Commissaires are trained officials who referee cycling events. They volunteer their time to ensure cycling competitions are safe and fair. They wear blue jackets, cream slacks and a rye smile. Most are nice and love the sport. If you are around long enough, one of them will discipline you for something small or large, and you will probably deserve it. I’ve been ‘done’ for crossing the white line in a race, forgetting to scribble on a sign-on sheet, crossing the finish line without both hands on the bars, and wearing the wrong jersey. And I’ve been let away with much more. They issue fines in Swiss francs, all have a minor king complex- and without them, NO racing can happen.
Commissaires are ever-present, checking racing licences and making sure routes and races are safe. Officials in any sport are often regarded as villains. French rider Henri Pelissier, who won the Tour in 1923, famously quit the race the following year after a stickler of a commissaire checked to see if he was wearing the same number of jerseys at the end of a stage as he had been at the start many hours earlier in the chill of pre-dawn. The story entered cycling folklore when it was published under the headline ‘Prisoners of the Road’.
One vigilant Commissaire, saw a team mate of mine rejoining the bunch with the aid of a gold Mercedes estate and disqualified him at the end of the stage. The said DQ rider, went out and drank various alcoholic beverages to the small hours of the night and crawled in through the wrong window of the hotel. Meanwhile, a note that had been sent begging the Commissaire to reconsider worked, and the DQed rider was permitted to re-enter the race the next morning, just one hour before a 160-kilometre stage, after having consumed a massive fry breakfast. It might have been the best 24 hours of his life.
When a cycle road race is underway, usually two judges are present. The ‘Chief Comm’ goes in the organiser’s car behind the peloton in the race convoy, monitoring the main bunch . ‘Comm Two’ is in another car which falls in behind the breakaway once it is established. In larger events, a third commissaire is on a motorbike ensuring fair play in the team car calavade and stopping riders from using the aerodynamic assistance of cars to regain the bunch (bastard).
This particular Sunday afternoon was the final stage of a 3- day, 4 stage event. A break was established and was out of sight of the main bunch. Over the race radio:
“Comm one to Comm two”
“Comm two here, Go ahead, Don”
“Nino, we need a time gap to the bunch.”
“OK, Don, we are passing a black horse in a field to your right. Start your watch in three – two – one – Start”
Two minutes or so later, Don, the chief Comm, rounds a bend and sees three black horses in different fields, startled by the earlier cyclists commotion, galloping in totally different directions towards the horizon.
“Any chance of a fixed point, Nino?”