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Chairman Bill's History of the Tour de France:
the 1930s

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

TDF volume 1

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.

1930. Tour boss Henri Desgrange was steaming over the 1929 Tour. Maurice De Waele, even though he had taken ill in the Alps, had emerged the victor. At one point during the '29 Tour De Waele was unable to eat solid food and could only swallow water with a little sugar dissolved in it. His all-powerful Alcyon team had protected him, pushing him up mountains and blocking attacks. Collusion with other teams was assumed. Feeling that the trade teams were ruining his race and its integrity, Desgrange set about recasting the Tour de France.

Desgrange was never one to stick stubbornly to a formula that didn't work, even if it were his own brainchild. Desgrange searched for a new way to inject sparkle and competition into his race. He found it. He dispensed with the trade teams he hated so much. Not until 1962 would bicycle companies and other manufacturers again sponsor teams in the Tour de France. In the place of trade teams, he created a system of national and regional teams. Riders would now ride for France, Italy, Spain and other countries. To fill out the race, when needed, regional teams such as Normandy and Alsace-Lorraine also rode. At the inception of this system the riders would ride identical, yellow (of course) anonymous bikes.

The public instantly greeted the national team proposal as a fine idea. The team sponsors grumbled that they lost publicity during the most important race of the season. Moreover, they were still obliged to continue to pay the racer's salaries.

This presented a huge problem and a huge risk. No longer would the team sponsors pay the substantial expenses of running the teams during the Tour. The Tour organization would be responsible for transport, food and lodging, a huge undertaking. Where would the money come from? And suppose the bicycle manufacturers became sufficiently angry at Desgrange's move and withdrew their advertising from his newspaper and Tour sponsor, L'Auto? L'Auto was born out of just such an advertiser's rebellion 30 years before (see origins).

Desgrange had an audacious idea. He invented the publicity caravan. Companies could pay the Tour a fee to follow the Tour with their logo'd trucks and cars, advertising their products.

The publicity caravan took a while to get going. The Menier Chocolate company was the first to sign up, and was 1 of only 3 companies that participated in the caravan the first year. Today, even with trade teams back in the race, the caravan continues to be an important part of the color and magic of watching the Tour.

Desgrange also disposed of his team time trial format and went back to mass-starts. He dispensed with the riders-must-do-their-own-repairs and finish-with-the-starting-bike rules. Now a rider could get a bike from a following vehicle and receive assistance from his teammates. As we will see in the 1930 Tour, this had a huge effect on the outcome. With these changes Desgrange had officially recognized that professional bicycle racing is a sport contested by teams and won by individuals.

With the best French riders now all on one team, French teams were able to begin a run of 5 straight wins. At the time France possessed cycling talent with real depth. The 1930 team was filled with great riders: Charles Pélissier, André Leducq, Antonin and Pierre Magne, Victor Fontan and Marcel Bidot.

The Italian team included immortal riders Alfredo Binda and Learco Guerra. Belgium sent Joseph Demuysére, Aimé Dossche and Louis Delannoy. This was a race with truly worthy competitors.

The touriste-routier classification of independent riders was retained, with some of them put into regional teams.

Desgrange cut the distance from the 5,276 kilometers of 1929 to 4,818 kilometers. He also reduced the number of stages from a high of 24 in 1927 and 22 in 1929 to 21 in 1930. This gave him an average stage length of 229 kilometers. Compare this to 1916's (about the same in 1923) 360 kilometers and it becomes clear that the Tour was becoming a race with greater emphasis on speed and less on brute endurance.

The youngest of the 3 Pélissier brothers, Charles, was now an accomplished professional and a superb field sprinter. He beat Alfredo Binda to the line in Caen to notch the first win in the newly redesigned Tour. 3 years after his brother Frances held and lost the Yellow Jersey and 7 years after brother Henri won the Tour, another of the remarkable Pélissiers was in yellow.

28-year old Learco Guerra was in the second year of his professional career. He was already Champion of Italy and had placed ninth in the Giro that year, winning 2 stages. This was a man to be watched, but watching was not enough. Guerra escaped from the pack on stage 2 and beat Alfredo Binda, who led in the field, by 1 minute, 28 seconds. The young Italian with the thick, black shock of hair was the leader of the Tour de France.

Charles Pélissier was on a tear. He won the 57-man sprint in stage 3, beating Binda to the line in Brest. Guerra was still in yellow with Pélissier and Binda tied at the same time in second and third places. Pélissier was a determined sprinter who was not afraid to get rough in the final dash to the line. The judges relegated him to third place after he won the sprint in stage 6 in Bordeaux, for having given Binda's jersey a tug.

Binda's hopes for a win in the Tour were ruined when he crashed in stage 7, losing an hour. But Binda was a champion. Undeterred by his misfortune, the great man finally beat Pélissier in a sprint the next day.

So, after stage 8 and before the Pyrenees, here was the General Classification:

1. Learco Guerra
2. Charles Pélissier @ 12 seconds
3. Antonin Magne @ 1 minute 24 seconds

Stage 9 from Pau to Luchon crossed the Aubisque and the Tourmalet. Benoît Faure, riding as a touriste-routier on the regional France South-East team set a hot pace. Nearly all were dropped including Guerra. Faure led over the crests of both the Aubisque and the Tourmalet but was eventually dropped by Binda, André Leducq, and Pierre and Antonin Magne. Binda won the stage and Guerra came in more than 13 minutes later. Charles Pélissier lost over 23 minutes that day.

The new General Classification:

1. André Leducq
2. Antonin Magne @ 5 minutes 26 seconds
3. Learco Guerra @ 11 minutes 42 seconds

Stage 9: Antonin Magne descends the Tourmalet

The second day in the Pyrenees didn't change anything. All the leaders finished together behind Pélissier. The notable occurrence was Binda's abandonment.

Binda's entry in the 1930 Tour is interesting. He won the 1925, 1927, 1928 and 1929 Giros. The Giro organizers didn't want Binda to ride the 1930 edition, fearing he would make it uninteresting with his domination. They paid him the equivalent of the winner's purse to stay away.

Desgrange, meanwhile, wanted the magnificent Italian to ride the Tour. Binda demurred. Now, with no Giro in his 1930 schedule, Binda entertained offers from Desgrange to ride the Tour if Desgrange would pay him. A secret contract was agreed upon, which Binda revealed only in 1980, 6 years before his death. Binda's real objective for the year was to regain the World Road Championship, which he had been the first ever to win, in 1927. He succeeded that fall and went on to win it a third time in 1932.

Alfredo Binda is another in a long list of great Italian riders who did not find the structure and rhythm of the Tour to their liking. We'll meet Binda again later as the manager of the Italian team. It was he who had the difficult job of running the team that contained the hard to manage duo of Fausto Coppi and Gino Bartali.

Both Guerra and Antonin Magne lost some time on stage 14 to Nice with its Braus and Castillon climbs. Guerra won the next day and made up some of the loss.

So, before the Alps, this was how things stood:

1. André Leducq
2. Learco Guerra @ 16 minutes 13 seconds
3. Antonin Magne @ 18 minutes 3 seconds

Stage 15: Leducq leads Benoit Faure and Learco Guerra up the Côte des Crozets

Stage 16 from Grenoble to Évian with the Lautaret, Galibier, Télégraphe and Aravis passes is one of those days in racing in which a champion is forged on the anvil of misfortune. Let's take a look at this remarkable and famous day.

Fernand Robache, a Frenchman riding as a completely independent touriste-routier, was first over the Lautaret. Pierre Magne led over the Galibier with Benoît Faure, the touriste-routier, right with him. Guerra was only 6 seconds behind, followed by André Leducq, another 9 seconds back.

Leducq, throwing caution to the winds, flew down the Galibier and crashed. Sensing opportunity, Guerra kept going as fast as he dared.

Leducq had lost consciousness in the crash. Upon Leducq's awakening, Pierre Magne managed to get him back on his bike and rolling down the hill, his teammates riding with him. At the base of the next climb, the Télégraphe, Leducq broke a pedal and crashed again. Leducq wept, calling for his mother. Teammate Bidot managed to get a pedal from a spectator's bike. Leducq's leg was a bloody mess from the crash. He was probably suffering from shock after the 2 falls.

Surrounded by his teammates, he talked of abandoning. Pélissier would hear none of it. Jean-Paul Ollivier in Maillot Jaune relates:

"You don't give up when you've got the Yellow Jersey to take care of. Are you listening to me Dédé [Leducq's nickname]? We're all going to go flat out; you'll stick with us and we'll take you up to Guerra."

"There is also Demuysére," objected Leducq, thinking of the high-placed capable Belgian who was with Guerra.

Marcel Bidot answered, "Demuysére is an old nag! Come on, get on the saddle! I've had enough of seeing you blubbering like that. You're not a woman after all! Let's have a look at your knee! Stretch out your bend it...there's nothing broken. Let's go then, you'll warm up on the way!"

What man could resist such esprit-de-corps, such dedicated teammates desperate to help? Leducq remounted and the chase was on.

Guerra meanwhile was lashing himself and his breakaway companions, doing all he could to get as much time as possible on the chasing Frenchmen behind him. When Leducq restarted for the second time Guerra had a 15-minute lead, enough to give him the Yellow Jersey.

But, there were still 60 kilometers to the finish line in Évian. Guerra begged for more help from the others with him, but after four Alpine climbs and 270 kilometers, no one had any more to give.

Behind him, the French team was mobilized. As they had promised, Pierre and Antonin Magne, Charles Pélissier and Marcel Bidot, dragging the bloody Leducq, were riding like fiends possessed. After 2 hours of desperate, hard chasing, they caught Guerra near the finish. To make Guerra's misery complete, Pélissier led out Leducq who won the stage.

So here was the new General Classification

1. André Leducq
2. Learco Guerra @ 16 minutes 13 seconds
3. Antonin Magne @ 18 minutes 3 seconds

The fight for the General Classification was basically over at that point. Charles Pélissier continued his incredible sprinting streak by winning all of the final 4 stages.

The French team won the Tour, won 12 of the 21 stages and put 6 of their riders in the top 10 in the General Classification. Needless to say, the French were well pleased with the new format. Charles Pélissier, giving almost daily lessons in sprinting to the other racers, had won 8 stages.

Final 1930 Tour de France General Classification:

1. André Leducq (France): 172 hours 12 minutes 16 seconds
2. Learco Guerra (Italy) @ 14 minutes 13 seconds
3. Antonin Magne (France) @ 16 minutes 3 seconds
4. Joseph Demuysére (Belgium) @ 21 minutes 34 seconds
5. Marcel Bidot (France) @ 41 minutes 18 seconds
6. Pierre Magne (France) @ 45 minutes 42 seconds

1931. The Story of the 1931 Tour de France has been moved to the 1931 Tour results page.

1932. The Story of the 1932 Tour de France has been moved to the 1932 Tour results page.

1933. The Story of the 1933 Tour de France has been moved to the 1933 Tour results page.

1934: The Story of the 1934 Tour de France has been moved to the 1934 Tour results page.

1935. The Story of the 1935 Tour de France has been moved to the 1935 Tour results page.

1936. The Story of the 1936 Tour de France has been moved to the 1936 Tour results page.

1937. The Story of the 1937 Tour de France has been moved to the 1937 Tour results page.

1938. The Story of the 1938 Tour de France has been moved to the 1938 Tour results page.

1939. The Story of the 1939 Tour de France has been moved to the 1939 Tour results page.

<--the 1920's | the 1940's-->

Bibliography | Glossary