A Little Summer Reading: Tour de France & the Hautes Pyrenees

Octave Lapize Tour de France Winner 1910

Octave Lapize Tour de France Winner 1910

The second round of of the Let’s Go Ride  A Bike Summer Games works just like the first round – participants must complete at least two “Learning Experiences” tasks:

  • Perform a maintenance task — big or small!
  • Decorate your bike
  • Read a book about cycling
  • Carry a load on your bike — groceries, etc.
  • Test ride a different type of bike than you normally ride

I had already completed the test ride task when I took a cargo bike out for a spin.   For my second task I thought I might read a book about cycling.  There were some great book suggestions by some of the participants that got me started on my book search.  I thumbed through a large part of Bike Snob NYC’s book self-titled book Bike Snob and almost bought that – it’s a very entertaining read and a great looking book published by the folks at Chronicle Books.  As I perused the shelf of bike-related titles though,  I caught sight of  a couple of Tour de France titles.  Since we are nearing that time of year when crazy hard-riding cyclists and of course, Lance Armstrong, head to France to ride up and down mountains and sprint through the countryside of France,  I thought a little history of the Tour would be appropriate reading material.   I wasn’t up for an encyclopedic history of the race, nor for a Lance Armstrong-centric tale, so I settled on a title from Velo Press called Blazing Saddles: The Cruel and Unusual History of the Tour De France.

Blazing Saddles: The Cruel and Unusual History of the Tour de FranceIf you want a moment-by-moment complete history of the Tour this is not the book for you.  It covers each year of race with a brief history and one or two pictures – the early race pictures are great.  For someone like me who has an interest in the Tour but is not familiar with the vast history of the race, it’s a great way to learn about it’s origins, it’s history of cheating and scandal almost from the start, and the fact that people have been crazy about bikes and bike riding for a very long time.   The writing is not the best- you’ll find some  painful metaphors and some just plain awkward phrasing. Still, with the way in which it is broken up into short chapters for each year of the race, and those grouped into sections, it makes for the type of reading you can put down and easily pick back up.

I was struck by the riders in the very first years of the race heading out carrying all their own gear. “Swaddled in extra clothes against the cold, and with every available pocket, pouch and opening stuffed with food, tools and spare parts, the riders set off along the rubble corridors that passed for roads, fighting more for survival than speed – victory to the last man standing.”

The founder of the race,  Henri Desgrange started the race in 1903 as a publicity stunt to revive the failing L’Auto newspaper.  His idea of a perfect race was a race when only one competitor crossed the finish line.  He changed the rules and the course every following year in an attempt to create his mythical ‘perfect’ race.  In 1910 he decided that the race would travel over the Pyrenees, even though he was told there were really no real roads that crossed the mountains.

The roads over the Pyrenees didn’t even belong to the national road network: they were ‘thermal routes’, private roads serving spas at Eaux-Bonnes, Argeles-Gazost, Luz Saint-Sauveur, Bareges and Luchon. So L’Auto cobbled together 1,500 francs, the French highways authority matched it, and a team of engineers did what they could in a month to make the route passable. The stage went ahead anyway. Little wonder that Octavio Lapize, the enventual winner, hissed ‘Vous etes des assasins’ – ‘Murderers!’ a the officials as he passed them on the Aubisque.

Interestingly enough,  when I went to peruse the latest updates on the Tour de France website , I found a article posted on Friday (6.25.2010) about the writer Jean-Paul Rey who earlier this month, relived the ‘killer stage” through the mountains  from the 1910 race in a ride to commemorate the 100th anniversary of the routes through the Pyrenees .  They rode vintage bikes, dressed a vintage as possible, and Rey even had a breakdown similar to that of  Eugène Christophe in the 1913 race.  They finished their own ‘stage’ in 23 hours and 45 minutes.  And none of this would have had much meaning to me before I read the book! For more pictures of  vintage bikes check out the titles on the website for Vintage Bicycle Press.

This was one of the first bikes with pneumatic tires - the improved speed and comfort made long distance racing possible- from the book "Competition Bicycles" by Jan Heine, published by Vintage Bicycle Press

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  • http://www.dingdingletsride.com Samantha

    Thanks for the link Jeff – those are great photos! I’m not sure which photo sums up the early races better – the one of the Italian rider with his face almost completely obscured by bandages or the shot of the riders on the mountain pass with the caption ” Riders climbing a mountain in the 1930 Tour had only two gears. They had to physically stop and remove their rear wheel and turn it around to engage the gear/cog on the other side of the wheel.” Whoa.

  • Jeff

    Great article, Samantha. In my daily search for interesting historic photo’s, I stumbled across this small set of of great images of the 1930 Tour de France. I have no idea why that particular race was significant, but the images are great.

    http://www.cyclingnews.com/features/photos/re-discovering-the-1930-tour-de-france