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In praise of Tour de France founder Henri Desgrange

In-depth
24 Aug 2020
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Part visionary, part monster, he’s the man who made the Tour de France the toughest sporting event in the world

Words Trevor Ward Photography Tapestry

Even for its time, the 1926 Tour de France was a particularly brutal affair. Covering 5,745km over 17 stages, it remains the longest in history, rightfully earning the nickname ‘The Tour of Suffering’.

For French rider Marcel Bidot it was especially gruelling. Making his Tour debut at the age of 23, he found himself a victim of successive misfortunes and petty regulations.

First, he broke a pedal and had to use just one foot to propel himself until he was eventually allowed to borrow an ill-fitting bike from a spectator – on condition he used his own wheels.

Then his freewheel broke in the Pyrenees (derailleurs were banned) but he still managed to climb five cols, including the Tourmalet, in the gear he would have been using on the descents.

Finally, after suffering a puncture on the Izoard, a commissaire threatened him with disqualification if he picked up the tool thrown to him from his team car to help him remove the tyre.

By the time he arrived in Paris he was 10th, and had earned the begrudging praise of the man responsible for all those petty rules.

‘Bidot has a sluggish mentality, he has no drive, he’s lazy and doesn’t have much of a head,’ declared Henri Desgrange, according to Les Woodland in his Yellow Jersey Companion To The Tour de France.

‘But he’s strong, fit, he climbs and descends well, and he doesn’t stop at water fountains. A man who can ride his first Tour like that suggests he has courage.’

If you bumped into Henri Desgrange in a pub today, he would no doubt challenge you to an arm wrestle and 50 push-ups before letting you buy him a (non-alcoholic) drink.

Instead of stopping for a kebab on the way home, he would insist on racing you to the bus stop, but not before blindfolding himself and giving you a 10-metre head start.

Desgrange is universally seen as the Father of the Tour (even if it was actually Géo Lefèvre, a cycling journalist on his newspaper L’Auto, who came up with the idea) and he ruled it with cast-iron, uncompromising fervour for 33 years.

His dream was to create a spectacle so tough that there would be only one rider left pedalling.

To achieve this, he barred anything that might possibly offer respite from a rider’s suffering, including drinks, derailleurs, drafting, spare bikes and mechanical support. Stages averaged 300km in length, with the longest well over 400km.

This meant riders starting either late at night or in pre-dawn darkness, yet Desgrange allowed no concessions for them having to wear extra layers of clothing to ward off the chill – he would penalise anyone who arrived at the stage finish in the heat of the late afternoon with less clothing than they had started with.

He continually tinkered with the race format. Some years it was the aggregate time that decided the winner, while in others it would be a points system.

Then he introduced time bonuses for stage wins. By the end of the 1920s, most stages were run as team time-trials over distances ranging from 119km to 387km.

Finally in 1930, in despair at trade teams daring to work together in support of a designated leader, he banned them altogether and made it a race for national teams.

To make up for the financial hit – as team sponsors no longer had any incentive to pay for riders’ food and accommodation – he formalised the publicity caravan, inviting big businesses to precede the race and throw their wares at the estimated 15 million fans lining the roadside.

Desgrange was, to put it bluntly, a stubborn, self-centred, sadistic old so-and-so. And I, for one, can’t help wishing he was still in charge today.

Then we might see a return to proper, pure racing, man against man rather than a war of power meters; strength versus strength rather than a battle of technological innovations and marginal gains.

Last year, Dutch musician and cycling fan Mathijs Leeuwis recorded a beautiful, haunting album called Galibier, ‘dedicated to the greatest and most painful climbs you can encounter’.

The third track, with a plaintive piano punctuating a melancholic pedal steel guitar, is called ‘Henri Desgrange’.

‘I was based in Valloire and trained on the Galibier, where there is a monument to Desgrange. I became fascinated by his character,’ Leeuwis tells me.

‘He was a strange combination of brains, physical strength and far-sighted vision. For me, he represents what “real” cycling is – lonely, brutal, physical. A guy and his bike. That’s all.’

It’s easy to imagine what Desgrange would have made of today’s Tour, with its team radios, sticky bottles and Extreme Weather Protocols.

Although an accomplished athlete himself – he set records for the Hour (35.325km in 1893), 50km and 100km – Desgrange believed people should ride simply to stay healthy.

A year after the first Tour he founded Audax France, encouraging people to ride their bikes (or run, row or swim) long distances. He had the heart of a lion, signing up to fight in the First World War at the age of 52.

Marcel Bidot may have dismissed Desgrange as a tyrant – or ‘assassin’ as eventual winner Octave Lapize memorably shouted as he crested the Aubisque in 1910 – but history has absolved him.

Desgrange should now be celebrated as a pioneer, innovator and guardian of our sport.

This article was originally published in issue 87 of Cyclist magazine