'How to' book review: "En Selle"

Ah, self help books.  No I'm not talking Oprah, Dr. Phil or Tony Robbins.  We cyclists have our own particular versions.

I might have the dubious distinction of being the guy who's read 'em all.   (Some who know me might say none of it seems to sink in!)  So yesterday, seeing as it was pouring and sleeting on an accumulated foot and a half of snow which prevented any meaningful road miles, and after the kind of cabin fever only a 90 minute windtrainer session can engender, I figured a starting a review series of 'the greats' how-to-guides to cycling' was in order, and started this post.

Today was a clear and windy 45 degrees, and Dr. Brad and I got out for three and a half hours of aquaplaning through the melting snow and slush.   Ice road trucker style big ring zone 2 fest... nice!   Felt great to finally see tarmac again, even if most of it was under an inch of water.   Love long winter rides in flahute weather.

Enough about me, it's time to commence this series with the original:  "En Selle", by Louison Bobet and Raymond LeBert, printed in... 1955!

This French language paperback was considered, in its time, the Bible for aspiring cyclists.   Case in point:  A young ambitious English junior rider named Tommy Simpson got his hands on a copy in the late '50's, and had a French-speaking friend translate it word for word.    I found my own dog-eared copy in a used bookshop while wandering in the Parisian neighborhood of Montmartre , many years ago.

Bobet of course was the Champion reference of the 50's. The triple tour winner launched the first of a long line of how-to books by great champions and champion makers.  After him, Hinault, LeMond,  Eddie B, Pantani and Armstrong/Carmichael all followed suit.  But Bobet was arguably the first.

Or perhaps to be more accurate, and give credit where it was likely due, it was Louison's brother Jean who was first.  The text bears all the distinctive writing style of the cycling professeur, kid brother to the Breton champion.   Jean Bobet, now there's a guy who can write.  And could ride too.  If you haven't read his book 'Tomorrow, we Ride", you should.   Buy it here, and read it.  You'll see what I mean.   In it, Jean says he can't write as well as Hemingway, his literary idol who he did his thesis on.   Well, I say Papa was king, but the king himself never took on writing about cycling, although he was a fan.   Jean Bobet did, and his cyclisme prose is poetry.   A great man.  Everyone who loves cycling should listen to Jean Bobet a little more closely I think.

Training wear, circa 1955.  Note the fenders.  We needed them today.  Guys were smarter back then.
"En Selle" is a collaboration between Jean, ghost writing for his champion brother (one imagines) and their faithful soigneur Raymond LeBert.  Written in formal French, the book commences with an imaginary session between this illustrious panel, a 16 year old aspirant and his father.  It provides a unique, almost literary opening for an instructional text that touches on all the expected basics: Health, Equipment, Physical care, Massage, Training, Diet, Tactics, Race Prep, Doping (warning/avoidance), and Mental Preparation.   The book closes with an interview between 'Monsieur Curieux" and the Bobets and LeBert where they provide some personal anecdotes and more life lessons.

Reviewing their advice after the passage of 56 years brings two stark observations to the surface.

Daily training schedule for the preparation period
First, they place a lot more emphasis on what to do off the bike, and how to 'live the life' of a cyclist than on specifics on training.  You won't find very sophisticated interval scenarios here.   The emphasis is on "L'art de faire des kilometres."  Bobet was from the Coppi school of relatively shorter, faster training rides, and his recommendations here seem based on that scenario.  The recommended scheduled distances are surprisingly light.  When Bobet joined up with Mercier and Antonin Magne in 1954, the old school director told the Bobet brothers he trusted them and wouldn't interfere with what he personally considered a heretical manner of preparation.

 It's an interesting contrast to most cycling how-to books nowadays that give minute detail on various heart rate zones and different types of training sessions on the road.   Bobets' method was more put in the miles, and let the form come.  And take care of yourself off the bike.

In the 50's, cycling, like most of life, was a lot about the common sense that we see increasingly deemphasized in 21st century life.  So in "En Selle", you''ll find page after page about the importance of massage, le sante moral (a whole chapter on how to keep your moral equilibrium), and what to eat (lists of food that's advised, and food to avoid.  FYI  jongens - don't eat artichokes, foie gras, tripes, tete de veau, mustard, pickles, mayonnaise, or pates.  (Jeez...they might as well have followed this with the directive: "Just leave France ....NOW!")

The second major take away is the fact that much of Bobet's advice still is sound and resonates.  Other than that classic debunked old school advice about drinking as little as possible, you'll find a few timeless wise old gems of oft forgotten and difficult to follow advice in this Type A, go go go time we live in...

"Training shouldn't engender an excess of fatigue; on your return you should feel from time to time a healthy fatigue, a sort of lethargy or general dullness."


"After training, a minimum of 15 minutes of rest.  Lie down, you can listen to the radio but don't read, relax your spirt as much as your body.  This period of recuperation, of returning to calm is indespensible"


"I never count the kilometers that I ride.  The numbers that I advise are approximate within 10k or so so. My absolute rule is that I ride just as long as I want to, and I guide myself by my watch.  In other words, I never talk of a 130km ride, but of an outing of 4 1/2 hours for example."

Despite 50+ years, Bobet's TT position and form still looks better than most you see today.  
Two other anecdotal stories about Bobet written in this book are worth a mention.  Le Bert talks about the method he used to bring back the 'wrecked' Bobet after the 1948 and 1952 Tours de France.  In both cases, against the protests of the agents and criterium organizers, he basically kidnapped Louison and took him to his quiet house on the Breton coast to recover - a kind of rehab center for an overfatigued rider who couldn't sit in the saddle due to the sores.  There, LeBert put him in a quiet room where he'd sleep for 12 hours at a whack without moving.  Twice a day, he'd swim in the ocean, the salt water curing the sores.   This went on for eight days, before Louison came back to life.

The other story Bobet tells monsieur curieux about his beginnings, echoing a recurring theme I've touched on in this blog in earlier posts:

"When I was 14, in addition to my sporting activities (cycling, soccer, tennis and ping pong) I had to work hard as a delivery boy at my father's boulangerie.  In 1939, his workers were all mobilized into the army, and I had to follow my father to the ovens.  I've already spoken a lot about this episode in my life, and I remember most of all how hard it was to get up early every day, to carry the sacs of farina, and to deliver the bread around the countryside, etc.   With all that, I can say that at 17, I was physically armed to affront any difficult task."


"In 1947, my first year as a pro, I participated as an individual in the Criterium des Six Provinces (the predecessor to the Tour de L'Avenir - ed.)   The train that took me from Rennes to Paris was derailled, I was saved only my a telegraph to Lyon where I finally arrived at 4 o'clock in the morning.  My bike was damaged, and I repaired it myself in the waiting room, and I took the start without having had any sleep.  That was my first experience in the high mountains, and only my second stage race.   You could surely say that I suffered in this race I found so difficult.  Every night, I was devastated, and only thought of abandoning the next day.   But abandon to go do what?  I thought about the others who were working back at the boulangerie, and I'd find new strength.    Finally, I finished seventh in the GC, after talking the climber's trophy.   I was so thin and tired that I thought I'd never be able to climb on a bike again.  Despite that, I trained diligently the following week.  8 days later, I won Les Boucles de la Seine."
"And to conclude, a word from Louison's now defunct sponsors..."   Just imagine riding the Tour on this stuff?  

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