1909 – 1914 Alcyon Days


Petit-Breton said that Faber would win the 1909 Tour and the Luxembourgeois duly obliged, winning 5 stages in a row to seal his place in Tour de France history. The word panache might have been coined for Francois Faber – he took one stage with a 255km echappee solitaire finishing 33 minutes ahead of his rivals, another by passing over the Ballon d’Alsace, then the cols Porte, Laffrey and Bayard in first place whilst the heavens threw all the could at him – snow, rain and mud accounted for 65 abandons out of a record field of 150 starters. But the Geant de Colombe weathered it all to take the win for the new Alcyon team and break Peugeot‘s domination of the manufacturer’s classement.

But this tale isn’t about Faber, or his half brother Ernest Paul who won the classement isoles. It isn’t about the other brothers in the race – the Alfred and Antoine Faure or les freres Alavoine – Jean, who won the last stage into Paris and Henri, who finished the last 10km of that stage on foot after colliding with a dog. It’s not even about the dominance of the Alcyon team who took the first 6 places on GC and whose riders won 13 of the 14 stages. This tale is about the great innovation of the 1909 Tour. For the first time, 38 riders competed in teams.

Think about it – not only did this decision lead to the development of professional cycling as we know it today, but it contributed directly to a whole new vocabulary too. With riders openly collaborating, a collective noun was needed for the pack of riders. Peloton had a military connotation in France – the English word ‘platoon’ derives from it – but it became the perfect description for a regimented group of riders. Domestique comes later – that’s a tale for the 1911 race – but riders start to emerge who are there solely to help a leader, not for personal glory. A rich, evocative vocabulary begins to emerge of echappees and baroudeurs. 

The language of cycling is an utterly beautiful thing – its lexicon of terms is more wonderful and descriptive and bonkers than that of any other sport. What other sport evokes Christ’s suffering on the cross to describe a mountain ascent – calvaire! Or talks of a rider ‘chasing potatoes’ when he sets off in hopeless pursuit of a breakaway group? Chasse-patate  comes from the Paris 6 Day races at the Vel d’Hiv (which also gave us the polka dot jersey, but that, too, is another tale) – after the feed zone (ravitaillement) the chasse after the leading riders was generally a little slower, owing to the need to digest some hefty carbohydrates. And lo! New cycling terminology was born.


Octave Lapize

“You can tell Desgrange: no one can ask men to make an effort like this. I’ve had enough”

It is night in the photo I have of you –

You have had enough – no longer astride

The Alcyon you steer one handed.

You stride on, full of anger – or despair

Your jersey, shorts, legs, shoes are caked with dirt

Your neck hung round with a trellis of inner tubes,

Your shadow paints itself upon the unmade road.

They stand and watch you, the knot of men

Blurred hands on hips or tucked tight into collars,

Mouths closed, eyes shaded under caps,

Impassive, mutely watching your calvaire.

When did you raise your fist and shout ‘Assasins!’?

That one word – echoing down the roads of history


Though Petit-Breton had to field accusations of doping after his second win (his success was all down to hard work and smart riding – of course), the Tour de France spectator has never been above trying to influence the course of events – be it tacks on the road or a well aimed punch aimed at a rider. As the 1911 Tour entered the Pyrenees, Garrigou (the eventual winner) and Duboc were neck and neck – until….Henri Desgrange tells the tale:

“On the descent of the Aubisque, I found Duboc at a turn in the road, retching horribly, green with nausea, suffering from terrible diarrhoea and vomiting. In vain, I tried to get him to take a little mint flavoured alcohol. I sniffed the bidon lying next to him and it didn’t smell of tea.”

Desgranges didn’t pull his punches when it came to naming suspects – he felt sure the poisoning had been engineered by Garrigou and advised him to ride in disguise. Turns out he was wrong – it was an ex-pro with a grudge against the race and Duboc was simply the unlucky rider reaching for the wrong bottle in the feed zone. He eventually finished the stage an hour and a quarter down on the winner Maurice Brocco – and thereby hangs another tale.

For Monsieur Brocco was the original domestique – that unique and wonderful piece of cycling terminology that marks out a rider who has little hope of winning the race overall, but can be damned useful helping a team leader to do so. Desgrange – who so hated collusion and collaboration and so prized individual effort – scathingly referred to Brocco as “little better than a domestique” when he offered his services to Faber to act as a pacemaker. Desgrange had already made plain his opinion that Brocco would never win the Tour, let alone a stage. Brocco promptly won stage 10 Luchon-Bayonne. Desgrange was moved to comment:

“Yes, Brocco, my friend, but why did you wait until you were excluded from the race to prove how good you are?”


Despite the apocalyptic weather conditions, the continued domination of the Alcyon team and the first triumph by a Belgian, Odile Defraye, the 1912 Tour was widely considered to have been something of a disappointment.

And all because of the roue libre.

Desgrange was moved to editorialise on the subject:

“Behind the man burying himself to set the tempo of the train, our friends are sitting pretty having an armchair ride, freewheeling, they can cover fantastic distances without any sign of fatigue”.

The solution? A rule allowing the race director to do away with the free wheel for certain stages.

In 1911, Pavese, Brocco, Henri Alavoine, Cornet and Petit-Breton had, for the first time, used bikes with different gear ratios. Now came the advent of the roue libre. Degranges must have been apoplectic – after all, he had written in 1902 “I still feel that variable gears are only for people over forty-five. Isn’t it better to triumph by the strength of your muscles than by the artifice of a derailer? We are getting soft…As for me, give me a fixed gear!”

But it was too late – in 1913 Petit-Breton would ride a 3 speed Sturmey-Archer. The genii was out of the bottle and there was no putting it back.


To celebrate its 10th anniversary, the 1913 Tour decided to go backwards – or anti-clockwise for the first time. Nowadays the direction of the route alternates yearly but, until 1913, the race had followed the same clockwise route around le hexagoneThe other backwards step – though one that was to prove long lasting – was to reinstate timings instead of the points system that had arguably robbed Christophe of a win the year before. Christophe would lose out again this year owing to some broken forks and a boy who blew the bellows – possibly the most famous mechanical in Tour history – and Thys, another Belgian (but this time on a Peugeot), would take the victory (and a lovely scarf offered by 4 generous Parisian sportsmen).

The race is considered to be one of the greatest in the Tour’s history – largely because it almost conformed to Desgrange’s ‘last man standing’ ethos – Thys won because he was the most consistent,  the least  unlucky rider in the race. Christophe, Defraye, Petit-Breton all met with various disasters that robbed them of their chance to challenge for the overall.

But, for these tales, this race belongs to one rider alone – an 18 year old from Tunisia named Ali Neffati. Riding as an isole, Nefatti eschewed the traditional casquette for a fez.

Imagine that – this is an irresistibly comic image for any Brit raised on the genius of  Tommy Cooper. And Neffati had a sense of humour to match – he told Desgrange, who thought he might be suffering on a particularly torrid day ‘Oh, Monsieur Desgrange, I’m freezing!” Not surprisingly, the young Tunisian became the chouchou of the peloton.

He wouldn’t have been at the race at all were it not for a gala organised on his behalf by the great and the good of Tunisian sport – boxers, fencers and track cyclists organised a gala for his benefit on 7 June, 1913 and 16 days later he was on the start line in Paris, ready to ride into Tour history.

He never finished the Tour (he abandoned on stage 4 then rode again a year later and was hit by a race organiser’s car, abandoning on stage 8) but he turned in some decent results in the Paris 6 Day and was a regular on the tracks of France, Italy and the US. I find Neffati a fascinating figure for two reasons: it speaks to the growing prestige and confidence of the Tour at that time that it was beginning to attract riders beyond Europe and it prefigures the African revolution that would finally come to fruition exactly 100 years later.

So, for Ali Neffati a grand chapeau – a red, tasselled one if you like.


28 June Archduke Franz-Ferdinand assasinated                           Thys wins the 388km stage between Paris-Le Havre

29 June Serbians accused of complicity in the assasion              Rest day

20 July Austro-Hungary send troops to the Serbian border     Pelissier wins the stage to Belfort

26 July                                                                                                              Pelissier wins the final stage to Paris, Thys wins overall

1 August France orders military mobilisation

It’s almost impossible to imagine the Tour continuing against the escalating crisis. During his 200km solo breakaway on stage 13, Faber was followed for part of the way by an armed soldier from one of the French bicyclist battalions – in the photo I have of him, he rides on oblivious.

Donald Kirkham and Ivor ‘Snowy’ Munro were two young Australians who had both finished that year’s Primavera (Milan-San Remo) and were chancing their arm at the Tour – they finished a more than respectable 17th and 20th, despite complaints of dirty tactics against them. Did they stay in Europe and die in the slaughter? Many did, amongst them several of the Tour’s grand champions -swapping the mud of the roads of France for the hellish mud of the World War One.


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