This year marks the 70th anniversary of the year two riders were declared joint-winners of Paris-Roubaix despite crossing the finish line minutes apart. In the start of a new retrospective series of historical features, Felix Lowe revisits the controversy that saw Frenchman André Mahé and Italy's Serse Coppi both win – at least officially – the 47th edition of the Hell of the North.
How did it come to be that the official list of Paris-Roubaix winners exceeds the number of races by one?
Most of the fans present at the Roubaix Velodrome on Easter Sunday on 17 April 1949 would have roared as Frenchman André Mahé out-sprinted Belgium's Frans Leenen to win the prestigious one-day classic.
They might have found his unconventional entrance into the velodrome – via the press area, over the gantry on the opposite end of the track – a bit puzzling. But they would have witnessed the relieved rider from Brittany raise the Rizla Cigarette Paper Trophy above his head (in those days the winners didn't take home a cobblestone) on top of the podium.
Had they left the velodrome straight away, they may not have had the chance to whistle their disapproval when it was announced, only minutes later, that victory had instead been awarded to Serse Coppi, the Italian rider who had led the chasing pack home to finish a distant third.
But on buying the next day's copy of L'Équipe they'd have seen it spelled out on the front page: "Mahé, first after riding 200 metres too far, disqualified."
Some explanations are clearly in order…
What actually happened?
The big favourites for the 1949 Paris-Roubaix were the young Belgian Rik Van Steenbergen (the defending champion) and the Italian superstar Fausto Coppi (Serse's older and more illustrious brother). Just days before, at the Flèche Walloone, there had been what the journalist Peter Cossins, author of The Monuments, describes as "some rancour".
"The Belgian had been dropped from the lead group that included Coppi, but somehow managed to get back up to them before the finish, where he breezed to victory in the sprint," recalls Cossins.
Coppi accused the Belgian press cars of helping their man, and the pair started Roubaix determined to prevent the other winning. This opened the door to some of the peloton's smaller fish, including Serse and Frenchman André Mahé.
Towards the end of the 244-kilometre race, Mahé, along with compatriot Jésus-Jacques Moujica and the Belgian Frans Leenen, approached the velodrome with a small lead over a chase group that included the younger Coppi. In the chaos, they followed the official cars on the diversion off the route rather than enter the track.
"At the entrance to the velodrome there were crowds everywhere, blocking the way," Mahé said in an interview with Procycling magazine in 2007. "I looked around for where to go and I was directed round the outside wall of the track to where the team cars had to park."
People said I should have known the way into the track. But how do you know a thing like that at the end of Paris-Roubaix, when you've raced all day over roads like that? A gendarme signalled the way to go and that's the way I went.
The blame was indeed laid firmly on the door of the policemen in question, who panicked on seeing the riders hurtle towards the intersection at 50kmph surrounded by the race cavalcade.
Jacques Goddet, in his editorial for L'Équipe, wrote: "I found myself just behind the three victims at the precise moment of the incident, and I can certify that the police agents placed at the intersection of the correct route did, by their obvious arm gestures, mislead Moujica, Mahé, and Leenen, thus taking away all meaning for this particular Paris-Roubaix."
Realising the mistake, Moujica, the fastest finisher of the three, skidded but broke his pedal. Mahé and Leenen, meanwhile, sought a way out of the pandemonium. They were eventually waved up some stairs to the press gallery, where they could clamber down and enter the track on the opposite side than the usual entrance.
The panic over, Mahé beat Leenen in the sprint to take the biggest win of his career – and the biggest asterisk. Less than a minute later, Serse Coppi led a select chasing group over the line in the consolation sprint while Mahé was still celebrating. The race was over, but the dispute had just begun.
Coppi declared the winner
On learning about Mahé's supposed short-cut to the finish line, Coppi's Italian Bianchi-Ursus team lodged an official complaint, citing Article 156 of the UCI rulebook, which dictated that "the original itinerary must be regularly followed".
Mahé, who rode for French rivals Stella-Dunlop, had barely completed his lap of honour when it was announced over the loudspeaker that Serse Coppi was the winner.
But the rules were clearly open to interpretation, for Article 156 also said that "the racers must conform to indications given by the agents of the race and of law enforcement." In this case, the agents of law had clearly directed the leaders off the original itinerary adding, ironically, an extra 200m to their ride.
While L'Équipe had to abide by the official verdict, the French sports daily was disgusted with the decision. In the guise of compensation, the newspaper awarded Mahé, Leenen and Moujica a sum comparable to the earnings of the top three finishers: scant consolation to the man who thought he'd won.
"Even the French federation interrogated me," Mahé later told Les Woodland, author of Paris-Roubaix: The Inside Story.
I felt like a condemned man. They seemed to take the view that I had cheated somehow. I ended up having to justify myself, even though all I'd done was follow the way I'd been directed.
Five days later, however, the Fédération Française de Cyclisme overturned the result and reinstated Mahé as winner, with Leenen second. The Italians then complained to the UCI and the arguments rumbled on until August when, exasperated, the sport's governing body declared the race void and postponed making a final decision until November at their annual meeting in Zurich.
What was Fausto Coppi's role?
Besides acting as Serse's foil on the day, Fausto played a huge part in the biggest win in his brother's short career. It was the elder Coppi, who by then had won the Giro d'Italia twice and Milano-Sanremo three times, who urged Serse to complain about the result.
Born four years apart, the two Coppi brothers were inseparable. While Fausto was a shy and aloof, Serse was la dolce vita personified, a ladies' man (he was allegedly extremely well endowed) who drank, smoked, danced and sung: "a happier yet uglier Fausto," according to one Italian journalist at the time.
When it came to cycling, however, Serse was the antithesis of his brother. An accordion, a duck and a giraffe: these were all things to which Serse was compared while in the saddle. According to John Foot, author of Pedalare! Pedalare!, Coppi Junior was said to be the only professional cyclist in the world who did not know how to ride a bike.
"It was unthinkable that Serse Coppi might win Paris-Roubaix," the Italian cycling expert Herbie Sykes tells Iain MacGregor in his book To Hell on a Bike: Riding Paris-Roubaix: The Toughest Race in Cycling. "He was Serse – he was a decent gregario, no question – but he wasn't a potential winner by any stretch of the imagination."
And yet, on that day, with Fausto and Van Steenbergen marking each other out, Coppi is said to have allowed his brother to put in an attack. He even, according to Mahé, "gave him a push to get him away".
When he discovered what had happened at the finish, Fausto used his significant clout to put pressure on the race jury to overturn the result and declare Serse the winner. And when the French federation reinstated Mahé as winner five days later, Coppi dug his heels in and threatened to boycott the Tour de France that July and Paris-Roubaix in 1950.
While the final decision wasn't made by the UCI until November, it is thought that Fausto Coppi, who was box office to a race like the Tour, received assurances that Serse would not lose his title.
The whole controversy took place against the backdrop of an election for the UCI presidency, which added yet more intrigue to the situation, with candidates wary of keeping member nations sweet.
It was said that Belgium had sided with Italy to spite the French, which made things more delicate for the UCI president Archille Joinard, who was up for re-election and needed the Italian votes. Fausto applied extra pressure by telling journalists that he expected Serse to be "given his victory" and so, says Skyes, "the Italian stall was definitely set out".
There was also the newly introduced Challenge Desgrange-Colombo, a season-long road race competition that ran from 1948 to 1958 which was invented by L'Équipe (founded by Henri Desgrange) and La Gazzetta dello Sport (overseen by Emilio Colombo). This was a forerunner of the WorldTour, with points awarded across the main races of the calendar year.
If things weren't politicized enough in post-war Europe, this competition encouraged riders from certain nations to spread their wings. The Italian greats started racing in France to gain points and Coppi, the greatest of them all, was scheduled to ride his first Tour in July having taken to the cobbles of Roubaix for the first time in the spring.
With all this in mind, it was perhaps inevitable that the UCI came up with a solution they hoped would please everyone: one that saw both André Mahé and Serse Coppi, ex aequo, have their names adorned to a brass plaque in the showers at the Roubaix velodrome.
"They fudged it," says Sykes, who felt that Mahé had been "short changed".
Mahé and the French fed saw it as treachery, but they had to swallow it. For years Mahé was bitter and always claimed he won Paris-Roubaix, fair and square.
What became of the protagonists?
Despite his threat, Fausto Coppi rode his maiden Tour de France that year and beat compatriot and rival Gino Bartali to the yellow jersey. It secured him the first Giro-Tour double in history and, of course, he returned to Roubaix in 1950 where he won with one of his astonishing solo breaks.
But none of his many wins gave Il Campionissimo as much happiness as the one that he helped secure for his younger brother in 1949. "Fausto loved passionately this younger, less talented brother that nature had neglected a little, and who had grown up in the gigantic shadow of his older brother," wrote the French journalist Olivier Dazat.
Little Serse's victory gave Fausto the biggest joy of his career. It's strangely as if it was his most beautiful victory.
Tragedy struck two years later when Serse, aged 28, died from a brain haemorrhage after crashing on tramlines in Turin during the Giro del Piemonte in June 1951. Having seen his brother pass away in his arms, Fausto did not eat for three days and vowed to give up cycling.
The Tour started four days later. Coppi rode wearing a helmet but his heart was not in it; he finished tenth. He would win the Giro (twice) and the Tour again, but he was never quite the same rider without his lucky charm and talisman by his side. After he died of malaria in 1960, Fausto was reunited with Serse in a grave in their home town of Castellania.
For his part, Mahé died at his home in Brittany in 2010 aged 90. He would win Paris-Tours in 1950 and finish third in Roubaix in 1952. But he always insisted that the UCI had capitulated to political pressure applied by Serse's famous brother.
Coppi wanted his brother to have a big victory. He was a great champion, Coppi, but to do what he did, to protest like that to get a victory for his brother, that wasn't dignified for a champion. That was below him. A champion like that should never have stooped that low. I never spoke to him about it. Never did. Why should I?
Has anything similar happened since?
Interestingly, Paris-Roubaix is not the only one of cycling's five Monuments to have one more winner than its total number of editions. As Cillian Kelly, stats guru and co-editor of The Road Book, Cycling Almanack 2018, explains, something similar happened in the 1957 Liège-Bastogne-Liège.
"Germain Derycke won but was disqualified because he crossed a downed railway crossing. So the win was given to [fellow Belgian] Frans Schoubben, then after a few angry appeals, Derycke was reinstated. This was followed by complaints by Schoubben, so in the end they were both declared the winner."
Kelly also recalls the bizarre conclusion to the 1986 Belgian national championships for novices when, owing to a lack of photo-finish camera equipment on the line, the race officials could not tell who won the tight sprint between Wilfred Nelissen and Serge Baguet.
Taking inspiration, perhaps, from football's penalty shoot-out model, "they made the pair of them re-race the final kilometre one-on-one. Nelissen won."
The final word
Could something similar happen, seventy years on, at the Roubaix velodrome this Sunday? In a word, no.
It's not that it's no longer possible for riders to go off-course; Wout Poels did so in the closing moments of a stage in last year's Giro d'Italia. It's more the cop-out of a joint-winner decision that would no longer cut the mustard with today's savvy fans.
"There are so many more eyes on these things these days," says Kelly. In 1949, it wasn't until fans read the papers the next day that they learned of Mahé's plight.
"But nowadays everyone sees things straight away. And as we've seen in the recent past, footage that emerges on social media can have a bearing on these things." Disqualifications for riders Vincenzo Nibali and Romain Bardet for separate incidents of "sticky bidons" come to mind.
"Race organisers don't get away with skirting rules anymore because we're all amateur race referees these days," says Kelly. "They'd be forced to make a decision."
Cossins reckons that, today, Mahé may not have kept his win because he did not complete the official route. "But perhaps there is another side to it, though," he says, "as that 1949 race and therefore Mahé's name stand out because of what happened at the finale. The incident made it an extraordinary Roubaix that is well remembered. I'm not sure if we'd know Mahé's name so well if this hadn't been the case."
So, perhaps the original winner of Paris-Roubaix seventy years ago should have been pleased that the controversy immortalised his name. But try telling that to someone who had to share a shower with Serse Coppi for the rest of his life…