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Tour de France history: Lapize tames the Pyrenees

Giles Belbin
13 Jul 2021

It’s one of the greatest stories in cycling – how Octave Lapize took the Tour to new heights in the Pyrenees in 1910. Photo: L'Equipe

'It is not without real emotion that I write these lines today, thinking that, at this very moment, the most appalling task of the 1910 Tour de France has begun, and that our riders, already tested by 2,500km of roads strewn with countless difficulties, have departed for Luchon, thus starting the first of two terrible Pyrenean stages. No one yet knows if we have not exceeded the limits, if we do not ask too much of the human spirit.’

Those were the words of L’Auto’s Charles Revaud on the day the Tour’s peloton entered the Pyrenees for the very first time. It was no small step.

Alphonse Steinès, Henri Desgrange’s assistant at L’Auto, famously had to undertake a reconnaissance trip to convince his boss the idea was a sound one – sending a telegram to Desgrange that has entered legend for claiming that the road to the Tourmalet was ‘perfectly passable’, despite the fact he was forced onto foot due to immense snowdrifts and had been found stumbling towards the lights of Barèges on the brink of hypothermia.

At Steinès’ behest, Desgrange decided to roll the dice and confirmed the inclusion of two Pyrenean stages for the 1910 race: Perpignan to Luchon over the Portet, Port, Portet d’Aspet and Ares, followed by Luchon to Bayonne over the Peyresourde, Aspin, Tourmalet and Aubisque.

Steinès of course knew that this would be a challenge the likes of which had never been faced before by the riders of the Tour.

Indeed, in a column published just two days before the race rolled out from Paris he somewhat defensively wrote, ‘The Tour de France is not a pleasure ride, damn it! There must be some difficulties, those of the Pyrenees will be more accentuated, that’s all… It will be the greatest performance that a racer has ever produced.’

Lapize to the fore

Octave Lapize, already a two-time winner of Paris-Roubaix, was 22 years old when he took his place among the 62 riders who left Perpignan at 3.30am on the morning of 19th July bound for Luchon. It was only the second Tour he had ridden after failing to finish in 1909. Now he was lying second overall, 15 points behind race leader François Faber.

Lapize launched his move on the penultimate climb of the day, the Portet d’Aspet. He had been at the head of the race since the start of the stage and at the control 3km from the summit of the Portet d’Aspet, with his leading group whittled down to just three riders, he left his two companions – Émile Georget and Charles Crupelandt – and gained 100m. They would not see him again.

His winning margin in Luchon was a huge 18 minutes, but with the Tour decided on a points system based on finishing positions that extraordinary performance only gained him two points over Faber, who finished third.

Still Desgrange was moved enough to write, ‘Lapize will be the real revelation of this eighth Tour de France. I do not believe, and I say this very sincerely, that he will succeed in stealing first place in the general classification, but he is unquestionably more brilliant than Faber.’

Stage 10 of the 1910 Tour de France has long been etched into the books as one of the most significant days in the race’s history. Lapize led over the Peyresourde, Aspin and Tourmalet before the race reached the Aubisque.

Cycling lore has it that at the summit Steinès and his colleague Victor Breyer were waiting to register the riders’ progress, and as the clock ticked on, so their concern for the riders grew.

What had happened? Had there been a terrible accident? Had they broken the peloton, pushed them beyond the limits of human endurance as Revaud had feared they might?

Recounting this story years later in Sport et Vie, François Brigneau wrote that eventually a rider emerged in a daze, ‘his eyes out of his head, mouth open’. But it wasn’t Lapize. ‘Who are you? Where are the others?’ cried Breyer, running by his side. ‘But the rider heard nothing,’ wrote Brigneau. ‘He said nothing. He just moaned and shook his legs, his number half hanging off.

“It is Lafourcade,” said Steinès, “an isolé [semi-pro] from Bayonne.”’ Lapize appeared 15 minutes later and, according to legend, turned towards Desgrange’s henchmen and uttered the now immortal words ‘Vous êtes des assassins. Oui, des assassins.

All in the retelling

Was this exactly what happened? Accounts published in L’Auto at the time reported that Lapize got off his bike on the early slopes of the Aubisque and told Breyer, ‘You are criminals! You hear? Tell Desgrange from me, you do not ask men to make such an effort. I have had enough,’ before being coaxed into continuing by Breyer.

Add into the mix that when Steinès later interviewed Lapize in Bayonne, Lapize is quoted as simply saying, ‘Desgrange is an assassin,’ and perhaps you have the separate sources for what has long been combined into one of the Tour’s great tales.

Incredibly, after more than 14 hours of racing the stage came down to a sprint, with Lapize just pipping Pierino Albini to the win. Faber meanwhile punctured four times but still finished third, meaning that again Lapize gained only two points.

But he was on a roll and after consistently placing better than Faber on the next three stages he finally took the race lead and held it to Paris. It was the first and only time Lapize finished the Tour and his winning margin over Faber was four points – exactly the number he had gained across the two days in the Pyrenees.

Nicknamed Frisé because of his curly hair, and once described by Desgrange as having the ‘hands of a rider who could destroy any handlebar in the world when he pulls hard on them on the hills’, Lapize joined France’s air force at the outbreak of war and died in 1917 when his plane was shot down.

The plane was recovered and his fellow pilots wrote a moving inscription on the cabin: ‘This Old No 4 was piloted by our dear and poor comrade, O Lapize,’ it read. ‘Whoever you are, do not climb in without a thought for this brilliant pilot, who fell gloriously.’

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