I started reading a book the other night, “The Story of the Tour de France” by Bill and Carol McGann. Now, as you probably guessed, I’m a big Tour fan – try to watch it every year, if possible. So, when I came across this book, along with the glowing reviews (thanks, Amazon), it looked like a good gamble.
Now, as you probably know, the Tour is considered to be one of, if not, the greatest sporting event in the world – if you don’t believe me, ask any Frenchman. Or if you want to have some fun, tell them why hockey trumps the Tour as the sport of choice! Just make sure you’re wearing your helmet when you do!
The book chronicles the history of the Tour by giving the highlights of every race since its inception in 1902. “Sounds about as much fun as reading an encyclopedia”, you’re probably thinking. Well, it has its moments, but what is so fascinating about it, is not who won the race that year, but how brutally difficult it was to just finish the race! Think about it – in 1902 the bicycle was still a relatively new invention. Most only had one fixed gear, built on a heavy steel frame – brakes were optional. Then, these two French newspapers come up with this idea to hold this multi-stage bike race to help increase the circulation of their papers. But not just any bike race- let’s do a race where riders have to complete 15 stages averaging 350 km per stage – 350 KM PER STAGE!!!!!!! Today, it would take a well conditioned athlete 12 hours to do such a feat. Over a century ago, riders in the Tour de France were expected to complete this mind-boggling journey, on their own, with no assistance from anyone. Also, they had to complete it carrying the original gear they set out with. A stage like that would average 18 hours to complete!!
Here’s an example of what they had to contend with –
Oh,then they had to get up and do it again the next day. During one Tour, they were allowed only THREE rest days during three WEEKS of racing!!!! How insane is that? This was also before racers really understood how the body worked – the impact of good nutrition and training and Gatorade!!!!
The part of the story that I found to be fascinating, if not hilarious, was how they eventually were allowed to change gears on their bikes. Initially, two different size cogs were placed on the left and right side of the rear tire. So, to switch from one gear to another (you only had two), the rider would have to stop, detach the tire, turn it around, reattach it, and then pedal on. It seems ludicrous today but that was their reality. They probably thought they had it made as they began their ascent up into the French Alps.
Remember, roads didn’t exist back then the way they do today. One contestant had his bike break down (a common occurrence, as you can probably imagine). Because the rules stated that you had to finish the race with all the equipment you started with, he borrowed a bike (which was allowed in later tours) and, strapping his broken bike to his back, proceeded to try and complete the remaining 300 km of the stage. Needless to say, he didn’t make it. Still, the tenacity and determination of those men was remarkable. They were truly Iron men in the fullest sense of the word.
Believe it or not, a broken down bike was the least of their worries. During the initial few Tours, fans became so obsessed with cheering on their favourite riders that they would try to sabotage the competition. In several Tours, fans deliberately threw nails onto the road to try to make the racers get flat tires. In one instance, a rider was beaten by a gang of men hoping he would then drop out of the race. He had to be assigned a body guard for his own protection. Another rider is believed to have been poisoned during a rest stop! Tough crowd! If your wheels broke, you walked until you could find someone who had shop where you could fix it – with no assistance! Imagine what’s going through this poor chap’s mind below.
Fortunately, as the Tours progressed, the rules were modified – speed became the name of the game – not to see who would be the last man standing.
Today, the Tour de France is one of the most celebrated races in the world. The black years of doping scandals seem to have been left behind. There have been far fewer cases of doping during the past couple of tours than during the nineties. This bodes well for the future of the race and for the image of cycling in general.
Regardless, when one looks at what was demanded of cyclists during the beginning years of the Tour, it makes doing a Gran Fondo look like a walk in the park. I’ll try to remember that when I’m looking for an excuse not to train.
In the meantime, VIVE LA FRANCE!!!