The 100th Tour de France started today. Wherever you look, there are retrospectives: in magazines and newspapers, on TV and the radio. Winners get to write history, and so the role of cyclotourists in the development of the most famous bicycle race in the world remains almost unknown.
The Tour de France was shaped at least in part by the animosity between Henri Desgrange and Vélocio. Desgrange was the editor of the sports paper L’Auto that created the Tour. Vélocio’s magazine Le Cycliste that was read by cyclotourists. For years, their respective papers were filled with heated exchanges about the perfect bicycle: the spare, lean single-speed racing bike or the complex, but efficient, cyclotouring bike with multiple gears. Bicycle Quarterly Vol. 5, No. 2 looked at this fascinating history.
Desgrange was financed by the bike industry, who liked the profits from the simple, easy-to-manufacture single-speed bikes. Vélocio was the advocate of cyclotourists, who wanted to explore the countryside and mountains by bike, and thus needed more substantial bikes with multiple gears and reliable brakes.
Many cyclotourists suspected that the first Tour de France was created to counter the effect of the first technical trials, which had found the mass-produced bicycles lacking in many ways. By focusing on the heroic effort of the riders, the public was supposed to overlook the deficiencies of the bicycles…
The first Tours de France didn’t really go around the perimeter of France, but instead stayed away from the mountain ranges that form the borders with Spain, Italy and Switzerland. The flat course was tailor-made for the single-speed bicycles that the bicycle industry wanted to promote.
Vélocio and his cyclotourists left out no opportunity to point out that on their bikes, even riders of average athletic merit could climb the mountain passes that the Tour de France avoided so assiduously.
Finally, Desgrange could not take it any longer, and the 1910 Tour de France was the first to include a real mountain stage, over the Col d’Aubisque in the Pyrenees. It led to the famous quote of Octave Lapize (above) as he walked up the steep road: “Assassins!”
Cyclotourists could only laugh, since they had ridden the Aubisque many times, without getting off their bikes. Not only did they have bikes with multiple gears, but they also had trained to ride in the mountains. Desgrange responded by adding more mountain stages to the Tour.
There is little doubt that the cyclotourists pushed Desgrange to develop the Tour de France from a boring slog across the flatlands to the gripping spectacle that it became. Desgrange realized that the mountains could turn the Tour into an odyssey that would entrance his readers. He adopted many other ideas of Vélocios, and even recommended that his racers abstained from meat and alcohol during the race (as Vélocio recommended). (The overplayed images of racers smoking and drinking while riding don’t show that professional racers always have taken their job seriously.)
Yet as far as derailleurs were concerned, Desgrange was not willing to compromise. Racers were allowed to use derailleurs only in 1937, after Desgrange retired as the race director. Given a choice, not a single racer rode a single-speed that year…