When a big tree falls

December 21, 2013 § 30 Comments

When Raymond Fouquet died, those close to him were aware that his health had been failing, and that at age 92 his end was near. His death was not tragic or shocking; it came at the end of a long live that had been wonderfully lived. Raymond’s death punctuated a lifetime of kindness, but death could not erase or even diminish the ripples of goodness that continue to fan out from the warmth and humanity of his good deeds.

In a profound and complex way, Raymond lived the American Dream. Not the dream of textbooks or political ideology, but the dream that all people have of providing for those they love and giving their children a better hand of cards than the ones they were dealt. In his case, Raymond had been dealt a pair of twos.

Born outside Paris in 1920, France was still in ruins from World War I. The loss of an entire generation of young men, the wholesale destruction of the northern part of the country, and the political instability created by the Treaty of Versailles meant that by the time he turned nineteen the continuation of World War I, otherwise known as World War II, had erupted with Hitler’s invasion of Poland. France quickly fell and Ray was sent to work in a forced labor camp in Germany.

An athletic and competitive young man, once the war ended he followed his passion for bicycles and raced for Montmartre Sportif, a cycling club based in Paris. This passion for bikes he brought with him to the United States, where he emigrated, finally settling in Los Angeles in 1956. Ray worked as a waiter until he saved up enough money to open his own restaurant, La Grange in Westwood, in 1968. This was the same year that he formed the La Grange cycling team, one of America’s oldest and most highly regarded bike clubs.

The real American Dream

Raymond’s life was a kind of cardboard cutout of “Succeeding in America for Dummies.” Work hard. Make friends. Save money. Take risks. Reap rewards. Although Ray did all of these things, his American Dream was something different. It involved planting a seed in the relatively barren cultural soil of 1950’s Southern California, and nourishing that seed with the passion and reverence that only those who have left a homeland for another country can understand.

For Ray, the dream was to infect his new homeland, one person at a time, with his passion for the most revolutionary peacemaking machine ever invented, the bicycle. As a restaurateur, nothing could have been simpler than doing group rides with his waiters, rides that started from the restaurant, of course. The late 1960’s was a time of political and cultural revolution in American history, and in his solid, quiet, middle class immigrant way, Raymond fomented change of his own in the form of bikes and bike racing.

Velo Club La Grange became the anchor for cycling in Southern California, and it formed along with the Nichols Ride, a legendary Sunday beatdown started by Ray and featuring a nasty 3-mile climb up into the Santa Monica mountains followed by a punishing 10-mile smashfest along Mulholland Drive. Had Ray only created the club and this one ride and nothing more he would still rank as one of the pioneers who helped make Southern California a national icon for bikes and bike racing.

But his real contribution was much greater than that.

Spreading the gospel with a gentle hand

In a sport where social graces are often wholly absent, and where a kind of nasty, rude clubbiness is painfully common, Ray believed that cycling wasn’t nearly as important as people. He believed that, since each person had a name, it was incumbent on him to know it. His rides began with a personal greeting to each friend and to each new face. This was in tandem with what became legendary hospitality. One rider still remembers with reverence how he went to Fouquet’s home to pick up his first kit and the kindly Frenchman invited him to sit down for dinner.

People who joined Ray’s circle of cycling friends –and everyone was welcome regardless of ability, ethnicity, or equipment — found themselves in a community that looked after its members and that practiced the camaraderie and joy of cycling embodied in Ray’s daily life. I didn’t know Ray Fouquet, but his goodness and his humanity touch me through those who knew him and through the good works of his club, which continues to be one of the best in the nation. This beachhead of bike racing and cycling culture that Raymond Fouquet established in California, however, is not his legacy.

His legacy is the grace and kindness and gentleness that he brought to the task. We can honor him by learning the lesson, and passing it on.

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§ 30 Responses to When a big tree falls

  • Brian in VA says:

    I’d like to hire you to write my obituary but your writing also encourages me to do good things.

  • Tom Paterson says:

    How much is AOS gonna cost, I’m thinking about signing up here.

  • ipdamages says:

    Thanks, Seth, for some learnings about him, and for honoring him properly. He was a fine dude, indeed!

  • Leonard says:

    Great story, masterfully written as usual. You know, even though I’ve only ridden with you once, through our occasional FB messages or emails, you’ve always invited me to ride with you, which I appreciate. Seems like you have a little of Ray’s spirit in you. Keep up the good work, Wanky. :-)

  • Peter Schindler says:

    Thank you for writing a moving and wonderful obituary. You truly captured the essence of Raymond Fouquet. I first met Ray when I started cycling and joined La Grange in 1973. The Nichols ride was great always followed by water and orange juice in the restaurant that he opened just for us on Sunday morning. The club numbered about 50 back then and everyone knew each other. It was a very special time in my cycling life.

    • fsethd says:

      Thanks for sharing, Peter. He sounds like he was an incredible person. Nothing but praise and admiration, that’s all I’ve ever heard about him.

  • Quiche says:

    Well done. Thank you. I’m now considering AOS.

  • Brian Crommie says:

    Well done Seth, thank you.

  • Dan Chapman says:

    It’s very rare in life that you get to meet a real pioneer. Thank you Raymond. And double thank you for Nichols. I miss that crazy ride!

  • Linda S. says:

    what a beautiful tribute! I was fortunate enough to have met Raymond when I first joined LaGrange almost 10 years ago. He was there at the beginning of Nichols, and did indeed make sure to say hello to everyone on the ride, and made everyone feel welcome. An amazing story, and an amazing man. Thank you for your beautiful, eloquent words!

  • Tom Byrnes says:

    Seth ,

    Thank you very much for your beautifully written article on Raymond Fouquet.

    Tom Byrnes

  • channel_zero says:

    I once had a conversation with Mr. Foquet about the origins of the Nichols ride. He made it clear to me that he was THE ride for weeks at a time. He also made it clear that the club was not much in the early years. It was only decades of work, focus, intention, that made Velo Club La Grange what it is.

    In that conversation with Raymond I was riding with a real person who made something real and lasting. While I am not a La Grange member for over a decade, I still live by his example of showing up and doing.

  • jorgensen says:

    This is sad news. I was fortunate to begin my competitive cycling with the LaGrange ride. I was young with a decent bike, tennis shoes, cutoffs and a cycling cap. There was only encouragement and polite instruction on how to ride in a group. I raced for VCLGW for about 3 years. One of the best parts of the Sunday ride was Raymond opening up the restaurant and the group piling in to drink Perrier at the bar.
    The club picnic back then was also something not to be missed, watching older club members filling their waterbottles with sangria for the ride back down PCH from Malibu was an education.

  • Shawn says:

    I still remember meeting Raymond Fouquet for the first time on a club ride in 1979. He was a wonderful, sweet man. I rode and raced with the club through the late-1980s and had some of my best experiences both on and off of two-wheels on many club rides and races. I’m sad to hear that he passed. Thank you for your wonderful obituary.

  • Dave Wyman says:

    I’m late to the tributes, but I do have my own memories of Raymond Fouquet. I first met him one evening at his La Grange restaurant, in Westwood. At the time, I was probably in my late teens, and the restaurant was a favorite of my parents. My dad was as personable as Raymond, and it seemed as if they were friends when we dinned at the restaurant.

    After a while, I became aware that Raymond was in charge of a cycling club, although I was just a casual rider, although I did race, about 1961, when I was 13, in an event sponsored by Ed Lynch, who owned a bike shop south of Wilshire Blvd, on Westwood Blvd, later to become Westwood Cyclery.

    Over time, I became more interested in cycling, and about 1975 I raced my bike – a Peugeot PX10LE I’d purchased at the Hans Ort bike shop in Westwood (now Helen’s) – in the La Grange-sponsored Westwood Criterium. By then I had joined La Grange, and “enjoyed” many Sunday rides up Nichols Canyon.

    One Sunday morning, as I pedaled down Sepulveda to finish up the Nichols ride, I looked back to see Raymond in the distance. He was probably in his mid-50s, and I was in my late 20s. I thought I’d allow him to catch up and draft me, so I slowed my pace. Raymond did catch me, and then he shot right by me, and I never saw his face again until I entered his restaurant at the end of the ride and he handed me a cold glass of water. He’d put me in my place, somewhere below him.

    One day, many, many years later, I dropped my car off for repair at a shop near Olympic and Westwood Blvds. I left the car and started riding the four miles east to my home. Ahead of me, as I crossed Westwood Blvd., I noticed someone ahead of me wearing the nylon clothing and a helmet of a cyclist. I was a bit disdainful, since he seemed to be moving slowly, and I caught him fairly quickly. It was Raymond, in his 80s, and he told me he was just about to finish a ride down to the Marina and back. I changed my mind: he wasn’t slow at all. He was indomitable, though, and I felt distinctly inferior again by comparison.

    I last saw him at the Brentwood crit, a few years ago. He sat quietly, alone, watching others spin ’round San Vicente Blvd. I came close and spoke with him briefly. He had a slight smile for me. He was very old, and he was still Raymond Fouquet.

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