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1904 The Tour de France which was to be the Last
ARTHUR CLUNE reviews a book by Jacques Seray, which gives a fascinating insight into the history and intrigue of cycling’s greatest race.
"The Tour de France has just finished and its second edition will, I fear, be the last. It will have died of its own success, of the blind passions which have been unleashed, of the abuse and the suspicions that have come from ignorant and ill-mentioned people."
So wrote Henri Desgrange, editor of L'Auto magazine, sponsor and organiser of the Tour de France at the end of the 1904 Tour. Jacques Seray sets out to explain, in a novelistic style, why the 1904 Tour was nearly the last.
Le Tour was started in 1903 by Desgrange in an attempt to improve the circulation of his sporting newspaper, Le Velo. His grand idea was a stage race around the whole of France. In these first races, stages were up to 500km long and often started at night so that the first riders would reach the end of the stage in mid afternoon, allowing as many people as possible to see the finish. This was the format used by the 1904 Tour - six stages ranging from 268km to 467km, making 2400km in total.
The Tour of 1904 and that of today make for fascinating comparisons. Drugs were very common. They used caffeine pills and cocaine, as opposed to the EPO and human growth hormone of today. At least one rider in the 1904 Tour was forced to stop because of heart palpitations brought on by overindulging in stimulants.
Desgrange's plan for building interest in the race was also one familiar now. He built up a rivalry between the two main contenders for the race - Maurice Garin (called ‘the Little Chimney Sweep' because he came from a region of Italy from which the Parisian sweeps came) and Hippolyte Aucouturier (called ‘the Terrible').
There were 56 other starters for the race, with any other rider allowed to ride the course. These amateurs, who were often not as good as they thought they were, were scornfully called 'petards' ('slow ones') and avoided as a hazard by the top riders.
So what were these "blind passions" that nearly caused the end of Le Tour? Then as now, local riders were cheered and supported in their home region. Climbing a col near Saint-Etienne, a local rider went ahead of the race leaders. A group of men then blocked the road and, when the leaders arrived, set about them with clubs. Before the commissars arrived and frightened off the mob with a revolver, one rider was so badly beaten that he had to withdraw and Maurice Garin (then race leader) was just able to continue - although he was unable to pull on the bars of his bike.
This was just the start of a whole catalogue of 'passion'. Nails were scattered on the road in front of rival riders, a near riot broke out at one stage finish, riders were accused of taking lifts in cars, drafting behind cars and much else. The long stages with participants often riding alone or in small groups (with no support cars) made such acts hard to police. Some riders started carrying revolvers to defend themselves against attacks and much was to happen before the riders reached Paris.
In his book, 1904 The Tour de France which was to be the Last, Jacques Seray tells us all this in an individual, if sometimes laboured manner, but the story is always fascinating, with much incidental information provided. Sometimes the translation is less than perfect. ("It's going to be a piece of nougat with the heat we are expecting") but the book is clearly written by someone obsessed with his subject. It is a good read for anyone curious about the early days of cycle racing and can be recommended for the insight it gives into racing in the early years of the century.
An Intimate Portrait of the Tour de France
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When hope hardly seems worth having, just mount a bicycle and go out for a spin down the road
Arthur Conan Doyle