produced documentaries on the sport
in the country.
At times the book gets a little lost in its own detail. Rendell goes into
some depth on the country, including politics and the history of the emerald and
logging trades. At times it can get a little heavy going and pages can go by,
devoted to giving the reader perspective, without mention of Beyaert. Rendell
would no doubt argue that such detail gives an invaluable background into the
world in which Beyaert inhabited, and he may well be right. But, for me, it made
the book a little less readable than some of Rendell's other work, including
2006's "The Death of Marco Pantani" and 2004's "A Significant Other", both of
which I enjoyed greatly.
Beyaert died in 2005 in La Rochelle. Rendell's interviews with him and his
attempts at getting behind Jose's story make fascinating reading. Rendell states
that his subject lived to tell stories and, despite his ill-health, reveled in
recounting his life, on occasion obviously embellishing the tale, Rendell
"His anecdotes were darkly humorous, often untruthful, moving in places
despite repeated acts of violence and revenge and the occasional bawdy episode.
Some had obviously been told so often they had become opaque, masking rather
than revealing the reality that lay behind them."
Jose Beyaert was a fascinating character and the book is testimony to a man
that led a multitude of lives. A man who, whilst remembered in his home country
as the last Frenchman to win the Olympic Road Race, ultimately defies
definition. A fact which you suspect would bring a wry smile the face of Jose
Olympic Gangster: The Legend of Jose Beyaert Cycling Champion, Fortune Hunter
by Matt Rendell, is out now, published by
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