Bernard Tapie has died aged 78. An businessman, a showman and briefly a politician, he was also a crook jailed for fraud and spent the last years of his life battling cancer and court cases. On his way up to the top in France he ran a major cycling team and helped bring about big technical changes in the sport, from pedals to salaries.
Born in 1943 Bernard Tapie grew up in a small apartment in the drab Parisian suburbs. Too poor to own a dog, the young Bernard said he found a fox in the woods and befriended it for nine years. He went on to train as an electronics engineer before compulsory military service. In 1966 he emerged to try a brief career as an entertainer, crooning under the stage name “Tapy”. It wasn’t a success and he deployed his charms to work as a door-to-door television salesman. With some knowledge of sales and electronics he then opened a shop selling consumer goods and this was the start of a long and lucrative entrepreneurial streak. One early venture was Cœur-Assistance (“Heart Aid”) in 1974 where subscribers could get emergency help in case of a heart attack but after the death of a client. he was taken to court in 1980. Brochures showed a fleet of ambulances, they had two and this was the start of many court appearances, trials and convictions. He was in court again after persuading a deposed African dictator that his many châteaux in France were going to be confiscated by the French state so he’d better sell them to Tapie quickly; Jean-Bédel Bokassa learned the story was a hoax and and took Tapie to court to cancel the sale.
In the wake of the 1970s oil shocks, France was trapped in an economic spiral of inflation and recession and here Tapie found his angle: he’d buy bankrupt companies and turn them around, charming customers and calming bankers along the way, often selling the revived business for tens or even hundreds of millions and earning the nickname Le Zorro du business. Manufrance, founded in 1865 as France’s first mail order company, sold guns, bicycles and more. Tapie bought the the brand for one franc only Manufrance struggled and couldn’t be turned around. Tapie tried with other firms including and Wonder, a battery company, Terraillon which made weighing scales, and the health food retailer La Vie Claire (“The Clean Life”), often firing staff and closing premises. He also bought Look, the company made ski bindings and just as skiers could clip boots into their skis, the idea was to do this with cycling shoes and replace the traditional toe clips and straps.
Tapie’s first venture into professional cycling was in 1983 when La Vie Claire sponsored the dossards in Paris-Nice in March, by September he’d signed Bernard Hinault to ride for the new La Vie Claire team. Hinault was the best cyclist around, able to win classics and grand tours alike, but had suffered in 1983 with his Renault team. A feud with legendary team manager Cyrille Guimard meant Renault had to pick between Hinault or Guimard. With Hinault nursing an injury, they went for Guimard, and besides they had Laurent Fignon on the books who had just won the Tour.
Tapie didn’t buy Hinault for one franc but there hiring a rider with a glorious palmarès now blighted by injury might have had its appeal. The La Vie Claire team was launched at the ritzy Crazy Horse nightclub in 1984. The jersey featured the Piet Mondrian design, radical in cycling but a copy of a Yves Saint Laurent cocktail dress. As explained in William Fotheringham’s Bernard Hinault, each of the primary colours represented one of Tapie’s businesses with Wonder, Terraillon and obviously Look featuring on the kit. As well as Hinault they signed Paul Köchli, then the Swiss national coach and an early adopter of sports science.
Hinault’s and La Vie Claire’s 1984 season wasn’t his best, a run of abandons, at Paris-Nice he was perhaps more famous for punching protestors. He struggled in the Dauphiné and after a win in the Tour de France prologue, finished second overall to Laurent Fignon but a distant ten minutes down. Tapie was along for the ride at the Tour and quietly – via a woman on a motorbike dressed in black leathers sent to collect LeMond – signed Greg LeMond as another GC contender for the following season.
Look didn’t invent the clipless pedal. But the firm delivered the PP65 model to the market, using Hinault’s notoriety as a marketing point. The La Vie Claire team were branded as a modern team with new ways and innovative technology. Look became the market leader and the leather toe strap redundant. The Mondrian jersey was stylish and there was substance too, until then sponsor logos had been sewn on to the kit but sponsor Santini delivered ready-printed jerseys. Look’s sales soared and as well as thriving ski bindings and bicycle pedals, they developed a carbon fibre frame in conjunction with aerospace firm TVT, the KG 86.
Tapie signed LeMond on a “million dollar” deal, a big headline but the sum was spread over the three years of the contract. LeMond was also promised a dollar for every pair of pedals sold in the US but speaking to L’Equipe a few years ago he said he never saw a dime. The contract was a big sum and marked a bout of wage growth in the sport. Was Tapie the cause? Arch rival Cyrille Guimard says non in a piece on Directvelo exploring Tapie’s role, adding it was the arrival of increased television coverage. Tapie though was the catalyst, the one who opened the doors to change the sport’s model and his gift for publicity and headlines meant paying a rider a big contract was a talking point rather than a secret and once riders knew what their rivals were getting wages got bid up. Hinault won the 1985 Tour and LeMond the 1986 one, and on the new KG 86 carbon frame.
Hinault retired early as promised while LeMond’s final year at La Vie Claire was a write-off following a broken wrist and then his near-fatal hunting accident. Tapie thought he might have a new star in Jean-François Bernard after he won both time trials in the 1987 Tour de France on his way to finishing third but that was peak Bernard. Irritated by the lack of results, Tapie even tried to buy rivals off, “he wanted to pay the breakaway to stop, or pay others to chase with us” team manager Yvez Hezard told L’Equipe. La Vie Claire stopped sponsoring and was replaced by Toshiba, but this was not the Japanese electronics giant, merely the French distributor in which Tapie had a hand. Tapie was leaving cycling behind and having bought Look for 1 franc he sold it to Swiss investors in 1990 for 620 million francs (about €100 million).
Tapie had become a household name in France. He had a TV show called “Ambitions” where he coached a budding entrepreneur in each episode – who says history does not repeat probably doesn’t watch television – but this was pulled after the French authorities said the show was more about Tapie than starting a business. Were some were worried about his growing popularity and influence, a political challenger and an outsider who hadn’t come up through the usual elite finishing schools? This was precisely what made him popular, he was a millionaire but spoke to those on the minimum wage and was happier addressing a crowd than a boardroom. He also had other sporting interests outside of cycling and another turnaround project was the football club Olympique Marseille which he’d bought in 1986. They went on to win the French league several times and the UEFA Champions League.
Tapie bought struggling sportswear brand Adidas too, hoping for another corporate fix but had to sell this when he went into politics but he didn’t last long, the government lost the next election and Tapie was out. “I went into politics rich and came out poor” said Tapie. Perhaps unusually for a telegenic businessman going into politics he was invited precisely because he was adept at taking on populists and extremists. His politics seemed more about rallying people rather than dividing them.
In his exit from cycling with tales of buying off riders and fix results some warning signs were there and it later emerged that Tapie had bribed rival players to help Olympique Marseille win the league and stay fresh for a Champions League game. He got a criminal conviction and jail in the 1990s.
On leaving prison, and banned from government and business, Tapie became a post-modern celebrity, famous for being famous. Theatre shows, a radio phone-in host, TV chat shows and more. He was even in a gangstère rap duo and also played the lead role in a TV series… as a policeman: which was more improbable, the millionaire businessman in a rap video or the convicted criminal playing a detective? He even had his own Guignols puppet, a sign he was a public figure (Richard Virenque had one too). Less light-hearted but he also sued the bank Crédit lyonnais saying they’d undersold Adidas on his behalf and in 2008 won a settlement of €400 million but this started a saga of court cases and litigation which he’d never live to see the end of.
Tapie returned to business, trying to turn around the Club Med holiday business but his raid was rebuffed. He had another go when he bought the Marseille media group Hersant and relaunched the La Provence newspaper. This brought him back to cycling as, like the days of old, the newspaper hit on using a bike race as a publicity stunt and the early season Tour de La Provence was launched in 2016. In a nod to the past it even revived a Mondrian-esque leaders jersey.
He fell ill with cancer of the stomach and oesophagus in 2017. His business dealings, court cases, criminal convictions and subsequent public rehabilitation entertained and intrigued many in France who saw him as an outsider who’d made it despite all the hurdles placed in front of him. He even cultivated the Edmond Dantès image of him as a modern day man from Marseille out for revenge on the scale of the Dumas epic. All of this eclipsed his time in cycling, La Vie Claire and Look is probably a footnote in his biograph although it did coincide with the rise in his popularity. His time in pro cycling was short but a lot happened and if some of it might have occurred without him given the changes in television and the rise of sport as entertainment and bike technology, Tapie was at the centre of it all with contracts, jersey design, sports science and bike technology.