Monday, December 11, 2017

"The First Tour de France," Peter Cossins

Peter Cossins justifiably argues that the inaugural Tour de France in 1903 was one of the greatest sporting events in history in his latest book on bicycle racing, "The First Tour de France, Sixty Cyclists and Nineteen Days on the Road to Paris."

Despite months of promotion, not many people came out for its departure just outside of Paris.  Among the spectators was an amateur racer apprenticing as a locksmith who went on to become one of the most storied racers of The Tour never to have won it--Eugene Christophe.  He noted in his diary that there were so few in attendance that it looked like an amateur race.  But by the second stage all the media attention on what a handful of cyclists were attempting attracted huge crowds along the race route. For the rest of the way they rode through corridors of fans through every town and village, even at night. 

The national frenzy The Race generated far exceeded the expectations of all, creating an instant phenomenon that continues to this day.  The race was inaugurated by the daily sports newspaper "L'Auto" in its circulation battle with the more-established "Le Vélo."  The year before "L'Auto" had sponsored a one-day race from Marseilles to Paris, longer than the older Bordeaux to Paris race, but shorter than the more prominent Paris-Brest-Paris race, the only one of the three that is still contested, though not as an annual event.  The success of the Marseilles race inspired "L'Auto" to top it.  There is a plaque at the restaurant in Paris where the idea for The Tour was conceived.

Unlike all previous races, this Tour de France was broken up into stages--just six for the first edition that covered 1,509 miles without venturing into the Alps or Pyrenees. The high mountains wouldn't be added until 1910, first the Pyrenees and then a year later the Alps. With all but one stage over 230 miles, the riders started in the afternoon or even later and rode through the night, arriving the afternoon of the next day.  For all but one, the riders had two or more days between stages, allowing them time to rest and recover.  Only after the shortest fourth stage of 167 miles from Tourlouse to Bordeaux did the racers have to set out right away on the next stage, as the organizers didn't want them sitting idle on the country's great national holiday July 14.

Cossins' highly detailed account of each stage relies on newspaper coverage of the time, not only that of "L'Auto" and "Le Vélo," but other newspapers as well.  He even quotes the "New York Herald," showing how it had drawn attention on the other side of the Atlantic.  It captured such national interest in France, it was front page news.  Such a huge throng was expected to greet the racers at the finish in Paris, the organizers delayed the start of the final stage in Nantes, 293 miles away, by an hour, knowing a strong tailwind would make them arrive earlier than anticipated.  

One of the pleasures of the book is the frequent doses of the flowery prose of "L'Auto's" editor and director of the race Henri Desgrange and his assistant Géo Lefèvre, who is credited with coming up with the idea for the race.  Desgrange exalted the riders as heroic figures who were doing the impossible.  He elevated the race beyond a sporting event to an opportunity to enhance the image of  France and to prove the capacity of man to exceed his limitations. Desgrange feared France was stagnating, if not becoming moribund.  He hoped the deeds of the racers would inspire the masses to revitalize themselves. Before the riders set out, he wrote in his typical hyperbolic style, "They will encounter the useless, the inactive and the lazy, on whom a gigantic battle is going to be declared to rouse them from their torpor, a battle during which they will become ashamed of allowing their muscles to atrophy and be embarrassed at having such a large paunch."  

By the time the race concluded, he couldn't have been prouder.  His circulation had skyrocketed and the event was lauded all round.  He had been a racer himself and was the first to set the hour record, but this stood out as his greatest achievement.  "I've had plenty of sporting dreams in my life," he wrote, "but I never imagined this could turn out to be reality.  To send these men out across the whole of France, to remember through their feats the joyous feelings that the bike can and must provide, to awaken hundreds of kilometers of the country what was in an inactive physical slumber, to show those who have become numbed, indifferent or fearful that cycle sport is still thriving, that it is still capable of astonishing us, of sparking the desire for emulation, energy and passion is what the Tour de France needed to do, and that is what it has essentially achieved."

Cossins was a lucky man plowing through edition after edition of "L'Auto" entertained by such lyricism and pomposity.  One of the biggest challenges of writing the book had to be deciding what lofty prose to include.  There had to be enough to warrant a book of the zesty writing of Desgrange alone. There is a near bottomless reservoir, as Desgrange oversaw the race for more than thirty years up to 1936.  Not only was he a man of strong opinions, he was also a tyrannical taskmaster, a DeGaullian figure before there was a DeGaulle.  

Desgrange spent most of the race in Paris.  Lefèvre was the man on the scene following the race mostly by train, but also by bike and occasionally by car.  The roads were so abominable, only one reporter is known to have stuck to a car the entire race.

The favorite, Maurice Garin, led from start to finish, ending the race a national hero. At the victory celebration in Paris, many in the crowd were in tears. Garin acknowledged tears of his own on at least one stage, the going was so difficult.  And then he no doubt cried again a year later when he won the race a second time but was stripped of the title for cheating, taking a train, as did the top four finishers.

There was suspicion of cheating in the first edition as well, even of Garin attacking a fellow rider. Race officials rarely had access to reliable motor vehicles to monitor the competitors.  They were on their honor to play fair, "which of course they seldom did," according to Cossins.  There were innumerable tales of riders being knocked from their bikes by other racers or fans.  Tacks were sprinkled on the road by riders and fans.  Of the sixty who started, only twenty-one finished.  The field was thinned down to thirty-seven after the first stage.  

One of the bonuses of the book was the mention of several obscure cycling plaques and monuments around the country further emphasizing The Tour's elevated stature in the eyes of the French.  They were in addition to the well-known monument to Desgrange on the Galibier and the plaque on the Cafe de Madrid in Paris where Lefévre proposed the idea of The Tour to Desgrange, that Cossins also mentions.  The second placed finisher, Lucien Pothier, has a square named for him in Cuy. A monument to the eleventh placed finisher, Jean Dargassies, stands in the town of Grisolles, where he worked as a blacksmith.  And there is a plaque to Theodore Joyeux in Tonneius honoring his ride around France in 1895, the first known such tour.  It includes a tribute from Desgrange.  They will all be on my itinerary for my ride around France next summer.


Andrew said...

Is Garin the fellow whose grave we visited a few years ago?

george christensen said...

Indeed it was, and then a couple years later we paid a visit to the grave of Desgrange on day one of our ride from Cannes to Craig's house in the Cevannes.