Historical story

Cycling for Algeria

The Algerian War of Independence with France (1954-1962) was very violent with excesses on both the French and Algerian sides. But the struggle for independence was also fought in the more peaceful international diplomatic arena. Even sport was a weapon. Cycling, for example, put Algeria on the map as an independent nation.

Sport was of great importance to the Algerian struggle for independence. For example, football served as a showcase for 'Algerianity' (Algérianité). In 1958 the independence movement Front de Libération Nationale (FLN) assembled an Algerian football team for a propaganda duel with France. This so-called Équipe du FLN started playing matches abroad in the name of 'the Algerian people', especially in communist and third world countries.

Cycling was also of great importance. Algeria and cycling have been immortalized in a famous anecdote about Abdelkader Zaaf. In the Tour de France of 1950, this Algerian rider escaped the peloton during the Perpignan-Nîmes stage. However, the scorching heat in combination with the use of drugs ('comprimés') killed him:he collapsed completely. Then he cooled down under a plane tree. Here he was sprinkled with wine by rushing farmers. He tried to climb on the bike and resume the race, but in vain.

The photo of the exhausted Zaaf under the plane tree is one of the icons of Tour photography. The story told about it can sometimes differ, for example when it comes to the question of whether the Muslim Zaaf had drunk the wine.

Abdelkader Zaaf's assignment in the 13th stage Perpignan Nîmes, Tour de France 1950

Own nationality

However, cycling in Algeria was much more than this anecdote. Along with football and boxing, it was one of the most popular sports in North Africa. In 1897, the first cycling track on the African continent opened its gates in Algiers. Urban centers such as Algiers, Oran and Constantine already had cycling associations back then. What was initially a pastime for and by settlers, came after the First World War also within reach of the indigenous population. Sport was a means of social and cultural upliftment and fit within the French ideology of 'mission civilisatrice' or the civilizational offensive.

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In addition to European and mixed clubs, there was now also room for exclusively Algerian associations such as the Véloclub Musulman (VCM), founded in 1936 in Algiers. The club managed to attract the best talents who would then create a furore after the Second World War in their green and white striped jerseys. That native athletes could compete in international competitions was already apparent from the participation of Abdelkader Abbès in the Tour de France in 1936. Upon returning to his hometown Blida, Abbès, finishing in 42nd and second to last place, was welcomed as a hero.

Sport was one of the ways in which French Algeria tried to mold its own sub-national identity, invariably referred to in the colonial press as 'nord-africain'. This hybrid identity, which encompassed the entire North African population, was closely linked to the colonial project. Sport was also strongly linked to one's own community, be it Muslim, Jewish or French. A few managed to climb the social ladder in this way.

In the mid-1930s, sport increasingly became a breeding ground for indigenous nationalism. While political parties were repeatedly banned and critical Algerian intellectuals were banned or imprisoned, nationalism flourished in (cultural) associational life.

Cycling flowering season

North African cycling flourished between 1945 and 1955. France then invested heavily in its African possessions, economically, politically and culturally. The Algerian Cycling Federation was admitted to the French Federation. Well-known metropolitan factory brands, including Alcyon, La Perle and Terrot, invested in North African plows, races and franchises. Following the Tour de France, a Tour d'Algérie Cycliste was held from 1949 onwards.

In addition, there were criteriums, local cycling rounds, such as those of Oran and Algiers, which attracted the European (sub)top. Participants included French riders André Darrigade, Louison Bobet and Jacques Anquetil, Belgians Hilaire Couvreur and Germain Derijcke, Italian superstar Fausto Coppi and Dutchmen Wim van Est and Wout Wagtmans. This post-war boom led to a mixed North African team, consisting of 'pieds-noirs' (the French) and 'indigènes' (the Algerians), taking part in the Tour de France in 1950-1952. With this, Algerian cycling was knighted.

Hotbed of nationalism

That the colonial 'sujet' (the native cyclist) derived its legitimacy and self-esteem from a colonial 'objet' (the Tour de France) is paradoxical and also has something ironic. Most of the indigenous sports clubs, including the Véloclub Musulman, were hotbeds of nationalism. On cultural evenings patriotic chants were sung, incendiary speeches made and money raised for nationalist parties.

On the track or on the road, this sentiment translated into sporting rivalry with a nationalistic edge:by winning races, native drivers showed that the 'indigène' was not a second-class citizen and not inferior to the 'roumi', as the French occupier was called ( the term is derived from the word Roman).

This nationalistic sentiment in cycling had a political and cultural-symbolic significance. In addition, cyclism exerted an appeal because of the camaraderie, the sporting rivalry and the opportunity to make a (social) career in this way.

Not only Abdelkader Zaaf succeeded in the latter, but also Ahmed Kebaïli. He made a living from cycling and was an idol for the locals (including pieds-noirs). He can be regarded as an archetypal social climber within colonial society. Kebaïli also became more involved in the nationalist movement than Zaaf.

Drivers as courier

After the uprising broke out in 1954, most Algerian drivers tried their best to carry on with their lives, including sporting activities. Some drove (temporarily) at 'European' clubs until 1962, since the Véloclub Musulman had to cease its activities by order of the liberation front FLN. Others fled to France. The famous Zaaf, for example, earned his money with funfair races in Brittany.

Others were more closely involved in the independence struggle. One of the rare chronicles of cycling in Algeria, Annales du cyclisme d'Algérie (1990), compiled by journalists Rabah Saâdallah and Djamel Benfars, emphasizes that indigenous riders played a role as couriers. As athletes, they had to make training kilometers, which initially put them out of suspicion.

This also applied to Balta Kheira, one of the few female Muslim drivers, who did hand and span services for the FLN. Ahmed Kebaïli, the darling of the North African public, provided logistical support to the guerrillas operating around his hometown of Blida. He was transporting weapons and ammunition that he managed to smuggle without difficulty past army checkpoints. The military regarded the star, who had participated five times in the Tour de France and twice reached the finish in Paris, as 'one of them' and often greeted him warmly.

Armed resistance

The FLN has also considered using cyclists in an international publicity campaign. At least this is what Kebaïli claimed in the conversations I had with him in 2012 and 2013. The movement considered bringing the sports hero to Switzerland and using him for a propaganda campaign. However, it never came to that. Kebaïli was betrayed, arrested and sentenced to five years in prison in July 1955.

There have also been several drivers who took up arms and joined the resistance, such as Mostefa Chareuf, a young talent who made his mark in local races and made it to the North African team that won the Tour at the 1952 Tour of Algeria. de France drove. He was eventually killed in a firefight with the French army near Oran.

The historiography and culture of remembrance of Algerian sport are closely intertwined with the 1954 Revolution. Annales du cyclisme d'Algérie is steeped in it. An Arabic video of Chareuf can be found on YouTube that portrays him as a martyr. And among the cycling photos and posters in Kebaïli's living room, there was also a 'Hero of the Revolution' certificate. This shows how closely cycling is anchored in the national story of the struggle for independence.

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