From the colour of Albert Londres’ reports on the opening stages of the Tour de France, our look at the 1924 cycling season takes us to the report from that year’s race for which Londres is most famous: the day he sat down with the Pélissier brothers in a café in Coutances and they spilled the beans on the horror show that cycling had become.
With rest days alternating with racing days, it was Thursday before the riders undertook the third stage of the Tour, 405 kilometres down the coast from Cherbourg to Brest. It should have been another innocuous stage, nothing save punctures or mishaps stopping the main contenders from all finishing together. It proved to be a lot more eventful than that.
Albert Londres’ report picks up the race just as dawn is breaking:
We were in Granville and six o’clock struck. The riders, suddenly, filed past. Immediately the crowd, sure of the situation, cried out:
– Henri! Francis!
Henri and Francis [Pélissier] weren’t with the rest. We waited. The two categories passed, the ‘shadow men’ passed – the ‘shadow men’ are the touristes-routiers, the little men with courage, who are not part of the rich teams of the cycle manufacturers – neither Henri nor Francis appeared.
The news came: the Pélissiers have abandoned. We returned to the Renault and, without pity for the tyres, returned to Cherbourg, The Pélissiers are well worth a set of tyres …”
As the defending champion, Henri Pélissier’s withdrawal from the Tour was definitely a story. But Pélissier was more than just another Tour winner: Pélissier was a star of the day who seemed to have a love-hate relationship with the Tour. He was also a man who spoke out against Henri Desgrange’s authoritarian streak.
Londres found the Pélissiers in a crowded bistro in Coutances, the Café de la Gare:
You had to make with the elbows to enter the bistro. The crowd was silent. They said nothing but watched, mouths agape, the back of the room. Three jerseys were installed in front of three bowls of chocolate. It is Henri and Francis, and the third is none other than the second, I mean [Maurice] Ville, who arrived second in Le Havre and Cherbourg.”
Londres joined the trio of Automoto riders and questioned them as to what had happened, putting his questions to Henri Pélissier:
- A whim?
- No, only we’re not dogs.
- What happened?
- A question of boots, or rather a question of jerseys! This morning, in Cherbourg, a commissaire approached me and, without saying anything to me, lifted my jersey. He wanted to be sure I wasn’t wearing two jerseys. What would you say, if I raised your waistcoat to see if you were wearing a white shirt? I didn’t like his manners, that’s all.
- Why would he want to see that you didn’t have two jerseys?
- I could have fifteen, but I’m not allowed leave with two and arrive with one.
- That’s the rules. They don’t just treat riders like brutes, they want us to either freeze or suffocate. That too is part of sport, apparently. So I went to find Desgrange.
Pélissier then repeated his exchange of words with Desgrange:
- I’m not allowed to throw my jersey by the roadside then?
- No. You must not throw away anything belonging to the team.
- It’s not the team’s, it’s mine.
- I’m not discussing this on the road.
- If you won’t discuss it in the road, I’ll go back to bed.
- We’ll sort it out in Brest.
- At Brest, everything will be sorted, because I will have thrown in my hand.
And with that the defending champion threw in his hand and quit the 1924 Tour de France. Along with him went his brother, Francis, and their team-mate Maurice Ville, who was then sitting second overall. Ville was in real time actually faster than Bottecchia, but stuck in second by virtue of the bonifications picked up by Bottecchia on the opening stage. Francis Pélissier justified his quitting by saying he wasn’t feeling well, claiming an aching stomach. Ville claimed to have been suffering with his knees, that the Pélissiers had found him by the side of the road both knees seized up. Truth or fiction, no one knows. What we do know is that, especially back then, you didn’t abandon a race – especially one as grand as the Tour – without having a good excuse to hand to justify your withdrawal.
The reason that the commissaire, André Trialoux, had checked how many jerseys Henri Pélissier was wearing went back to the previous stage, two days earlier. On the road to Cherbourg Pélissier had dumped a jersey, in full view of Erberado Pavesi, direttore sportivo of the Italian Legnano team. With the stages starting between ten at night and six in the morning, riders would often start wearing extra clothing. Pavesi, who reported Pélissier to the race commissaires, was looking out for his own rider, Giovanni Brunero, winner of the 1922 Giro and one of the stars who boycotted the corsa rosa in the dispute over revenue sharing and appearance fees (or, more likely in Brunero’s case, to save himself for a tilt at the Tour).
The relevant rule – that a rider must finish with the same equipment he started with – had been introduced in 1920. You think Stephen Roche is nutso with some of the suggested rule changes he dreams of? The man is merely in touch with cycling’s past and the raft of daft rules that used to govern this sport.
In one of those strange twists of fate, it was the behaviour of Henri Pélissier that had caused Desgrange to introduce the rule about finishing with the same equipment you started with. He’d watched, aghast, as Pélissier prepared for a sprint finish one day, discarding not just spare food, but also spare tyres, his pump and repair tools, in the same way riders today empty their pockets and dump their bidons on the run in to the finish. Not good enough, decided Desgrange. Disrespectful, he argued. An insult to the sponsors, he claimed. Time for another rule change.
For a reporter who is commonly dismissed as having little or no grasp of cycling – usually by writers who go on to call him a muckraker for what he reported from that café in Coutances – Londres’s reports form the 1924 Tour display an astute understanding of cycling’s peculiar language, particularly in this next part of his report, where he borrows from the notion that a rider needs la tête et les jambes, the head and the legs, in order to win races:
The Pélissiers not only have legs, they have a head. And in that head they’ve got judgement.”
There then followed a description of the true hardship of racing in those days, as the two Pélissiers and Ville launched into a full description of just what it takes to tackle the grande boucle:
- [Henri Pélissier] You have no idea what the Tour de France is. It’s a Calvary. And more, the Way of the Cross had only fourteen stations, while ours has fifteen. We suffer from the départ to the arrivée. You want to see how we march? Here. This, that’s cocaine for the eyes, that’s chloroform for the gums.
- [Maurice Ville] This is ointment to warm my knees.
- [Henri Pélissier] And the pills? Would you like to see the pills? Look, here are the pills.
- [Francis Pélissier] In short, we march on dynamite.
- [Henri Pélissier] You should see the bath at the arrivée. You should pay for that session. The dirt removed, we’re white as shrouds, emptied by diarrhoea, we fall asleep in the water. At night, in our rooms, we dance the jig, like St Guy, instead of sleeping. Look at our shoelaces, they’re leather. They do not hold always, they break, and they are tanned hide, at least we think they are … Imagine what happens to our skin!
- [Francis Pélissier] The skin of our bodies, it’s can’t hold to our skeleton.
- [Henri Pélissier] And the toenails. I’ve lost six of ten, they die bit by bit every stage.
- [Francis Pélissier] But they grow back for the following year.
For most people today it is the drugs – the chloroform, the cocaine, the pills – which grab the attention in Londres’s report from Coutances. While doping was not banned in those days – it would take until the 1960s before the UCI were pushed into taking a stand on the subject – people still believed in the purity of athletic endeavour.
As early as 1865, a swimmer in an Amsterdam canal race had been expelled from the event for taking an unnamed performance-enhancing drug. The Jockey Club was ahead of the curve, banning the doping of horses as early as 1666 and actually carrying out tests since 1910. In 1894, a French sports physician, Philippe Tissié, performed the first scientific doping experiments using a racing cyclist whose performances could be timed and who could be primed with measured doses of alcohol and other stimulants.
In 1897 the British cycling authorities, the NCU, banned the trainer James ‘Choppy’ Warburton from their events because of his association with doping. Warburton was famous for his little black bag, depicted in a lithograph by Henri Toulouse Lautrec, from which he would theatrically produce magic potions for his riders. “If his charge showed any undue sign of distress, out came the black bottle, the contents of which seemed to act like magic on the distressed rider,” claimed the 1903 Cycling training manual. One of Warburton’s riders, Arthur Linton, died of typhoid fever a few months after finishing first in the Bordeaux-Paris race, in which it is alleged he had doped heavily. In a track event, another of his riders, Jimmy Michael, collapsed on the track, picked himself up and then, in a daze, set off in the wrong direction. It was that incident which lead to Warburton’s ban, but it is claimed that Michael may have been simulating his stupor in an attempt to extract himself from his contract with Warburton.
While the contents of Warburton’s little black bag may be doubted – the man was a showman who played to the gallery – there is no disputing the fact that doping was endemic in cycling, even then. Six Day racing in particular had become firmly associated with doping, as the authors of Foul Play (Drug Abuse in Sports) note:
The riders’ black coffee was ‘boosted’ with extra caffeine and peppermint, and as the race progressed the mixture was spiked with increasing doses of cocaine and strychnine. Brandy was also frequently added to cups of tea. Following the sprint sequences of the race, nitroglycerine capsules were often given to the cyclists to ease breathing difficulties. The individual Six Day races were eventually replaced by two-man races, but the doping continued unabated. Since drugs such as heroin or cocaine were widely taken in these tournaments without supervision, it was perhaps likely that fatalities would occur.”
Lucien Petit-Breton, who won the Tour de France in 1907 and 1908, was sufficiently shocked by the assertion that he had doped to issue the following proclamation:
It has been said that I owe my greatest victories to drugs. Allow me to contest these absurd rumours. Do you seriously think a man, however strong, could survive such treatment for twenty-eight days?”
In 1920, Henri Desgrange himself used the pages of l’Auto to complain about the problem of doping at the Tour de France:
Some of our riders think nothing of doping. We cannot reproach strongly enough similar procedures, which run so counter to our idea of sport. The vigour of our condemnation is aimed less at the riders who drug themselves than at the managers, and above all certain doctors who don’t hesitate before using such means. Those, like us, who would like our race to become magnificent will never accept such procedures.”
Quite what was doping was something people, even then, disagreed on. Some riders took a very strict view of what was and wasn’t morally acceptable, even arguing against the use of alcohol. A true hero, seemingly, should be able to complete the Tour on bread and water.
So while doping was not then the issue it is today, it wasn’t just ignored. Londres’ reporting of it did cause a fuss. But the true target of Londres’ reporting from the 1924 Tour was not doping itself. It was the suffering of the riders that Londres most wanted to expose. Just twenty-one years after the race had been launched, the Tour had already achieved mythic proportions. The nobility of men like Eugène Christophe had been championed by the press in France: not just in the pages of L’Auto, but also in other newspapers.
Years later, after Francis Pélissier had become directeur sportif at La Perle, he tried to distance himself from the doping exposed in Londres’ report, claiming that he, his brother Henri, and Maurice Ville had been pulling the leg of a credulous journalist who wasn’t a part of cycling’s family:
Londres was a famous reporter, but he didn’t know much about cycling. We kidded him a bit with our cocaine and our pills. Even so, the Tour de France in 1924 was no picnic.”
The final part of Londres’ report from the third stage of the 1924 Tour clearly demonstrates what his real target was. In it, the journalist quoted Henri Pélissier, who for a second time in his conversation with Londres, compared the treatment of the riders to that of dogs, using the name Azor, a sort of French form of Fido or Rover:
All that – you haven’t seen anything yet, wait for the Pyrénées, that’s hard labour – all that, we can accept. What you wouldn’t make mules do, we do. We’re not lazy, but in the name of God, don’t annoy us. We accept the torment, we don’t need the harassment! My name is Pélissier, not Azor! If I leave with a newspaper up my jersey I must finish with it. If I throw it away, penalty! When we’re dying of thirst, before we fill our bidon with water from the pump, we must check that no one, fifty metres away, is working the pump. Or else, penalty. To drink, you must work the pump yourself. A day will come when they put lead in our pockets, because someone will discover that God made man too light. If it continues on this path, there’ll be nothing but plenty of tramps and no artists. Sport has gone mad …
All those who reduce Londres’ report – not just of that one day in Coutances, but of the whole of the 1924 Tour – to a few lines about doping do the man a disservice. He wasn’t there to condemn the riders for failing to live up to the ideal of pure sport: he was condemning a sport – and the Tour in particular – that was inhumane and itself caused doping. Londres was a champion of the underdog, as his reports from China, from Russia, from the Balkans all prove, and in the riders of the Tour de France he saw a group of men who were being exploited in the name of sport. Acknowledging that, though, requires us to accept our own complicity, even today, in their exploitation. Something we don’t really want to do.
* * * * *
There is another aspect of the reporting of that day in Coutances that intrigues me: the excuses offered for why Pélissier really abandoned. One of the issues that interests me about the manner in which many write of the 1924 Tour is the excuses offered for Pélissier’s withdrawal. Somewhere along the way, an odd notion has entered the Tour’s mythology: that Pélissier’s withdrawal was really a protest against the high number of riders who’d withdrawn early in the race. This is something that’s worth looking at in some detail.
The post-War Tours had a remarkably stable formula, with the same stages – more or less – each year. Apart from a little bit of flexing between the Pyrénées and the Alps, the Tour’s route was unchanging. Toulon replaced Aix en Provence which itself had replaced Marseille. Briançon replaced Grenoble. Gex replaced Genève. But the stage distances didn’t change materially. The real changes were in the mountains which cols were in and which were out. This consistency in the parcours enables us to compare the rate of attrition in 1924 with previous years, on a stage-by-stage basis:
|1||Le Havre (1925: 381 kms)||157||139||120||123||113||69|
|2||Cherbourg (1925: 371 kms)||137||87%||129||93%||102||85%||99||80%||97||86%||41||59%|
|3||Brest (1925: 405 kms)||125||80%||121||87%||87||73%||86||70%||81||72%||28||41%|
|4||Les Sables d’Olonne (1925: 412 kms)||105||67%||101||73%||72||60%||75||61%||62||55%||24||35%|
|5||Bayonne (1925: 482 kms)||94||60%||90||65%||66||55%||71||58%||48||42%||19||28%|
|6||Luchon (1925: 326 kms)
|7||Perpignan (1925: 323 kms)
|8||Marseille/Aix en Provence/Toulon (1925: 427 kms)||69||44%||58||42%||47||39%||46||37%||27||24%||16||23%|
|9||Nice (1925: 280 kms)
|10||Grenoble/Briançon (1925: 275 kms)
|11||Genève/Gex (1925: 307 kms)
|12||Strasbourg (1925: 360 kms)||62||39%||49||35%||39||33%||39||32%||22||19%||12||17%|
|13||Metz (1925: 300 kms)||61||39%||48||35%||38||32%||39||32%||22||19%||12||17%|
|14||Dunkerque (1925: 433 kms)||61||39%||48||35%||38||32%||39||32%||22||19%||12||17%|
|15||Paris (1925: 343 kms)||60||38%||48||35%||38||32%||38||31%||22||19%||12||17%|
What we see here is that the 1924 Tour had the highest number of starters since the war (it was actually highest in the Tour’s history and, while it was surpassed in 1928, it wasn’t until the 1980s that the Tour was consistently starting with more riders). It also had the highest number of finishers since the war (it was the 1950s before that number was surpassed and the Tour was consistently finishing with more riders). The notion that it was the Tour of Suffering – and not just another Tour of Suffering – doesn’t really stack up.
While the rate of attrition in the first three stages was high when compared with the previous year, it was better than in the years before that. The notion then that Pélissier pulled out in protest at the severity of the opening stages of the race does look rather silly. Those who defend this notion though would no doubt point out that Pélissier was a silly person.
Given that the stages themselves were more or less the same as in previous years, one possible excuse for so many abandoning so early is that the quality of the entrants simply wasn’t all that good. Try another set of stats:
While the Tour was attracting a higher quality field each year – with more riders in the Premier Class – the real increase in participants was coming from the cannon fodder, the second class teams and the independent riders.
Let’s try one more set of stats then to see what the rate of attrition was like among the first class riders, the men Pélissier was really going wheel to wheel with:
|1||Le Havre (1925: 381 kms)||43||29||26||24||31||44|
|2||Cherbourg (1925: 371 kms)||42||98%||29||100%||26||100%||20||83%||29||94%||34||77%|
|3||Brest (1925: 405 kms)||41||95%||27||93%||22||85%||19||79%||27||87%||24||55%|
|4||Les Sables d’Olonne (1925: 412 kms)||34||79%||24||83%||21||81%||14||58%||24||77%||21||48%|
|5||Bayonne (1925: 482 kms)||30||70%||24||83%||21||81%||13||54%||21||68%||17||39%|
|6||Luchon (1925: 326 kms)
|7||Perpignan (1925: 323 kms)
|8||Marseille/Aix en Provence/Toulon (1925: 427 kms)||21||49%||18||62%||17||65%||9||38%||13||42%||14||32%|
|9||Nice (1925: 280 kms)
|10||Grenoble/Briançon (1925: 275 kms)
|11||Genève/Gex (1925: 307 kms)
|12||Strasbourg (1925: 360 kms)||18||42%||15||52%||16||62%||8||33%||11||35%||11||25%|
|13||Metz (1925: 300 kms)||18||42%||15||52%||16||62%||8||33%||11||35%||11||25%|
|14||Dunkerque (1925: 433 kms)||18||42%||15||52%||16||62%||8||33%||11||35%||11||25%|
|15||Paris (1925: 343 kms)||17||40%||15||52%||16||62%||8||33%||11||35%||11||25%|
Overall, the rate of attrition among the Premiere Class riders was quite high in 1924. But at the point Pélissier pulled out – during stage 3, Cherbourg to Brest – it wasn’t particularly noteworthy. You can understand the manner in which the commentariat got into a tizz during the 2011 Tour, when so many big name riders dropped out so early in the race, but this wasn’t happening in 1924. All that was happening was that the wheat was getting separated from the chaff by monstrously long stages.
And this is what Pélissier was really in dispute with Desgrange over. Pélissier simply didn’t like the Tour. He saw it as a race for cart-horses, and he saw himself as a thoroughbred. The Tour was a race which rewarded endurance, not skill. Pélissier wanted to see shorter stages, arguing that this would produce better racing. The best Desgrange could do to improve the quality of the racing was to offer bonifications.
Pélissier’s Tour record is worth considering:
In 1919, he abandoned after an argument with Desgrange over a glass of wine. In 1920, he left the Tour when penalised for throwing away a tyre. The next two years he didn’t even bother starting the Tour, but in 1923, having switched to Automoto, his sponsor insisted he ride it. He won. A year later, Automoto again required his presence at the Tour, and this time the excuse to abandon was that argument over a jersey. It almost seems like Pélissier was just looking for an excuse to give up and go home.
But you have to look beyond the Tour de France. Pélissier was a formidable rider. Consider his palmarès:
|Giro di Lombardia||1911, 1913, 1920|
|Nice-Mt Agel||1920, 1921, 1922|
|Ronde van België||1912 (2 stages)|
|Tour de France||1913 (1 stage), 1914 (3 stages), 1919 (1 stage), 1920 (2 stages), 1923 (overall + 3 stages).|
|Tour de France des Indépendants||1910 (one stage)|
Desgrange himself put it most clearly: “Pélissier can win any race except the Tour.” Pélissier’s failures at the Tour were, for Desgrange, easily explained: “Henri Pélissier is saturated with class but he does not know how to suffer.” I’m not sure it’s fair to say Pélissier didn’t know how to suffer: he did after all win Bordeaux-Paris. Pélissier’s real problem was that he was headstrong. Desgrange called him “this pigheadedly arrogant champion.” But it’s Oscar Egg, one of the great Hour-men of our sport, a man who traded Hour records with Marcel Berthet before the war, who made what seems like one of the best assessments of Pélissier:
I don’t agree with those who said that he was a master tactician. He had an instinct for racing but if he’d been able to master his reflexes, keep control of the way he reacted, he would have been a phenomenal champion thanks to the extraordinary talent that he had.”
* * * * *
The actual racing that day was as predictable as it was assumed it would be, the bunch finishing en masse. There’d been punctures aplenty, Bottecchia himself flatting, but none of the major riders lost time switching tyres. In the sprint for the finish Théophile Beeckman was first across the line and bagged the bonifications. There was a minor controversy, when Philippe Thys, who had been out-sprinted by Beeckman, complained that the commissaires had failed to ring the bell signifying the final lap of the vélodrome finish. It was Beeckman though who picked up the three minutes in time bonuses and, having finished alongside Bottecchia in the previous two stages, this now put him level with the maillot jaune, which stayed on Bottecchia’s back. Nicolas Frantz stayed in third, 2’36″ off Bottecchia’s pace.
Next: The 1924 Tour continues.