Lucien Blyau has died on his 91st birthday. He was one of the characters of the Tour de France and beyond, a dedicated supporter and quencher of thirst.
Born in 1925 into a family of farmers from Everbeek in Belgium, Blyau got into cycling and had a successful start, winning the amateur Tour of Belgium in 1947 and with 11 wins he turned pro with the Peugeot team only to a crash in the 1949 Omloop Het Volk and break his kneecap. This effectively ended his career and he started working on his parents farm near Brakel and jobbing as a plasterer.
He was from Everbeek and became a supporter of Belgian champion Claude Criquielion from Deux Acren, a short walk away but the other side of the Flemish-Walloon divide. “If I can’t ride the Tour de France then I can drive it” he often said and in 1975 he began to follow the race with his Bedford camper van to support “Criq”, under the banner of a Belgian flag marked with the wordplay slogan “Cri ! Qui ? Les Lions“. He started passing up water to Criquielion and his team mates. Then others saw him handing up bottles and wanted some too. He could hardly say no. He told Het Nieuwsblad that some preferred a pale ale and Blyau duly supplied them. A habit had formed.
— Sep Vanmarcke (@sepvanmarcke) June 24, 2016
Blyau became a roadside fixture for 35 years and part of the peaceful convoy of campervans that follows the Tour de France and other races. Not for them outrageous costumes and selfie-sticks, just banners and applause offered up to the riders.
Blyau went further and by handing up drinks to the riders. “Each day I try to stand about 20km from the finish on an uphill part where the riders won’t come past too fast. I hand up small bottles of water and cans of coke. I must say my bar’s quite the success” he told Belgian sports paper La DH. Only unlike other bars there was no tab or bill to pay for the riders. He’d stock up on supplies at his own expense, handing out about 800 drinks during the Tour according to DH. “Many friends think I’m mad when I tell them I pay for it all out of my own pocket. I tell them it’s my greatest pleasure and that’s something money can’t buy. He wasn’t just at the Tour, attending many other races during the season which added to the expense and especially the pleasure.
Blyau’s regularity meant dependability. Riders won’t take drinks from random people for fear they’re spiked; any water taken from a fan is used for cooling, not drinking. But Blyau and his partner Marie-Thérèse were trusted and their drinks got drunk by every passing rider in need. In turn this brought recognition and gratitude, Cadel Evans gave him a signed rainbow jersey; ASO gave him official accreditation so he could park his camper van amid the team buses if he liked.
Blyau was part cycling’s family in more ways than one. His son-in-law is Hilaire Van der Schueren another farmer and the current Wanty-Groupe Gobert manager and a fixture on the Belgian scene. It was this connection that saw Blyau dressed in Collstrop kit to hand up his drinks, there was no sponsorship but the green jersey was easy to spot. In recent years he cut a frail figure – search and you’ll find video of him on Youtube – but always enjoyed his service. This summer he was too ill to travel and died this week.
Blyau is worth reflecting on. These days a minority, but an all too visible one, try to exploit the Tour de France and television for a Warholian 15 seconds of infamy as they endanger the riders with their antics. Their presence is subtractive, they’re trying to take something from the event. There’s nothing wrong costumes and antics, see Didi Senft, better known as The Devil and famous for his regular, friendly if eccentric presence at races too. Millions of ordinary people add to the glory with their presence and cries of Allez! but Blyau was special. It’s too late to buy him a drink but the next time you sip a can of coke or drain bottle of cold beer, raise a toast to Lucien, the ultimate supporter.