1930 – 1934 Allez les Bleus!

1930 LES BLEUS TRIUMPHANT

After 6 years of hurt – and slim pickings since 1911 – the French finally hit a purple patch and took the next 5 Tours on the trot with Leducq, Magne and Speicher. A new generation of riders had finally emerged and the average age of the winner fell from 32 in the 11 years following WWI to 26 in the years leading to WWII.

Desgrange was always tinkering with the format of the race, introducing innovations – with varying degrees of success – yearly. In those terms, the 1930 race was a doozy which saw the introduction of National teams (WHICH lasted until 1961 and had a brief flourish in 1967/8 before finally being laid to rest), standard issue yellow bicycles (not to be long lasting) and the publicity caravan.

Ah, the Caravan! No one who has ever stood by the roads when the Tour is passing through is ever immune to the charms of the freebies thrown with gay abandon from the parade of honking, hooting vehicles that precede the race – the Evian water cannon, the giant Festina watches, the PMU plastic horses, the hats, pens, keyrings and flying cheese and sausages (I once kept my jack russell going for a whole day on petit Cochonous handed out obligingly at a stage finish). I have bagfuls of trinkets from the Tour along with the Big Green Hands and some cardboard King of the Mountain jerseys. I’ve seen normally reserved and sedate English ladies leap and tackle like rugby forwards at the prospect of getting their hands on some free stuff. Recent research suggests that 47% of those who line the roads of France every year are there primarily for the free show, the goodies, the good time.

Pierre Bost may have lamented that “it’s sad, it’s ugly,  it smells of vulgarity and money” but it spoke to a France that was ready to be en fete after the depredations of war. It made a star of Yvette Horner, the young accordianiste from Tarbes who would ride the roads of France atop a Citroen van playing her heart out. It’s enormous and immediate success in 1930 meant it was formalised in 1931 and has been with us ever since. Other races have copied the format – I was once hit on the head by a melon flung gaily from a publicity vehicle at the Tour de Poitou-Charentes. There have been tragedies – in 2000 and 2002 young boys were hit and killed – but the caravan generally rolls gaily along, a 45 minute carnival of noise, colour and of course those all important freebies.

The enduring success of the Caravan is one of Desgrange’s greatest successes but it was motivated by the need to pay for rider’s accommodation costs now that those fell to the race organisers and not the trade teams. The desire to bring the mighty Alcyon team to heel may have cost the organisers in the short run but the long term rewards have been immense.

1931 THE LAST OF THE PELISSIERS

Antonin ‘Tonin’ Magne had a reputation as ‘un homme de Tour‘ – capable of riding and placing well but not considered as a potential winner. But win it he did, in 1931.

It’s commonplace now for riders to reconnoiter the great climbing stages but Magne was the first, spending 12 days in the Pyrenees with his friend Fontan reccying the summits. Magne was truly a professional – probably the first rider to train for specific goals instead of relying on flair and panache. He would go on to become the Directeur Sportif for two other greats of the sport – Louison Bobet and the best known of the ‘eternal seconds’ Raymond Poulidor.

But this tale is about Charlot – Charles Pelissier, youngest of the four Pelissier brothers and the last of the three who became professional cyclists to grace the peloton.

We’ve met Henri and Francis earlier in our tales – in a cafe in Coutances, showing the contents of their bags to Albert Londres. We’ve seen them abandon Tour after Tour in their ongoing war with Desgrange whilst showing the French Champions jersey to great effect elsewhere. Henri would die a scandalous death – shot by his young lover with the gun his wife had used to commit suicide two years later. He never made much of a life for himself outside cycling. Francis, the Grand or ‘Sorceror of Bordeaux-Paris’ was luckier – he had a 30 year career as a directeur sportif and discovered the first 5 time Tour winner Maitre Jacques Anquetil who he signed to his first professional contract at 19.

Charles Pelissier

And then there was Charles. Charles was a bit of a looker, with generous mouth and brooding eyes like a young Presley.  His record of 8 stage wins in the 1930 Tour has only been equalled by Merckx and Maertens. Throughout the 1931 Tour, Charlot and the Italian Di Paco exploded the race, winning 5 flat stages apiece. Pity the Maillot Vert wouldn’t be introduced until 1953. So closely contested was their battle that both wore the Maillot Jaune after stage 5 and Charlot wore it alone after stage 6. But perhaps his greatest contribution to the race was as a co-equipier luxe who saved the Tour de France for Magne.

Stage 15: Nice-Gap 233kms. Pesenti and Di Paco launch a concerted assault on the Maillot Jaune. Magne is about to crack – but Charlot, the locomotive de luxe, tells Magne to get on his wheel and drives the chase to close down the Italian assault. Magne saves the Jersey. The two men are pictured at Gap, sprawled on the floor, shattered.

Magne – who doesn’t believe any race is won until the final pedal has turned – will fight off one last challenge to the Jersey, on the cobbled roads from Charleville to Malo-les-Bains where he controls the attacks of the Belgians Rebry (that year’s Paris-Roubaix winner) and Demuysere over 211 of the 271kms. Charlot will take the final processional stage to the Parc des Princes and Magne will take the laurels.

Magne was so exhausted by his Tour triumph that he wasn’t on the start line the following year.

Though the French riders took centre stage in the race there is one tale that deserves to be told – on stage 2, Max Bulla (a 26 year old Austrian riding in the the tourist-routier class) started 10 minutes behind the elite riders in the national teams. Bulla overhauled them all to take a famous victory in Dinan. He would win 2 more stages and finished 15th overall, winning the tourist-routier category. In 1932, riding for the German-Austrian team he would finish 19th.

But that day in Dinan when he pulled on the Yellow Jersey he became the first – and only – tourist-routier to ever lead the Tour de France.

1932 THE CLOSEST RACE THAT NEVER WAS

By 1932 the Tour de France looked pretty much as it does today – 21 stages, the longest the 387km stage 3 Nantes-Bordeaux, ridden by riders organised into teams. Only three riders would share the Maillot Jaune that year and two of them – ‘Dede’ Leducq and Kurt Stoepel of an unexpectedly strong German team – would stand on the podium in Paris.

If Magne was the first professional to win the Tour, then Dede was its first real star, credited with bringing thousands of young women to the roadsides in July. He raked in the post race endorsements, advertising watches and candies. He was the supreme all rounder, capable of sprinting with the sprinters – he pulled on the Jersey after beating di Paco in a sprint finish on stage 3 – and climbing with the climbers – he consolidated his lead with a fabulous display on stage 13 when he caught Camusso on the descent of the Galibier (climbed in fog, rain and snow) to take another of his 6 stage wins. He even pulled off the rare feat of winning the final stage into the Parc des Princes in the Yellow Jersey.

His winning margin over Stopel was 24′ 3″ – and yet this could have been the closest ever finish in the Tour de Franc

Better organised, more professional teams meant that many more riders were reaching the finish in the peloton. The displays of the heroic years – when the time gaps between riders were measured in hours not minutes or seconds – were becoming a thing of the past. Desgrange had experiemented with time bonuses or bonifications the previous year, awarding 3 minutes to the stage winner (but only if his winning margin was superior or equal to 3 minutes). 1932 was the year that bonuses became a proper feature of the race with 4, 2 and 1 minutes on offer.

So let’s do some maths: Leducq won 6 stages and took 31 minutes worth of time bonuses in total. Stoepel won 1 stage, and placed in the top 3 four times, gaining 7 minutes in bonuses. A quick calculation leaves us with a winning margin for Leducq of 3 seconds.

In 1989, Lemond will win the race by 8″ over Fignon. But in the early years of the Tour such close margins were unheard of. Would Leducq still have won the Tour without the bonifs? Almost certainly. Would he have won by a greater margin than 3″? It’s impossible to speculate – the race would have been ridden in a totally different way. Clearly Leducq had the all round talent to win but that in no way should detract from Stopel’s achievement. A new cycling nation was on the rise though they would have to wait until 1997 for a winner.

1933 A TOURIST-ROUTIERS WINS THE TOUR!

In actual fact, France’s Georges Speicher would stand on the top step of the podium with the Italians Learco Guerra and Guiseppi Martano second and third. But in real time – without the bonifs – Martano, a tourist-routier, was the winner of the 1933 Tour de France.

Martano wasn’t exactly an unknown – he’d been World amateur champion in 1930 and 1932 – and he would go on to finish 2nd in the Tour in 1934 and 2nd in the Giro a year later. But reaching the podium of the Tour was an extraordinary achievement for an amateur in the face of the might of the ‘A’s’.

This was a Tour of curiosities: Josephine Baker, the celebrated cabaret artist who had danced naked save for a string of bananas, started the race in Paris. The German soigenur Martin Schmidt played popular German songs on his harmonica while tending his riders. Desgranges was forced to adjust the time delay on stage 10 to avoid eliminating all but 7 riders.

And the Spanish touriste-routier Vincente Trueba would become the very first King of the Mountains.

1934 THE RACE OF TRUTH

And so it was that the last piece of the puzzle fell into place in the 1934 Tour.  Stage 21 was a split stage: 81km from La Rochelle to La Roche-sur-Yon then 83km between La Roche-sur-Yon and Nantes – the latter to be ridden alone, against the clock. The Time Trial or contre le montre or, more romantically, the ‘Race of Truth’ had finally made its debut at the Tour.

Magne won in magisterial fashion – of course, of course – taking great chunks of time out of his rivals.

The entire French team had never been so strong – they held the Yellow Jersey from start to finish (and Magne nearly held it for the entire race), won 20 of the 24 stages and placed 5 riders in the top 12 on GC. They also snaffled the 10,000 francs awarded by Martini-Rossi and Rustines for the best climber. That prize went to 20 year old Rene Vietto.

But the unforgettable image of the 1934 race is that of a disconsolate Vietto, sitting on a stone wall, waiting in vain for a new wheel to arrive. What was he thinking, the petit gamin, as he saw his chance for glory (perhaps, perhaps) disappear down the road? Not once, but twice, he saved Magne’s Tour in the Pyrenees – first giving him his wheel then the next day his bike when Magne ran into mechanical trouble. An exemplary domestique then, our gamin Vietto, but one who had wings in the mountains, who would have his own chances in the future – and yet, and yet…

The affaire Vietto split spectators

– Did you see the way he turned round and went back up the climb to give Magne his bike? He was flying too, could have given the old man a run for his money, the kid’s only 20 let him have a chance…

– Come on, Magne’s twenty odd minutes ahead on GC, he has the experience and the smarts, he’ll take him apart in the time trial, the kid’s only 20 he’ll have plenty of chances…

But those chances never materialised. Instead Vietto would go on to hold the record for most days in the Yellow Jersey by a rider who never won the Tour, until Fabian Cancellara broke it in 2012.

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