Why the 1919 Tour?

Saturday, 9 September 2017

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 to them. With most riders from working-class backgrounds, inevitably it was the money that won the day.

And the 1919 Tour should - perhaps - never have taken place. Although races had been staged in worse conditions earlier in the year, the organisation of a whole 15-stage Tour around France was hampered by the post-war reconstruction. Roads were in an appalling state, and entire towns were a shell of their former selves. Indeed, away from the war-torn parts of France, the roads simply hadn't been maintained for five years.

The mountain passes were often no more than goat tracks, and the ability to organise a race was hampered by the manufacturers' inability to put up trade teams. So with one single team for professionals, and amateurs looking after themselves, the Tour did take place, with riders wearing grey.

The riders themselves were returning from active duty. Many hadn't touched a bike for four years, while some had been riding in velodrome competitions over the last two years of the war. The eventual winner, Firmin Lambot, hadn't ridden a bike for the duration of the war, having effectively been a prisoner of the Germans in Antwerp.

The first stages were brutal. Only 67 riders made it to the start, and most retired in the first three stages, leaving a depleted peloton riding to the sun in the south.

As the Tour unfolded, clear divides formed. Christophe and Lambot duelled out the latter stages of the race, attacking each other whenever possible. Barthelemy and Lucotti were battling for the mountain stages, while Jean Alavoine battled for the sprints. In the stage into Sables d'Olonnes, the entire peloton took umbrage at Henri Pelissier's behaviour, and attacked at the first sign of a mechanical, leaving Pelissier dazed, confused, and eventually, retired from the race.

But the whole race revolved around Stage 14 - the 'Hunger Stage' from Metz to Dunkerque, a stage of unimaginable cruelty in which Eugene Christophe, the leader with a 30-minute advantage, managed to break his forks on the cobbles near Valenciennes. A furious repair followed at the first available blacksmith's, while Firmin Lambot raced into Dunkerque.

But the real story? Of victory in defeat, and of the feeling of defeat in victory. How a man could end up losing the Tour and become the hero of France, while one man could win the Tour only to feel he didn't deserve it.

And what is victory anyway? Just completing the race, for many, was the biggest achievement of their careers.

For the 11 men to have made it around France, across 5,500km, is a huge achievement, and one that has barely been told.

So that's why I wanted to tell the story - in the voices of the riders themselves. With the archives of the Blbliotheque National de France, and the Wielermuseum in Roeselare, I've read the stories of the riders, their lives, their characteristics - of how they tackled the Tour, and how they lived through the war. 

But I also wanted to tell the tale of the riders who didn't make it through the war - the true Ghosts of the Road, those who should have been there. They ride in the background of the book.

You can help make this book happen. Please share it, and encourage your followers to share it, too.

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