Saturday, February 1, 2014

Stories from the Tour De France

      Sometime Ago I found these stories from the Tour De France. These stories illustrate pretty accurately what life is like for a professional cyclist. These stories are pretty old but the narrative remains the same, with rider's enduring the challenges of the toughest bicycle race ever created.



The idea of support cars carrying replacement bicycles was unheard of in the early years of the Tour. In fact, riders faced severe time penalties if they were caught receiving any help at all to effect mechanical repairs. It was this typically draconian rule that led to an incident that has gone down in Tour legend. While descending the Col du Tourmalet at high speed, Eugène Christophe's front forks snapped. Remarkably, he was unscathed. Even more remarkably, Christophe – aware that he was the race leader on the road – slung his bike over his shoulder, grabbed the broken forks, and set off on foot for the nearest village, 6 miles (10km) further down the mountain. The village was St Marie de Campan, and right in the middle of it was a blacksmith. Stoking up the forge, Christophe set about repairing his forks. As he did so, a Tour official looked on to ensure that no rules were broken. When Christophe asked a local youngster to work the bellows, he was informed by the official that he had been docked ten minutes – on top of the four hours he had already lost since the crash!

Such was the outcry over the decision, the time penalty was eventually reduced – to three minutes. Towards the end of his life, Christophe returned to St Marie de Campan to watch the unveiling of a commemorative plaque on the site of the former smithy. To add insult to injury, his name was misspelled.


Was there ever an unluckier rider than the Italian Napoleon Paoli? While racing down a narrow mountain track, he collided with a donkey that was standing in the middle of the road. Both he and his bike flew into the air and, when he landed, Paoli was on the back of the donkey. The beast of burden duly set off in panic in the opposite direction, with the helpless Paoli unable to get off. When the donkey eventually collapsed from exhaustion, Paoli had to run nearly a kilometre to where his bike was lying by the roadside. Further along the road, he was hit on the head by a rock that had been worked loose from an overhanging cliff. Paoli managed to get to the summit of the Tourmalet, where he gave up and fell asleep in a hut. In all he would ride three Tours, and finish none.


The 1924 Tour was dubbed "Le Tour du Souffrance" (The Tour of Suffering) by the journalist Alfred Londres, and there is little doubt that in terms of draconian rules and regulations, Henri Desgrange excelled himself this year. Not content with forcing riders to contest 15 stages in which only two were under 186 miles (300km) and five were in excess of 248 miles (400km), and insisting that they have no mechanical back-up, Desgrange decided that in addition, riders would be disqualified if they were found to be discarding clothing or equipment en route. When most stages started in the pre-dawn cold and finished in the burning afternoon heat, this was perhaps the greatest torture of all. It proved too much for Henri Pélissier, who withdrew from the race claiming that Desgrange would soon insist on riders carrying weights "since God made humans too light".