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A Tour, A War And A Pandemic

Words: Paul Willerton; Images: Horton Collection • From Issue 97

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When this year’s cycling season began in early February most of the world was unaware of the new coronavirus, and the debate about its severity was only just beginning. By mid-March it had been declared a pandemic, and cycling had to suspend (or perhaps terminate) its 2020 season. Because the cycling season is one of the longest in sport, normally ending in late October, there was time to recalibrate. Many races were cancelled, but the race organizers, teams and public officials got together with the UCI to create what is by far the most dramatic restructuring of an elite cycling calendar. As of this writing, the 107th edition of the Tour de France is due to be raced over 23 days by 22 eight-man teams from August 29 to September 20—though we could still see the pandemic prevail.


When faced with adversity we often look to the past for guidance. The rich history of cycling provides this in volumes. The Tour de France was first run in 1903. A decade later, it ran into events that ground it to a complete halt: a world war. Then, after four years of unprecedented death and destruction, the modern world faced something else it hadn’t faced before: a global pandemic. Cycling and the Tour de France had no choice but to adapt….

This is a story that began on Sunday, June 28, 1914, when the 12th Tour de France set off in early-morning darkness, with 145 riders chattering through the Paris suburb of Saint-Cloud, 10 kilometers from the city center. Their long-wheelbase, single-speed bikes used wheels fitted with hand-sewn tires by Dunlop and Wolber. The spirit of the race was not only felt but was audible to everyone watching. The field was fresh, excited and talkative. The opening stage was a mere 388 kilometers (241 miles), and it was flat. No need to rush.

How many epic struggles the riders would endure had yet to be learned. What they did know was the gargantuan task ahead of them: 5,380 kilometers (3,343 miles), split into 15 stages, with 14 rest days, on a counterclockwise trip around the perimeter of France. Remarkably, there were six previous Tour winners in the peloton: Lucien Petit-Breton, Octave Lapize, François Faber (who notoriously detested the heat), Octave Defraye, Gustave Garrigou and Philippe Thys. For each of those pedaling, the Tour was an adventure, a challenge that would never be eclipsed. The race was reserved for only the rarest, the most driven and perhaps the most insane. For many, the 1914 Tour would be the pinnacle of their sporting lives—their apogee of freedom, youth and physical strength. For others, it would be an unknowing farewell to cycling for the rest of their lives.

Golden rays of French sunlight warmed the riders’ skin that stage 1 morning, while spectators read newspapers offering race predictions and thronged cafés bustling with excitement. As France draped itself in the Tour, another historic event was unfolding, a thousand miles to the east, in the Bosnian city of Sarajevo. A group of assassins was carrying out a plan that would start a chain reaction felt around the world. The heir to the throne of the Austro-Hungarian Empire, Archduke Franz Ferdinand, and his wife rode through the city in a motorcade in an open-topped Gräf & Stift Double Phaeton limousine. Several attempts on their lives were made throughout that morning using hand-thrown bombs; eventually a pistol took the lives of both the Archduke and his wife. Within days, the Austro-Hungarian and German authorities launched an investigation and called for the arrests of the guilty parties. Serbia’s response didn’t come close to meeting expectations and would soon be submitted to what became known as the July Ultimatum.

philippe thys
Philippe Thys, 1920.
octave defraye
Octave Defraye, 1914.

As the events in Sarajevo began to show up in newspapers, the Tour’s defending champion, Thys, held the overall lead from stage 1. Frenchman Henri Pélissier emerged as the Belgian’s main challenger, though he had trouble on the Pyrenean climbs, sometimes dismounting to walk. On stage 6, Pélissier started aggressively but six hours into the stage he fell from his bike on the Col du Tourmalet, suffering from hunger knock. He was revived, but on the next climb, the Col d’Aspin, he collapsed again and fell asleep on the grass. Woken by his teammate Émile Georget, he recovered on the descent to finish fourth in the stage but half an hour behind Thys. Pélissier came back to win two stages in the Alps, but Thys calmly defended his big lead.

As the 1914 Tour provided one drama after another, political dominoes had been falling all over Europe. In fact, the race entourage noticed an increased military presence with each passing day. On stage 13, while on a solo breakaway, 1909 Tour winner Faber was joined for a time by a soldier from a French military cycling unit. Faber, battered by that July’s intense heat and seven hours behind the race leader, was looking for some redemption. He would win that stage, but only after first swerving in the road, unable to ride a straight line, and colliding with a car. So visibly impaired was Faber when he crossed the line that race director Henri Desgrange suggested Faber had drunk too much alcohol along the route. Undeterred, Faber came back and won the next stage as well.

Meanwhile, anti-war officials had been meeting in Brussels, where French anti-militarist politician Jean Jaurès negotiated with his German, Russian and British counterparts. Together, they proposed a strike against the now visible military buildup. But on his return to Paris, Jaurès was shot and killed and as the penultimate stage of the 1914 Tour took place the Austro-Hungarian leaders delivered their July Ultimatum to Serbia. If their demands were not met, troops would be mobilized along the Serbian border.

At the Tour, Thys began that stage 14 with a comfortable 32-minute lead over second place Pélissier. During the stage though Thys damaged his bike in a collision with Faber. Thys was forced to make a decision—either stop and make a repair or take a bike from a teammate and receive a 30-minute penalty. He opted to ride his teammate’s bike to the finish in Dunkirk, where, after the penalty was applied, his lead was cut to less than two minutes.

octave lapize
Octave Lapize.
costante girardengo
Costante Girardengo.

Toward the end of the final stage, Pélissier made a ferocious attack. He escaped solo and soon built an advantage large enough to win the Tour. Just west of Paris, on the bridge across the Seine River at Saint-Cloud, so many Pélissier supporters had gathered that the rider was engulfed, unable to proceed. Pélissier had to get off his bike. Yelling at the fans to give way, Pélissier lost his voice—and was caught by a three-man group that included race leader Thys. Pélissier managed to win the final sprint and take the stage, but Thys had won the Tour. For more than 40 years, no Tour de France would be decided by a margin so close: one minute, 50 seconds.

The 54 riders who completed the Tour returned home to places very different from the ones they left. Serbia’s response to the July Ultimatum was less than satisfactory to Austro-Hungarian officials, shots were fired along the countries’ border and four days after the Tour ended, war was declared. Two days later, Russia and France mobilized and nearly every country in Europe was pulled into the conflict that became the Great War.

In an August 3 message to cyclists called to serve, Tour boss Desgrange wrote: “It’s a big contest you have to fight: make good use of all your repertoire. Tactics should hold no worries for you. Use your guile and you’ll return…you know all that, my lads, better than me, who you’ve been teaching for nearly 15 years. But be careful! When your rifle is pointed at their chest, they’ll ask your forgiveness. Don’t give it to them. Crush them without pity.”

True to his patriotic words, the 49-year-old Desgrange volunteered for the French Army, joining the infantry. He would be awarded the Croix de Guerre (“Cross of War”) for his military service while still writing his newspaper column for L’Auto and dreaming of promoting the Tour once more. Months became years. The Tour de France faded into the past while reality, the horrors of war, became the present. More than 65 Tour cyclists perished during that first world war, including 14 of the 1914 finishers and three overall winners. The body of François Faber was never found. He was 28 years old.

France alone lost 1.4 million in military deaths, 340,000 civilians were killed and 4.3 million were wounded. The war lasted until November 11, 1918. For four years, the Tour de France lay dormant, its celebrations, summer joy, camaraderie and epic adventures just distant memories. The 1914 Tour had been such a close and exciting one as the noose of politics and war visibly tightened with each passing stage.

But the clouds of war finally parted and the Tour returned on June 29, 1919, with the decorated Desgrange again at the helm. There were shortages of practically everything in postwar Europe, including colored dyes for yarn. The teams would wear mostly jerseys in various shades of gray. The newspaper Desgrange had edited since its founding in 1900, L’Auto, was printed on yellow paper and partway through the race it was decided that the overall race leader should at least have a yellow jersey to stand out from the post-war gray. Some yellow dye was obtained, jerseys were made and the most famous tradition of the Tour was born when race leader Eugène Christophe was awarded the first yellow jersey before starting stage 10 on July 17.

lucien petit breton
Lucien Petit-Breton.

Celebrations were mitigated because just before the war ended, another killer was on the loose. This one was new, invisible and deadlier than the war itself. As if the world had not suffered enough, a pandemic was sweeping across the planet. The cruelty of the Spanish Flu can only be touched on by recording its unfathomable death toll. Unlike this year’s Covid-19 virus, the H1N1 virus of the Spanish Flu was particularly deadly to under-5s, the 20–40 age group and those over 65. It was estimated that 500 million worldwide were infected by the virus, with 50 million deaths, including 675,000 in the United States.

In every country, the simultaneous efforts of trying to stay healthy while caring for those with the illness and dealing with the dead and dying pushed societies to the brink. There was no treatment, no vaccine. The only response known to work was quarantine, isolation and social distancing. The 1919 Tour de France went on despite racing through towns on roads ravaged by war. Only 69 riders took the start of the race, few of them prepared for the demands of such a grueling test. Only 11 men would finish.

Amazingly, despite the pandemic, the sport of cycling not only persevered but proliferated. As Desgrange plotted another Tour, new enthusiasts and families took to their bicycles to rebuild their physical and mental health. They hungered to recover a sense of freedom that for years had seemed lost. The bicycle delivered. The cycling industry was quick to take notice and respond. Ads of the times presented cycling as a way to combat the pandemic.

It’s often said that history doesn’t repeat, but rhymes. Today, we live through a time when the nearest parallel is 100 years distant. Similarly, the history of cycling never ceases to amaze. Each year there is a seemingly endless line of new inventions, new products. Visit a good cycling museum, however, and you will find innovators from decades and more than a century past trying to solve the same problems.

The 2020 Tour de France marks another milestone in cycling history. The world has ridden bicycles through a global pandemic before. The Tour has taken place through something many multiples more deadly than what we’ve lived through. That it came on the heels of a world war and five years without professional cycling, we can only raise a glass to those who lived 100 years before us. To those who rode the Tour de France, went to war, dealt with the Spanish Flu and still brought our sport back to life, all we can say is: salut!

Willerton on Instagram: @ridefishfly

From issue 97, the Official Tour de France Guide, get your copy here.