THE CLOWN PRINCE OF CYCLING
Born in Sausheim in the Alsace area, close to the city of Mulhouse and right on the River Rhine. The village was on the French side of the border with Germany but because it changed hands on a regular basis, Roger grew up speaking German and not French.
As a child he loved taking risks, seeking attention and flirting with danger – anything for an audience.
Aged 7 he asked his father if he could go to work with him and miss school. His father agreed although he wouldn’t allow his son to ride pillion on the motorbike. Instead, he put Roger in the trailer, strapped in alongside all of his tools.
On the journey the trailer broke free and overtook the motorbike. Roger broke free of his straps, stood up and waved to his father. Then the trailer tipped up – and Roger was sent flying. He was unhurt – one of many near fatal incidents – “a childhood of lucky escapes.”
Roger was a demon at school, always in trouble. He once filled inkwells with gasoline and set all the desks on fire.
As he grew older, he began to skip school – going hunting or fishing instead.
He looked on the Nazi invasion of the Alsace as a game. He would steal anything he could from German soldiers e.g. guns, bombs, binoculars etc.
Once he stole a loaded pistol from a soldier. He took the bullet out and put it in backwards. He pointed it at a tree, a bird, a dog and then his terrified mother and sisters. Pulling the trigger, nothing happened…until it suddenly exploded, leaving him with a large hole in his hand and missing a finger.
He then spent a month in a German military hospital.
On another occasion, seven Germans were having lunch when he stole all of their guns. The Nazis demanded them back or the whole village would be evacuated. He called their bluff and kept them all. His mother told him, “You will take us all to the grave.”
When the Germans retreated the Alsace in 1944, they left landmines behind them. Roger and his friends tried to find them and dig them up – until one exploded and blew his friend’s leg off.
After the war was over Roger collected all of his hidden armoury of German weapons and put them into an abandoned military shelter. He then poured gasoline over it all, every day for a week, “to let it soak in.” He called it the ‘Hassenforder Atomic Bomb’.
He had a 3-point plan. 1) Light the fuse. 2) Jump on his sister’s bike and ride away. 3) Watch the explosives go up from a place of safety.
He got as far as part two. The explosives went off quicker than expected. It blew him 20 metres off the bike. When he landed, he was naked except for his shoes. It led to another six months in hospital.
After leaving school, Roger joined his father working as a decorator. They would set off for work together, Dad driving the van, Roger on his bike – and Roger would always get to work first.
But he got into bike racing by accident.
On Bastille Day, 14th July 1947, he went into Mulhouse with his friends. There was a bike race going on around the town square. The prize for the winner was two bikes.
Roger watched the race, shouting abuse at the contestants, calling them “fat and lazy.” Fed up with this, the organizer called his bluff and challenged him to do better, shoving a bike at him.
Roger crashed on the first corner, but still got up and won with the fastest time. The organizer refused to believe him and accused him of cheating. He made him do the course again – and he got an even better time. “I was dressed in my Sunday suit with my best shoes.”
So, he took up bike racing as a way of making money. “I became a cyclist because I needed pennies. It was either that or join a circus.”
He was very talented and quickly became one of the best riders in France.
In 1950, he was called up for military service, and it was there he learned to speak fluent French.
He was invited to ride the 1952 Paris – Nice race as a guest of the Belgian national team, and this led to him being signed as a professional by the Mercier – Hutchinson team in 1953.
He immediately won a stage of the elite Criterium du Dauphine race and consequently was chosen for the Tour De France team.
As part of training, he used to have to do 5-mile training rides. To soften his saddle, he would put it on the driver’s seat of the team car and force the driver to sit on it for hours.
On his first Tour he won four stages and wore the yellow jersey for a while – the youngest rider to have ever done so, aged just 22.
But he drove his team manager mad. He would snatch spectators hats off them and wear them for a while.
He would sprint off and get an early lead, then hide in a field behind a haystack. When the Peloton went past, he would jump back on his bike and overtake them again – to their surprise.
His manager accused him of not taking the Tour seriously. He called Roger, “half cyclist, half comedian.” He added, “If he could cycle as well as he can talk, he’d be the greatest cyclist ever.”
Hassenforder had a very successful cycling career but hated training. He would take detours to avoid mountains. But in a race, he became a showman. He would let the rest of the peloton know exactly when he would attack, but they were still powerless to stop him. But he was a very poor climber, which stopped him becoming one of the greats.
He loved the attention that came with wearing the yellow jersey. He would sleep in the jersey when he won it. “One day you’re a little rider, the next day a god.” He believed in spending prize money the moment he had won it.
A rival called him, “the night club world champion.”
A newspaper claimed he had been engaged 11 times. He said this was an exaggeration – it was only four.
His success coincided with the Tour De France being televised for the first time, hence him becoming a national hero. The TV catchphrase was ‘Hassenforder Magnifique’.
In the winter off-season he did join a circus troupe as a clown. It wasn’t any old circus but one of France’s most famous, Le Medrano, former home of Buster Keaton.
He was well known for doing interviews in the middle of a race.
He once set pigeons loose at the UCI (Union Cycliste Internationale) annual dinner.
He once finished the Tour in Paris, in the driving rain, wearing a snorkel.
In 1956 the Tour was run with a difference. Instead of the usual sponsored teams competing, it was national or regional teams only. He was not picked for France as the national team manager could not bear him, claiming Roger had never finished the Tour. He was replaced by unknown rider Roger Walkowiak (who went on to win it).
Instead, Hassenforder (who came from Eastern France) went to the manager of the Western France team, claiming he had a Breton grandmother. He was rejected – “I’d pick you if you were more serious.” But just before the race, another rider suffered a knee injury and he was accepted, promising to “cut the capers.”
He won 4 stages of the Tour including winning at Montlucan after a 187km, 6-hour breakaway ride. It was the only time he ever finished the Tour.
In 1957 it was back to the usual teams, and he won 2 stages. On one stage, the weather was scorching hot, and he had a 9-minute lead. At St. Raphael he jumped off his bike and into the sea.
On the Champs Elysees he rode up on the handlebars, backwards, catching bouquets from admiring fans. He caught so many that he finally fell off the bike into the crowd. His antics nearly got him suspended – but he did get on the front cover of Paris Match.
But he did get suspended later in 1957 for slagging off Jacques Anquetil – although the two remained great friends.
He spent 13 years as a professional cyclist – but wished he had been cycling today with the money involved. “I would have balls of gold.”
Instead, he retired penniless – but only because he had spent all of his money on sports cars, clothes, women and alcohol.
He had been French National Champion 8 times, and won 8 stages of the Tour De France, two in his hometown of Colmar. He also won one stage of the Vuelta (Tour of Italy).
He had to borrow money from his parents to buy a restaurant in Kaysersberg. He put a bike over the entrance. It was a massive success because he remained a celebrity. “A lot of people said it wouldn’t work but it lasted 50 years.”
He still couldn’t resist a joke. His favourite was sitting on the balcony of his home with a fishing rod, and tying a 500 Euro note to the end, leaving it on the pavement below. When a passer-by tried to pick up the note, he would whip it away.
He once threw amphetamines into a fish tank. The fish went crazy. He claimed it was his version of ‘fried fish’.
Roger took up hunting. He kept a tally on the walls of his restaurant of the wild boar he had killed. It was at 1,678 when animal rights activists forced him to stop. He also hunted big game in Africa.
He gradually slipped away from national attention as the cycling world moved on. He only seemed to appear when the Tour came to the Alsace.
In 1999 he retired, giving the restaurant to his family. It is still going to this day – a pilgrimage for many dedicated cycling fans.
His autobiography was entitled ‘The Clown on a Bike’.
In 2019, the Tour De France came back to Colmar. Roger was asked to present the stage winner, and leader of the race at the time, Julian Alaphillipe (the current French national champion) with his yellow jersey. Alaphillipe called it his greatest moment in cycling.
In a recent interview Roger said, “I used to be the night club world champion…Now I’m the siesta world champion. I’m happy to still be here.”
Not any more.
He died in a care home in Colmar.
At his very last interview he said, “I am like Edith Piaf – je ne regrette rien, in spite of the fact that I made big mistakes, my lack of seriousness and my hatred of training.”
RIP – Roger Infuriates Peloton.