02 Jun, 2016

The Tour de France Chronicles


This year’s race will mark the 103rd edition of the Tour de France, a race that has made and broken many cyclists. The incredible depth of the event’s history makes it one of the most remarkable stage races in sporting history, full of interesting stories and amazing exploits, and it is simply impossible to write the entire 103-year history in one article, so we’ve broken it up for you. This month we start with the period from 1903 to 1921, the relatively unknown early years that produced many interesting titbits that are simply too good not to share

In 1903 L’Auto magazine was desperate to win the circulation war with its competitor publication, Le Velo, and decided to present the Tour de France as a sales promotion to drive circulation. It would be a six-day stage race starting and ending in Paris, with the average stage being close on 400km. That first race had 60 starters, but only 21 classified finishers, largely due to the massive distances the riders had to cover. Starting and ending in the dark, the average day was over 17 hours, and winner Maurice Garin won by two hours and 49 minutes, which is still the record for the greatest winning margin in the Tour. More importantly for L’Auto, the race was an instant hit with the French public, which meant that the magazine won the circulation battle, and editor Henri Desgrange became known as ‘the father of the Tour de France.’

The second edition of the race was plagued with unrest, as fans protested alongside the route, placing nails on the road and sometimes even physically assaulting riders. The passion that the race evoked amongst spectators was like nothing ever seen in cycling, while the rivalry was so fierce amongst the riders and the pressure to perform so high, it led to rampant cheating. It was alleged that some cyclists took trains during the race, as well as resting in cars while being driven for part of the route. While Maurice won the race again, he and the next three riders were all disqualified for cheating by the French Cycling Union, meaning that fifth-placed 19-year-old Henri Cornet became the youngest winner of the Tour.

In 1905, the Tour added more stages, going from six to 11, which meant the distances were shorter and riders would not need to start and finish in the dark. Henri hoped this would eliminate the cheating that plagued the previous year’s race. Another change was that General Classification would be calculated using a points system and not on elapsed time, making judging of the race easier. This was also the first year that a mountain stage was introduced, and climbing specialist René Pottier destroyed his competition on the Ballon d’Alsace, being the only rider to manage the entire climb at an average speed of 20km/h, but he was later forced to abandon the Tour when he developed tendonitis. Again the race was plagued by over-zealous fans that spread nails over the roads, leading to all riders except for Jean-Baptiste Dortignacq getting a puncture on stage one!

René dominated the following year, humbling his opponents again over the Ballon d’Alsace and winning five stages as well as taking the overall victory. Once again, the fans continued their protests and cyclists their cheating, with three being disqualified for taking a train to cut out a stage. There was also the introduction of the ‘flamme rouge,’ a red flag that signalled to riders that they were entering the final kilometre of the stage.

Following the tragic suicide of René, the race was wide open in 1907, and it was also the year when new technology was introduced: Emile Georget won a total of six stages using one of the first bicycles equipped with a freewheel, and he claimed third place overall. The story of the Tour, though, belonged to Lucien Petit-Breton, who had entered the race in the special ‘poinçonné’ category, for riders who weren’t part of a team, which meant he was allowed virtually no mechanical assistance. Despite this, he went on to win the Tour.

Coming back in 1908, Lucien dominated from start to finish, supported by his powerful Luxembourg teammate, François Faber, who claimed second place, the first time in the Tour’s history that a foreigner had claimed a podium spot. Then the following year François made Tour history as he became the first foreigner to win the race. Nicknamed ‘The Giant from Columbes,’ he won what was considered the most difficult Tour, due to rain and incredibly cold temperatures.

In 1910, the Pyrénées mountains were introduced to the route, making the Tour what it is today. It was a not a popular decision at the time as defending champion François was left at a huge disadvantage due to the tour becoming vertical. The premier mountain stage of the tour traced a steep path from Luchon to Bayonne, and Octave Lapize, a climbing specialist, had just one word to say to the race organisers to show what he thought of these new climbs: “Assassins!” Also introduced that year was a broom wagon, following riders at the back of the race, as a sweep vehicle to pick up those who decided to abandon the race.

1911 marked the highest abandonment rate amongst the top contenders as the race headed into the Alps. The Race Director also ejected rider Maurice Brocco out of the Tour, as he believed that he was being paid to ride in the service of other riders. The term used to describe this was domestique – little did the organisers know that in years to come this would be used as the term to describe riders who sacrifice themselves for others on their teams.

In 1912 Belgian rider Odile Defraeye became the second foreigner to win the Tour de France. Originally he was brought on as a support rider for the Alcyon team to help Gustave Garrigou defend his title, but when the race began it was clear he was the stronger rider and the team quickly switched allegiance. It was not only team Alcyon riders who supported Odile – nearly every Belgian rider in the tour supported him, which led to massive in-fighting in teams, with Octave Lapize, the only real threat to Odile, dropping out of the Tour in protest. Famously, he said, “How can you expect me to challenge in such conditions? All the Belgians are riding for Defraye!” Later that evening, Lapize’s entire team dropped out of the race in protest.

The Belgians continued their winning streak in 1913 when Philippe Thys became the second Belgian to win the tour. It was a race marred by accidents, with Philippe knocking himself out on one stage, but he managed to finish, although somewhat groggy. However, this was secondary to the story involving rider Eugene Christophe, who snapped the fork on his bike while attacking in the Pyrénées. Left alone on the summit of that climb, he carried his bike for 14km to the village of Sainte-Marie-de-Campan, where he found a forge and spent the night repairing the damaged fork before returning to the race. While his chances of winning the Tour were gone, the town posted a plaque to commemorate his heroic struggle.

1914 was the last Tour before Europe was gripped for four years by World War One. Philippe defended his title, in spite of mechanical difficulties. As with Eugene the year before, his fork also broke in the middle of stage 13, but luckily it happened near a bike shop and he was able to get his bike fixed. Even with an hour penalty, he was able to finish third on that stage, holding onto his overall lead by a mere two minutes before going on to win the Tour.

The Tour returned in 1919, but the decimation of Europe affected the race badly. Participants were down to half that of the last pre-war Tour, and bombed out roads made riding conditions dire, resulting in the slowest race since 1906. Belgian Firmin Lambot emerged as a leading contender of the new generation and won the Tour. This was also the year that the Yellow Jersey was introduced, halfway through the race, when the organisers decided it would make it easier to pick out the leader in the pack.

1920 saw the race begin to return to its pre-war glory, with 113 starters, and pre-war favourite Phillipe return to claim his third win, the first triple win in the race’s history. It was also the first time that Belgians claimed all top three spots on the podium, and Belgium continued its dominance of the race in the following year as Léon Scieur took the sixth-consecutive win for France’s neighbouring country. What was amazing about Léon Scieur is that he had only learned to ride a bicycle at the age of 22, so that he could get a job as a delivery boy, and while age wasn’t on his side, his endurance was, and his power over long distances earned him the nickname, ‘The Locomotive.’

Keep a lookout for the next part of the series, where we look at more of the early days of the Tour de France!