Back in July, Team Astana was clearly not only the strongest team in the 2009 Tour de France peloton, but also one of the most powerful teams that had been put together in recent years. La Gazzetta dello Sport called it “Fortress Astana”. This caused Padraig to ponder about which team might be the best Tour de France squad of all time. He suggested the 1986 La Vie Claire team of Bernard Hinault, Greg LeMond, Andy Hampsten, Steve Bauer and Jean-François Bernard as the greatest.
I offered the 1908 Peugeot squad, which won all 14 stages in the 1908 Tour and took the top four GC places as the finest Tour de France team ever. I still hold by that view.
So who is number two on my list? Team France between 1930 and 1934.
Until 1930, the Tour as contested by trade teams, as it is today. Alcyon-Dunlop, Alleluia-Wolber and Lucifer-Hutchinson were the Cofidis’, Columbia-HTCs and Garmin-Transitions of their time. But, not surprisingly, loyalties could cross trade team lines and riders from a country could unite to help a fellow compatriot. Also, trade teams could combine to try to bring about an outcome that had been decided in a hotel room. Of course, this still goes on today.
At that time the Tour was run by its founder, an iron-fisted dictator named Henri Desgrange, who wanted his race to be a pure test of an athlete’s will and power. He made the race stupefyingly hard, even forcing the riders to perform their own repairs. As late as 1929 riders still had to fix their own flat tires. Desgrange loathed trade teams and felt they corrupted his race. Since the race’s inception he had tried to negate the effect of teams and domestiques (a term Desgrange invented) but in the end he had to surrender to the fact that massed-start bicycle road racing is a sport contested by teams and won by individuals.
It all came to a head in the 1929 Tour. Maurice Dewaele took the Yellow Jersey after the 323-kilometer stage 10 trip through the Pyrenees. His lead of nearly 15 minutes looked nearly unassailable. But as the Alps loomed, Dewaele fell ill. He was so sick that at one point he couldn’t eat solid food. He was pushed and dragged over the remaining stages by his teammates. More importantly, it seemed that a fix was in. Dewaele in his fragile state was extremely vulnerable to the attacks that never came. Astonishingly, he arrived in Paris still in yellow.
“A corpse has won,” lamented a miserable Desgrange who was convinced that something had to be done to protect the fundamental honesty of the Tour.
What he did was extraordinary. He dispensed with the detested trade teams and instead, put the riders in national squads. There was a French team, an Italian team, one for Belgium, etc. Since the bike makers had a 3-week publicity blackout, they refused to pay the substantial expenses of housing, feeding and transporting the riders. Again, Desgrange did the unexpected. He came up with the publicity caravan. Companies would pay the Tour for the privilege of driving their logo’d trucks and cars in front of the race. The national teams are gone, but the publicity caravan remains.
The effect of this realignment was huge. Instead of being scattered among many teams, the best French riders were now on one team. In 1930, the best stage racers in the world were the French, with the Belgians and Italians formidable but on a slightly lower level.
The early 1930s Team France has to be considered one of the greatest sports dynasties in history. They won 5 straight Tours with 3 different riders. That is a bench with depth. In 1930, the national team format’s first year, they not only won the Tour, they put 6 riders in the top ten in the overall, and team member Charles Pélissier won 8 stages.
Here’s the core of the team:
André Leducq: He won 5 stages in the 1929 Tour and went on to win a total of 25 stages. That remained the record until Merckx won 34. He won the Tour in 1930 and 1932. This was a man with talent. He had been world amateur champion and had won Paris-Roubaix in 1928 and would take Paris-Tours in 1931.
Antonin Magne: He won the tour in 1931 and 1934. Magne was the world pro road champion in 1936 and won the Grand Prix des Nations, then the unofficial world time trial championship, in 1934, ’35, an ’36.
Charles Pélissier: Charles was brother to 1923 Tour winner Henri and the capable but not outstanding Francis (who found later that he was a far better team manager than racer). Pélissier won those 8 stages in the 1930 Tour, which included the final 4 legs of the race. In 1931 he won 4 stages. Pélissier wasn’t part of the 1932 team (he would return in 1933) but Georges Speicher was. Speicher won the Tour and the world road championship in 1933 as well as the 1936 Paris-Roubaix. Also a member of the 1932 squad was Roger Lapébie. He won 5 stages in the 1934 Tour before going of to win the 1937 edition.
We can’t forget some of the other French team members:
Maurice Archambaud: magnificent against the clock but too heavy to win the Tour. He wore yellow but could never seal the deal, losing too much time in the high mountains. Nevertheless, he was an important contributor to the team’s success.
René Vietto: His story of giving up his wheel to allow Magne to win in 1934 when Vietto might very well have won the race himself is one of the legends of the Tour. This was a team that acted as one for a common goal. Vietto ended up wearing Yellow more than any man who didn’t win the Tour. He was one of the greatest climbers in the history of the sport, but both his knees and his time trialing would let him down when it mattered.
The French team was not only talented, it had a magnificent esprit de corps. When Leducq crashed descending the Galibier and thought his chances of winning the 1930 Tour were over, they rallied his spirits and dragged him up to the leaders and led him out for the stage win.
1934 was Team France’s last year of glory when it won 19 of the 23 stages. That is dominance writ large.
Cycling historian Jean-Paul Ollivier thinks the 1933 French team was the greatest assemblage of pre-war cycling talent ever. I think one could pick any or all of the 1930’s Tour teams as the best, and with the exception of the 1908 Peugeot team, one could hardly go wrong.
And then the magic ended. In 1935 Magne crashed out of the Tour and although Pélissier raced the 1935 edition, it was as an independent rider, not part of Team France. With the absence of the leadership these two riders gave the team, the magnificent cohesion that had allowed the French to steamroller their opposition evaporated. Romain Maes of Belgium mercilessly took the French and the rest of the peloton apart. Second-place Ambrogio Morelli of Italy finished almost 18 minutes behind. The best-placed French rider was Speicher, at 54 minutes and 29 seconds.
The only time the French would win the Tour again before the war was in 1937, and the tainted officiating in favor of the French and Lapébie still smells.
The French would come back to dominate the Tour de France during golden age of racing, the 1950s (and beyond), with Louison Bobet ( winner in 1953, ’54, ’55), Roger Walkowiak (1956) and Jacques Anquetil (1957, ’61, ’62, ’63 and ’64).
Image: John Pierce, Photosport International