1919 – 1922 The Lions of Belgium

1919 RESURRECTION AND REGENERATION

eugene christophe

There were no roads, no time to train, no young riders to challenge the veterans who had made it through the war.

But there was hope – hope for the France of tomorrow “daring, energetic, strong willed and healthy”, hope for a Tour “finally complete” with the inclusion of the once contested territories of Metz and Strasbourg and a new symbol of that hope, a jersey coloured yellow like the sun (or the pages of l’Auto).

Yellow is variously associated with the third chakra (the power of the sun), with courage and loyalty in heraldry, it is one of the earliest pigments know to man – there are yellow horses in the Lascaux caves – in China it is the colour of happiness, glory and wisdom. It’s also associated with cowardice and treachery. It was also the colour of the paper l’Auto was printed on – just as the Giro d’Italia would adopt a Pink Jersey (maglia rosa) for the same reason. But in the aftermath of the ‘War to End All Wars’ it was a stroke of genius – a radiant symbol of renewal and rebirth. Of all Desgrange’s innovations, this one has been the most enduring. Imagine how it must have glowed as the race entered the devastated provinces of Eastern France, through the stages to Strasbourg ‘le jour de gloire’ and into Metz ‘the day of memory’.

The first man to officially wear the Maillot Jaune was Eugene Christophe and he held it between stages 3 and 13 before ceding it to the eventual winner, the 33 year old Belgian hard man Firmin Lambot. Christophe lost the race due to a broken fork and became the first of the ‘Eternal Seconds’ – those riders who have never won the race itself but have been the moral victors and winners of hearts.

1920 THREE FOR THYS

The first triple in Tour history confirmed the Belgian dominance of the French race. Belgian riders won 12 of the 15 stages in the 5,519km race and Thys wore the Yellow Jersey virtually from start to finish, only missing out to his compatriot Mottiat on stage 1.

There wasn’t much for the French to cheer about in their home Tour. Desgrange was moved to describe Thys as “the complete rider…with a clear head, huge experience of stage racing, superior class and a strength that enables him to work hard and overcome all difficulties”. He had harsher words for the great French hope Pelissier declaring that he would “never figure on the list of glory” as he lacked the grit and determination of a rider like Christophe – harsh words, and ones that would come back to bite him eventually. But in 1920, after 5 straight victories for Belgium, things were not looking good for post war French cycling.

Enter Honore Barthelemy – how perfectly named as the saviour of French honour in the race. It was he who would be carried shoulder high in the Parc des Princes for a feat of courage – some might say stupidity – that makes Tyler Hamilton’s teeth grinding heroics in the 2003 Tour look paltry in comparison.

Barthelemy crashed on stage 8, the 325 km between Perpignan and Aix-en-Provence. He remounted his bike with a broken shoulder and a dislocated wrist. He couldn’t sit on his bike without turning his handlebars upside down. Dazed and bloodied he rode on. It was only later he would realise a flint had gone into his eye, half blinding him.

He rode on and finished that Tour (he was 8th) – and a year later he would finish on the podium and win a stage, despite riding with a glass eye that he was often forced to remove in dusty conditions. He often claimed that he’d paid more for replacement eyes than he’d earned in prize money.

If I’d been in the Parc des Princes in 1920, I’d have carried him shoulder high too.

1921  PREMIERE ET SECONDE CLASSES

As the Tour slowly pedalled away from the chaos and devastation of WWI it still couldn’t find a French winner. In an uncanny repeat of the 1921 Tour, Mottiat won the first stage and then Leon Scieur – a 32 year old protegee of Lambot’s, an agricultural labourer who’d never ridden a bike before his 22nd birthday – took over the race lead and held it all the way to Paris.

It was a pretty uneventful Tour characterised, Desgrange felt, by a lack of aggression. So our tale must look elsewhere for incident and innovation. This year there were two – one that would fizzle out by 1923 with the introduction of a new class of touristes-routiers (or part time riders), who turned up on the off chance of being allowed to race), and one that dragged the race into the modern era.

Looking to introduce some excitement into the somewhat lugubrious proceedings, the peloton was split into premieres (professional) and secondaires (amateur) riders The secondaires were given a two hour head start on the premieres and it worked – at least for the 13th stage into Metz when Selliers, Lenaers, Muller and Coppens all took advantage of the head start and beat out the ‘first class’ riders with Selliers taking the win. The results were dominated by the premieres, though, most of whom were riding under the La Sportive banner – a conglomerate of bike manufacturers still reeling economically and not able to sponsor individual teams.

The second innovation – and the one that impacts the race to this day – was the introduction of the foreign press. 15 press cars were allowed to follow the race. 15! A far cry from the fleet of press cars that throng to the depart and arrivee of a modern Tour stage. But Desgranges, as ever, was unhappy about an incident when some 40 cars blocked a 3 man breakaway and announced that he would “almost certainly” remove official vehicles from the race. After all, the only cars allowed to give assistance were those of l’Auto, he opined, those of the cycle manufacturers were only there for advertising (oh, the exquisite irony!).

But another genii was out of another bottle – the press were here to stay.

1922 LAMBOT WINS WITHOUT WINNING

One thing characterises the first post war winners – they were all Belgians in their 30s, hard men who had weathered the storm of 1914-18 when a generation of young men were lost on the battlefields. Lambot was the last of them – but in the 1922 Tour the ‘old workhorse’ pulled off a first in the race, and one that’s seldom repeated. He has the dubious honour of being the first rider to win the Tour de France without ever winning a stage.

Lambot did it first, Walkowiak (1956), Nencini (1960), Aimar (1966), Lemond (1990) and Pereiro (2006) share his achievement. Alberto Contador joined the club too, in 2010, but a clenbuterol positive saw him stripped of the title.

It’s perfectly possible for this to happen – deciding the race on time rewards the most consistent rider, not necessarily the most successful in terms of stage wins. Sprinters often snaffle several stage wins before spending the Pyrenees and the Alps grinding their way up the climbs in the bus. It’s not unusual for a winner these days to win only one or two stages in a race but there’s something about the eventual champion being able to raise his arms in the traditional V of victory on a road stage that leaves a good impression.

Still, tant pis, a win is still a win. Lambot landed in the Jersey almost by default when the wonderfully named Hector Heusghem was given a 1 hour penalty for changing his bike (strictly against Desgrange’s draconian rules) on stage 12 and left the race in disgust. Lambot held the lead to Paris and claimed his second Tour de France crown.

But the new generation were coming. The reign of the Belgian hard men was over.

 

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