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Tour de France history: The hardest stage ever?

In-depth
28 Jun 2021
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In 1926 the toughest stage of the longest Tour became biblical when a storm hit the Pyrenees. It would seal the legend of Lucien Buysse

Words: Giles Belbin Photos: L'Equipe

Henri Desgrange, the founder of the Tour de France, was not known for sympathising with the travails of those who rode his race. This was a man who famously decried the invention of the derailleur, describing it as something for the elderly and not allowing its unrestricted use in his race until 1937.

Desgrange started stages in the dark and cold hours before dawn but levied penalties for anyone who dared discard a jersey as the sun rose. His draconian rules meant 1921 winner Léon Scieur had to strap a broken wheel to his back and carry it 300km to prove to officials it had broken and its replacement was therefore legal. But the conditions the peloton faced during the 326km stage from Bayonne to Luchon in 1926 were so cruel that it moved even this most merciless of me.

It was the 10th stage of what remains the longest Tour in history, covering 5,745km over 17 racing days. Concerned by the longer stage distances, the race had been ridden conservatively with the result that most of the nine preceding stages had been something of an anti-climax. How that was soon to change.

As the riders left Bayonne on France’s southern Atlantic coast, Lucien Buysse was eighth, more than 20 minutes behind leader Gustave Van Slembrouck. On the cards were four major climbs: the Aubisque, Tourmalet, Aspin and Peyresourde, those infamous Pyrenean peaks that combine to make the so-called ‘circle of death’.

This was the most feared stage of the 1926 edition, and while it was known that the race was now entering its decisive phase, what hadn’t been anticipated was the storm that hit the Pyrenees that day. The severity of the conditions rendered it a stage the likes of which the Tour has rarely seen and one during which Buysse forged his legend.

The rain had started to fall at Eaux-Bonnes, on the lower slopes of the Aubisque, 177km into the stage. By that time Buysse was already at the head of affairs and he led over the top of the pass as the weather took a real turn for the worse.

The unleashed elements brought a gale that cut to the bone and torrential rain that drenched the skin. Ice formed on the mountains and the dirt roads became trails of mud.

Triumph amid tragedy

The usually ruthless Desgrange was moved to describe the conditions as glacial in his race report published the following day in L’Auto. ‘Our men suffered terribly,’ he wrote before detailing their ordeal as a ‘true martyrdom’.

‘On the Tourmalet, it was a cesspool of mud where cars became stuck,’ Desgrange continued. ‘We still haven’t worked out how our riders have been able to pass there. Now, it is 7 o’clock in the evening, the leader of the stage Lucien Buysse has not yet arrived, and it has been rolling for 17 hours. How long are they going to ride into the middle of the night, this evening, those who are late?’

As it turned out Buysse could not have been too far away from Desgrange, who was at the finish line in Luchon as those words were written. The Belgian, who had been caught by Odile Tailleu after the Aubisque and followed him over the Tourmalet more than one minute behind, had regained the lead on the descent and by the time he started the ascent of the Aspin he found himself alone and in the lead by more than five minutes.

As thunder roared and lightning danced over the Pyrenees, Buysse rose over the Aspin and Peyresourde alone and rolled into Luchon 25min 48sec ahead of the next rider, Bartolomeo Aimo of Italy.

Buysse stopped the clock in Luchon after 17h 12min 4sec in the saddle. He was now in yellow with an incredible margin of more than 36 minutes.

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Into Hell

Behind Buysse had been nothing but carnage. Only 54 riders from the 76 who started the stage made it to Luchon. Many abandoned or took shelter in bars, simply unable to carry on. At midnight search parties were sent to find the missing men; normal race controls were abandoned, the time cut-off forgotten.

In the pages of Le Petit Parisien,  journalist LC Royer was outraged, questioning whether the ‘massacre’ counted as sport: ‘Buysse, whose performance is a miracle, only arrived two hours late. At the time when the control was to be closed, only 31 riders had arrived… Thirty-five remained on the road. Finally we decided to accept all the arrivals, I mean all the survivors, whatever the time in which, dead or alive, they would come to the control.’

Royer described riders as ‘half conscious’ with hands so frozen they couldn’t change a tyre and as ‘statues of mud’ wandering the streets at 2am trying to find the final control.

‘How did they come? On foot, on horseback, by car or by train? Nobody knows… If this is sport, I will never really understand anything.’

What made Buysse’s effort even more astonishing, and perhaps explains the strength he found to carry on, was that he had already suffered far worse. His daughter had recently died of meningitis but despite his grief his family had urged him to race on. Mere apocalyptical weather wasn’t about to stop him winning in the name of his daughter. Buysse also won the next stage into Perpignan and rode into Paris with a winning margin of 1h 22min 25sec. He later said that he had thought of his daughter ‘during all the hardest hours of the race’.

Buysse retired from cycling in 1930. He later opened a cafe named after the Aubisque, the first mountain he scaled on that legendary day and where today a bust of him stands to commemorate that 1926 Tour win.