1903-1908 Les Jours de Gloire


109 years before the Sun newspaper gave away cut out and stick on Wiggo sideburns, the riders of the 1903 Tour de France were collectively rocking the finest facial hair seen in the peloton.

The history of that first race is told well here but here’s something to ponder: the average speed for the 2,428 km was 25.679 km/h – that’s like me riding from my house to Beachy Head in an hour (yeah, right) and then maintaining that same speed for another 94 hours. Like riding 6 Classics back to back, and not the 200+ kilometres of today’s races but the 400+ km of Bordeaux-Paris.

The first lanterne rouge was Arsene Millocheau who finished 64 hours behind Garin. That’s nearly 3 days slower – and remains, incontestably, the biggest margin between the winner and the last placed man in the race.

But just imagine it – getting on your bike outside the Au Reveil Matin one early July morning and riding into the unknown…


15 years before the Black Sox scandal rocked Baseball, the Tour de France was hit by a scandal of its own – the first of many (starting as it meant to go on, perhaps). But whilst the Chicago White Sox cynically colluded with organised crime to fix the 1919 World Series, the cheating in the second Tour was far more prosaic. Hot favourite – and defending champion – Maurice Garin takes the train and is stripped of the win in December 1904. In fact, the top 4 finishers on GC are all investigated and banned, handing victory to the Tour’s youngest ever winner, 19 year old Henri Cornet (race rule 3 stated that all minors needed written permission from their parents to ride).

Lucien Pothier had finished 2nd to Garin again but now received a lifetime ban – at the age of 21 he was out of the sport for good. But why? The official communique of the Federation Velocipedique de France  states contravention of rules 5,6,7 & 8 of the Tour which state:

5) All types of bicycles are allowed on the condition that they are driven solely by muscular force

6) Trainers, soigneurs and other followers are forbidden

7) No support cars of any type – any rider with a service car will be disqualified

8) The rider must stay with his bike and cannot receive assistance of any type

In these days of ‘sticky bottles’ and ‘magic spanners’, where bikes are scanned on the start line in the wake of the does he, doesn’t he ‘Cancellara has a silent motor in his bike’ rumour and there’s a flotilla of following vehicles and an armada of support personnel, these rules seem absurd. But that view reckons without the steely will of the ‘Father of the Tour’ Henri Desgranges.

Desgranges believed that the ideal Tour would finish with only one rider, the coureur supreme. He believed in the self sufficiency and discipline of sport – suffer and sweat! – he most emphatically did not believe in collusion or team work. Desgranges would look at the 2013 Tour and despair at the rest days, the massages, the team support – though perhaps not the caravan. He invented a sport – bike stage racing – to find a solitary superman. Instead, he set in train the event that would lead to the development of that most curious of sportsmen – the domestique, with little hope of individual glory, his job only to support his leader.

And what of Lucien Pothier who would be that superman? He was banned for life for being paced back to the peloton by a team car (a piece of tricherie for which he was fined 500 francs). The ban was later limited to 3 years and he was at the start of the 1907 Tour, but he abandoned on stage 4.  He would never win the Tour de France.


Bref, les ris, et l’amour

Et la toute-puissance,

Les plaisirs les moins courts,

Plaisirs de la science,

Tout ca ne vaut pas le Tour

(Franc-Nohain L’Auto, 19 July, 1905)

Highs: the Tour discovers the mountains – Ballon d’Alsace, cote de Laffrey, col Bayard; at 17 years and 3 months Martin Soulie becomes the youngest rider ever to finish the Tour (he was 12th)

Lows: the infamous stage 1 tack attack – 125 kilos of nails were spread across the roads between Nancy and Besancon causing widespread chaos – Dortignacq punctured no fewer than 15 times. Police traced the purchase of the nails to a Parisian shop but the culprits were never found. Some things never change – remember similar scenes in the 2012 Tour?

The tacks may have punctured tyres but they couldn’t puncture the race. Desgranges may have declared “The Tour de France is finished and it’s second running will also be its last” but changed his mind and decided to start a crusade to rescue cycling – fast forward to 1999 and another “Tour of Renewal” in the wake of the Festina affair. Scandal and rebirth, the endless cycle on which the soap opera of the Tour is firmly based.

The 1905 winner was 24 year old Louis Trousselier – Troutrou to his friends and ‘le fleuriste’ to the cycling press on account of his parents owning a Parisian florists. Troutrou was supposed to be doing his military service – instead, he was pedalling round France en route to winning the race. It’s rumoured that he gambled away all his prizes and lucrative post Tour contracts in a game of dice, declaring that he could always win them back next year. He never rode as well again.


“When champions stop, there’s no one to be with them, so it’s particularly hard to go from climbing a podium to facing the grind of daily life. It’s not surprising that they go into the abyss.”

The list of professional cyclists with depression is a long and largely tragic one. Some, like Obree and Wiggins, have overcome and gone on to greater things but many – Pantani, Vandenbroucke, Claveyrolat and Jimenez to name a handful – never escaped the black dog and ended their days as suicides.

Rene Pottier, the ‘first king of the climbers’, was the only rider in the 05 Tour to pass the summit of the Ballon d’Alsace without having to get off and push his bike. In 1906 his domination was complete – he again won on the Ballon d’Alsace (by 48 minutes), took 5 of the 13 stages (4 on the trot including a 220km solo breakaway into Dijon) and secured the overall victory with a win on the final stage into Paris. Troutrou fought manfully to retain his title – “il petait le feu” – he was farting fire but it was Pottier’s race. The unofficial ‘King of the Mountains’ had slaughtered the opposition and stood triumphant on the top step of the podium in the Parc des Princes.

6 months later he was dead.

His mechanic found him hanging from the hook used to store his bike. His brother spoke of his being unlucky in love. There were whispers that his wife had started an affair while he was away riding the Tour. The real reasons for his suicide were never established. Perhaps, like so many others after him, he simply got tired of riding with the black dog always on his wheel.


We used to have a family friend who insisted on pronouncing Peugeot ‘Pegwatt’. Drove me up the wall. But regardless of how you pronounce it, Peugeot le marque au lion dominated the early years of the Tour de France.

1905 the Double with Trousselier and Aucouturier

1906 the first 4 riders were on Peugeot bikes

1907 The domination continues – the first 5 riders on GC rode Peugeot

1908 The domination of Peugeot- Petit-Breton is complete as he becomes the first rider to win the Tour twice (and the first 4 riders are again on Peugeot bikes)

All in all, Peugeot won the race 10 times – not bad for a manufacturer who made their first bike, a penny farthing Le Grand Bi, in 1882.

Lucien Petit-Breton ‘the best routier in the world’ became the first rider to win the race twice – though Maurice Garin maintained to the end of his days that he deserved his 1904 victory.

1908 was the last in an unbroken run of French victories – les jours de gloire were at an end. 1909 would see the end of the French stranglehold on the race and the rise of a new manufacturer to challenge the mighty Peugeot.


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