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1903 TOUR DE FRANCE RODOLFO MÜLLER (LA FRANÇAISE)
The sport of cycling is fortunate that its history is being preserved by dedicated museums all over the world, often supplied by collectors who sometimes restore iconic bicycles to their original form. That’s the case with the machines depicted in these pages, several of them currently on display at the KOERS cycling museum in Roeselare, Belgium, while others come from riders’ personal collections. What’s most surprising is that the diamond-shaped frame used in the first Tour de France 118 years ago remains the basic shape today, even though the material has changed from heavy steel to ultralight carbon fiber. What has changed most of all is the equipment—from a bike with a single fixed gear and no brakes in 1903 to one with 22 electronically controlled gears and hydraulic disc brakes in 2020.
The two oldest bikes shown in these pages were restored by French collector Claude Lachot, who began this work when he owned a bike shop near Bordeaux in the 1980s. He later combined his collection with the historic racing jerseys donated to the famed Notre-Dame-des-Cyclistes, a chapel founded by Abbé Joseph Massie in 1959. Lachot built a cycling museum next door to the chapel to house his growing collection before moving it 15 years later to Lannemezan, near the Pyrénées. But he couldn’t obtain funding from the local authorities and eventually negotiated with the Belgians to move most of his prized items to the KOERS facility last year.
The more recent bikes found their way to the KOERS museum in diverse ways. The Wilier Triestina of Italian Fiorenzo Magni was acquired by a collector in the South of France from a French journalist before it was bought by a collector in Ghent, Belgium, Philippe Devos, who lent it to the museum in Roeselare. The Specialized S-Works machine raced by green jersey Sam Bennett at the 2020 Tour is on loan from the Irishman’s team, Deceuninck-Quick-Step. Freddy Maertens, who worked for the museum for many years, keeps his Flandria at his house in Roeselare. And Antonin Rolland still has his 1955 Louison Bobet bike at his home outside of Villefranche-sur-Saône, France.
When the first Tour de France was held in 1903, Rodolfo Müller was in his fifth season as a bike racer. He was the first Italian to compete in the Tour, though many considered him French because he and his family moved from Livorno on the coast of Tuscany to Paris when he was a teenager. He’d previously competed in speed skating and rowing before specializing in cycling. His first race experience was as a pace-maker in long-distance races, including the 1896 Bordeaux–Paris, where he rode a quadruplet with three others in pacing winner Arthur Linton of Great Britain for 70 kilometers of the 600-kilometer classic.
In 1897, Müller made his own race debut at age 21, finishing third in the 225-kilometer Paris–Cabourg that was won by future Tour champion Maurice Garin. Track racing was perhaps more popular than road racing at the turn of the century and the young Italian competed in some of the longest events: the 48 hours of Roubaix (yes, two days of racing around the velodrome!); the 72 hours at the Parc des Princes in Paris: and then, in 1899, the 100 hours of Roubaix (which he was leading by a dozen laps when he crashed out in the 80th hour).
Müller also did well in longer road races, placing sixth in the 1,200-kilometer Paris–Brest–Paris in 1901 and second in the 940-kilometer Marseille–Paris of 1902. That same year, Müller won a 200-kilometer road race in the Pyrénées, sanctioned by the French Touring Club (rather than the cycling federation) that involved two climbs over the Col du Tourmalet—eight years before it was first included in the Tour de France.
Müller raced on road and track on the same machine, so there are some unusual aspects of the La Française bike he used at the inaugural Tour in 1903. Racing on the track required a more aerodynamic position than on the road, and that’s why you can see an adjustable stem, with a lighter marking for the more upright position. Also, the single fixed gear is complemented with a freewheel on the other side of the rear hub, which would have made it easier for Müller to descend the Tourmalet! Another anomaly of his bike is that the rear wheel has a wood rim (more commonly used on the track) and a steel rim in the front. As for braking, Müller would have had to skillfully back-pedal on his fixed gear and/or dragged his feet along the road.
Other interesting features of the bike are the extra-long seatstays and fork rake; the steel crank arms integral with the chainring; the slit in his battered leather saddle; the handpump clipped to the downtube (he would have carried spare tires looped over his shoulders); the metal toeclips (before toe straps were incorporated); tape around the ends of the handlebars; and the knapsack that would normally be strapped to the bars. The corked wine bottle shown was a possible item he’d carry during the ultralong stages of the Tour, but the bag’s contents would more likely have included tools for carrying out repairs (he’d need a wrench to loosen the wheel-hub bolts), sandwiches and fruit, water bottles and items such as gloves and goggles.
1914 PARIS–ROUBAIX: MARIUS AURIAUX (CLÉMENT)
A 22-year-old Frenchman from the Loire Valley town of Vouvray, Marius Auriaux raced for the Clément-Dunlop team in 1914, the last season before World War I put a close to bike racing in France for five years. He wasn’t the strongest of riders and at that year’s Tour de France he completed only three stages before ending the race on its longest stage of 470 kilometers between Brest and La Rochelle. Auriaux earlier rode his Clément bicycle in the 274-kilometer Paris–Roubaix on a warm, sunny day in April. He was one of 153 starters and would finish 58th from the 90 riders who reached Roubaix, well behind winner Charles Crupelandt, who took a seven-man sprint. A week later, Auriaux was 34th in the 316-kilometer Paris–Tours. Many of those in the 1914 peloton were killed months later in the war, including Maurice Dejoie and two more of Auriaux’s Clément-Dunlop teammates.
Although more than a decade had passed since Rodolfo Müller competed in the Tour on his rudimentary La Française machine, the basic geometry of Auriaux’s Clément was just about the same. Still there was the extra-long wheelbase; similarly spoked wheels with wood rims; a fixed cog and freewheel on either side of the rear hub; toeclips without straps; handpump clipped to the down tube; and heavy leather saddle. Notable differences include the front and rear rim brakes operated by cables from levers on the handlebar; cotter pins that fix the crankarms to the bottom-bracket axle (that enable different-size chainrings to be mounted); wingnuts on the hubs facilitating faster wheel changes; and handlebar-mounted metal cages for two aluminum water bottles (with cork stoppers).
In the period between the two world wars, bicycle frames became more upright with shorter (but still long) wheelbases, while equipment became more sophisticated. Rim brakes became lighter and more efficient, with side-pulls most popular; leather straps were added to toeclips, quick-release hubs enabled faster wheel changes; and the use of alloys brought down the bike’s overall weight. But the biggest change came after the Tour de France permitted the use of derailleur gears in 1937.
This Wilier Triestina bike used by Italy’s Fiorenzo Magni at the 1949 Tour displayed all of these changes. Having started his pro career while serving in the Italian army during World War II, Magni became regarded as the ultimate hard man of professional cycling. Despite racing in the same period as compatriots Gino Bartali and Fausto Coppi, Magni was still hugely successful. He would take three Giro d’Italia victories and three national titles but he is best remembered for winning Belgium’s Ronde van Vlaanderen in three successive years.
His first Flanders win came in 1949, so it’s appropriate that his bike is on display at the KOERS museum, only 40 kilometers away from the Kwaremont climb that helped decide the outcome of the classic. That first year, Magni shocked the Belgians by becoming the first Italian winner, out-sprinting an 18-man breakaway ahead of local legends like Briek Schotte and Raymond Impanis. Because of his victories over the war-ravaged roads of Belgium they called Magni the Lion of Flanders. He welcomed challenging conditions. “Cold, wind, rainy or snowy days were music to my ears,” Magni would say. “In all three of my Tour of Flanders victories I remember cold, terrible weather. I was in my element!”
Magni would wear the yellow jersey for six days at the ’49 Tour, eventually finishing sixth overall behind overall winner Coppi. His Tour bike—which had distinctive chromed fork blades— utilized Campagnolo’s unusual Cambio Corsa system for shifting gears. To move to any of the four sprockets, the rider would lean back and manipulate the two rods next to the seatstays, first moving the top lever to release the rear wheel and then shift to a new sprocket using the lower lever. He would have to slightly back-pedal to complete the shift before his weight naturally moved the wheel back in the extended dropouts to re-tension the chain. It sounds complicated by Magni and his peers could complete the operation quickly and smoothly.
1955 TOUR DE FRANCE: ANTONIN ROLLAND (LOUISON BOBET)
1949 TOUR DE FRANCE: FIORENZO MAGNI (WILIER TRIESTINA)
Like the bikes of 1949 and even 1914, the Louison Bobet machine used by Antonin Rolland at the 1955 Tour de France still has cotter pins to attach the crank arms, a bottle cage fitted to the handlebars and a similar leather saddle. But the overall look is far more like the bikes of the late 20th century, including shorter chainstays, front and rear derailleurs and center-pull brakes.
Rolland was a support rider for most of his career, often scoring podium spots at weeklong stage races. His most prominent performance came in the ’55 Tour, which he started as a member of the 10-man French national team led by the two-time defending champion Louison Bobet. (The rest of the year Rolland was on the L. Bobet-BP-Hutchinson team, riding the Bobet marque of bicycles.)
Rolland came into that Tour on good form, having placed fifth overall at the Critérium du Dauphiné (won by Bobet), and on stage 2 to Roubaix he got into a break with top stars Fred De Bruyne of Belgium and Wout Wagtmans of the Netherlands, and out-sprinted them to win the stage. Two days later, he got into another breakaway, this time with eight lesser riders, finishing 11 minutes ahead of the main peloton. That put Rolland into the yellow jersey, which he’d keep for 12 stages before giving it up to team leader Bobet in the Pyrénées.
Rolland’s Tour bike—which he still maintains at his home at age 97 (he’s the oldest living yellow jersey)—has the latest Campagnolo parallelogram rear derailleur for the five cogs and a front shifter for the double chainrings, both operated with down-tube levers. The levers for the Mafac center-pull brakes have the newly introduced rubber tops to the hoods. Clipped lower down the tube is a CO2 cartridge inflator—a concept first used in the 1930s. An interesting point about his saddle are the custom-flattened brass rivets.
1969 TOUR DE FRANCE: EDDY MERCKX (MERCKX/MASI)
Every bike racing fan knows that Eddy Merckx displayed his best-ever form in winning his debut Tour de France in 1969. His winning margin of almost 18 minutes was the widest since Fausto Coppi in 1952 and no one has come close to it in the 53 years since. Merckx was 24 in his fifth pro season and had already won the Giro d’Italia, the world road championship, Milan–San Remo (three times), Paris–Roubaix and the Ronde van Vlaanderen. He was expected to win the Tour at his first attempt, and he didn’t disappoint his legions of fans.
The bike that Merckx rode in that historic victory was marked as FAEMA, his team sponsor, the Italian coffee machine manufacturer; but it was officially from the Eddy Merckx factory in Belgium; but like his other steel bike frames at that point it was built by the Italian craftsman Falerio Masi—who first came to fame as the mechanic to Fiorenzo Magni in the 1950s. Compared with earlier bikes, this 1969 edition had a shorter fork rake and tighter chainstays (with the rear wheel moved as close as possible to the seat tube thanks to a screw-treaded adjuster in the dropout).
Like the bikes used by Rolland 14 years earlier, Merckx had front and rear Campagnolo derailleurs, but rather than the French rider’s chainrings (probably 52 and 48 teeth), Merckx has a much wider difference (probably 53/42). The Belgian was just over 6 feet tall, and so to use the relatively small frame, he has a long steel stem for his deep Cinelli bars. The brake levers for his Universal center-pull mechanisms have full rubber hoods. And the bottle cage has now moved to the down tube—although it’s fitted with metal clips, not brazedon bosses. Other points of note include the high-flange Campagnolo hubs (not the more-common low-flange variety); rubber socks on the down-tube shifters; and what is likely a custom synthetic saddle (not leather).
The Belgian-manufactured Flandria bike used by Freddy Maertens for his first seven, most successful years as a pro was a classic. Those years were highlighted by his winning the 1976 world championships ahead of Francesco Moser—hence the rainbow rings on his bike for 1977. That proved to be an absurd season for Maertens, when he won seven stages of the Giro d’Italia and no less than 13 stages of the Vuelta a España (including two time trials), along with overall victories at four weeklong stage races, including Paris–Nice. He would have traded some of those for a victory in Paris–Roubaix or the Ronde van Vlaanderen, in which he was plagued by bad luck.
With both Maertens and Belgian rival Roger De Vlaeminck looking unbeatable in the spring of 1977, they headed to the last cobbled classics with high hopes. In Flanders, they chased, caught and dropped breakaway rider Eddy Merckx and rode together to the finish; Maertens didn’t contest the two-up sprint because he knew the judges were disqualifying him after he took a spare bike from the roadside rather than the Flandria team car. In the following Paris–Roubaix, Maertens strongly chased back to the lead group after two crashes and a puncture, but he couldn’t go with De Vlaeminck’s winning solo attack and eventually came in third, ahead of a 20-strong chase group.
Maertens’ bike from that Hell of the North classic was one of the first in the European peloton to be equipped with Japanese products. The front and rear derailleurs are from Shimano’s 600 system with index-shifting levers; the side-pull brakes are Shimano Tourney (note the drilled-out brake levers); and the cranks and chainring are SR Apex (SR for Sakae Ringyo). Also of note are the Cinelli composite saddle and the bottle cage bolted directly to the down tube.
1969 TOUR DE FRANCE: EDDY MERCKX (MERCKX/MASI)
2020 TOUR DE FRANCE: SAM BENNETT (SPECIALIZED)
There couldn’t be a greater contrast between the steel, alloy, aluminum machine of Freddy Maertens, who won the Tour’s green jersey three times in the 1970s and ’80s (along with 16 stages in those three Tours), and the all-carbon contraption raced by another green jersey, Irishman Sam Bennett, in the 2020 Tour. The contrast clearly demonstrates the technological explosion created in cycling by engineers maximizing the use of carbon fiber.
No longer are frame designers limited by round tubes. Instead, every element of Bennett’s Specialized S-Works machine is made with aerodynamics in view—from the angled, straight forks, to the ovalized top and down tubes, to the sculpted seat tube that allows use of ultra-short chainstays, to the virtually integrated carbon seat post. The bike’s cleaner lines are also enabled by the use of disc brakes and electronic shifting for the Shimano Dura-Ace Di2 derailleur-and-crankset ensemble (with 11 cogs in back).
Other developments to note include the aero, deep-rim Roval wheels; thru-axles; the aero S-Works bars with computer mount; the extra-long brake hoods; the skinny Specialized saddle (with extra-wide slit); and the ultra-light Tacx cages. The net result is an S-Works Tarmac SL7 weighing in at under 15 pounds—just about half the weight of the steel machines used at the Tour a century ago.
Bennett raced this bike to win the final stage on the Champs-Élysées. On the top tube in green lettering is the motto “Together we win”—chosen by Specialized lead concept designer Kayla Clarot “to show that a victory is not attributable to one person.” Indeed, all the bikes shown on these pages are the result of teamwork, whether the teams are made up of designers, engineers, mechanics or athletes. I wonder where the technology will take the bicycle by the year 2121.