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Tour de France history: The last Tour before the Great War

In-depth
7 Dec 2021
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Photo: L’Equipe

‘The great battle is on.’ That was the all-upper-case front page headline L’Auto went with on 28th June 1914. Underneath the splash was a montage of photographs of the 34 men considered by the paper most likely to vie for victory in the 12th edition of the Tour de France.

Former winners Gustave Garrigou, Lucien Petit-Breton, Louis Trousselier, François Faber, Odile Defraye and Octave Lapize were all pictured, as was the solemn face of Peugeot’s Philippe Thys, the man who had won the previous year’s race.

By the time most Parisians had read that headline, the riders of the 1914 Tour had been on the road for hours. Having assembled at midnight before large crowds at the Parc des Princes, the 145-strong peloton was then led to the western suburb of Saint-Cloud by starter Georges Abran. At 3am they were sent on their way, bound for Le Havre some 388km to the northwest of the capital.

‘We will not see them again before July 20. But how many will come back, of those who have just given the Parisians a marvellous spectacle?’ wrote the paper’s Charles Ravaud.

Some 13 hours and 18 minutes later a group of 11 riders approached the stage finish primed for the final dash to the line, with Thys prevailing and claiming the race lead.

‘By winning the first battle, the grand tenor of Peugeot and [tyre manufacturer] Wolber has justified the confidence that many have placed in him,’ reported Ravaud.

But while L’Auto was fixated on reporting in detail on the opening day of its race, other publications ran worrying news. While the Tour’s riders had been racing hard towards Le Havre, Austria’s Archduke Franz Ferdinand and his wife Sophie, the Duchess of Hohenberg, had been assassinated in Sarajevo.

‘A bomb had been launched against their car, wounding several people,’ reported Le Petit Journal in its lead front page story. ‘Later, on leaving the Town Hall, the Archduke and his wife fell, mortally struck by bullets from a revolver.’

Cycling’s own ‘great battle’ may well have started, but so had the chain of events that would lead to the outbreak of world war.

The hound and the lions roar

While all hell was breaking loose across Europe, the Tour continued winding its way around the perimeter of France, dominated as it went by Peugeot riders. While Thys, nicknamed the Basset Hound because of his short legs and low riding position, kept hold of the overall lead, other Peugeot riders went about sweeping up stage wins with relentless efficiency.

Of the 15 stages that comprised the Tour, Peugeot won 12, with a 23-year-old Henri Pélissier claiming three and Oscar Egg, a two-time Hour record breaker, and François Faber, previous winner of the Tour, Giro and Paris-Roubaix, both taking a couple of stage wins over the course of the near month-long race.

Peugeot’s ruthless grip on the race was perfectly demonstrated on Stage 10, pictured here. The stage comprised 333km from Nice to Grenoble via climbs of the Allos and Bayard, and Peugeot’s riders bared their teeth.

‘The tenth stage is marked by a masterful triumph for our great national brand [Peugeot] and Wolber tyres,’ ran the strapline of the stage report. ‘Pélissier, Thys and [Firmin] Lambot gain their advantage on the ascent of the Col d’Allos, and sail together until the finish.’

The trio of Peugeots had broken away on the first major test of the day, the Allos, and remained ahead on the Bayard.

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‘It was Pélissier, Lambot and Thys that I followed on the climb of this most difficult pass,’ wrote Henri Desgrange, ‘and where they showed a truly extraordinary mastery.’

The stage was won by Pélissier, the future Tour winner outsprinting teammates Jean Alavoine (who had rejoined his Peugeot stablemates having recovered a deficit of some 12 minutes at the top of the Bayard), Lambot and Thys. With Garrigou the next rider to follow them across the line around 11 minutes later, Peugeot had claimed the top five places on the race’s first Alpine stage.

Paying the penalty

By the time the penultimate stage came around Thys had an advantage of more than 31 minutes over Pélissier and well over an hour on Alavoine. As he set out from Longwy for the 390km stage to Dunkirk, all looked well. But then, as he was exiting Lille with 100km of the stage still to go, he crashed and broke his fork.

Pierre Chany later wrote that Thys went to a bike shop to ask the owner for help: ‘“But they will penalise you,” warns the mechanic, very aware of the rules.

“I know,” Thys replied. “But if I repair it alone it will take me at least an hour and I will lose the Tour. If you give me a hand, I may still have a chance. It will depend on the penalty imposed by the commissaires.”’

Twenty minutes later Thys was back on the road, catching Pélissier and finishing alongside his rival. But what would the time penalty be?

‘The commissaires’ decision was not yet rendered last night,’ reported L’Auto, ‘however it is rumoured that Thys could very well be penalised by 30 minutes.’

Those rumours proved well-founded and on the day of the final stage Thys had his lead slashed to under two minutes. On the race into Paris, Pélissier attacked and attacked but couldn’t shake the Belgian, who became only the second rider to defend a Tour title.

Peugeot took all three podium spots and placed eight riders in the top ten, but celebrations were short-lived. Two days later Austria-Hungary declared war on Serbia as Europe descended rapidly into bloody conflict. Just eight days after Thys had been presented with his winner’s bouquet in Paris, Germany and France were also at war.

Of the 145 riders that had started 1914’s ‘great battle’, 15 were killed during the fighting, including Faber, Lapize and Petit-Breton. Thys, meanwhile, would return to racing when peace at last arrived, adding the 1920 title to his brace of pre-war Tour wins.