José Catieau died aged 77 on the same day as the Tour de France start in France’s north was unveiled. The race paid tribute to various “giants of the north” who had worn the maillot jaune and among them was Catieau for his spell in yellow in 1973, a moment that was both a high and low for him.
Born in 1946 in Coutiches, a small town in le Pévèle a stone’s throw away from the Orchies cobbled sections of Paris-Roubaix. His family moved to Saint-Quentin, the larger town that sits earlier on the race route to Roubaix. It was here that he took up cycling as a boy. His first win came in Guise, a town to the east that would later prove auspicious for him.
He turned pro aged 21, precocious in those days, signing with the Lejeune team that would become Sonolor and stayed for six years. He took a win in his first season and finished seventh in the Grand Prix des Nations time trial, decent for a neo-pro in this 74km time trial. His career wasn’t about victories, instead service was the defining aspect. With his tall build and ability as a rouleur he became a valuable rider: less domestique and more lieutenant. He’d help two leaders to win the Tour de France in Luis Ocaña and Bernard Thévenet.
In 1973 he moved to the Bic team to ride for Ocaña. This was the year Eddy Merckx opted not to ride the Tour de France, albeit a decision reached in June. On paper the Tour looked made for Ocaña as one of the most mountainous courses so far with ten mountain stages, among which awaited nine first category climbs. Still this didn’t leave the path wide open for Ocaña. He had rivals like Raymond Poulidor, Bernard Thévenet and José Manuel Fuente, but also his own struggles for if he was capable of sublime feats in the mountains, he was prone to misfortune and blunders too. Joop Zoetemelk won the Tour prologue in Amsterdam to add his name to the contenders, famously pipping Poulidor by less than a second, the closest he ever got to the yellow jersey. The next day was a split stage and in the afternoon Catieau attacked on the road to Sint-Niklaas and won, “I was in the form of my life” he said. So far so good but at the finish his team leader Ocaña was enraged at being upstaged and team manager Maurice De Muer had to intervene.
Just two days later Catieau was in the breakaway again, this time on familiar home roads between Roubaix and Reims. The race split on the cobbles and Catieau was in the front group, but not his leader. Racing through Guise – where he’d won his first ever race – he learned the move had enough of a lead to put him in the yellow jersey. Cyrille Guimard won the stage, Catieau took yellow and was whisked away for the podium and the media round. Ocaña had a great day too, he’d put seven minutes into rival Spaniard Fuente, a feat described in the following day’s L’Equipe as “une affaire en or“, a golden feat. Yet he wasn’t shining and if Ocaña’s mood post-stage two days prior had been described as a “black rage”, he was in an even darker mood now. When Catieau got to the Bic team’s hotel for the evening he walked into the dining room “a heavy silence fell, you could the flies in the room for a few seconds” he told his local newspaper L’Union.
Teams usually delight in taking the race lead, it brings the publicity they exist for. Only this time it wasn’t so easy. Catieau was expending energy Ocaña needed later in the race, and this was an era when riders earnings relied on post-race criteriums and Catieau’s notoriety could come literally at the expense of his leader. Team boss De Muer had to handle both, telling Ocaña to back off and making Catieau demonstrate loyalty by continuing to work as a domestique despite being in yellow. Catieau though was never going to stay in yellow, he knew it and contemporary accounts wrote it up this way too.
Catieau was basking in the limelight but had a job to do, and did it dutifully, that seemed to be very much his style. He was fetching bottles and pulling on the front while in yellow. He’d lead the race for four days via the Vosges, plus a rest day. The first big mountain stage came on the stage from Divonne-les-Bains to Aspro Gaillard (possibly the first attempt at naming rights for a stage location as the race rode to an aspirin pill factory in Gaillard belonging to race sponsor Aspro). The race tackled the Col de Salève only for Catieau to crash at the foot of the climb and when he got back none other than Ocaña attacked. The Spaniard won the stage and took yellow which he’d keep to the finish in Paris. Catieau was back in the shadows in his habitual helper role and finished a solid 14th.
The big question is whether Catieau’s glory in 1973 was what the French call un mal pour un bien, a blessing in disguise, for Ocaña. It might have piqued Ocaña into revenge, it certainly showed the Bic team as dominant holding yellow for almost the entire race. The sight of Catieau in yellow fetching bottles for his leader meant no divisions were visible to rivals either.
After another season with Bic, team manager De Muer moved to the Peugeot team for 1975 took two riders with him, one of which was Catieau. Catieau was reunited with Bernard Thévenet after they’d raced the Peace Race together on the French amateur team. Thévenet won the Tour de France with Catieau as his lieutenant.
Still a pro, but thinking of retirement, he opened a bike shop in Saint-Quentin in 1976, turning out Catieau steel frames. He was married with two children, one of which Steve is a novelist. Catieau’s life was much more than just a spell in yellow but it did define him, more than wins in Paris-Camembert, the 4 Days of Dunkerque and stages of the Dauphiné. What’s become an anecdote for many en route to Ocaña finally winning the Tour de France was itself a life-changing moment for Catieau. He called his bike shop “Au Tour de France”, although also a nod at riding seven editions and helping a colleague to win two of them too. The store closed down and was replaced by a sex shop but a new bike shop has opened. That might have satisfied Catieau, and he seem pleased to tell how his grandson told to friends about having a grandad who’d worn yellow. But the grandson might have been a greater boaster as José Catieau was modest and introverted. Voice-of-cycling Daniel Mangeas told local newspaper Union that if he was working as the speaker at a race in the region he’d look out for Catieau in the crowd because the ex-rider would never dare to approach the mic or the podium truck.
Catieau kept one yellow jersey which he’d bring out to show journalists who’d report it was unwashed and in perfect condition. He said would it become an heirloom.
- Upstaged: Some riders have outshone their leaders but it’s hard to find examples of team leaders being enraged à la Ocaña, or just embarrassed and reduced to polite words like “it’s nice having it within the team” which can sometimes be code for “how dare the bastard”. When Adam Yates won yellow at the start of this year’s Tour de France Tadej Pogačar and UAE team management looked delighted, not slighted. In 2019 Geraint Thomas winning the prologue in Düsseldorf put an extra burden on Sky but it was a nice problem to have. Froome and Wiggins was a intra-team issue in 2012 but Froome’s rebellion lasted minutes rather than days. In 2008 Carlos Sastre took the leadership off his team mate Frank Schleck but this was with a decisive attack rather than a mere helper upstaging their leader. Similarly 1986 saw Hinault and LeMond as rivals on the same team but as leaders rather than a domestique going rogue. Mind you, things were happening behind the scenes at the 2023 Vuelta