Making New Years Resolutions? Take a cue from Impanis

Somewhat melancholy new year cafesupporters.

Raymond Impanis passed away yesterday at 85, after a bout of pneumonia.  The champion nicknamed the 'Baker of Berg' was, along with Rik van Steenbergen and Briek Schotte, Belgiums great hope in the years just after World War II ended.

What's that?  Never heard of him?   Well, you should know about him, for he was important, one of the last survivors of what was cycling's 'greatest generation'. Impanis life story provides a better lesson to all who swing a leg over a saddle than almost anything you'll read in a cycling magazine this year.  Let me put his importance in context for you.

Remember how how much Cancellera, Tommeke and van Petegem were lauded in the past few years for winning the Ronde and Paris-Roubaix in the same spring?   Well Impanis had been there, done that, pulling off that double back in 1954.  Check out the video of Paris Roubaix here.   It was the days when the Paris Roubaix still did the old more westerly route up the old Doullens hill.  There's some Ronde footage in his Sporza story-bio from today here.   Impanis won both classics that year solo, his violet Mercier jersey an appropriately royal robe for the majestic arrival of a reborn classics king.   At Roubaix, Impanis attacked multiple times, finally escaping with a mere 1,500 meters to go.   Ferdi Kubler was later quoted saying, "Raymond Impanis?  He's a aeroplane you know.  We could do nothing when he took off..."

Impanis also won Fleche Wallone, Paris-Nice twice, Gent-Wevelgem twice, and was 2nd in Liege Bastogne Liege no less than four times.  He rode for the great teams of the era:  Alcyon, Peugeot, Mercier, Faema-Flandria.  Check out his palmares here.

But there's a lot more relevance to the life of Raymond Impanis than just another half-century-old list of race wins and sepia toned images.  He's a example of persistence, longevity and adaptability:  Ingredients that should-be the most sought after character traits for every cyclist.

Photo De, courtesy Guy Dedieu
Forging a cycling character.   The glossy cycling magazine content is amazingly so devoid of it, yet at the same time, so 'full of it', because if you believe what your read, you'd think you could 'buy' results with a new bike, wheels, nutritional supplements or a training technique.   Forging character?   Well, it doesn't sell advertising, does it, and we all know what greases the wheels.  Pity, because when I look around me, as we enter 2011, I sense a scarcity of character.   Cancelling Pro Football games because of some snow, leading a Governor to lament "the woosification of America."   That same day last week that one hit the news, I heard on the radio that the US Army is now changing its basic training because the 'digi-generation' recruits of today are so obsese, so devoid of basic athleticism and physical fitness, that they need to start with low-impact aerobics.   (What's next?  Richard Simmons as a drill instructor...what's the world coming to?)

No, for character, we're better off turning to the plaatland.  To Manu Adriaens, and his great Flemish language book "De Muur van Geraardsbergen, De Helden van het Peleton."  Chapter 1 is titled 'Advice for unborn racers.'   In it, Adriaens provides his top-10 tips such as (1.) 'come into the world in the flatlands of the low countries,' and (2.) 'lose one of your parents at an early age.'

Tip number 5?  'Be a baker's delivery boy.'  Bakerboy examples he cites are Hugo Koblet, Ferdi Kubler and... Raymond Impanis.    Butcher boys, Grocery shop boys and Newspaper delivery boys count too by the way.  Plenty of examples of those with names you might have heard like Merckx, Maertens, VanLooy and Coppi.

Raymond Impanis was born in the Flemish Brabant town of Berg - just a few k from where Brussels Zaventum airport sprawls today - where his family owned a bakery.  Impanis senior had a Ford, but during the Second World War there was no gasoline, so every morning, the 15, 16 and 17 year old Raymond would get up and make bread deliveries on his bike.  In wind, rain, snow.  When he was done? Twice a day the teenaged Impanis would haul 100 kilos of flour from the supplier to his bakery on a three wheeled delivery bike.

Contrast that with today, when so many teens of similar age sit for hours in front of video screens, eating junk food, working on developing type-2 diabetes and extending the obesity epidemic.  Even top Junior cyclists will ride an hour or two, then spend a lot time resting with legs up.

Impanis?  He sat all day on a triporteur and labored, and in the process cultivated the physique of a bull.   Not very tall, but 80kg of muscle.

In 1942, in the middle of the war, he started racing with the juniors.  Almost immediately, he had a very bad crash, slamming into an electric pole during a sprint.  His right arm was 80% paralyzed, permanently... in fact, he could barely lift his right hand anymore.   Stop?  Nah, Impanis just learned how to become a 'lefty', and kept on racing.   Pretty successfully too, even if he'd later say his handicap caused by the accident, "cost him millions."  (More on that later...)

So just think about that a second: Winning Paris-Nice, the Fleche, The Ronde, Roubaix and finishing 3 times in the top ten of the Tour de France with stage wins....yet being barely able to lift one arm.   Know how it feels when your arm's asleep?  Now imagine racing up the Galibier...

His older brother had been an 'independent' racer before the war, so cycling wasn't unfamiliar. Raymond had successful stints as both junior and amateur with Blauw Put de Louvain and later with Curraghem Sport - a very pretigious Brussels club at the time.   He turned pro in 1947, and immediately went to the Tour de France where he won a stage and finished 6th behind French winner Jean Robic.

This phenomenal debut positioned Impanis as Belgium's great Tour de France hope in post-war years filled with great hope.  Unfortunately, jaune glory didn't materialize despite top 10 finishes in 1949 and 1950, much to the frustration of the press who got on his case for what they perceived as nonchalance and a lack of combativity.   It was an unfair rap though, for Impanis was an attacking rider with an impressive palmares, strong in time trials, and often winning solo.

His career is a perfect example of the rewards that only come with dogged persistence.  His greatest career wins came in 53 and 54, after enduing some lean years when was written off by many for not living up to their excessive expectations.  He even missed selection for the Belgian Tour de France team in '51.   In '54 he switched teams to Mercier, got his weight down under 80kg and bam!  Overwinning in Paris Nice, Ronde, Roubaix. Transformation, and a career reborn.  (Lesson jongen?  Persist.)

His career is also important for it's longevity.   He was a pro for 17 years:  1947 - 1963.   He finished Paris Roubaix 16 times.  You read that right... finished.   In the twilight of his career, he rode shotgun for Rik van Looy's with his Faema-Flandria red guard.   In 1960, after a winter spent at Van Looy's Lake Garda training camp, Impanis was flying, winning Paris-Nice again.   And after retiring he never really stopped riding, still cruising around on a lightweight bike with flat bars well into his eighties.  I hope I'm lucky enough to still be riding in my eighties too.   (Lesson jongen?  Stick with it for the long haul.)

Finally, he's an example for his adaptability and versatility.   At the end of his long road career, Raymond had hoped like Van Steeenbergen to cash in for big pay days on the winter six-day indoor track circuit.  Only one problem though... you can't do a hand-sling very well in the jams when your right arm is nearly paralyzed.  Hence the 'cost me millions' quote.

But you don't win big races like he did without learning how to overcome a few obstacles.  On the recommendation of Jean van Buggenhout (the only-agent-in-town back in those days) Raymond started taking up Motorpaced racing on the track, extending both his popularity with the sportpaleis-goers, and his paydays for a little bit longer.  (Lesson?  When faced with an obstacle, just find a way around it.)

After retiring Impanis was still around the bike.  He worked for Race Radio.  Was a fixture at Belgian races, adored by the supporters.  They say there's plans now to bring back that pro race bearing his name again.   That would be appropriate, don't you think?

If you're looking for results on the bike in 2011, before you finalize your New Year's personal improvement resolutions, think of Impanis and consider centering them around antiquated themes like persistence, longevity and adaptability.

RIP Raymond.  Here's hoping a new generation can live up to your example.


  1. Excellent piece. And how true.
    It's not the latest carbon fibre whatever which will make you a better rider.


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