Guest Article: Rose tinted glasses

Bespectacled Jan Raas in some serious company photo:

@wiscot’s article speaks of cyclists of our youths and Jan Raas made a big impression on the young Gianni. Do the Dutch have a harder Hardman? He went on to become a director-sportif and I pity the riders under his command, they must have suffered like dogs. I cannot find a photo to document this but Raas’s glasses had holes drilled into them along the outside edge to aid in defogging. It added to his coolness immeasurably. It almost made me want glasses.

Yours in Cycling, Gianni

We all have our favorite riders. Nationality, personality, successes, looks, grace, selflessness, professionalism, adherence to the Velominati rules, can all factor into our preferences and prejudices. Often our reasons are rational, sometimes less so. That’s what makes it fun. For me, three of my all-time favorites, Jan Raas, Gerrie Knetemann and Laurent Fignon, fulfilled many of these criteria but were united by one: they wore glasses. As a bespectacled nerd from the age of 11 (I first wore my gold rimmed and oblong specs in 7th grade and was gleefully and mercilessly ridiculed in that special way pre-teens have), I rooted for those rare athletes who wore glasses, feeling a strong bond and kinship with them. I might never match their accomplishments, but I was sure they too had been teased about their crappy eyes at some point.

As I got addicted to cycling in the late 70s, one great rider stood out for his stupendously un-hip glasses: Jan Raas. Instantly identifiable, I also liked him because he was a solidly built chap just like me. His dour, stolid demeanor likely appealed to my Scottish soul too. When I finally replaced my massively over-sized red Holdsworth in 1982, it was with a Team Raleigh replica in Reynolds 531SL (I couldn’t afford 753). Subconsciously, Raas made me do it. I loved that bike and tricked it out with as much Campagnolo and Cinelli as I could afford. It met an unfortunate end in 1984 when we collided with a car door in a ten mile time trial.

As my love of cycling deepened, Raas continued to win and I followed his results avidly; I still have a Campagnolo promo poster of him outsprinting Didi Thurau to win the World Championship road race in 1979. One of my favorite photographs of him is from Paris-Roubaix in 1982. It’s a shot from behind as he speeds across the cobbles in a cloud of dust, hands on the tops, exuding pure power. The V in its purest essence. Coming off his back wheel are three, almost comic-like, puffs of dust – adding to the power of the image. While all I had to go on were pictures like these (there was no TV coverage available), they projected a badass rider of uncompromising strength, modesty and passion. From what I could tell, he wasn’t a particularly emotive rider but a hardened professional who knew him limitations and focused on his strengths. He was horrible in the mountains but excelled on the flat and in races with short climbs; in my own very modest racing career I generally did OK in hilly time trials but couldn’t ride a hilly road race to save my life. We had more in common than met the (four) eyes.

On the same TI-Raleigh team as Raas was Gerrie Knetemann. When I replaced my first ugly pair of glasses, I got aviator-style ones – similar to those worn by Knetemann. With his aviators he always seemed so much cooler and hipper than Raas, but as a member of the fearsome Raleigh team, no less awesome. Together with Raas and Johan van de Velde, Kneteman and his teammates dominated the Tours de France in the late 70s and early 80s in their iconic red, yellow and black team kit. Of course, I had a replica jersey.

In the early 80s in the UK, Channel Four began showing highlights of the Tour. Raleigh were, alas, waning in their dominance to be reborn as Kwantum. However, for some reason we got coverage of the 1985 Amstel Gold Race (alternatively known as the Amstel Gold Raas after Jan won it five times in six years between 1977-82). Raleigh were defunct by 1985 and the riders had dispersed to other teams: Raas was with Kwantum and Knetemann was with Skil/Sem/Mavic. Rarely have I rooted for a rider to win the way I did that day. It was run in atrociously wet conditions and I knew how hard it would be to see through rain-spattered glasses. (He really needed his glasses to see and there were no helmet vents in which to carefully stow sunglasses). Close to the finish, Knetemann, in his iconic red, white and blue Skil/Sem/Mavic jersey, attacked to solo to the line in one of his greatest victories – eleven years after his first victory in this race. I remember him punching the air long before the line as the Dutch fans cheered his every pedal stroke. On the podium, his dark aviators could not hide his tears of joy. Age may have been against him (he was 34), but race-smarts and a passion for the biggest single day race in his home country saw him triumphant.

Laurent Fignon wore even hipper glasses than Raas or Knetemann. His gold-rimmed ovals together with a ponytail and his college education marked him as a rider apart. I liked that. I’ve always had a soft spot for athletes who proudly proclaim their education or interest in cultural matters in the face of withering scorn from teammates. This, plus Fignon’s panache, style and wins made me love him. His win at La Plagne in ’84 when he blew everyone away is classic – as his magnificent finish line salute. There are too many great images of Fignon out there but they invariably have one thing in common: they show a rider at the head of affairs, laying down the V. No sitting in waiting for wheels to suck, he attacked – and won often.

(Incidentally, in 1982, the same year Raas won Paris-Roubaix, Milan-San Remo was won by the bespectacled Marc Gomez who took advantage of a fall by Alain Bondue on the Poggio to record the only major win of his career. A good spring for the bespectacled.)

Alas, Fignon and Knetemann are no longer with us, taken long before their time. Today, we live in an age of lasik, contact lenses and cyclists wearing their ubiquitous sunglasses. No more can riders of less-than-perfect eyesight differentiate themselves from their colleagues. No more will bespectacled nerds find kinship with bespectacled cycling heroes, we’ll have to find other points of connection. Even so, with our metaphorically rose-tinted view of the past we can look back on a bygone age when the hard men in glasses took no grief from anyone.

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16 Replies to “Guest Article: Rose tinted glasses”

  1. Great article, Wiscot! When Raleigh split into Panasonic and Kwantum picking a side was like choosing one religion over another among my friends! Thanks for the memories…

  2. ahhh, if only my glasses imbued me with the preternatural strength and will to suffer these men had…

  3. I will never forget my first sporting event after getting some glasses when I was 10 or 11… It was a rare night soccer match under the lights and in the rain. I vividly remember being amazed at seeing the actual rain drops passing in front of the stadium lights. Scored a goal on a nice header, the glasses flew off and got crunched by an opponent. Went with contacts after that! LASIK 7 years ago and it has been amazing- still 20/15 or slightly better.

  4. I really enjoyed reading this wiscot. Your personal experiences and those of respected Hardmen all rolled into one.

    Another spectacled T.I.-Raleigh rider in the late ’70s was Dutchman, Bert Pronk. Under Peter Post I don’t think it mattered whether you wore glasses or not- just were you hard enough. The team were scarily dominant in Team Time Trials, referred to as Peter Post’s Drill Team.

  5. Nicely done – a well-written piece!

    I too admit to being a bespectacled rider, but not in the way you describe. I have paid, through the nose, for prescription cycling specific sunglasses. My prescription jawbones were *way* expensive. Interestingly, I’ve found that my need for progressive lenses has increased my enjoyment on the bike in a very velominatus way – I no longer spend much time looking at my cyclometer…because I can’t see it.

  6. These are coming fast & furious! No holiday hangover ’round here.

    Nice one, wiscot! This is awesome. I wasn’t cycling at your age, which is just about when I started wearing glasses. I was playing lacrosse though, which was my first true sporting passion. How’d I know I needed glasses? While normally skilled with my stick, I kept on getting hit in the face. A trip to the eye doc told me why.

    Jeeze! through all that graininess you can still see some bespectacled nerd also sports some Big Fucking Guns. Those legs are fearsome.

  7. How does this post/subject fit with Rule #36? If we are to worship at the feet of the Hardmen and yearn for old skool, should we not be dragging out our Aviators? I think they look awesome on my Peugeot.

  8. My eye site is total rubbish without glasses or contacts. I prefer to wear contacts because of the peripheral vision issue with glasses and It is sunny as hell here so I can rock my jawbones. but for those times I do wear my script lenses I am prepared to wear a sexy pair

  9. @Wes
    If, by Peugeot, you’re talking about a mid-1970s French car that you drive around in, then the aviators would be very retro/hipster chic. If, by Peugeot, you’re talking about your bike, you are not Jan Raas.

    Great piece, Wiscot. I have an astigmatism, and while my glasses-wearing can be restricted to reading and screen work, there are times I wish I’d sprung for prescription lenses for on the bike. At the same time, I know I couldn’t pull off this kind of look. Ever. That requires a whole different level of Flahute-ness.

  10. @RedRanger
    Those are very nice. I’ve been outdone. Even though I don’t wear them on the bike, I have a pair of these in silver:

    which I equated to the contemporary iteration of these:

    But those Oakleys look decidedly sweet.

  11. @G’rilla


    I no longer spend much time looking at my cyclometer…because I can’t see it.

    Maybe we need a large print V-Meter.

    I just go with the audio only version of the V-Meter: go until you hear the Man With The Hammer at your neck. No visual needed.

  12. Really enjoyed this article, wiscot. After decades of riding bespectacled I finally converted to contacts just last summer. Can’t say I miss having teared up eyes during ridiculous speed descents, blinking and turning my head so the wind would whip out the tears to allow occasionally unblurred glimpses of looming potholes. Must say that forced the development of solid ‘oh shit!’ bunnyhop skills, though.

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