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Book Excerpt
Tourmen: the Men Who Made the Tour de France
Chapter 7: My Race Has Been Won by a Corpse

By Les Woodland

Return to Rider Histories index page

Les Woodland has been kind enough to let me excerpt a chapter from his book Tourmen: The Men Who made the Tour de France. I like to think I know something about the Tour de France, but Tourmen taught me something new on every page. It's available from Amazon as both a print book and as a Kindle ebook. To learn more about Tourmen and how to get your copy click here.

To bring you up to speed (this is chapter seven, after all), Tour de France boss Henri Desgrange had been looking for the formula that would both force the racers to ride all-out and yet prevent them from working together. He had gone so far as to make the Tours of the late 1920s primarily team time trials. The effect was predictable, the strongest teams won, the opposite of his desire to make his tour a race of individuals. Moreover, Desgrange hated the sponsors, whom he believed corrupted his race, especially the Alcyon bicycle company, whose team was run by Ludo Feuillet. I'll let Les take it from here:

...Well, if a team race didn't work, the Tour would return to a race for individuals.

Ludo Feuillet snickered.

Desgrange’s contempt for riders showed. Either they went faster than 30km/h, he threatened, or he’d go back to team time-trials next day. They had been warned. But he should have learned his lesson. Right from the start, Alcyon employed not only team tactics but engaged isolés—the Tour had two classes of riders supposed to be riding separate races—with whom it had a link. More than that, the team paid cash to any rival prepared to help.

Henri Desgrange

An undated photo of Henri Desgrange

Leading Alcyon and leading the Tour was Maurice Dewaele, a Dutch-speaking Belgian from Lovendegem who had come second in 1927 and third in 1928. He had, however, fallen ill. Marcel Bidot was one of Alcyon’s riders. He recounted: “There were eight stages left, taking us over the Galibier, Aravis, the Jura, across the north, from Metz to Malo-les-Bains, which was a succession of out-of-the-usual difficulties. Fortunately, the Alcyon team was solid. Dewaele could count on André Leducq, Nicolas Frantz, Gaston Rebry and me. We cut off our arms to help him. However, he was sicker than we thought. He had a sleepless night in Grenoble and, an hour before the start, he passed out.

“We pushed him on his bike to send him off to his misery. The opposition, of course, knew all about it. Antonin Magne, of the Alleluia team, reckoned on attacking right from the start. The race set off along a wide avenue and so, with his brother Pierre, he made the most of the darkness to take off along side roads. What he didn’t realize was that we knew, because Jules Moineau had told us. We put our sentries in place under the banner and blocked the road. It took three hours to ride 50km, so you can guess the average speed.”

Leducq and Frantz

Alcyon riders André Leducq and Nicholas Frantz in the 1928 Tour de France

The procession helped Dewaele recover and he began to ride well on the Galibier. He rode well because his teammates pushed him, something Bidot didn’t think to add. They pushed him on climb after climb. Desgrange was furious. Whenever he turned up, the pushing stopped. When he told his driver to take his Hotchkiss elsewhere—Desgrange never learned to drive—the pushing began again. And, given Alcyon’s open wallet policy, others joined in or didn’t object.

“My race has been won by a corpse,” Desgrange wailed. “How could a maillot jaune so easy to pluck have kept his first place? Why was the opposition so ineffective? What can we make of their tactics and the real worth of the winner?”

Alcyon, of course, feigned hurt innocence. But they had achieved more than make a sick man win: they had contrived themselves—and other sponsors—out of the Tour. Desgrange was tired of his race, or at any rate the way he believed it was abused. He couldn’t fight the sponsors, who undermined all his intentions, and he could no longer enthuse the public. Two years of team time-trials had made them yawn. And although there were plenty of good French riders, Belgians were a surer bet and it was Belgians the factories picked as leader. And they had plenty to choose from: Belgium had no bike factories and so its riders rode for French employers. From 1912 to 1929, foreigners won 13 of the 14 Tours.

The Tour had a life but its purpose remained to sell L’Auto and pay its employees. Just one Frenchman—Henri Pélissier—had won in 14 years and the French, like all people, bought newspapers most when one of their own did well. Sales of L’Auto stuck at 50,000. And then they started going down.

If French riders could be brought together, their strength could be greater than their parts. A national team had potential winners in André Leducq, Antonin Magne and Marcel Bidot, and a stage winner in the dashing, in both senses, Charles Pélissier. Charles, brother of Henri and Francis, was the only Pélissier whom Desgrange could tolerate. Everybody liked Charles. Especially women. They saw something of Beau Brummel, the 19th century dandy. And that was how the papers referred to him.

Desgrange had created a sport—bicycle stage racing—and perfected it. But the harder he tried to make it honest, the more a dictator he had to be. And the more dictatorial he became, the more riders and employers outwitted him. Instead of getting better, the Tour was becoming a farce. Jacques Goddet remembered: “Everything had been tried, in obvious chaos, with every form of encouragement and punishment. The experiments were all carried out in a spirit of permanent revolt against the bike makers. They were responsible for all the Tour’s ills. They came from their eagerness to win the Tour, on which their sales depended, by any means. They came from the disparity of their means. So, obviously, they had to be booted out, this scabby riffraff, and above all the monumental Edmond Gentil had to lose his head for wanting to annex bike-racing for himself! I had the privilege of witnessing the anguished somersaults of a man of character who preferred to throw himself into a veritable revolution, with all the risks and above all with all the expenses it would bring, than stay in the grip of the factories.”

• • •

Victor Goddet had relaunched L’Auto several times and in the process become the majority shareholder, making Desgrange his employee. Goddet died in 1926 and, against the law but seemingly with no objection from his sons, left fewer shares to Jacques than to his elder son, Maurice. In the fall of 1929 Desgrange discussed his revolution with Jacques, who approved, then took them to Maurice. And Maurice, more interested in partying, probably said yes with no more than a glance.

From Wednesday, July 2, 1930, the Tour would be for France, Belgium, Italy, Spain and Germany in groups of eight. “Why [just] five national teams?” Desgrange asked. “Because only five countries are in a position to provide a team: Belgium, Italy, Spain, Germany and France. Luxembourg has only one man. Switzerland has only three. Austria just one. The other countries have none at all. Why teams of eight? I’m going to whisper something in your ear, confidentially. If you’ve got several hundred thousand francs that aren’t doing anything, we can maybe increase the teams to 12.”

The size and publicity of the Tour obliged factories to release their riders. They said they didn’t like it but hindsight shows they didn’t mind: getting their best men into the Tour without having to pay for them in a worldwide recession saved a lot of money. To make up spaces liberated by Tour riders, they took on replacements given only a bike, a jersey and any bonuses they might gain, a system called riding à la musette. It put a lot of extra riders on the road, all wearing advertising at better than cut-price rates, and it undermined professional cycling for decades.

What troubled the factories more was Desgrange’s insistence that riders not use their own bikes. Instead, the eight national teams and a further nine representing French regions would present their saddles and handlebars 48 hours before the start and mechanics would fit them to anonymous frames painted yellow to match L’Auto and labeled only with the paper’s name. In keeping with the era and the Tour’s rules, the bikes were steel throughout and had no derailleur and, despite their introduction, no alloy rims. Desgrange thought derailleurs corrupted competition and that prolonged braking on mountain descents would melt the glue that held the tires. There was no double chainring, either, for that hadn’t been invented. Instead, riders chose a 46 or 48-tooth ring and fitted a three-speed freewheel with 16, 17 and 18 teeth for the flat and 22, 23, 25 for the climbs. Changing gear still required a rider to stop, jump off and fiddle with his back wheel just as he did in the days of single gears that had no freewheel.

• • •

Desgrange, so adamant the Tour should be pure of team tactics, had created a race which could be anything but. But he had dynamited Gentil [owner of Alcyon] and anything was worth that. Alcyon itself lasted until 1954, when it was bought by Peugeot, and the team ended two years later. Gentil died at the start of the 1960s.

Desgrange had to discuss the costs with the Goddet brothers. Some would come from an expected rise in L’Auto’ssales. More would come from bike factories unable to resist advertising their riders’ performances, even on yellow bikes. Those bikes, incidentally, were made by Alcyon; Feuillet leaked that to the press. And then there was the enterprising Paul Thévenin, publicity man of the Menier chocolates company. It started in 1856 and reached its peak in the 1930s. After the war, it suffered from chocolate imported from the USA as a condition of Marshall Aid, changed hands several times and is now part of the Swiss giant, Nestlé.

Thévenin wasn’t the first to spot that driving along with a bike race exposed spectators to his advertising. The pioneer was probably the Parisian department store, Galéries Lafayette, which joined in with Bordeaux–Paris in 1922. But Menier had something to throw to the crowds—his chocolate. His only problem was that nobody knew he was there if he preceded the race; officials wouldn’t let him drive withthe race and most spectators would have gone home if he followed it.

Desgrange told Thévenin that, for a fee, he could drive just ahead of the riders. The crowd in an era without television would be at its densest. He did the same deal with La Vache Qui Rit, Graf, Biscottes Delft, Esders and Noveltex. Menier was delighted and so was the crowd: his staff threw out tons of chocolate and half a million policeman’s hats printed with the firm’s name. They made hot chocolate for fans, riders and officials in the mountains. Menier gave 5,000 francs to the first rider to the top of cols. He had the biggest publicity budget of any company in France, according to Pierre Chany, and he made the most of it. It was such a success that Desgrange had little trouble recruiting other companies when he took 20 of their representatives to lunch. Perrier, Pernod, Martini and Banania stayed for decades.

Every vehicle in the caravan tried to be cleverer, louder and of still less taste than the others. They yelled of “the mint alcohol of Ricqlès, which stimulates, refreshes and comforts” and “Byrrh—the drink that sportsmen prefer.” Lucky Strike went further. Not only did it shout about cigarettes “which don’t hurt your throat or make you cough” but it pictured André Leducq smoking beside the caption “I like Lucky Strike.” Before long the drinks companies expanded into the evening as well, holding street parties with popular singers such as Tino Rossi and Charles Trenet.

Desgrange felt pleased. He had routed the bike factories. He had saved the Tour. And he had arranged to have his costs paid by companies outside the sport and by the cities his race visited. What he hadn’t foreseen was that those companies would, within a couple of decades and against the Tour’s wishes, take over the sport in a way the bike factories couldn’t have imagined. But by then Desgrange was dead and the problems fell to others.

Want to learn more about the men made the Tour de France and how to get your copy of Tourmen? Click here