Lorraine Mace

Convicts of the Road

“Le Tour de France. The greatest cycling trial in the world,” announced L’Auto newspaper on January 19, 1903. The resulting event tested the competitors to the limits of their endurance. Physically tougher than any race previously conceived, the early participants found themselves pitted against the elements, the terrain, cheating and interference from spectators.

Henri Desgrange, the editor of L’Auto and race director, devised draconian rules prohibiting outside assistance. Riding 30 lbs bicycles, which required the wheel to be flipped to change gear, competitors had to repair punctures, and fix broken frames as replacement bicycles were forbidden. No pace making was permitted. Racers couldn’t accept food or drink from spectators. Stages starting at dawn required several layers of clothing to keep the riders warm, but they had to retain those layers, even when the sun was beating down.

After six stages, covering 2,428 km (1,500 miles), of the 60 riders who started the inaugural race, only 21 completed the course. Eventually Maurice Garin, (le petit ramoneur) the little chimneysweep, cycled wearily through Paris, where 20,000 spectators waited.

The event, intended as a publicity stunt to boost sales of the newspaper, succeeded beyond the organizers’ dreams. A special edition of L’Auto sold 130,00 copies.

The 1904 race was the scene of so much cheating and skulduggery, that Henri Desgrange considered dropping the whole idea.

Pierre Chevallier, frequently left behind by the leading riders, somehow stayed in contention. Car rides in the dark helped. Rumours abounded of riders being towed by wire fixed to cars, and attached to a piece of cork held between the cyclists’ teeth. Even in daylight competitors cheated. Pothier was aided by a pacemaker (forbidden under the rules). Aucouturier, often at the bottom of a crash, felt like a target.

Near St Etienne a mob stopped the competitors. Supporters of Antoine Fauré, they felt other riders had been unfairly advantaged. Garin, the 1903 winner, slipped through unscathed, but second placed Gerbi suffered broken fingers.

The riot was only halted by the arrival of race official Géo Lefèvre. He fired his pistol over the heads of the mob, and the race continued.

Ferdinand Payan was disqualified on arrival in Marseilles, for using a spectator as a pacemaker. Unfortunately the next stage went through Nîmes, his home region. Stones were thrown, and another riot developed. Garin and Pothier both received blows, while Aucouturier knocked out his assailant with a blow to the jaw.

Again Géo Lefèvre was there, but this time was unable to restrain the rioters. His car’s tires were slashed. His colleague, Jean Mirral, fired his pistol for control.

Garin cycled jubilantly into Paris to claim another win. Four months later, the Union Vélocepedique de France declared that the first four finishers were disqualified, along with nine others, for ‘violation des règlements’. Even the eventual winner, 20-year-old Henri Cornet, was warned.

In1905 the route was lengthened, with eleven stages and night riding abolished. Sixty riders started, but only 15 completed the first stage. Spectators threw 300 lbs of nails on the course during this phase. Henri Desgrange once again considered abandoning the contest, but decided instead that any competitor who made it in time to start the second stage (regardless of how they arrived, by bicycle, car or train) would be eligible to compete.

An innovative mountain climb was next. René Pottier ascended the Ballon d’Alsace without dismounting, a feat that cost him dearly, as he retired the next day suffering from tendonitis. The eventual winner of the tour, Louis Trousselier, attracted charges of poor sportsmanship. It was said that he’d smashed the inkstands at one control post, to prevent his competitors from signing in.

The 1906 route was ideally suited to René Pottier, who won five stages, including four consecutive mountain climbs, to claim the title. But cheating persisted, with three competitors disqualified for taking the train. Nails continued to rain down in the path of all participants, each rider having his own supporters, who saw it as their duty to incapacitate their hero’s opponents.

Sadly, Pottier’s win brought him little joy, he committed suicide shortly before the start of the 1907 race by hanging himself from the hook used to store his bicycle.

The victor of that race, Lucien Petit-Breton, was the first double winner, taking the 1908 title as well. The 1909 competitors raced through snow on the higher ground, but it was the 1910 tour that broke the spirit of many. An excursion into the Pyrenees was added, with the result that Octave Lapize accused Henri Desgrange of being an assassin. As Lapize went on to win the race, Desgrange remained unmoved.

In 1911 there were allegations made about rival teams poisoning each other. Paul Duboc collapsed in Bayonne, after allegedly imbibing a ‘spiked drink’.

“J’ai l’âme angoissée de tout ce que j’ai vu,” (my soul is anguished by all that I have seen) wrote Henri Desgrange in L’Auto, on the evening of the steepest Pyrenean stage of the 1912 race. The reason for his anguish was the torrential rain, of biblical proportions, that poured down on the beleaguered riders.

His sorrow didn’t extend to Eugene Christophe the following year, who had broken a fork in the Pyrenees. Under the rules he had to fix his bicycle without assistance. Having begged a length of metal, he stopped at a forge and began the repair. Henri Desgrange looked in to find a small boy working the bellows and awarded Christophe an additional time delay.

1914 held the final race before the Great War, which was to claim the lives of some of the finest riders of the era. Lucien Petit-Breton, the double champion of 1907 and 1908, François Faber, winner in 1909 and Octave Lapize, the 1911 winner, all perished in the conflict.

The 1919 race saw the introduction of the yellow jersey (L’Auto was printed on yellow paper) and the first recipient was Eugene Christophe. He kept his symbol as race leader until Metz when, yet again, he suffered a broken fork.

The 1920s witnessed a feud between a great racing family and Henri Desgrange. Desgrange used the pages of L’Auto to write against the Pélissier brothers, in particular Henri. “He will never win the tour,” Desgrange wrote in 1920. “He doesn’t know how to suffer.” He was wrong. Henri Pélissier won in 1923.

But the following year Pélissier discarded a sweater midway through a stage, and was awarded penalties. Henri, with his brother Francis, withdrew from the race (the infamous 1924 Tour de Souffrance) in protest, pouring out their grievances to journalist Albert Londres. “You have no idea how we suffer from beginning to end,” said Henri. “The day will come when they will put lead in our pockets, because they feel God has made man too light.”

Heading his article Les Forçats de la Route (Convicts of the Road) the journalist likened the riders to prisoners in a penal colony. Their spirits worn down by rules, designed for the purpose of making an already difficult race nearly impossible. For Desgrange, the competitors couldn’t suffer enough. He said: “The ideal tour would be one in which only one rider finished.”

The early years were so tough on competitors; it’s amazing his ideal wasn’t achieved.

© Lorraine Mace 2004

Sources used

Le Tour de France Guide Historique et Cultural

BBC Sport Archives

Professional Cycling



Guardian Newspaper Archives


Sports Illustrated