Captain Alex - The Cycling Anthology, Volume Six (Peloton Press 2015)
Captain Alex, my chapter in volume six of the critically acclaimed Cycling Anthology, tells the little-known tale of French radio pioneer and all-round dandy Alex Virot – the first journalist killed while covering the Tour de France.
It all started when I came across a 1957 Tour media pack with three signatures on the front cover with that of Virot the most prominent and only legible name. A quick search on Google revealed to me that this chap Virot was the Phil Liggett of his era – a man who became the voice of cycling at a time when TVs were not around. What's more, Virot was killed in a motorcycle accident on Bastille Day during stage 17 of that very same Tour in 1957.
Subsequent digging around revealed that Virot, besides the 22 Tours he covered as a journalist, led a quite fascinating life outside cycling. An artist, war reporter, pilot and amateur actor, Virot fought in two World Wars and brushed shoulders with key figures in his time, including the sculptor Antoine Bourdelle, Pope Pius XII, Mussolini and Hitler himself.
A chance series of events put me in contact with Virot's grand-daughter who revealed to me his big secret – plus a treasure trove of documents, photos and artefacts relating to his extraordinary life.
Meanwhile, after further digging around I finally discovered who was responsible for the other two signatures on the front cover of the media pack: the celebrated accordionist Yvette Horner, who was part of the Tour caravane for 11 years during the 50s and 60s, and the inimitable Belgian sports journalist Luc Varenne, much feted for his close relationship with cycling legend Eddy Merckx.
In Captain Alex, the backstory and lives of each these three characters comes alive on the pages as I search for the one thing that eludes me and a curious grand-daughter: a recording of Alex Virot in action.
"[A] fascinating chapter … penned with much care and investigative zeal by Felix Lowe" – TourOfBritain.co.uk
"Felix's chapter is perhaps the most memorable of the selection, hanging as it does on the thoroughly captivating character of Alexandre Virot, a buccaneering French radio journalist who met a tragic end whilst covering the 1957 Tour." The Jersey Pocket
"It wasn't immediately obvious to me what the story would be and it would have been easy to say: "I'm not sure that's for us, can you think of something a bit more populist?" I am glad we didn't, because the end result is terrific." Lionel Birnie, co-editor of The Cycling Anthology