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How Maurice Garin won the first Tour de France

In July 1903 an Italian-born chimney sweep made history by becoming the first ever winner of the Tour de France

Giles Belbin
23 Nov 2020

In the early evening of 18th July 1903, the remaining 21 riders of the inaugural Tour de France peloton left the Café Babonneau in Nantes.

They were bound for the finish line of the ‘grandest cycle race organised to date’, which lay 462km away in Ville-d’Avray, a western suburb of Paris.

‘It will definitely seem funny next week not to give more starts to the Tour de France,’ reported Georges Abran, who was responsible for sending the riders on their way. ‘Farewell the Tour de France,’ he concluded. ‘The final start is given. It is 8 o’clock sharp.’

That start time was one hour later than had been originally planned due to a fair tailwind and the organisers wanting to ensure the riders wouldn’t reach Paris too early.

As they started that sixth and final stage, France’s Maurice Garin was sat comfortably at the top of the general classification.

Garin had won the race’s opening leg from Paris to Lille, arriving at the finish before L’Auto’s chief reporter had alighted from his train, and then taken a second stage win on the race into Nantes.

By the final stage he was well over two and a half hours ahead of second-placed Lucien Pothier. All he had to do was remain upright and out of trouble and the first Tour de France was his.

As it turned out Garin did more than just stay out of trouble, because he would enjoy a terrific finale. He remained in great form and despatches from the stage’s control points that were printed the following day in L’Auto have him in the leading bunch or at the head of the race from start to finish.

In Chartres, 84km from Paris, he won a 25 francs prime put up by the local chamber of commerce to reward the first rider to enter the city.

Then, a little over three hours after securing that prize, and in front of a sizeable crowd that officials struggled to contain, Garin crossed the race’s final finish line alongside the temporarily renamed Restaurant du Père Auto in first place.

Having watched Garin open up his sprint one last time, L’Auto reported him as crossing the line at 14:09 precisely, some ten seconds ahead of Fernand Augereau and Julien ‘Samson’ Lootens.

It was Garin’s third stage win and confirmed him as the comfortable champion of the first Tour, his winning margin just shy of three hours over Pothier.

‘I had trouble on the road,’ Garin said afterwards, in case anyone thought it had been easy. ‘I was hungry, I was thirsty, I was sleepy, I suffered. I cried between Lyon and Marseilles.’

He recalled that the race had felt like ‘a long grey line, monotone’. For his efforts Garin won 6,125 francs from the organisers and a ‘magnificent object of art’ that was donated by the journal La Vie au Grand Air.

From Italy to France

The photograph shown here on the right was published on the front page of that same journal five days after Garin’s win.

‘The Tour de France, the grandest cycle race which has been organised to date, has just ended with the victory of Maurice Garin,’ ran the accompanying caption.

‘Our photograph was taken at the moment when Brillouet, the well-known masseur in sports circles, had just taken Garin to give him a shower and a well-earned massage. Next to Garin is his youngest son, a future road champion!’

After crossing the line in Ville d’Avray, Garin and the rest of the finishers had been taken to a garden by the offices of L’Auto to freshen up and enjoy a glass of champagne before riding to the Parc des Princes for the victory ceremonials.

Thousands of spectators lined the streets to watch the riders pass. Garin, for one, was unhappy with that arrangement, asking to make the journey by car instead – a request that was refused.

‘The thousands of spectators who crowded around the railings applauded with all their strength this undisputed king of the road,’ reported La Vie au Grand Air.

Garin’s win was celebrated and recorded as a homegrown success but Garin had actually been born in Arvier, a village in the Aosta valley of northwest Italy.

His father was a farm labourer, his mother a hotel worker. With nine children it was a large family and when Maurice was 14 years old they moved over the border into France. It wouldn’t be until 1901 that Garin adopted French nationality.

How and why the move to France came about is widely debated. Did they make the journey as a family, individually or in a bigger group? Did they use the Petit-St-Bernard pass, or a less well-known route, higher up the mountains?

Some claim that Maurice was exchanged for a wheel of cheese by his father, probably to a French recruiter of chimney sweeps, who then took the youngster to northern France.

Whatever the truth about how he got there, by 1892 Garin was in the French town of Maubeuge, close to the Belgian border, where he worked as a chimney sweep.

In 1894, despite having won his first race the previous year, he was denied entry to a race at Avesnes-sur-Helpe because of his non-professional status.

Garin waited for the start and then chased after the race, catching and passing every professional rider before the finish. When the organisers refused to pay any prize money the spectators had a whip-round. Garin went home that night with 300 francs in his pocket, double what the organisers were offering. He would soon turn professional.

Wins in Paris-Roubaix (1897/1898), Paris-Brest-Paris (1901) and Bordeaux-Paris (1902) followed, meaning that by the time of the first Tour Garin was one of the favourites for the win.

As it turned out his 1903 Tour victory would be the last recognised success of Garin’s cycling career. In 1904 he was hailed in Paris again as the winner of the Tour, only to be one of a number of riders subsequently disqualified for cheating and banned for two years, a verdict he dubbed a ‘flagrant injustice’.

Garin wouldn’t ride again until 1911, when he claimed 10th in Paris-Brest-Paris. By then he had opened a garage in Lens.

He would also go on to sell bicycles and for a while after the Second World War professionals such as Wim Van Est rode Garin-branded bikes.

He died in 1957, aged 85.

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