Stage 9: What About Zimmy? Urs Zimmermann, 1991

This story is a chapter from Richard Moore’s book Étape: 20 Great Stages from the Modern Tour de France, which assembles the greatest days of modern Tour history into a Tour de France of incredible victory, glorious failure, shocking revelation, and beautiful memories. Moore assembles an incredible cast of interviews with riders including Armstrong, Cavendish, Fignon, Hampsten, Hinault, Julich, LeMond, Merckx, Roche, and others. In the words of those who were there, Étape recreates each day vividly and reveals the beauty and the madness of cycling’s greatest race. Enjoy!

Wednesday, July 17, 1991

Rest day: Pau

0 km/0 mi

Etape by Richard Moore tour de france stages urs zimmerman what about zimmy 1991The Tour de France is the circus that everybody thinks they would love to run away with. Colorful, exotic, glamorous, the allure for those outside its bubble is as strong and appealing as the idea that everybody inside it is as one. An impression of cohesion and unity is reinforced by the peloton itself, one of sport’s most powerful symbols of togetherness.

When the riders, lean and tanned and at the peak of their athletic prowess, step out of their team buses and climb aboard their gleaming bikes, on which most cut such graceful figures, it can be difficult not to feel a twinge of envy. But there are around 180 riders at the Tour. Of the 180, some will be highly motivated. Some will not. Some will be at war with their teammates. Others will be at war with themselves. Some will be confident. Others will be terrified. The Tour amplifies problems, physical, psychological, political.

People love sport because it offers an escape from reality. But what if it is reality? Despite what many might like to believe, what might be called Andre Agassi syndrome is not uncommon in elite, professional sports, even if Agassi is an extreme case. “I play tennis for a living, even though I hate tennis,” said Agassi, “hate it with a dark and secret passion and always have.”

It wasn’t that Urs Zimmermann didn’t like his fellow cyclists. It was just that, after two weeks in their company, he felt like he needed a change.

Actually, Zimmermann thinks again, sometimes he really didn’t like his fellow cyclists.

Already stick-thin, Zimmermann shed more weight after going on an extreme diet in the winter of 1985—though this coincided, he points out, with moving out of his parents’ house. The next year, he finished third in the Tour de France, one of the greatest Tours of all time, behind the warring teammates Greg LeMond and Bernard Hinault.

Yet even then Zimmermann seemed awkward and uncomfortable, as though he didn’t really belong in their company. Part of the reason was that he spent much of that Tour arguing with his Carrera team director, Davide Boifava, over his tactics. Boifava thought he wasn’t calculating enough, that he was reckless in attacking too often and at the wrong moments. It was Zimmermann’s nervousness that partly explained his attacking style. Like a lot of climbers, he didn’t like being in the peloton. He would rather be up the road, preferably alone.

It was Zimmermann’s desire to be apart, his reluctance to spend more time than was absolutely necessary in the company of his fellow cyclists, that led to his involvement in one of the stranger episodes in Tour history. It was halfway during the 1991 Tour when he was disqualified for travel- ing by car rather than plane from Saint-Herblain in the Loire-Atlantique, in northwest France, to Pau, in the southwest, some 565 km. Few riders in the history of the Tour had been thrown out of the race—at the time, even a doping infraction would often result in a paltry fine and time penalty.

It seemed a ridiculously excessive punishment for such a crime. Particularly when it was explained, in his defense, that Zimmermann was scared of flying. Zimmermann smiles at the memory. “I wasn’t afraid of flying. If I was afraid of flying, why did I go to the airport to fly home?”

Thanks for reading this excerpt from Étape! You’ve read 21% of the chapter. Read the full chapter in Etape: 20 Great Stages from the Modern Tour de France by Richard Moore.

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