100 years on, the Tour de France returns to the Western Front
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When the fourth stage of the 2014 edition of the Tour de France got underway on Tuesday it marked the start of a poignant tribute to a moment that would shape both the history of the Tour and the whole of Europe - the start of World War One.
For seven stages, beginning with Tuesday’s stage in Le Touquet-Paris-Plage, Pas de Calais, northern France, the Tour is following a route through some of the most important locations of the Great War, commemorating the centenary of the start of the conflict.
From Flanders to Vosges, the riders will follow the battle lines of the Western Front, passing close to historic sites whose names, 100 years later, still resonate in the collective memory: Ypres, the Somme, Verdun and many more.
The route provides the opportunity to plunge, mile after mile, into the landscape of “the war to end all wars” – a part of history with which the Tour’s own past is inextricably linked.
'The normality of the race’
Just over one hundred years ago, on June 28, the 1914 edition of the Tour de France got underway. It was the same day that Archduke Franz Ferdinand, heir to the Austro-Hungarian throne, was assassinated by Yugoslav nationalist Gavrilo Princip in Sarajevo. A few weeks later, Europe was at war.
A thousand miles west, the Tour de France riders were on their way from Paris to Le Havre for the first stage of the race.
“It is an incredible coincidence,” says Jean-Paul Bourgier, author of a book on the 1914 Tour, “De la fleur au guidon à la baïonnette au canon” (From the flower on the handlebars to the bayonet on the cannon).
For Bourgier, himself an avid cyclist, the remarkable thing was how little the Tour was disturbed despite the imminent onset of war.
“There is a contrast between the normality of the race – as in the lives of the majority of people who in the countryside were finishing stacking the hay and preparing for the harvest – and the mounting tension in the corridors of power that heralded the outbreak of war,” he says.
“It was still a beautiful summer in July that year, and it all blew up at the end of the month.”
Along the 1914 Tour’s 15 stages, the riders passed Belfort in northeast France, with no idea it would be under bombardment from German artillery just a few weeks later, as well as the fortress town of Longwy – largely destroyed in the fighting to follow. When the Tour finished in Paris on July 26, Belgian Philippe Thys, the defending champion, was the victor having led from the first to last stage.
As he posed for the photographers, bouquet in his arms, Thys was already looking ahead to the following year’s Tour. No one had any idea of the bloodshed to come. “In the last days of July there was an article in ‘L’Auto’ (The predecessor of French sports newspaper ‘L’Equipe’) on the route of the 1915 Tour,” recounts Bourgier. “Henri Pélissier, who finished second behind Thys, had announced he would take his revenge the following year.”
Swapping bikes for rifles
But the course of history had other ideas. Just a few days after the Tour ended, the first riders were swapping their bikes for rifles.
On August 3 1914, the day Germany declared war on France, Henri Desgrange, editor of “L’Auto” and founder of the Tour, implored his countrymen to join the fight.
"My dear boys! My dear French boys! Listen to me! The Prussians are bastards … When your rifle is aimed at their chests, they will beg for mercy. Don't give it to them. Shoot them down without mercy.”
After gaining their fame on the asphalt and dirt roads, the champion cyclists were now standing in the trenches.
“They were mobilised the same as the others, even if during the conflict, notably in 1917 and 1918, some of them got permission to participate in competitions,” says Bourgier.
These kings of the road were not spared by the German guns. Of the 145 riders who entered the 1914 Tour, 15 died during the war, including three former champions.
Luxembourger François Faber (winner of the 1909 Tour), nicknamed the “Giant of Colombes”, died in May 1915 in Pas-de-Calais during the Battle of Artois while fighting for the French Foreign Legion. His body was never found.
His long-time rival, the 1910 champion Octave Lapize, died two years later on July 14, 1917. A fighter pilot in the French army, he was shot down near Verdun and died of his injuries several days later in hospital.
Six months later, Lucien Mazan (champion in 1907 and again in 1908), better known as “Petit-Breton”, was killed when a car he was driving was involved in a collision with another vehicle near the front.
Shortly before his death, Petit-Breton made a statement in a piece for the sports journal “La vie au Grand Air” that would turn out to be tragically prescient.
“Alas! When the velodromes reopen, how many of us who were once the glory of our sport will be gone,” he wrote.
By the time of the armistice on November 11, 1918, the ranks of top cyclists had been decimated. Bourgier determines that a total of 48 riders who had taken part in at least one Tour de France were killed between 1914 and 1918.
But in 1919, after four years of interruption, the Tour returned. In another remarkable historical coincidence, that year’s edition began on June 29, the day after the signing of the Treaty of Versailles.
“It was a very symbolic Tour,” says Bourgier. “It passed for the first time through Strasbourg and returned to the city of Metz.” Both were returned to France under the Treaty of Versailles having been German-ruled since 1871.
With France in ruins and still recovering from the war, only 11 riders finished that year’s Tour, racing on roads often in extremely poor conditions. It was won on July 27 by Belgian Firmin Lambot and was the first time the famous yellow jersey was awarded to the victor.
Two days later, in the columns of his newspaper, Desgrange hailed what he called his “proud lads”.
“I bring you my eleven soldiers,” he said.
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