Robert Marchand, a diminutive Frenchman who once was told he would never excel in cycling only to set world records as a centenarian, has died. He was 109.
Marchand, who until recently was still riding his exercise bike 20 minutes a day, died overnight at the care home where he lived outside Paris, the facility’s director told The Associated Press on Saturday.
Marchand, born in 1911 in the northern French city of Amiens, traveled extensively as a young man, working as a truck driver in Venezuela in the late 1940s and then as a lumberjack in Canada. He had also been a firefighter.
Back in France in the 1960s, Marchand worked various jobs that left him with no time for sports, but he eventually took up his bike again when he was 68 years old and began a series of cycling feats.
Marchand, just 1.52 meters (5-feet) tall and weighing 52 kilograms (115 pounds), cycled from Paris to Moscow in 1992 and set the record for someone over the age of 100 riding 100 kilometers (62 miles).
As a young man, Marchand once was told by a coach to give up cycling because his small size would prevent him from achieving anything.
Marchand proved that prediction wrong several times, including in January 2017 when in a skin-tight yellow and violet jersey he set a world record in the 105-plus age category — created especially for the tireless veteran — by riding 22.54 kilometers (14 miles) in one hour on the boards of the Vélodrome National near Paris.
“I’m now waiting for a rival,” he said at the time.
Three years before, Marchand had covered 26.92 kilometers (16.73 miles) in one hour to better his own world record in the over-100s category.
Marchand, a longtime supporter of the French Communist party, was able to take care of himself until recently, living in a small apartment. But in September, he went through a bout of depression, lost weight, and his family decided he would be better off in a care home.
“Until last week, he was really in a better form,” Hadjiretou Timera, the director of Les Acacias residence in Mitry-Mory, told The AP. “In addition to his physiotherapy, he kept pedaling 20 minutes a day on his exercise bike. We were all really impressed, he achieved things we could not.”
Timera said Marchand’s family had been informed Friday that he appeared to have weakened and that “he was arriving at the end of the race,” she said.
Marchand celebrated his 109th birthday last November. Timera described him as a good-humored bon vivant “who loved eating chocolate and drinking his glass of wine.”
According to his coach and good friend Gerard Mistler, the secret behind Marchand’s longevity related to his healthy lifestyle: eating a lot of fruits and vegetables, no smoking, and exercising on a daily basis.
Mistler told The AP during an interview a few years ago that Marchand never pushed his limits, went to bed at 9 p.m. and woke up at 6 a.m. To stay fit, Marchand rode every day on his home trainer and put himself through outdoor training sessions on the road when the weather was good enough. He did not watch much TV, apart from the Tour de France.
“Robert Marchand, the doyen of cyclists, aroused our deepest admiration for his sporting exploits and the contagious joie de vivre that he radiated,” said European Commission vice-president Margaritis Schinas, in a tribute to Marchand. “A legend, an example for European sport.”
Associated Press writer John Leicester contributed to this story.