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Riding the first Tour de France

James Spender
27 Jun 2018

With the world’s greatest sporting spectacle in full swing, Cyclist asks itself just how hard was the inaugural Tour de France in 1903?

.It’s 8.30am, I’m on a flight to Lyon and I’ve just finished reading an interview with Sir Bradley Wiggins in Sport magazine. To close, the interviewer asks Wiggins for the best piece of sporting advice he’d received, to which Wiggins replies, ‘I still come back to that thing James Cracknell said to me about rowing the Atlantic. The thing he learned from that was: no matter how hard something is, there’s an end point.

'It always has to end. Whatever it is.’

As I re-read these words I begin to think they couldn’t be more apposite. It’s as if Sir Brad knows of my impending ordeal and has reached out in my hour of need.

You see, 10 days ago the Cyclist office started musing about what it must have been like to ride a stage of the original Tour de France in 1903.

Now, on a brisk Wednesday morning in June I’ve been packed off to France with a couple of maps and instructions to find out. On a single-speed bicycle. Oh my Wiggins.

It’s on

Originally that first Tour in 1903 was scheduled to run from 31st May to 5th June, with six stages to emulate the six-day track meets that were popular in France.

But when only 15 participants signed up, race organiser Henri Desgrange was forced to move his event to 1st to 19th July, and halve the entry fee to 10 francs (£29 today). 

With a minimal entry fee, plenty of scheduled rest days, and a total course length of just 2,428km – making it the second shortest course in Tour history (the shortest came the following year, at 2,420km) – it would be easy to assume it was a lesser challenge back then compared to today’s Tours.

But it was the stage lengths that made the first Tour altogether more menacing. 

Stage 1, from Paris to Lyon, was a whopping 467km; Stage 2, from Lyon to Marseille, 374km; Stage 3, from Marseille to Toulouse, 423km; Stage 4, from Toulouse to Bordeaux, 268km; Stage 5 from Bordeaux to Nantes, 425km; and to round things off, Stage 6, from Nantes back to Paris, was a staggering 471km.

To put that in perspective, the longest stage in the 2015 Tour was 238km. So which stage should we choose? 

Stage 1 seemed like an obvious choice, but it quickly became obvious that 21st century Paris traffic would make the going slow and dangerous – and besides, it was mainly flat.

Stage 2, on the other hand, included the infamous Col de la République climbing to 1,161m, and would hopefully offer better roads. Having agreed to tackle Stage 2, I needed to arrange some appropriate equipment.

In those days men were men and women were glad of it. Riders had a fixed-wheel bike with, if they were lucky, a flip-flop rear hub (a sprocket on each side, meaning the wheel could be removed and flipped around to provide a different gear ratio).

They had to carry their own sustenance, spares and tools, and as a result the laden bikes would weigh around 20kg.

Since getting hold of a period bike was out of the question – those that still exist are in museums or private collections – I instead tried to emulate the essence of a 1903 Tour bike by opting for a steel Cinelli Gazzetta with a large Carradice seat bag for all my sundries.

While riding a fixed-wheel was mooted, the health and safety people at Cyclist deemed it unsafe to be careering downhill with legs spinning like egg beaters, so brakes and a single-speed freewheel were insisted upon. 

Slightly easier to replicate was clothing. Italian manufacturer De Marchi still keeps a healthy vintage line in its catalogue, so wool jerseys and corduroy plus-fours were ordered up for the occasion.

I concede I also packed some padded bibshorts to wear beneath the cords, despite several colleagues decreeing I should shove a steak down my shorts like the old days. 

Before leaving Britain, the decision over which I agonised longest was my gearing choice. The overall winner in 1903 was Maurice Garin, who completed the six stages in 93 hours 33 minutes, reputedly pedalling a 52-tooth chainring driving a 19-tooth sprocket.

By my calculations that meant the ‘little chimney sweep’ as he was known (having been sold into the trade by his father, who exchanged the young Maurice for a wheel of cheese) was pushing around 73 gear inches.

Not a lot when you consider a 53x11 set-up is around 126 gear inches, but huge in comparison to today’s modern compact set-ups, where a 34x28 produces 32 gear inches.

After various trials I opted for 48x18, two gear inches shy of Maurice, but enough I hoped for a happy medium between getting over the 14km long, 3.8% average Col de la République and being able to spin along at around 95rpm for a 32kmh return.

Well, that’s the theory. Now all I have to do is put it into practice.

Bending the rules

With me today are Geoff, on hand to take pictures, and Steve, who will be driving him around. They are under strict instructions not to give me a lift, but they will have supplies for me – another anachronism in proceedings of course, as the 1903 riders were supposed to fend for themselves, which generally meant begging or ‘borrowing’ food.

However, as an incentive to sign up for the race, Desgrange reportedly offered the first 50 riders an allowance of five francs per stage for sustenance, or about £15 in today’s money.

At any rate, I feel slightly justified in my car-cum-catering unit, as the old guard had a bit of a penchant for cheating too – in 1903 Frenchman Jean Fischer was caught drafting a car by one of Desgrange’s 1,000 ‘flying squad’ marshals who lined the roads and control points.

Unlike today, the rules at the time stated that anyone not completing a stage could still compete in the next one, but would forgo general classification contention, so it’s curious to note that Fischer is still documented as finishing fifth in the GC, a mere four hours 59 minutes behind Garin.

One man who wasn’t so lucky, and who has become the focus for my ride, was the burly figure with the even burlier moustache – Stage 2 winner Hippolyte Aucouturier.

Nicknamed La Terrible by Desgrange for his outspoken ways, Aucouturier (whose surname comically translates as ‘ladies tailor’) was a favourite for the 1903 race after winning Paris-Roubaix earlier that year, albeit in some rather odd circumstances.

As today, riders finished in the Roubaix velodrome, only then it was tradition to swap to a track bike for the final laps.

Having chased down the lead group, Aucouturier suddenly found himself ahead when his fellow competitors, Louis Trousselier and Claude Chapperon, mixed up their bikes and proceeded to fight over whose was whose, leaving Aucouturier to win by 90m.

Unfortunately, he was forced to retire from Stage 1 with stomach cramps. Commentators suggested it was a mix of alcohol and the ether riders sniffed to numb the pain, but a more sympathetic explanation is that he wasn’t over typhoid from the year before.

However, three days later he was back on fighting form and took the stage I’m now about to embark upon in 14 hours 29 minutes. Hippolyte, here I come.

The not-so-grand depart

The history books state that when the riders left Lyon at 2am on 4th July they were cheered by every member of the city’s cycling clubs, who turned out with bikes and lanterns to watch.

Tonight, however, in the Place Bellecour square, it’s just me, a couple of screeching youths out past their bedtime and the disappearing lights of our car.

As picturesque as it is riding down the street-lit banks of the Rhone and out into the French countryside, my overwhelming feeling of excitement has turned to fear.

Lyon’s suburbs diminish almost as quickly as the street lighting, and soon the roads are pitch black. I’m not usually scared of the dark, but as I wend my way to St Étienne I can’t help but dwell on the story about a mob from this area who attacked a group of riders in 1904 to further the chances of their home rider, Antoine Faure.

Apparently the 200-strong crowd only dispersed when race commissaire Géo Lefèvre turned up and fired his pistol in the air. I don’t think Steve managed to get his gun through customs. 

As dawn breaks at 5am, trepidation is replaced by a sense of wellbeing. The smell of fresh croissants wafts through the air as I pass through tiny villages.

Evidently the bakers around here started nearly as early as I did, and it’s not long before I stop for a bite to eat. 

Taking stock of my surroundings, I’m pleased to note I’ve covered 65km already and am still feeling fresh. Less pleasing, however, is the thought of the impending Col de la République.

It was this col, after all, that sparked the interest in and propagated the need for derailleurs, a component of which my bike is sadly bereft.

So the legend goes, Paul de Vivie, a writer who penned under the name Vélocio and also edited the brilliantly titled Le Cycliste magazine (great minds, Paul), was riding up the Col de la République on his fixed gear when one of his readers, smoking a pipe no less, overtook him.

De Vivie mused that bicycles would do well to have more gears, and so set about developing the derailleur, which would evolve and later appear in production on his friend Joanny Panel’s Le Chemineau bicycles in the early 1900s.

Despite the obvious benefits of multiple gears, Henri Desgrange prohibited them until 1936, and even then such systems were only to be used by privateer entrants (the first pro to win a Tour with a derailleur was Roger Lapébie the following year).

In response to a demonstration in which female cyclist Marthe Hesse triumphed with a three-gear bicycle over male cyclist Edouard Fischer, who rode fixed, Desgrange famously wrote, ‘I applaud this test, but I still feel variable gears are only for people over 45. Isn’t it better to triumph by the strength of your muscles than by the artifice of a derailleur? We are getting soft. Come on fellows.

'Let’s say that the test was a fine demonstration – for our grandparents! As for me, give me a fixed gear!’

It’s a quote now running through my mind as I try to tackle the lengthy slopes of the Col de la République. With each grinding pedal stroke I find myself more at odds with Desgranges’ attitude: ‘As for me, screw the fixed gear, fetch me my 11-speed Dura-Ace.’

The top of the col is marked with a monument to De Vivie, and as I gratefully resume a normal rhythm on the flat I give him a ceremonial nod, and think how ridiculous I would look to him – all these years of bicycle development and here I am, making life unnecessarily hard for myself.

Still, he’d be pleased I didn’t get off to push.

The descent, however, is an absolute blast. My fully laden bike drops like a stone as signs warning of a 7% decline whizz past. This I can deal with, but sadly it doesn’t last for long.

The vast flatness of the French countryside awaits. Another 270km of just sheer grind.

So the story goes, when Garin finished that first Tour he was asked to give his thoughts to the press. But instead of the finish-line interviews we’re now so fond of, Garin handed Desgrange a pre-prepared statement, which read as follows: ‘The 2,500km that I’ve just ridden seem a long line, grey and monotonous, where nothing stood out from anything else.

'But I suffered on the road; I was hungry, I was thirsty, I was sleepy, I suffered, I cried between Lyon and Marseille, I had the pride of winning other stages, and at the controls I saw the fine figure of my friend Delattre, who had prepared my sustenance, but I repeat, nothing strikes me particularly.

‘But wait! I’m completely wrong when I say that nothing strikes me, I’m confusing things. I must say that one single thing struck me, that a single thing sticks in my memory: I see myself, from the start of the Tour de France, like a bull pierced by banderillas, who pulls the banderillas with him, never able to rid himself of them.’

I know how he feels.

The finish

It’s 10.30pm and I have finally arrived in a car park on the outskirts of Marseille. The only things in it are the broken fridge I’m sitting on and the dead cat I’m staring at.

It’s unlikely this was quite the scene that greeted Aucouturier et al upon finishing stage two, but it’s where my diligent mapping says the end is, and while it’s probably wrong, I’m in Marseille and I’ve got almost 400km in my legs, so I don’t really care.

If it seems like I have skipped retelling the bulk of my ride to wind up here, there is a good reason for it, and that’s because there is almost nothing to tell. 

Like Garin, I too cried between Lyon and Marseille. I cried out in anger at this ordeal and in anguish at my feet, which felt like red-hot knitting needles had been inserted into them.

Other than that, the only thing else remarkable about the 270km between Saint-Vallier, down the Rhone, through Avignon, Aix-en-Provence and to here, was that it somehow happened.

Whether it’s my brain deleting the painful memories or the fact my head was so slumped I barely looked further than a few metres ahead, I don’t know.

The only things that do appear strong in my mind aren’t mental pictures, but overarching feelings. Somewhere in there I think I might find triumph, yet for the most part that feeling is swamped, but oddly not with thoughts of pain, but rather of bitterness and loneliness.

For the last 200km all I wanted to do was get off. It wasn’t physically demanding, but soul destroying. I was alone, as many of the riders back then would have been, my efforts met with ever diminishing returns.

The only respites were hailing down Steve and Geoff for more cold coffee or another ham sandwich, yet I knew the more I stopped, the longer I’d find myself riding.

It was a mind-numbing blur that lasted 20 hours, with 15 spent riding. I guess I must have stopped more often than I thought. 

For me it is over, but for those riders back then, they knew they’d have to keep on going for four more gruelling stages. So to them, to Maurice and Hippolyte, chapeau! 

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