Introduction 1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 9 10 11 The Vélocipède as a good cause A Sports Epic The Mighty Marques Hard Labour Lessons in Obstinacy Sweat of the Gods Pens in a Trance, Lenses in Delirium Nice but Boring Character The Big Money Fuelled by Dynamite Index of names

1 3 15 26 39 51 67 81 95 109 124 137 161

3 – The Mighty Marques

The Mighty Marques
In 1903 it had cost Desgrange a lot of effort to interest the industry in his enterprise. Initially the manufacturers were at least as pessimistic about the prospects of the Tour as he was. They doubted strongly whether public interest would be great enough to justify the investments they were being asked to make. They didn’t have to engage pacemakers, but the costs of looking after the riders in their service were naturally much higher than for a one-day race. So long did they hesitate that one of the favourites, the German Josef Fischer, a former winner of Paris–Roubaix, Bordeaux–Paris, and many other races, had to advertise for a sponsor in the editorial columns of L’Auto. As public enthusiasm kept mounting during the course of the first Tour, the manufacturers’ attitudes changed radically. Desgrange’s regulations insisted that riders were to compete strictly as individuals, but the manufacturers very quickly found ways of getting around that. The organisers had been so afraid that too few riders would appear at the start that they permitted dropouts to participate in the remaining stages and do battle for the day’s prizes. The manufacturers immediately took advantage of this by engaging riders who had dropped out to serve as disguised pacemakers for their top men, forcing Desgrange in turn to introduce special regulations to prevent it. By 1904 the manufacturers had completely abandoned their scepticism, but Desgrange did not wish to change the formula that had secured so great a success the year before. His critics had predicted that riders who had to ride without pacemakers would not be willing or able to initiate any attacking moves. They were proved wrong; the progress of the race was extremely lively, with escapes that sometimes went on for hundreds of kilometres. Moreover, several completely unknown riders managed to stay among the ranks of the leaders. Lucien Pothier, ‘the terrible butcher from Lens’, even finished second, while Jean Dargassies, the Belgian Julien Lootens competing as ‘Samson’, and several other complete outsiders became involved in the struggle for the top places as well. Their achievements sparked great public enthusiasm and contributed in a major way to the


Sweat of the Gods sales of L’Auto. As Géo Lefèvre wrote, surprises like this were practically out of the question if these riders, ‘alone and without being cared for, had to do battle against the big stars supported by the mighty marques’. The ‘mighty marques’ themselves did not care for surprises, and in 1904 they did everything they could to prevent them. In spite of Desgrange’s rule that the race must have a strictly individual character, riders such as Dargassies and Pothier were retained by Alcyon and La Française to assist the stars of these companies, among them Hyppolite Aucouturier and Maurice Garin. These were not the only measures taken by the commercial firms. No one doubted that they played an active role in the many irregularities marking the 1904 Tour, just as they had during Bordeaux–Paris a few months earlier, when the first four finishers were disqualified by the French Cycling Federation in the same way that the Tour’s first four finishers were. Desgrange was undoubtedly fully informed about the way in which the big companies tried to get around the regulations, but he made virtually no effort to expose their machinations in his paper. Whatever criticisms he made were aimed exclusively at individual riders. His silence about the role played by the manufacturers in the numerous irregularities was so conspicuous that he was openly accused of having made a deal with the powerful La Française company. Charges like these were not wholly unfounded. An unmistakable understanding between Desgrange and the big firms did exist. The reason was that, without the cooperation of the most important manufacturers, the Tour simply could not have been organised. Until the end of the 1920s, L’Auto had to finance the organisation of the Tour entirely from its own means. The journal’s management was in no position to pay the costs of providing food and accommodation for the participants as well. For some riders this was no problem. During the early years, registration was in principle open to anybody, and enthusiastic amateur cyclists from the well-to-do classes were often unable to resist matching themselves with the ‘giants of the road’. One of them was a very rich aristocrat from southern France, Baron Henri Pépin de Gontaud, who took part in the 1907 Tour. Because he did not think himself capable of completing the full distance under his own steam, he secured the services of two professional riders. These were supposed to ride ahead at set intervals so as to order a sumptuous restaurant meal, which could be served the moment the baron himself arrived. One of these two domestiques was none other than ‘the burly blacksmith from Grisolles’, Dargassies, whose career had gone off the rails after a fourth place in the 1904 Tour. Most of the participants were from decidedly humbler backgrounds, and


3 – The Mighty Marques if they failed to qualify for the daily prizes they sometimes had to try all possible ways of augmenting the per diem of five francs they received from the organisers. For example, in 1907 Marcel Dozol sold picture postcards in the towns where the stages ended, while Jules Deloffre performed somersaults and other acrobatic stunts after completing each stage, and then solicited contributions from the spectators. The only way of avoiding such a fate was to sign a contract with a bicycle or tyre manufacturer. The riders who had successfully managed this received, aside from a fixed salary, free equipment and extra bonuses when they won a stage. Moreover, their expenses were reimbursed. In exchange for this, the companies exacted not only the right to use their names in advertisements, but absolute loyalty as well. It rarely happened that a rider transgressed against this rule. One of a very few exceptions was Marcel Buysse, who registered for the 1914 Tour of Flanders without his firm’s approval. Such an act of independence was so uncommon that the organiser of the race, the journalist Karel van Wijnendaele, was still writing about it in awed tones thirty years later. To put together a strong field of riders, the organisers of cycle races were totally dependent on the goodwill of the manufacturers, who had all the leading riders under contract and who immediately offered a contract to every new discovery. For this reason alone, Desgrange could not afford to antagonise the major companies. But there was also a second reason: like any other journal, L’Auto’s continued existence depended on income from advertising. In that respect the tyre and bicycle manufacturers did not stint themselves. In the event of a victory by one of their riders they almost always placed at least a half-page advertisement. They were all the more willing to do this because L’Auto gave them good value for money. The major advertisers could count on being treated highly favourably in the journal’s editorials as well as its news columns. Not only were all kinds of negative publicity totally forbidden, but beyond this the editors rarely passed up an opportunity to give a plug to the products of the most important companies. The Tour de France offered ample opportunity for this. In almost every article, reporters would point to the solid construction of the escorting cars, the dependability of the tyres, and the reliability of the bicycles. A typical example is the comment on Lucien Petit-Breton’s Tour victory in 1907, printed opposite a full-page advertisement shared by Peugeot and Dunlop: In this way the Argentinian rider [Petit-Breton had spent his childhood in Argentina] has given Peugeot a splendid and incontestable victory, one that goes also to the superb tyres made by Dunlop, a name that


Sweat of the Gods appears more and more in connection with the great victories on the road. Petit-Breton quite naturally chose Dunlop tyres. What other brand is better designed to cope with 5,000 kilometres of road? None, and Petit-Breton, taking all due precautions, knew very well what he was doing. This panegyric aimed at Peugeot and Dunlop did not mean that L’Auto had special ties to these two marques. A few years later, when Petit-Breton signed a contract with two other companies and these placed similarly large advertisements, one of the editors promptly wrote: ‘We cannot praise too highly the qualities of Automoto and Continental, which have made Petit-Breton an even more extraordinary champion than he already was.’ In spite of the clear relationship between L’Auto and the industry, Desgrange realised very well that his interests squared only partly with those of the manufacturers. Nothing stimulated the circulation of his journal like a lively race, full of coups de théâtre and unexpected happenings. The factory managers had very different ideas about the ideal progress of a race. Having put a lot of money into a team, they tried to forestall unforeseen events and sought to keep matters under control as much as possible. To achieve these goals they were often willing to come up with large sums of money. The Tour was a potential goldmine for the bicycle manufacturers. Its publicity value was huge, so that when a manufacturer scored a Tour success he could count on an enormous rise in his sales figures. No wonder that the manufacturers were ready to invest tens of thousands of francs in the hope of winning a Tour. The best method to that end was to hire as many likely winners as possible. The big companies fought for the services of the stars, who as a result received monthly salaries of 3,000 francs, excluding bonuses, on the eve of the First World War – a good deal more than a cabinet minister earned in those days. Initially Peugeot had the edge, winning the Tour in 1906, 1907, and 1908. The next year, though, Alcyon put together a team so strong that the Peugeot people rated their own prospects non-existent, and instead of participating in the Tour organised their own Tour de France for independents (a category of riders who were allowed to take part in races for pros as well as amateurs). The consequence was that Alcyon was scarcely threatened in 1909 and 1910. In 1911 the factory miscalculated, because its well-paid champions were unable to hold their own against a relative outsider, Paul Duboc of La Française. The Tour threatened to turn into a financial disaster for Alcyon, until in the Pyrenees Duboc accepted a water bottle from a spectator. After a few swallows he fell off his bike, seriously ill, and began to vomit up black fluid. Only after several hours had passed was he well enough to continue


3 – The Mighty Marques the race, but of course his chances of winning were gone. Everyone was convinced that Duboc had been poisoned, but Desgrange, who had seen the drama with his own eyes, did not want to hear about such a blemish on his Tour. In L’Auto he dismissed the collapse as a ‘minor indisposition’. He did, however, send Calais, Alcyon’s race director, home and banned him from ever returning to the Tour. Thanks to Desgrange’s benevolent attitude, Alcyon sustained little harm from the scandal, and the company’s sales figures rose so fast that Peugeot could not afford to stay away from the Tour. In 1912 the firm did not invest enough to score a success, but after that year its managers spared neither effort nor expense to retain as many great champions as possible. As a result Peugeot riders occupied the first five places in the final general classification in 1913 and the first three in 1914. x x x