I was asked to write a feature about the recent Tour de France recently for a magazine here in Asia and instead pitched them an idea about a story called ‘The Unknown Tour de France.’ The idea was to introduce readers to some of the characters from Tours gone by who are in large part forgotten, or unknown to many younger fans. Regarding Jose, a great read is my friend Matt Rendell’s book Olympic Gangster.
Jose Bayaert is one of those very good cyclists that almost no one has ever heard of, but he is one of the greatest characters that ever emerged from the cycling world… and perhaps one of the greatest villains!
Bayaert was a French professional who competed during the 1940s and 1950s and was the 1948 Olympic road race champion.
He also rode in the 1950 Tour de France and finished 47th overall. Boyishly handsome, he was purportedly very popular in the pro peloton and known for mad stunts, such as stripping off mid-stage one hot day along the route at the Tour to have a quick dip in the ocean, then hopping back on the bike to finish high up in the final sprint.
Beyaert moved to Colombia in 1952 and lived there for several years, where he was the coach to the national cycling team. He also competed in the Vuelta a Colombia, a very hard race of course with huge peaks of
white powder steaming jungle which he won on his first attempt in 1952. He finished second the following year and eighth the year after.
As a coach, he brought the first Colombian cyclists to Europe and thus played a part in laying the foundation for later Colombian stars who lit up the Euro races, the Tour de France in particular. Later, he was a radio commentator and his wife, Louisette, ran a famous French restaurant in Bogota, capital of Colombia. Bayeart was an ‘adventurer’ in the truest sense of the world, a man of many faces.
During the second world war, when he was in Paris, Beyaert raced in the Winter Velodrome in Paris – then used as a transit centre for French Jews being shipped to concentration camps – and worked for the resistance, moving weapons on his bike.
After his cycling career, whilst living in Colombia, Beyaert became an emerald smuggler, hiking for hours into the Colombian highlands to the dangerous, lawless shanty towns to buy gems, which he trafficked, along with drugs. He later went into the timber trade, and it was even rumoured that he was a hired assassin for the Colombian mafia.
In the 1952 Vuelta a Colombia, he was accused of getting into a car on one mountain stage, only to go on and win the stage. The man who accused him was later found stabbed to death.
As a result of his trafficking he also befriended drugs barons and executioners: a Paris-Match photograph showed him beside the emerald and cocaine billionaire José RodrÌquez Gacha. “A good man,” he would say of the serial murderer and international drug dealer. In 2001, in Bogota, kidnappers came looking for him. Beyaert escaped back to France.
He passed away peacefully in 2005, after an truly extraordinary life!
Awesome video of the ’48 Olympics below, must-see is the near-fight between two guys at 1:30 – some things it seems, never change!