The 1st World War has ravaged much of France. The roads have either been shelled or badly maintained, the factories have all but stopped production. And many of the country’s top cyclists have barely ridden a bike for five years.
And yet Henri Desgrange, founder of the Tour, goes ahead with the most brutal, sadistic Tour de France ever, a 5,500km slog across 15 stages, taking in the Tourmalet, the Peyresourde, the Galibier, and the cobblestones that make up the Hell of the North.
Ghosts On The Road tells the story of the forgotten heroes who raced the 1919 Tour. Eugene Christophe, the unluckiest rider in Tour history, who came so close to winning. Firmin Lambot, the meticulous planner, who spent five years in German-occupied Belgium, spending half the Tour trying to get fit. Leon Scieur, a future Tour winner, known to many as the locomotive for his riding style. Jean Alavoine, the sprinting dandy who for many years held the record number of stage wins, and Henri Pelissier, the arrogant poster-boy for early 20th-century cycling.
Taken from research into newspaper reports, first-hand recollections and rider interviews, Ghosts On The Road tells the story of the drug-taking, the highs and lows, the days off in between stages, and the 2am stage starts trailing behind the lights of Henri Desgrange’s beloved car. It tells the story of brotherly betrayal, of broken forks and boredom, but above all, it tells the story of a country – and of men – barely recovered from the effort of war. Of men who have loved and lost family members and fellow riders, of a country not yet back on its feet.
The 1919 Tour was cruel, but with it came riches, and a celebrity many riders were not expecting. The ‘Giants of the Road’ were paving the way for future generations of Tour riders. Ghosts On The Road ensures their voice is heard, at long last.
Stage 4 – Brest to Sables d’Olonnes
First fog, now mud. We’re caked as we leave Quimper, the rain pulling at our jerseys, weighing us down, but by evening we’ll have the sun for the first time this Tour and we’ll dry those jerseys by the beach. Oh yes.
I, of course, will have the sun first. I’ll attack in Nantes. Soon, Francis is going to soften them up with a few attacks, we’ll relay for a while so long as there’s no commissioner around, and boom - off goes Pelissier number 1, coasting into Les Sables d’Olonne to receive the rapturous reception from his adoring crowd.
Who’s your winner today? Why, Henri Pelissier, as always.
We’re rolling through the hedgerows now. Francis is shielding me from a slight sidewind, Lambot is the other side of me, like a ghost.
Something’s not right, though. My handlebars are coming loose, must have been shaken up by some of those potholes earlier. Not to worry, it’ll be a good chance to put my rain jacket on as well.
I pull over to the side of the road and fumble for my toolkit. Zip stuck, I pull at it but something’s wrong. The peloton has attacked. You don’t attack the leader of the race - what the…?
“Hey, Francis! What’s going on?”
He looks back, but he’s gone with them. My own brother.
Fucking traitor! My own blood…
My hands are shaking, I’ve been tricked. They’ve screwed me. All this time we were saving our energy, they were saving theirs for this attack.
I can’t screw the headset with all this shaking. I try to get my arms in the raincoat, but it’s inside out. Of course it is. It would be. And I’ve screwed it the wrong way, it’s too loose. I try again, but it doesn’t feel right. Why can’t I do this fucking simple thing?
My own brother. He’s gone. He can’t be worried about the rules. This is family. With families, there is only one rule. Brothers don’t attack brothers.
When I first thought I'd write about the 1919 Tour de France, I was going to write non-fiction. A sort of stage-by-stage recounting of what happened in the Tour.
But then - this has been done to death for plenty of other Tours - and I didn't feel that I would be able to get across the real character of this Tour, which - remember - took place just just as the Treaty of Versailles was being signed…
I could have chosen any Tour - but the 1919 is the Tour that jumped out at me above all others.
The early tours were notoriously difficult - and intentionally so. Organiser Henri Desgrange believed that the ideal Tour was one where only a single man arrived at the finish. Riders were torn between protesting the workman-like conditions of the racing, and the enormous amounts of money available…
These people are helping to fund Ghosts On The Road.