1923-1929 Beyond the Hexagon

1923 ENFIN PELISSIER!

And finally it was Henri de France – the man that Desgrange declared would never win the Tour and with whom he enjoyed a love/hate relationship – who made Desgrange eat his words and carried off the first French victory since 1911.

But it’s not the victor we’re here to honour, but another of the ‘eternal seconds’ – ‘gars Jean’ Alavoine. Winner of 17 stages – 2 in 1909, 3 in 1912, 1 in 1914, 5 in 1919, 3 in 1922, 3 in 1923 – Alavoine was of the generation whose careers were cruelly disrupted by WWI. He lost his best years – and he lost his brother. When he came back to the Tour in 1919, as victor of the Grand Prix de l’Armistice, he wasn’t the same rider – he was less strong, less fiery, the exceptional endurance of the pre-war Alavoine had gone.

But he could still fight, was still a dangerous adversary as the race ground on into its final stages, despite the terrible luck that dogged him as it had Christophe. Alavoine suffered puncture after puncture in the 1919 Tour – 46 in all – and this in the days when all repairs were the responsibility of the rider and no change of bike was allowed. Alavoine could only watch helplessly as his advantage slipped away and his adversaries disappeared up the road.

1923: The Pyrenees. Jacquinot rides brilliantly over the Tourmalet, then the Peyresourde before the fierce heat defeats him and he crashes into a ditch crying “It’s over – I’ve had it!”.

“How are you doing Robert?” the ever gentil Alavoine asks his adversary.

“It’s over for me – but I salute you gars Jean!” replies Jacquinot, raising his casquette.

Alavoine will win the stage – and then his luck runs out. Crashing in the Alps, on the descent of the Izoard, he is forced to abandon. Bitterly he declares “I’ll never win a Tour, never. It’s over for me”.

Henri Decoin wrote of his plight:

“This morning I went to see Jean Alavoine. He is lying down, his arm bandaged – and he cries. Not because he suffers but because it is finished! He cries because his hopes have been crushed, as he has, on the cruel and pitiless road…And in that little room I think of his three children. Of little Andre, Marcel and Jean who read the papers each day and tell their mother excitedly ‘you know mummy that ‘Papa Jean’ will win the Tour de France!'”

In 1943, Jean Alavoine was taken ill while riding in a veterans criterium. He died later in hospital. He was 55.

1924 FORZA BOTTECCHIA!

Pelissier decreed it and so it came to pass. The first great star of Italian cycling , Ottavio Bottecchia, profited from the latest rupture between the Pelissier brothers and Desgrange when Henri threw in the towel – or rather the Jersey – after stage 2 leaving his dauphin to become the first rider in Tour history to hold the Yellow Jersey from start to finish.

Following the race that year was Albert Londres of the Petit Parisien. One of the fathers of investigative journalism, he turned his laser eye on the Tour and discovered the dark underbelly that Desgrange had no intention the public should see. Londres it was who exposed the horrors of the French penal colonies in Guyana, of forced labour in military prisons, of the asylum. He was a perfect fit with the Pelissiers and their disgust with Desgrange’s increasingly outrageous and arbitrary rules and it is he who conducted the extraordinary interview with Henri and Francis Pelissier and their team mate Ville that blew the lid on the suffering of the ‘convicts of the road’:

“You have no idea what the Tour de France is like” says Henri “it’s a calvary – and the road of the cross has only 14 stations, whilst outs has 15. We suffer from the start line to the finish. Do you want to know how we get through? Here…”

Out of his bag, he produces a phial.

“That, that’s cocaine for the eyes, that’s chloroform for the gums – and the pills, do you want to see the pills? Here, these are the pills.”

They produce three boxes each.

“Basically” says Francis “we ride on dynamite”

L’Auto hit back, accusing Londres of being mired in suffering, a philosophy directly opposed to that of the race organisers who celebrated the efforts of the riders. It’s an argument that has rumbled on whenever the subject of doping in cycling raises its ugly head – do we damage the sport by choosing to confront its darkest secrets?

Noy for the last time had cyclists ‘spit in the soup’. And not for the last time had a journalist dared to confront the dark heart of the Tour.

1925 THE RACE OF THE ARTISANS – AND A MURDER MYSTERY

On the start line in Paris for the 1925 Tour were: 5 mechanics, 4 farmers, 3 builders (including the winner, Bottecchia), 2 miners, 2 butchers and 2 locksmiths.

Professional cycling has long been a route to social mobility in Europe. But it was also seen by some commentators as a means of social control, the new opium for the masses, a way of civilising the muscular and dangerous working classes by turning them into ‘ouvrieurs de la pedale‘. The reportage of the early Tour is littered with references to work and labour, to ‘crafty peasants’ and men ‘hard as leather’, to the Tour as a ‘correctional school’ to tame the noble savage. Bottecchia, the Italian builder, was the perfect embodiment of its civilising influence unlike the Pelissiers who refused to be mastered and whose behaviour – pill popping, discarding race jerseys – was beyond the pale.

On his arrival in the Parc des Princes Bottecchia declared “I’m really happy but it’s all over – I will never again ride the Tour de France!” It was a self fulfilling prophecy. In 1926 he abandoned the race leaving his teammate Marcel Buysse – the first real domestique in Tour history – to claim the crown. In 1927 he was found with a fractured skull by the roadside near Peonis and died 12 days later. Was it Mussolini’s Blackshirts (Bottecchia had famously taught himself to read from anti-fascist tracts)? An angry woman (Desgrange was worried enough about a reported stalker to think Bottecchia should fear for his life)? An outraged farmer? The mystery remains unsolved to this day.

Bottecchia’s brother was murdered in the same area 2 years later.

1926 THE CIRCLE OF DEATH

Buysse

The 1926 edition holds the record for the longest ever Tour – a monstrous 5,745 km over 17 stages, taking the race anti-clockwise round the Hexagone. 126 riders started – including Kisso Kawamuro of Japan who would abandon after stage 1 – and only 41 would finish.

In its 23 years, the peloton had ridden through snowbanks on the Galibier and sous le canicule in the Pyrenees. The fearsome ‘Circle of Death’ – Col d’Ousqich, Col d’Aubisque, Cirque du Litor, Col du Soulor, Col du Tourmalet, Col d’Aspin and Col de Peyresourde (323 km with 6,000m of climbing on unmade roads) – was ridden in the worst that nature sauvage could throw at the grim faced riders. It was an “etape d’enfer” Dantaesque in its hellishness. The peloton battled through dilluvian rain and freezing fog and thunderstorms. The cold was so intense it was virtually impossible to repair a puncture with frozen fingers. Gonnet described the scene for l’Auto:

“At the summit of the Aubisque, all vegetation disappears. between banks of clay and the colourless abyss where the air is thin and cold and  the last pines darken, they push through, lumps of mud where only the eyes shine through. A haggard silhouette appears by one of the jagged crags. Putting his feet on the ground, a rider stops his bike. He is in despair. “I abandon!” It’s Bottecchia, the hero of the Tour, who is crying like a child at the side of the road. The tears rolling down his ravaged face dilute the mud. The suffering of these men in the face of savage nature…Everything is stacked against them. And if some succumb during this day without rest or letup, it’s not without having tried – along the unmade roads, through the mud and the puddles – to fight with all their might against the torrent”

Lucien Buysse, Botecchia’s faithful equipier, like an ‘enormous granite rock’ started with the peloton at 2am and rode into Luchon as the stage winner 17 hours later. He’d covered the 326km at an average speed of 18.9km/h. The last rider to finish, Fernand Besnier, still had another five and a half hours to ride on his own road to Calvary when Buysse crossed the finish line. At midnight, race organisers sent out search parties and found riders huddled on the Peyresourde, starving and frozen.

The most epic stage in Tour de France history was finally over.

1927 LE TOUR DE FRANTZ

The Luxembourgeois Nicolas Frantz would win the 1927 Tour in the mountains – but that wasn’t Desgrange’s intention, at all.

Love them or loathe them (I’m firmly in the latter camp) the team time trial is as much a part of the Tour landscape nowadays as the Maillot Jaune or the publicity caravan. It’s safe to say that the riders of the 1927 Tour weren’t fond of them at all – because there were 16 (count them) depart separee on that year’s race. 16 flat stages where you lined up in your teams and rode the 108km (shortest) or 285km (longest) stage in a crude approximation of the modern day team time trial. The truth was that riders were usually left to fend for themselves – their finish time counted for the GC – and it was every man for himself. The proto-team time trial became a series of disorganised individual time trials where only those with a strong team stood any chance of staying in overall contention (sound familiar?).

The truth was that Frantz smashed the race to pieces in the Pyrenees and then the Alps, but being on the strongest team – the mighty Alcyon – was a huge advantage on those flat stages. Alcyon would also take the Challenge de Regularite (the team classification) though not without a fight from Francis Pelissier’s Dilecta-Wolber squad who rode the 180km opening stage at more than 30km/h causing 36 eliminations, including that of our old friend Kawamuro who’d returned for another shot at the Tour and would end up seeing only the first 180 kms of the 5,321 km route as he had the year before.

There was another innovation this year – a loudspeaker van drove along the route, broadcasting race news to the spectators. Slowly but surely, the elements of the race as we now know it were falling into place…

1928 WE COME FROM A LAND DOWN UNDER 

Where to start with this year’s race? With disabled war veteran Emile Dablemont who walked the entire 5,375km route – and thus inadvertently kicked off an entire industry focused on independently completing the Tour route? Or perhaps the fabled story of that year’s winner Nicolas Frantz (joining the Double winners club) who rode to the finish of stage 19 on a ladies bike (complete with bell) after breaking his own frame on a level crossing? With the continued domination of the mighty Alcyon team, their sky blue jerseys taking the first 3 places on GC, 13 stages out of 22, and Frantz achieveing the rare feat of never relinquishing the Maillot Jaune  from start to finish?

No,we’re going Down Under – to the Antipodes, where the Melbourne Herald and Sporting Globe in Australia and the Sun in New Zealand had started a fund in late 1927 to send a team to the Tour de France. So  this tale will start with the 1928 Bol d’Or  and another broken bicycle – this time belonging to Hubert ‘Oppy’ Opperman (later one of a tiny handful of cycling ‘Sirs’). After several mechanicals, an ill fitting bike and a dose of pure adrenalin fuelled rage, Oppy made up a deficit of 20 laps and won the race. It was a sign of things to come – he took a creditable 8th at Paris-Rennes behind Frantz and an even better 3rd in Paris-Brussels. Oppy clearly had the goods to ride the Tour – unfortunately he just didn’t have the team. Desgrange’s split departs were still in place and the 4 man Ravat-Wonder team (Opperman, Ernie Bainbridge and Percy Osborne of Australia and Harry Watson of New Zealand) were left for dead by the likes of Alcyon with their 10 riders. The plan had been to recruit 6 experienced European riders to complete the team – it never happened. Despite everything, Oppy would finish 18th on GC and 12th in 1931 and was voted ‘Most Popular Sportsman’ in l’Auto.

He went on to set a host of World records in endurance events, joined the Australian Air Force and became an Australian MP and was knighted for his services as High Commissioner of Malta. In the spirit of a life well lived, you can ride the Hubert Opperman Gran Fondo or the Oppy Family Fun Ride – of which events it seems certain that Oppy,  a lifelong cyclist who died on an exercise bike at the age of 91, would approve.

1929 A BRIEF HISTORY OF TIMING 

155 riders – 53 in trade teams, 102 tourists-routiers riding as individuals or regional teams – 60 finishers.

A record speed – 28.320 km/h – for a Tour with mountain stages.

A 7th win for the blue ciel of Alcyon with the 28 year old Belgian Maurice de Waele.

And an absolutely unique event in Tour history.

Modern timing methods permit riders to be split by hundredths of a second. There is always a clear winner of the Maillot Jaune – even when there appears to be a dead heat. Remember the 2009 Tour when Cancellara and Armstrong appeared to be dead level after the team time trial? Well, Cancellara was 22 hundredths of a second faster and so took the Yellow Jersey.

But the 1929 Tour was still dependent on manual timing. It wasn’t until 1948 that the cellular photoelectric eye was used in photo finishes. In 1952 came automatic time stamping accurate to 100th of a second. In the 1972 Olympics reaction times were factored in to the timing process and throughout the 70s computers and GPS were factored into the timing process. At the 1992 Albertville Winter Olympics electronic photo-finish technology was integrated into timing mechanisms. The final piece of the puzzle was the radio transponder first used at the 1996 Olympics for the cycling and marathon events. No longer would there be any doubt as to who had won a stage in the Tour de France.

But in 1929, on stage 7 – the 285km between Les Sables D’Olonne – Bordeaux – 3 riders would finish with the same time on GC. and rule 39 stated that the leader of the classement general should wear the Maillot JauneErgo Frantz, Leduq and Fontan all had the right to wear the Jersey and so for the first – and only time –  the race started the next morning with 3 riders in Yellow.

One of those three would wear the Yellow Jersey in Paris the following year. The race was about to enter its third decade and a new generation was finally on the rise.

The French were coming to claim back their Tour.

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