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Chairman Bill's History of the Tour de France:
the 1920s

How a Newspaper Promotion Became the World's Greatest Sporting Event

Index: origins and early years | 1910s | 1920s | 1930s | 1940s | 1950s | 1960s | 1970s | 1980s | 1990s | 2000s

This excerpt is from "The Story of the Tour de France", Volume 1 If you enjoy it we hope you will consider purchasing the book, either print or electronic. The Amazon link here will make either purchase easy.

1920. Desgrange stuck to the basic formula he had used since 1910: 15 stages over about 5,000 kilometers, going counter-clockwise around the perimeter of France. In 1920, it was 5,519 kilometers to be exact, from Sunday, June 27 to Sunday, July 25. He kept this configuration through 1924. 113 riders started that Sunday in June, 1920.

Philippe Thys had attempted the 1919 Tour in poor physical condition, being unable to finish even the first stage. Humiliated by the verbal caning Desgrange gave him in the pages of L'Auto, Thys resumed his habits of hard work and trained assiduously over the winter. By the start of the 1920 season he was ready to begin racing at his former high level. It almost all came to naught when he broke his collarbone in a crash in Milan-San Remo in March. Made of steel, Thys finished the remaining 50 kilometers of that race. He was able to recover his form in time to start the Tour. He rode for the manufacturer's consortium, La Sportive and had as manager Alphonse Baugé, who had been the architect of many of both Peugeot's and Alcyon's pre-war victories.

Louis Mottiat wins the first stage.

The first stage ended in a sprint won by Louis Mottiat. Since 5 riders finished with the same time that day, they shared the lead: Louis Mottiat, Thys, Jean Rossius, Félix Goethals and Émile Masson. Of these, only Goethals was French. The other 4 were Belgian. This was only the beginning of the Belgian lock on the 1920 Tour. As the race progressed the Belgians would tighten their grip.

With his win in the second stage from La Havre to Cherbourg, Thys became first among the 5 who were still tied on time for first place in the General Classification. He was now the Yellow Jersey and never relinquished the lead from then on.

The first 5 stages ended in big sprints. Desgrange hated that. He wanted his riders suffering and straggling in one by one. Henri Pélissier showed his wonderful class by winning 2 of those stages, numbers 3 and 4. He would have been leading the Tour at that point if he hadn't lost almost 17 minutes in the first stage.

Again, Henri Pélissier's stubborn, angry side came out. On stage 5 Henri threw away a spent tire. Desgrange assessed him a 2-minute penalty. Tour rules were strict. A rider must end a stage with everything he had at the start: clothing, tires, etc. Henri did the predictable thing. He quit. Desgrange also did the predictable. He used his newspaper, L'Auto, to make fun of Pélissier. Desgrange said Pélissier didn't know how to suffer and that he would never win the Tour.

Stage 6, on the Toumalet. This stage would take the winner, Firmin Lambot, over 15 hours to complete. The rider on the left, Jean Rossius would finish over an hour later. The rider on the right, Jules Masselis would need 18 hours, 35 minutes to finish the stage. And he finished in the middle of the field.

Stages 6 and 7 went over the Pyrenees. Thys rode economically, avoiding any bravado or useless displays. He kept within range the riders who might be threats to his lead, and rode no harder than necessary. He might have been able to win one of the stages, but he seems content to have let others (Lambot and Rossius) take the wins while he kept both his time and physical energy intact. The result was a 28-minute lead over his fellow Belgian, Louis Heusghem. Eugène Christophe, continuing his bad fortune, had to abandon with back pains. The Pyrenees had so far managed to ruin 2 Tours for Christophe.

Eugène Christophe in the Pyrenees, before back pains forced him to quit.

A rough and tumble arrival into Aix en Provence for the end of the 8th stage. Louis Heusghem beat the field by over 8 minutes.

Thys really iced his victory in stage 9, with some tough climbing on the way to Nice, by winning the stage. Hector Heusghem, who was in second place in the General Classification, came in over 30 minutes later. That day Thys increased his lead over Heusghem from 28 minutes to almost exactly 1 hour. Heusghem won the next day, but Thys finished right with him, coming in third with the same time.

In that same stage 9 the epic suffering of Honoré Barthélémy started when he had a hard crash. His back was so badly hurt he had to turn his handlebars up so that he didn't have to bend over as far. Yet that wasn't the worst of the crash. A road flint had pierced and ruined one eye. He was not only bleeding and beat up, he was now half blind. Unstoppable, he removed the flint, re-mounted his bike and finished the stage. We're not done with Honoré yet.

The Tour did have imperfections in its organization. The Yellow Jersey hadn't been awarded to the Tour's leader that year so far. After Thys' victory in stage 9, he was belatedly given the Maillot Jaune.

Stage 10, the pack climbs the Allos.

There was only 1 Alpine stage, stage 11. It went over the Galibier and the Aravis. Thys' worst performance of the 1920 Tour was this day, fifth place, showing how tightly he controlled the race. After the Alps, Thys won two more stages, 12 and 13.

The lead riders on the Galibier in the Alps, likely Firmim Lambot and Leon Scieur.

When the Tour concluded at the Parc de Princes in Paris the crowds were so large that the racers had to walk their bikes to get to the finish line. There were only 22 finishers of the 1920 Tour, still over twice the number who had completed the Tour the year before. Even though Thys was Belgian, the 20,000 cycling-crazed fans who were there to greet the brave finishers generously acclaimed the winner. The band played the Belgian anthem, La Brabançonne.

Philippe Thys after winning stage 13. Just two more days of racing left.

Honoré Barthélemy (who lost his eye on stage 9) finished the Tour. His eighth place made him the best-placed Frenchman in a sea of Belgians. He crashed several more times after his terrible fall in stage 9. In addition to losing an eye and ruining his back and being cut, bruised and bleeding, the later falls added a broken wrist and a dislocated shoulder to his suffering. The fans, moved by his courage, carried him after he crossed the finish line. He later replaced the blinded eye with a glass eye, which he would occasionally lose during bikes races.

Philippe Thys had done what no other racer had been able to accomplish. By winning the 1920 Tour de France, he was the first to win 3 Tours. This feat would not be matched again until the 1953, '54, and '55 triple victories of Louison Bobet. Thys' completion of the hat-trick came 7 years after his first win. He surely would have won more if the war had not interrupted his career. L'Auto thought that without the Great War's interruption Thys might have been winning his sixth or seventh Tour.

Philippe Thys. Would he have won 7 Tours if there had been no war?

L'Auto went on to say that Thys was the most complete racer since Gustave Garrigou. His record-breaking third Tour victory was the result of a tough regimen of training and clear-headed, thoughtful riding. He took his trade, bike racing, seriously. His results (let us charitably ignore 1919) prove it. L'Auto also wrote that when a rider finished a Tour at the same weight he started, it was a sign of his good form and ample preparation. In 1919 Eugène Christophe started and finished at 67 kilograms. In 1920 Thys started and finished at 69 kilograms.

Thys' 1920 victory continued the domination of the Tour by Belgian riders. Belgians won in 1912, '13, '14, '19, '20, '21, '22, '26, and '29.

Let's look at how the small nation of Belgium mastered the 1920 Tour de France.

1. Victory in the General Classification
2. Belgians took the top 7 places overall
3. Belgians won 12 of the 15 stages
4. The Yellow Jersey was always worn by a Belgian, from Mottiat after stage 1 until Thys' final victory in stage 15

1920 Tour de France final General Classification (all rode for the La Sportive manufacturer's consortium):

1. Philippe Thys: 228 hours 36 minutes 13 seconds
2. Hector Heusghem @ 57 minutes 21 seconds
3. Firmin Lambot @ 1 hour 39 minutes 35 seconds
4. Léon Scieur @ 1 hour 44 minutes 58 seconds
5. Émile Masson, Sr. @ 2 hours 56 minutes 52 seconds

Complete 1920 Tour de France stage details

1921. The Story of the 1921 Tour de France has been moved to the 1921 Tour results page.

1922. The Story of the 1922 Tour de France has been moved to the 1922 Tour results page.

1923. The Story of the 1923 Tour de France has been moved to the 1923 Tour results page.

1924. The Story of the 1924 Tour de France has been moved to the 1924 Tour results page.

1925. The Story of the 1925 Tour de France has been moved to the 1925 Tour results page.

1926. The Story of the 1926 Tour de France has been moved to the 1926 Tour results page.

1927. The Story of the 1927 Tour de France has been moved to the 1927 Tour results page.

1928. The Story of the 1928 Tour de France has been moved to the 1928 Tour results page.

1929. The Story of the 1929 Tour de France has been moved to the 1929 Tour results page.

<--the 1910s | the 1930s-->

Bibliography | Glossary