Someone asked me the other day at the Tour de France what was my favorite climb of all in this phenomenally beautiful country. I said, they’re all great. But I do have a soft spot for the western slopes of the Col du Tourmalet, which this year’s peloton will tackle on Thursday’s stage from Pau to Luchon (and which the brave Rêve Tour women are riding as I write these words).
There are many reasons for my infatuation with the Tourmalet but the main one is: It was the first mountain pass I ever climbed. That would be on my first visit to France, in the summer of ’63, when I joined up with the Tour route in Normandy, saw Jacques Anquetil win the time trial at Angers, watched the peloton racing through the Landes pine forest south of Bordeaux and, after covering more than a thousand kilometers in five days, set up my tent in the dark at a campground near Tarbes.
I carried my tent, maps, clothes and tools in a full saddlebag, just as I did when climbing the hills of England, Scotland and Wales on previous cycle tours. British climbs are nearly always steep, with grades of between 10 and 30 percent, but they’re rarely longer than a mile or two, or more than a thousand feet in elevation. So I could only imagine what it would be like to ride the Tourmalet, which goes uphill for 33 kilometers and summits at 6,969 feet above sea level. That’s 2,500 feet higher than Ben Nevis, Britain’s highest mountain peak!
When I left the French campground on my way to the Tourmalet, a thick mist covered the cornfields and hid the Pyrénées. As I passed through the pilgrims’ city of Lourdes (where I’m tapping these words out today), I knew the mountains were ahead of me. But it was still foggy, and I didn’t know what to expect as I entered a deep canyon, the Gorge de Luz, at the village of Pierrefitte-Nestalas. With the opaque, fast-flowing waters of the Gave River to my right, and near-vertical thousand-foot cliffs to my left, I began the long ascent.
Partway up the gorge, where the cliffs eased back, the swirling mists suddenly parted, and as I looked up I saw an azure sky and, for the first time in my life, a chain of rugged, snow-tipped mountain peaks. It was a stunning snapshot, and one I can clearly recall almost a half-century later. Although it was still early morning, the road was closed to motor traffic because the Tour riders would be coming up this canyon later in the day, preceded by the publicity caravan. Thousands of fans who’d driven in overnight were already in place and it was nice to receive their applause as the gradients slowly got steeper.
I stopped in Luz-St. Sauveur to stock up with a baguette, local goat cheese, fresh apricots, water and the morning newspapers— which provided details of the Tour’s 10th stage. This valley town of white-stone houses with black-slate roofs is the official start of the Tourmalet’s 19 kilometers and 4,656 vertical feet of climbing at an average grade of 7.4 percent. Those harsh statistics don’t reveal just how tough a climb this is. In recent times, the road has been resurfaced and re-engineered in places, but in 1963 it was narrow, with a much rougher surface. Certainly not an easy climb.
I struggled on the steeper, 9- to 10-percent pitches before reaching the village of Barrèges, a third of the way up this “official” section. It was villagers from this remote community who, on a winter’s night in early 1910, went searching for Tour de France official Alphonse Steinès, who was scouting the Tourmalet to see if it was suitable for inclusion in the Tour for the first time. He’d been driven up the other side of the climb until his car was stopped by a blizzard some four kilometers from the top as night fell. Steinès, wearing town shoes and a formal top coat, trudged on through the snow on what was then a stony goat path.
His chauffeur retraced and looped back via Lourdes to drive up the western side of the Tourmalet as far as Barrèges. Here, he organized a search party, and they headed toward the summit, some 12 kilometers up the pass. The lanterns they carried helped guide Steinès to safety by 3 in the morning. The next day, the assistant sent a telegram to his boss in Paris, race director Henri Desgrange, saying: “Crossed Tourmalet. Very good road. Perfectly practicable. Steinès.”
Fifty-three years after Steinès’s epic walk, and a few hours before the 50th editions of the Tour reached the Tourmalet, I carried on riding as far as I could on my bottom gear of 44×24. But like the Tour men of 1910, who nearly all walked to the summit, I had to dismount and push my bike for a couple of kilometers before reaching the best spot to see the race. By coincidence, I met some friends from another English cycling club here. We picnicked together, sitting on a grassy slope, where the road doubled back on itself over the Pont de la Gaubie—a famous stone bridge that has recently been bypassed with a modern road leading to a new ski station.
Our reward for riding up to this point on what was now a hot, sunny afternoon, was seeing the decisive move of the 1963 Tour. At this point, nine kilometers from the top, four men rode away from the splintered peloton: French stars Anquetil and Raymond Poulidor and Spanish riders Federico Bahamontes and José Perez-Frances. As the 108 survivors continued to pass us over the next 25 minutes or so, we heard on my little transistor radio that Bahamontes, a fabulous climber, take the KoM. The four leaders regrouped on the descent to the finish in Bagnères-de-Bigorre, where Anquetil sprinted to the stage win.
After seeing those Giants of the Road battling on the Tourmalet, I was inspired to ride the rest of the col at a decent pace, climbing on a shelf road along a precipice and up to almost 7,000 feet. Then came the thrill of my first true mountain descent—aided by the weight of a packed saddlebag. I stayed that night in a youth hostel at Campan before seeing the Tour again the next day on the Col d’Aspin and before getting caught in a thundering rainstorm.
A week later, after riding from the Pyrénées to the Alps, I saw Anquetil win another mountain stage and take the yellow jersey after out-sprinting Bahamontes in the rain at Chamonix. Anquetil would arrive in Paris to take his fourth Tour victory, 3:35 ahead of Bahamontes, with Perez-Frances in third at 10:14.
Since then the Tourmalet has been climbed 37 more times during the Tour, including the first stage finish on the summit two years ago, which marked the centenary of the first crossing by the Tour—and by the intrepid Alphonse Steinès! So, yes, I have a soft spot for the Tourmalet. Besides being as challenging climb as you’ll ever make, it has one of the most beautiful panoramas you’ll ever see of snow-spiked peaks that I first saw on my memorable first adventure to La Route du Tour all those years ago.
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Image: John Pierce, Photosport International
Of all things, the water bottle has been in the news this past week. First came the loose bottle on the ground at a feed zone that caused Volta a Catalunya favorite Alejandro Valverde to crash and later pull out of the race. In Belgium, world champion Mark Cavendish accused a Katusha team rider of throwing a bottle into his wheel and making him crash near the end of the Across Flanders race. And then there was a pronouncement from the UCI that, among other new regulations, the world’s governing body will soon be banning aerodynamically shaped bottles.
This is all a far cry from the origins of racers carrying drinks on their bikes. A century ago, they’d either have a small flask in a jersey pocket or a bottle stuffed into a small bag strapped to their handlebars. The next innovation, just before World War I, was a metal cage fixed to the front of the bars that had room for two aluminum water bottles (or bidons, as they’re called in French).
Water wasn’t the only thing that bike racers kept in their bidons, of course. Some liked tea or coffee, others even carried wine or beer with them. And a hip flask in a pocket might contain whiskey, brandy … or more suspicious potions. The first big scandal involving a bidon, at least at the Tour de France, came in 1911.
Frenchman Paul Duboc was challenging Tour leader Émile Georget after winning the first of two stages in the Pyrenees. Duboc then attacked from the start of the second one, a 326-kilometer trek through the mountains from Luchon to Bayonne. Georget stayed with Duboc over the first two climbs, but couldn’t hold his wheel over the mighty Col du Tourmalet. Then, starting the next climb, with Duboc holding a commanding lead, disaster struck.
Race director Henri Desgrange later described how he came around a turn to find Duboc sitting at the side of the road “in a terrible state, struck with nausea that had turned him green, and suffering from terrible diarrhea and painful vomiting.” The rider had just drunk something handed to him at the feed zone in Argelès. Desgrange continued: “I smelled a bidon at his side and it didn’t appear to me to have the odor of tea.” A former Tour rider (probably with a grudge) was later identified as handing Duboc a drink laced with something poisonous in the feed zone.
My own first memories of water bottles date from the time my father was getting ready to ride a 24-hour time trial in England. He was mixing a concoction of food supplements including a wheat-based one called Froment, which he poured into his aluminum bottles. It didn’t smell too good, and it certainly didn’t make me want to take up bike racing!
Perhaps the strongest ingredient placed into a bottle was the lead shot that that the French team manager Léon Le Calvez inserted into an aluminum bidon for his star climber (and former Tour de France winner) Jean Robic at the 1953 Tour. Robic was lightweight, even for a cyclist, and Le Calvez reasoned that adding 20 pounds to Robic’s bike for the downhills would help him descend much faster. They would attempt the experiment on a Pyrenean stage heading to Luchon.
Robic, who was already leading the stage by a minute after climbing the Tourmalet, stopped so his mechanic could run up and fix an apparent problem, but unseen by the commissaires he’d secreted the heavy bidon in his coveralls and placed it in Robic’s bottle cage. It was potentially a great plan, but Robic couldn’t control his unbalanced bike on the short uphill stretch to the summit and toppled over, with the lead bidon tipping out on the side of the road. Robic continued without it, and despite his light build he stayed clear of the chasers and won the stage and took over the yellow jersey.
Perhaps it was poetic justice that, two days later, Robic crashed when he touched the wheel of the rider ahead of him on a fast descent. He was knocked out and ended up in the back group, losing 38 minutes and any chance he had of winning a second Tour. In any case, Robic’s “heavy bidon” was banned before it was ever used, and it would have been an unlikely scheme when aluminum was replaced by the plastic bidon in the mid-’50s.
However, a couple of plastic bidons filled with water is still heavy enough to help a light rider go faster downhill. Maybe the UCI should ban that idea, too! But at least one rider has been disqualified from the Tour de France for illegal use of a water bottle. This happened on stage 6 of the 1997 Tour, when Belgian national champion Tom Steels got incensed when he had to stop pedaling in a chaotic, mass-sprint finish, pulled a bidon from his down-tube bottle cage and threw it at French sprinter Frédéric Moncassin. The commissaires didn’t like that and threw Steels out of the race.
Bidons have become a hot souvenir item, particular for fans who position themselves at the end of feed zones. They’re hoping that riders jettison their empty bottles before replacing them with new ones from the musette bags handed up by their team soigneurs at the feed zone.
Keeping riders fueled has become one of a team’s major tasks, with sophisticated energy drinks, gels and other race food replacing those odd concoctions like my dad used in his 24-hour time trials. I’m glad that by the time I began racing, there were plastic bidons that kept water fresher than the aluminum ones. Today, there are even insulated bidons, with double-wall construction and a reflective foil layer, which keep your drinks cooler for longer.
But, reading the latest UCI regulation on bottles that comes into effect next year, such bottles may not conform to the new standard bidon size of between 4 and 10 centimeters diameter. But whatever the size, if it’s dropped on the road, falls into a wheel, is filled with poison or lead, or thrown at a rival sprinter, the bidon will still do some damage!
Follow me on Twitter: @johnwilcockson
Image: John Pierce, Photosport International
Author’s note: Padraig asked me if I thought there was a previous Tour edition that might have similarities to the 2011 Tour and if a look at the older race might give some insight as to what this year’s race might bring.
The 2011 Tour is a victim of Tour boss Prudhomme’s war on time trialing. With four summit finishes, yet only 42.6 km of individual time trialing and no white-road or pavé stage to lend balance to the race, it is effectively a climbing championship.
That brings to mind the 1976 Tour with it’s back-to-back eight stages of climbing plus a Puy de Dôme hilltop finish. Yes, there were 89 km of individual time trialing in 1976, but that year the mountains overwhelmed everything. Also, it featured a war between the era’s two best climbers, Joop Zoetemelk and Lucien van Impe. Perhaps there is a parallel to 1976’s brutal war in the mountains in the coming match between 2011’s most prominent contenders Andy Schleck and Alberto Contador.
Zoetemelk, the better climber that year, lost the race because of a profound tactical failure in the face of Cyrille Guimard’s brilliant management of van Impe. The only major errors that I can remember Contador committing (I’m sure RKP’s readers will remind me of others) involved his dallying in the back of the peloton and missing important moves. I doubt his new director, Bjarne Riis, will let the Spaniard sleep at the wheel in this Tour.
It may come down to a series of drag races up France’s steepest slopes, but I’m betting that given the likely even match between the two, it will be like 1976 and again come down to the rider with the greater strategic savvy. I believe that plays to Contador’s advantage.
Like Tour father Henri Desgrange wrote, it’s head and legs.
Eddy Merckx started 1976 by winning Milan–San Remo for a seventh time. He also won the Catalonian week. But that was it for Merckx in the win column for spring in 1976. He managed a second place in the Tirreno–Adriatico stage race, but only sixth place in Paris–Roubaix and Liège–Bastogne–Liège. In the Giro, he came in eighth. Not able to find his usual form and needing surgery for saddle-sores, he did not enter the 1976 Tour. There would be no rematch between Bernard Thévenet and Eddy Merckx that year.
There were plenty of other fine young cannibals, however. Bernard Thévenet went to the Tour fresh off a win in the Dauphiné Libéré. Luis Ocaña, looking for another shot at glory, had come in second in the Vuelta and fourth in Paris–Nice.
Joop Zoetemelk was the odds-on favorite. He won Flèche Wallonne and had high placings in the Dauphiné Libéré, Amstel Gold and the Tour of the Mediterranean. He had been second in the Tour in 1970 and 1971 and had never finished worse than fifth.
Every Tour is different. Each year the cast of players changes slightly as older racers retire and new young men with fresh ambitions arrive. The route changes each year as well and with differing emphasis on flat roads, time trials or mountains, different racers can find some years suit their talents more than others. The 1976 Tour was clockwise, starting on France’s west coast, circling north up to Belgium before heading south for the Alps. There the 1976 Tour departed from tradition. Normally after one of the 2 major mountain ranges is ridden there are several transition stages before the hard climbing resumes. This year there were 5 days of climbing in the east, starting in the Vosges in stage 7 and ending in stage 11. Then there was a rest day before 3 very hard days in the Pyrenees. That was 8 days in a row of mountains. If that weren’t enough, stage 20 finished at the top of the Puy de Dôme. Importantly, 5 of the mountain stages ended with hilltop finishes. This is a huge advantage to smaller riders who don’t have the power to maintain a time advantage gained on a climb through a long descent and flat roll-in to a distant finish line. No wonder Lucien van Impe announced that he would be riding this Tour for the overall win, not his usual King of the Mountains title. Van Impe’s changed circumstances involved more than just having a race itinerary that matched his talents. His previous manager was Jean Stablinski who is often credited with having one of the finer tactical minds in cycling. Stablinski was replaced with Cyrille Guimard who had mounted a real threat to Merckx in the 1972 Tour. Guimard was so recently retired that he was still the 1976 French Cyclocross Champion. In taking over the Gitane-Campagnolo team he remade the squad so that van Impe would have better support. As we’ll see in unfolding years, Guimard not only knew how to ride and win his own race, he knew how to get others to ride and win for him.
There was a new comet in the heavens. Belgian racer Freddy Maertens turned professional in 1972. His fantastic sprinting, time trialing and overall strength let him win all but the steepest races. In 1976, the first year he rode the Tour, he won 54 races including the World Pro Road Championships and the Belgian Road Championships. His erratic career was at its peak in 1976 and 1977 before it fell off to almost nothing. Then, in an astonishing act of will, he rebuilt his career and won the 1981 World Championship.
Maertens did not disappoint Belgian fans who were unhappy with the absence of Merckx. From the gun he was on fire. He won the Prologue time trial thumping a monstrous 55 x 12 gear, and then the first stage. Then he won the stage 3 time trial, beating such accomplished chrono men as Ferdi Bracke by 2 minutes, 23 seconds, Raymond Poulidor by almost 3 minutes and Bernard Thévenet by 3 minutes, 32 seconds. When the Tour entered the Vosges mountains he won stage 7. In stage 8, he managed only second to Peugeot’s ace sprinter Jacques Esclassan.
With the riders poised to begin their days in the Alps in stage 9, the General Classification stood thus:
1. Freddy Maertens
2. Michel Pollentier @ 2 minutes 4 seconds
3. Hennie Kuiper @ 3 minutes 16 seconds
4. Jean-Pierre Danguillaume @ 3 minutes 23 seconds
5. Raymond Poulidor @ 3 minutes 31 seconds
Van Impe, Zoetemelk and Thévenet were sitting at about 4 minutes behind Maertens.
Stage 9 was 258 kilometers that had the pack ascend the Luitel before finishing at the top of l’Alpe d’Huez, the first hilltop finish there since 1952. Even sprinter Freddy Maertens made it over the Luitel with the good climbers. But when Peugeot rider Raymond Delisle opened the hostilities on the Alpe, Maertens was tossed. From then on Zoetemelk and van Impe attacked and counter-attacked each other all the way to the top with Zoetemelk getting the win by 3 seconds. Poulidor, Thévenet, Baronchelli, Kuiper and the others were what a modern military man would call “collateral damage”. They were incidental victims of a relentless shooting war between the 2 best climbers of the time. The result of the day’s brawl was that van Impe was in Yellow with Zoetemelk trailing by only 8 seconds. Maertens was third, down about a minute.
The next day was another mano-a-mano climbing fight between the 2 leaders. After ascending the Lautaret, the Izoard, and the Montgenèvre, Zoetemelk was again only able to beat van Impe and Thévenet by 1 second. Zoetemelk now trailed van Impe by only 7 seconds in the Overall. The pace was so hard 7 riders were eliminated for failing to finish within the time limit.
The third mountain stage was one of those races in which the peloton just doesn’t feel like racing. They let José-Luis Viejo ride away without being chased. His final margin of victory, 22 minutes, 50 seconds, was the Tour’s largest postwar solo winning margin. The peloton was content to rest their tired legs. Indicative of the slower pace, sprinters Gerben Karstens and Freddy Maertens took second and third places.
With the Alpine stages completed, here was the General Classification:
1. Lucien van Impe
2. Joop Zoetemelk @ 7 seconds
3. Raymond Poulidor @ 1 minute 36 seconds
4. Bernard Thévenet @ 1 minute 48 seconds
The first stage in the Pyrenees, the fourth mountain stage, was another odd day. Van Impe and Zoetemelk were only worried about each other. They kept an eye on each other and let Raymond Delisle, an excellent but slightly aging racer, get away. Delisle was eighth in General Classification when the stage started. When it was over, Delisle was in Yellow and van Impe and Zoetemelk were almost 3 minutes behind.
The next stage didn’t affect the standings. The big guns held their fire. The only notable event was that stage winner Regis Ovion failed his drug test and his name was stricken from the record of that stage. Willy Teirlinck was awarded the stage.
It was stage 14, the fifth of these mountain stages, that made history.
In previous Tours, van Impe had won 3 of his eventual 6 Polka-Dot Climber’s Jerseys, in the same fashion as modern riders Laurent Jalabert or Richard Virenque have done it. They would go out early on a mountain stage and scoop up the points in all the early mountains, not always worrying about getting caught and dropped on the final climb by the men seeking overall victory. The Polka-Dot Jersey was generally van Impe’s entire ambition. In later years he has said that he regrets those years in which he turned to trying for the overall victory. He thinks he might have had 10 Climbers’ Jerseys instead of his 6.
There were 4 major climbs that day. On the second, the Portillon, Luis Ocaña attacked. Ocaña was no longer the dominating rider he had been in the early 1970s, but he was not to be ignored. Cyrille Guimard, van Impe’s director, told van Impe to go after him. Van Impe was reluctant: Guimard and van Impe did not completely agree on tactics and goals that year. Guimard told van Impe that if he didn’t go after Ocaña, he would run him off the road with his car.
Van Impe took off and caught Ocaña on the Peyresourde, the day’s penultimate climb.
Zoetemelk didn’t chase him. He may have thought van Impe was chasing some Climbers’ points and not really going after the overall lead. And surely by now Ocaña was nothing more than a shell of his former self. Instead Zoetemelk sat on the wheel of the man whose Yellow Jersey was threatened by the attack, Raymond Delisle. Normally this would be an astute strategy, forcing the leader to defend his position. It would have been astute except that Delisle could not close the gap. In fact, Delisle was exhausted and eventually lost over 12 minutes that day. Up the road, van Impe and Ocaña were flying.
Ocaña did the hard work on the flat road leading to the final climb, towing van Impe. Ocaña remembered that Zoetemelk had never helped him in his struggles with Merckx. This was a tough bit of pay-back.
On the final climb, the Pla d’Adet up to St.-Lary-Soulan, van Impe jumped away from Ocaña and won the stage and the Yellow Jersey. Zoetemelk came flying up the hill, going faster than van Impe, but it wasn’t good enough. He was 3 minutes, 12 seconds too late.
The Ocaña/van Impe/Zoetemelk attacks shattered the peloton. 45 of the remaining 93 riders finished outside the time limit. Peter Post, the manager of the Raleigh team asked on behalf of the riders that the Tour management waive the elimination rule for the stage. They did.
The new General Classification with van Impe back in Yellow:
1. Lucien van Impe
2. Joop Zoetemelk @ 3 minutes 18 seconds
3. Raymond Delisle @ 9 minutes 27 seconds
4. Walter Riccomi @ 10 minutes 22 seconds
5. Raymond Poulidor @ 11 minutes 42 seconds
The final day in the Pyrenees, even with the Aspin, Tourmalet and the Aubisque, didn’t change the top of the standings. The lions had to digest their kill.
The stage 17 time trial showed that van Impe was a more rounded rider than one might expect. Ferdi Bracke won it but van Impe was able to beat Zoetemelk by more than a minute. That put Zoetemelk 4½ minutes behind the Belgian climber with only one more chance to take the Tour leadership, the stage 20 climb to the top of Puy de Dôme. Zoetemelk won the stage, beating van Impe by an unimportant 12 seconds. Impressive, but to no real effect. That moment of careful, conservative calculation on the road to St.-Lary-Soulan cost him the Tour. Zoetemelk was the better climber that year, but van Impe had the tactical genius of Guimard to give him the needed push.
Thévenet had been losing time and at stage 19 he finally abandoned, weakened by hepatitis.
Lucien van Impe won the Tour, beating Zoetemelk by 4 minutes, 14 seconds. It was his only Tour victory and he remains the last Belgian to win the Tour. To this day, he is troubled by Guimard’s remarks that van Impe would not have won the Tour without his encouragement and threats. Van Impe says that Guimard talked to him as if he were a child, and after the 1976 season, van Impe changed teams.
Freddy Maertens won 8 stages in the 1976 tour, equaling the record set by Charles Pélissier in 1930 and Merckx in 1970 and 1974.
And Raymond Poulidor? He finished third, 12 minutes, 8 seconds behind winner van Impe. This was the fourteenth and final Tour de France for the 40-year old Poulidor. He abandoned only twice and finished with 3 second and 5 third places. In all those years of riding the Tour from 1961 to 1976 he never spent a single day in Yellow, not one. Poulidor’s 8 times on the podium is a record. Zoetemelk, Hinault, Ullrich and Armstrong each accumulated 7, and Anquetil, Merckx and Garrigou 6.
Celestino Vercelli, riding with G.B. Baronchelli, Walter Riccomi and Wladimiro Panizza on the SCIC-Fiat team, talked to us about the 1976 Tour: “This was the year the Cannibal Eddy Merckx stayed home. This Tour was won by van Impe. Every stage of this Tour was very, very hard. Just to get an idea of the difficulties we faced, in Bordeaux, in incredibly hot weather, we raced 3 stages the same day. In the evening in the hotel (hotel is a big word for the place we stayed), we slept in big rooms together. I was running a high temperature, I was very tired and hot. I don’t have words for that day on the bike.
“When we were riding the Pyrenean stages, the asphalt melted. You can imagine the huge difficulties we faced riding in the mountains in the soft asphalt. In the descent the situation was better with the tires holding the soft road very well. The big problem was the difficulty in removing the asphalt from our legs in the evening.”
Final 1976 Tour de France General Classification:
1. Lucien van Impe (Gitane-Campagnolo): 116 hours 22 minutes 23 seconds
2. Joop Zoetemelk (Gan-Mercier) @ 4 minutes 14 seconds
3. Raymond Poulidor (Gan-Mercier) @ 12 minutes 8 seconds
4. Raymond Delisle (Peugeot) @ 12 minutes 17 seconds
5. Walter Riccomi (SCIC) @ 12 minutes 39 seconds
1. Giancarlo Bellini: 170 points
2. Lucien van Impe: 169 points
3. Joop Zoetemelk: 119 points
1. Freddy Maertens: 293 points
2. Pierino Gavazzi: 140 points
3. Jacques Esclassan: 128 points
Excerpted from Bill and Carol McGann’s The Story of the Tour de France, Volume II. You can find both volumes here.
Image: John Pierce, Photosport International
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