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Riding on 'dynamite': Meet the Convicts of the Road

Giles Belbin
11 Sep 2020

When the Pélissier brothers abandoned the 1924 Tour de France on only the third stage, it led to an explosive piece of cycling journalism

As the third stage of the 1924 Tour de France was about to get underway, Albert Londres, who was covering the race for the French daily Le Petit Parisien, decided to drive ahead of the peloton.

The riders were due to leave Cherbourg at 2am, bound for Brest some 405km away, so Londres scanned the list of control points and the predicted timetable. His eyes fell on Granville, 105km into the stage.

It seemed as good a place as any for a first stop to watch the riders pass: roughly one quarter distance; 30km after the preceding control point at Coutances; riders due at 6am. Perfect. So it was that Londres got in his car and drove to Granville.

Among the riders cheered on by the crowd that had assembled outside the Café de Paris in Cherbourg for the pre-stage formalities were the brothers Henri and Francis Pélissier, who were among the main attractions at the 1924 Tour.

Henri was the defending champion, having triumphed in 1923 at his sixth attempt, and Francis was the current national champion.

While enthusiastically received by crowds around France, the brothers had a prickly relationship with the Tour and its organisers.

Henri had abandoned the race in 1919 having been 20 minutes ahead after only three stages, a lead that prompted him to liken himself to a thoroughbred surrounded by carthorses.

That didn’t sit well with his rivals, who then colluded and attacked when the leader had a mechanical on the stage to Les Sables d’Olonne.

Henri lost more than 30 minutes, then declared the race ‘a thing for convicts’ and abandoned. That led to Henri Desgrange, the editor of L’Auto, writing that Henri had no one to blame but himself.

The following year Henri abandoned again, with Desgrange this time opining that ‘this Pélissier does not know how to suffer, he will never win the Tour de France’, though of course Henri would go on to prove Desgrange wrong on that point.

Worth a thousand tyres

As Henri, Francis and the rest of the peloton, including their race-leading teammate Ottavio Bottecchia, rolled out from Cherbourg at 2am, so Londres was heading to Granville. Four hours later the journalist was standing roadside in the town anticipating the arrival of the peloton, his pen at the ready.

At 6:10am a bunch of around 30 riders came through. The crowd shouted for Henri and Francis but the brothers were nowhere to be seen. One minute later another group arrived; again the shouts went up, again the Pélissiers weren’t in the bunch. Londres was confused. Where were they?

Then the news filtered through that the brothers had already abandoned, along with their Automoto teammate Maurice Ville. Now Londres faced a decision. Should he continue following with the race, or should he try to find Henri and Francis?

‘We turned the Renault around and, without mercy for the tyres, went back to Cherbourg,’ Londres wrote the following day. ‘The Pélissiers are worth a thousand tyres.’

He didn’t yet know it but Londres was about to get the scoop of the Tour, perhaps of any Tour. When Londres reached Coutances, the control point before Granville, he stopped and asked a small boy if he had seen the Pélissier brothers. Yes, the boy said, he had seen them; why, he’d even touched one of them.

‘Where are they now?’ asked Londres. ‘At the Café de la Gare,’ came the reply. ‘Everyone is there.’

A question of jerseys

Indeed, everyone was there. Londres had to battle through the crowds to find the brothers, along with Ville – ‘three jerseys installed in front of three bowls of hot chocolate’.

The interview that took place around that table in Coutances, and the front-page exclusive splashed over Le Petit Parisien the next day, was one of the most significant pieces of cycling journalism of the age.

Londres, perplexed as to why Henri and Francis had abandoned, asked if one of them had suffered a blow to the head. ‘No,’ replied Henri. ‘Only, we are not dogs,’ before going on to explain it was all down to ‘a question of jerseys’.

‘This morning, in Cherbourg, a commissioner comes up to me and, without saying anything, lifts up my jersey,’ Henri told Londres.

‘He made sure I didn’t have two jerseys. What would you say if I lifted your jacket to see if you had a white shirt? I don’t like these manners, that’s all.’

Race rules were that a rider had to finish with the same equipment and clothing with which they had started. ‘So, I went to find Desgrange,’ Henri continued. ‘I don’t have the right to throw my jersey on the road then?’

Desgrange told Henri that no, he didn’t, and that he wouldn’t discuss it in the street. ‘If you won’t discuss it on the street, I’ll go back to bed,’ said Henri.

Questions over the numbers of jerseys worn turned out to be the tip of the iceberg. In the café the riders opened their bags.

‘We suffer from start to finish,’ Henri said. ‘Do you want to see how we ride? This is cocaine for the eyes, this is chloroform for the gums. What about pills? Do you want to see pills? Here are some pills.’ Each then pulled out a small box. ‘In short,’ Francis said, ‘we are riding on “dynamite”.’

The resultant article opened the lid on the realities of racing the Tour and entered cycling history as ‘The Convicts of the Road’, although the headline of the original article was the rather more prosaic: ‘The Pélissier brothers and their teammate Ville abandon’.

Bottecchia went on to win the Tour easily, leaving many to question whether Henri’s real motive in abandoning was to avoid being beaten by a teammate he had already admitted was ‘head and shoulders above the rest of us’.

Eleven years after this photo was taken Henri was dead, shot by his lover who, fearful for her own life during an argument, had grabbed a gun from a bedside table and turned it on the former Tour winner.

Francis, meanwhile, enjoyed a successful career as a team director, Jacques Anquetil among his discoveries.

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