Eddy Merckx racing for Peugeot

 History Of Peugeot

This is the story of the Peugeot cycling brand and its dominance throughout the last two centuries. They became a powerhouse in both road and track racing, eventually winning the Tour de France in 1905 with Louis Trousselier. Peugeot dominated the professional peloton from the early 1900s to the mid 1910s, winning 6 out of 12 races with two back to back wins. They lost their edge after the first world war, only to regain it again over 40 years later.     

The story begins in an unusual place, two centuries ago, in the water mill industry. Jean Peugeot started a company that manufactured water mills and used the profits to fund a steelworks in Montbéliard with his brothers and a business partner. They produced all kinds of items such as coffee grinders, saws, kitchen appliances, metal warehouse fixtures, hydraulics equipment, and later automobiles, motorcycles, and bicycles. 

The Peugeot Lion was designed in 1858 by Justin Blazer, a Monteliard gold engraver. The Lion intended to symbolise the durability, suppleness and quickness of the steel, furthermore the speed and aggressiveness of the company. The Lion later became synonymous with French style and history. It comes as a symbol of France itself, having a place in its heart.

The first Peugeot bicycle they produced was a Penny-farthing called "Le Grand Bi" and was handbuilt by Armand Peugeot in 1882. The Penny-Farthings were the first machines to be known as "Bicycles", with their name coming from "Penny" and "Farthing", which were both coins of the time.

In 1889 the Peugeot brothers opened their first shop in Paris, named "Les Fils de Peugeot Frères", which means the sons of the brothers Peugeot. By the end of the century, Peugeot was mass-producing bicycles. They had become the dominant cycling brand in France.

In 1896 Paul Bourillion became world sprint champion on the track riding a Peugeot. The success following this event led Peugeot to further invest in sponsoring professional cyclists by expanding their sponsorships to road bike racing.

In the same year, Armand Peugeot founded the "Societe Anonyme des Automobile Peugeot", and the two portions of the Peugeot brand began to form, each led by a Peugeot brother. They would merge under one name, although by 1927, the cycling portion of the business was working independently and eventually became known as 'Cycles Peugeot'.

The 20th century would be wild and filled with great triumphs and controversies for Peugeot.  

'Le Terrible'

Peugeot sponsored perhaps the most controversial racer of the 20th century, Hippolyte Aucouturier, appropriately nicknamed 'Le Terrible'. Winner of both the Paris Roubaix in 1903 and 1904, he was a serious racer, but his career filled with controversy. 1903 was an excellent year for Hippolyte, coming first at Roubaix and Bourdeaux and stage 2 and 3 of the Tour de France. He abandoned the first stage, with stomach pains, which rumoured to be due to drinking. It is unknown precisely what is meant by drinking, but Hippolyte swore it was due to food poisoning. He later disqualified for slipstreaming behind a car.

The following year the entire podium was disqualified from the Tour De France. There was fighting, protests, widespread cheating, even pins thrown across the floor in an attempt to pop the tubes of competitors. Some racers were even accused of using the train to get ahead of other cyclists.

Despite this tumultuous period, the following few years, Peugeot's sponsored cyclists put up a strong showing, with Tour de France wins in 1906 and 1907 and holding the top 4 & 5 spots respectively. Peugeot did well for another few years, but by the 1930s, they started to struggle to string together much success. They had three wins of note. One Tour de France win in 1922 and another two wins, the other side of a world war, in 1948.

This long period was not successful for Peugeot's racing, although bicycle production had continued to climb. By 1930 Peugeot was producing over 160,000 bikes per year at their Beaulieu factory. This production increased steadily right into the mid '50s leading up to an impressive 220,000 bicycles per year. Although everything seemed to be going smoothly, there was a paradigm shift at work. Europeans were rapidly losing interest in cycling as a means of transport, leading to a drastic 50% cut in production in 1956.

The Second Boom

By the 60s, things had started to take a turn for the cycling industry; a new wave of cyclists appeared and Peugeot, once again, found success in the racing scene. This era is the era of Peugeot that is commonly remembered, with the iconic checkered, black and white jersey. This jersey lasted over 20 years, during some of Peugeot's most memorable moments, sponsoring some of the cycling greats, such as Eddy Merckx and Tom Simpson. Victories were abundant, once more.

Peugeot–BP–Michelin team photo

Tom Simpson had much success in the early 60s, with wins at Bordeaux-Paris in 1963, Milan-San Remo in 1964 and becoming, Britain's first world champion in 1965, winning the Giro di Lombardia. He became a massive star in the UK, winning BBC sports personality of the year, the first cyclist to have received the award. Sadly Tom's career ended in tragedy. It was 1967, and although he had battled injury the previous year, Tom had bounced back and was looking strong. During the late stages of the Tour de France, he collapsed and died at the peak of his career and the tragic age of 29. Britain had lost a grand champion. The post-mortem found that he had amphetamines and alcohol in his system. Combined with the physical strain and heat of the climb of Ventoux, this dangerous combination proved to be too much. 

Eddy Merckx was a young talent with a solid amateur record of over 80 wins. He joined Peugeot-BP-Michelin in his second professional year and came out swinging. In March 1966, Eddy entered Paris-Nice. He leads the race for a stage and eventually took fourth place. His time at Peugeot was brief but impactful. Eddy established himself as one of the best, with a tough win at Milan-San Remo, which he would win the following year again. He was a 120-1 favourite to win. He'd achieve several more victories before moving on from Peugeot. The first of which, at La Fleche Wallonne, after fighting back from an early deficit. After winning stages 12 and 14 at Giro d'Italia and finishing ninth overall, Eddy would then leave to sign a ten-year contract with Faema, 'worth 400,000 Belgian francs'.

The next 30 years would not be Peugeot's strongest. This era of Peugeot would become known for introducing the world to a new series of non European cyclists, Phil Anderson being the first of many. There would be a series of scattered wins before their last ride in 2008.

It's hard to articulate or quantify the impact the Peugeot brand has had on cycling. They've been there since the first bicycle, the first tour, the first great champions, even the first world war. Cycling and Peugeot are bound by blood. They led and guided the sport from its infancy to its maturity, celebrating together its great triumphs and mourning its tragedies. Like any parent, there comes a day when you must let go; this does not signal failure but tremendous success. For every great triumph of cycling is ridden on the path left by Peugeot.
"Ride as much or as little, or as long or as short as you feel. But ride." - Eddy Merckx

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