Friday, July 8, 2011

Tour legends and legends of the tour; stage 6 - 1924

Throughout this, the 98th edition of le Tour de France, I will be writing a daily (except yesterday) despatch on some of the things that have combined to make this race one of the biggest, most celebrated and anticipated sporting shows on earth.


The 1924 Tour (which I mentioned in Tour legends and legends of the tour; stage 5) was won by Ottavio Bottecchia who was the first Italian ever to do so. What's more, he was also the first cyclist to take the yellow jersey on stage one and keep it all the way through Paris.

Stage one was was a 381 km marathon (well, actually nine marathons if you want to be pedantic) from Paris to Le Havre. As such, the stage started at 1am. The Tour itself was also monstrously long at 5,425 kilometres (or 129 marathons to continue the use of this unusual unit of measure).


Newspapers have always played an important role in the Tour de France. After all, it was a newspaper that organised the very first Tour to increase their sales. With limited radio and no television, fans relied on the newspapers to follow the race.

Albert Londres

What follows is an extract from the book Tour de France, tour de souffrance (Tour de france, tour of suffering), which is a compilation of reports from journalist, Albert Londres. It should be noted that he had never reported on cycling before. The book has never been translated into English, however the Wheeler Centre have just published a translation of the stage one report. Enjoy...
Last night, at half past eleven, the men were still dining in a suburban Parisian restaurant. The scene was carnivalesque: from a distance, dressed in their gaudy jerseys, they could have been taken for Chinese lanterns. They downed their last drinks and rose from their seats to leave, but the crowd lifted them in high triumph, for these cyclists were about to compete in the Tour de France.
As for me, approaching one o'clock in the morning, I took the road to Argenteuil, overtaking perfectly respectable men and women pedalling in the night. One would have never guessed there were so many bicycles in the d├ępartement of the Seine.
The number 63 tram was going about its daily business – which is to say, ferrying passengers to Bezons-Grand-Cerf – when these same respectable men and women brought it to a halt, shouting, “Out of the way! They’re coming!” And so they were. The competitors gathered at Argenteuil for the start of the race.
Soon enough, the suburb began to spring to life. Window sills were adorned with spectators in their pyjamas. The city square rumbled expectantly. Elderly ladies who’d normally have retired at dusk sat before their front doors. If I saw no infant suckling at its mother’s teat, it’s only because it was obscured in the darkness.
“Look at those thighs!” admired the crowd. “Just take a look at those thighs!”
The competitors gathered among the shrubbery for the count-down to the start time: one o'clock.
“Are we or are we not leaving?” asked one cyclist, enraged. Another chimed, “Don’t lose your nerve.”
A steward went through the roll-call: 157 names. French cyclists replied, “Pr├ęsent.” The Italians replied, “Presente.” As for the Flemish, I have no idea what they said.
Then, “Allez!” shouted the steward, and from the crowd, a woman’s small voice was heard shouting, “Good luck, Tiberghien!” And 157 men took to the road.
Within a quarter-hour I came across number 223 changing a tyre on the side of the road – the first unfortunate. “Well, well,” I said, “out of luck already?”
“Someone has to be the first,” he replied.
Then a sudden volley of insults: “Swine! Snob! Flea-bitten scoundrel!”
I couldn’t help but notice that, though not in the slightest bit flea-bitten, the scoundrel was none other than myself. My car was blocking the forward march of a whole impassioned army that was following the cyclists with Olympian vigour.
It was night still, and we’d been driving for an hour through a forest emblazoned throughout by great savage fires. Were these tribes-people cowering from wild tigers? No, they were Parisians, keeping vigil beside these bonfires, waiting for the ‘kings of the road’ to pass by. At the forest’s edge, a woman shivered in her squirrel coat beside a gentleman wearing a cocked hat. It was 3:35am.
Day breaks and it is clear that, on this night, the people of France haven’t slept a wink. The entire province stands at its doorway in curlers.
Still the cyclists are on the treadmill. Number 307 is the first to succumb to stomach pain. He pulls a round loaf from a wine-red shoulder bag and bites into it toothily.
“Don’t eat bread,” advises a race veteran. “It bloats. Eat rice instead.”
A railway gatekeeper splits the peloton in two: a train is about to pass. Five guys who didn’t cross in time dismount, lift their bikes and skip across the tracks as the locomotive practically grazes their shoulders in passing. The gatekeeper can’t help but shriek in fright. And already the five cyclists are back in the saddle, pushing down on their pedals.
At Montdidier, there’s a refreshment break. I sidle up to the buffet, hoping the kings of the road, masticating politely, might be so considerate as to invite me to partake. All the more fool I… They pounce on pre-prepared satchels, snatch at cups of tea, step on my feet, sideswipe me, spit on my handsome coat, and clear out. They aren’t here to sightsee, as I’d thought, but to compete. Today, they’re racing all the way to Le Havre, barely pausing for breath, as if fetching a doctor for a dying mother.

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