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Le Tour:
Some History and a Few Stories

by Owen Mulholland

Back to Bicycle Rider Histories

TDF volume 1

Bill & Carol McGann's book The Story of the Tour de France, Vol 1: 1903 - 1975 is available as an audiobook here. For the print and Kindle eBook versions, just click on the Amazon link on the right.

The late Owen Mulholland was the first American journalist accredited to the Tour de France. This was written shortly before the 1985 Tour. The stories on this page that follow Owen's Tour history are from both the 1985 and '86 Tours.

Gandhi said, "God has no right to appear to man except in the form of bread." And anyone who has visited India can understand such a sentiment. Yet with a bit of nourishment another aphorism imposes itself: "Man does not live by bread alone."

Sport and religion rely on the truth of the latter, and their intertwinings go back at least as far as the ancient Greeks. Sport has tended to emphasize the physical possibilities a full stomach allows, while religions address man's needs to live metaphorically, beyond caloric absorption.

The Greek combined both by making their gods super-men and women. This humane symmetry disappeared a couple of millennia ago and only recently has resurfaced in somewhat disguised form. It's no accident, of course. There haven't been many times between the fifth century B.C. and the twentieth century A.D. when food and leisure have been plentiful enough to permit the absurd (non-socially redeeming) expenditure of energy sports demand.

The pendulum which reached its religious zenith in the twelfth and thirteenth century Gothic era of cathedrals and crusades swung to the opposite extreme during the French revolution and Paris Commune and has now come back to a more harmonious and terrestrial time.

In creating and developing the Tour de France, the French people had showed their intuitive understanding of the unique attributes of bicycle racing. Americans who see the Tour as a diabolical version of how to sweat more will miss its special appeal. The nation which created the absolute dichotomy of Decartes' mind and body also produced a healing balm when the Tour's founder, Henri Desgrange, gave his advice for winning: "Head and Legs".

No other sport permits such extremes of personal effort and intellectual challenge. Throughout the last third of the nineteenth century the French were at the forefront of exploring the possibilities of the new two-wheeled medium. most notably, races became longer and longer until some sort of ultimate limit was reached with the creation of Paris-Brest-Paris in 1891. At nearly 800 miles it took even the best riders of that era approximately four days to complete.

Henri Desgrange, editor of L'Auto at the turn of the century, spent sleepless nights trying to conjure a new type of race. Not only was he in love with bike racing, but his newspaper's big rival, Le Velo, sponsored Paris-Brest-Paris. When someone in the office suggested six days of racing around France Desgrange immediately grasped the possibilities. It perfectly satisfied his one-hand-on-the-heart, one-hand-in-the-pocket approach.

On January 19, 1903 L'Auto announced "'Le Tour de France', the greatest bike race in the whole world. A race of more than one month: Paris-Lyon, Marseille-Toulouse-Bordeaux-Nantes-Paris. Twenty thousand francs in prizes."

It was an immediate hit with the sporting public. Each day's 400-kilometer stage would be followed by several day's rest. Almost every region of France would be visited. Fans could see for themselves the slowly unfolding drama.
Maurice Garin, winner of the first Tour, immediately became bigger than life, a legend.

So inspired were the French people that they almost killed the race in 1904. Each province supported its local favorite by beating up the opposition, throwing tacks on the road, felling trees to impede the riders at night, etc.
Desgrange was in despair. "The Tour is finished," he wrote. "this second edition is the last." In time he recovered. In 1905 attendants carried guns and the fans learned to behave. Each year Desgrange fiddled with the formula. He added more riding and subtracted rest days. He added mountain passes. He encouraged foreign teams to enter. When the odor of "fix" began to spread over his beloved Tour he threw out the sponsored teams and admitted national team, all riding anonymous yellow bikes. He invented the maillot jaune, the  yellow jersey for the race leader, simultaneously showing him off to the crowds and evoking the  association with the yellow pages of the now renamed L'Equipe.

In the process the Tour became the most refined arena for men to achieve a pecking order, or as Ted Turner says, "to beat the shit out of each other." Compared to this the might-makes-right ethos of warfare was all too crude. Now self-mastery preceded other-mastery. And although the individual dreamed of winning, he needed help. Complex tactics and strategy arose. Finally, when the finish line was crossed, everyone was still alive to start again.

A pantheon of heroes emerged from the swirling dust and mud. Each has achieved a certain god-like immortality against which new generations can measure themselves. Obviously, few riders can climb to the top of the ladder, but other roles abound, and those who fill them can take pride in at least knowing on which rung they stand.

Goethe explained his own modest production of tragedies by pointing to the prolific Greek playwrights. "Man is simple, " he wrote. "…I say, one may suppose that the subject matter and contents have gradually been exhausted."
Poor Goethe, he never knew "Le Tour". Every year produces new tragedies, and there appears to be no danger of exhausting the subject in its two-wheeled form.

Look at Eugène Christophe in 1913. On a mountainous Pyrenean stage he had attacked and appeared destined to take over the race lead. Then (as he recounted in a later interview) "all of a sudden, about 10 kilometers from St. Marie de Campan down in the valley, I feel something is wrong with my handlebar. I cannot steer my bike anymore. I pull on my brakes and stop. I see my fork is broken! I can tell you now that my fork was broken, but I would not tell you at that time because it was bad advertising for my sponsor.

"So there I was, left alone on the road. When I say the road, I should say the path. All the riders I had dropped during the climb caught me. I was weeping with anger.

"I was getting madder and madder. As I walked down I was looking for a shortcut. I thought  that maybe one of these steep pack trails would lead me straight to the village below. But I was crying so badly, I couldn't see a thing. With my bike on my shoulder, I walked for all those 10 kilometers.

"On arriving in town I met a young girl who led me to the blacksmith, but Monsieur Lecomte, the blacksmith, was not allowed to help me. The regulations were strict: I had to do all the repairs myself. I never spent a more wretched time in my life than those cruel hours at M. Lecomte's forge. Members of rival cycling firms had been sent to keep a close watch on me. M. Lecomte was only allowed to give me verbal guidance. A young boy helped me with the bellows, for which aid I was fined. After three hours I was able to continue on an uncertain and rather unstable bike. I had lost the Tour de France."

Revenge against this cruel fate had to wait until 1919, the little matter of a world war having deferred the Tour. It was this edition which featured the invention of the maillot jaune and Christophe was the first to wear it. He still had it glued to his shoulders on the next to last day when, unbelievably, his fork broke again. The whole forge scene was repeated and Christophe's last chance to achieve victory in Paris went up literally in smoke.

A modern tragedy occurred in 1984. Bernard Hinault, already a four-time winner of the Tour was desperate to join Jacques Anquetil and Eddy Merckx with five victories. Knocked out of the Tour by knee surgery in 1983, his former understudy, Laurent Fignon had emerged to win that year. In separate teams for '84, all France was divided between cheering for the young upstart or the old warrior.

Unable to exert his traditional dominance, Hinault threw everything into a desperate attack up the serpentine climb to L'Alpe d'Huez. A French magazine wrote: "Hinault is alive (in contrast to his "death" before the previous year's Tour). We saw him on the climb to L'Alpe d'Huez when he left his rivals to go ahead alone, carried by an inexpungeable will and pride. And then, the pedals  became heavy, his body drawn by its weight toward an unforeseen adventure. Now we see a man become ordinary, returning among men. The sovereign of energy will henceforth be called "Laurent Fignon"!

This appeared in the corner of a two-page full color photo showing Hinault grimly pounding away through a corridor of screaming fans. They knew where he was returning from and they had no wish to see their idol fallen.

Of course tragedy is just one facet of the annual Tour drama. Debates will continue among the cognoscenti, but Eddy Merckx is generally regarded as the greatest rider of all time. Not only did he equal the record of five Tour wins, but it was the way he won. While Anquetil had appeared to be cool and aloof with a calculator for a brain, Merckx was positively profligate with his resources. Already eight minutes ahead on overall time in 1969, he doubled that in one stupendous exhibition through the mountains.

Again, a French magazine wrote: "Victory wasn't enough. It was necessary for him to make an exploit and a legend. more than against his adversaries, whom he beat and beat again, Eddy Merckx raced against himself, searching for an absolute that he attained from time to time."

When Merckx was finally defeated in 1975 after a spectator slugged him in the stomach and a crash broke his cheek bone, he was eulogized in the French press and compared to Jesus in an article entitled In the Stations of the Cross.
Nationality is always a two-headed hydra. It marked a major advance in Europe's evolution out of feudalism, but its limitations in the political area have been all too obvious for several centuries. For all their chauvinist reputation, the French are probably the most sportingly chivalrous public in the world. They recognize that a great performance is a great performance.

Nationalism is, however, a great gimmick for bringing out traits such as loyalty. Desgrange struck a deep chord when he, as mentioned earlier, changed the Tour from trade teams to national teams. This format reached its peak in 1934. French team leader that year was Antonin Magne, already the victor in 1931. So dominant was the team that they took 19 of 33 stages. But what really set this year apart was the emergence of René Vietto, a former hotel janitor. He proved to be a sensational climber, soaring from 46th to 3rd through the Alpine stages. All France held its breath for the Pyrenean stages. Would Vietto attempt to usurp Magne, or would he play is allotted role faithfully?

The moment of truth came during the first mountain stage along the Spanish border. Magne punctured and Vietto unhesitatingly gave him his wheel. Next day, same scenario, only this time Vietto had to turn around and ride back down the mountain to assist his leader! The picture of a tearful Vietto sitting on a wall waiting for a replacement wheel from the team car made him an instant hero.

The national team formula ended in 1961 (except for a short return in 1967-68) and one of the reasons for its demise was the supplanting of loyalty with jealousy. In one famous incident a rider picked up the dinner table and threw it on his teammates. Another time one finished a stage screaming "Les Judas!" at the others.

For 1985 Laurent Fignon has immodestly predicted, "I'll win the Tour. You can bet on it." After his Tour defeat last year Hinault went on to score a series of remarkable wins in other races, defeating, among others, one Laurent Fignon. Partisans for both men have cause to hope. 

A strong outsider is Greg LeMond. Sick for tow-thirds of the race last year, he still managed to finish third. American fans dream of what he can do when he's healthy!

Two generations of U.S. riders have shipwrecked on the craggy shores of European cycling. It is on the backs of their efforts that Greg can find the gap to not be insurmountable. If he should take the maillot jaune down the Champs Elysée he will continue the Tour tradition of proving that super men can appear from anywhere, anytime. [Bernard Hinault won the 1985 Tour with LeMond second, LeMond won in 1986.]

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Le President vs. Le Short Cut

These stories were written during and after the 1985 and 1986 Tours de France
Most of the time "Following" the Tour means staying ahead of it. Once you're behind the race there's no overtaking the riders. It does get a little frustrating, however, to report on a race that you rarely actually see. So our routine was to pull off at some viewpoint, watch the racers come by, and then take a short cut to the finish where we could see the last half-hour of the race on TV in the salle de presse.

The second Alpine stage offered a perfect bypass to the finish from the summit of the penultimate climb. It was a road I knew well from my racing days in the area, years ago.

Everything appeared to be going to plan. We stopped at a spot where we could look back down the serpentine road. First came Chozas, a Spaniard on an eventually futile break, and then a bunch of strong men led confidently by LeMond and Hinault.

As soon as the team cars following the riders had gone by we jumped in behind them for the last half-mile to the summit. Of course mobs of fans lined the road, but we were used to this and confidently expected to beep out way through them at our chosen intersection.

Just as we got to the turn we realized that something was different. There was an extra bevy of gendarmes and a dozen men in overly formal attire for this hot summer afternoon. We slowed for a better look, and right in the middle of the group, and right in the middle of the short cut, stood none other than François Mitterand, Mr. President ode la Republique himself. We could have reached out and touched him.

But we didn't, of course. We didn't even try to beep him over, although he was such an obvious race fan I doubt he would have minded. There was no choice but to continue along the race route and assuage our disappointment with the thought that we had at last met a politician with whom we had something in common!

Cycling Slavery

The vas majority of Tour riders don't ever dream of winning. They are the slaves, or more politely, domestiques, of the peloton. Theirs is an endless task of hard work and anonymity.

Philippe Poissonier is a perfect example. At age 34 he's getting close to retirement, but you'd never know it to look at his schedule for the season. On the road practically nonstop since February, he became, by July 21st, the ninth cyclist to ever complete the three big Tours, those of Spain, Italy and France, in one year.

Then he looks forward to maybe as much as a week at home with his wife, Marie-France, and his three children. Two or three days is all he's managed to visit them in the last six months, he admits.

But Philippe is content. On approximately $1,200 a month, "I make enough to keep us comfortable and give us the essential thing in life - to do what we like." Only one thing troubles him. "When my children ask me why I don't win races, I don't know what to say."

China and Women's Racing

It was a brave step for the People's Republic to enter a team in the Tour de France Feminin this year [1986]. Their director sportif, Feng Rongzhao, said his charges were especially scared of the high mountains. "They've never raced on stuff like this. And there are so many cars with the race," he continued. "When we first saw the race caravan we thought we'd made a mistake and bumped into a freeway instead." For the Chinese Cycling Federation participation in the Tour is just a step on the road to the 1990 Asian Games. "From this perspective, "Feng added, " it doesn't matter so much how the girls do. Experience is what we're after."

Their French helper was appalled at how poorly prepared they were. "They only had two spare wheels, no water bottles and nothing to eat."

Fortunately, to the rescue came the Italians with bikes and the French with technical assistance. But the French helper was impressed by the Chinese determination. "When Chinese cycling wakes up, " he asserted, "French cycling will tremble."

Tour Chivalry

David Walsh, famous Irish sports writer, had a problem. During the fourth stage of the Tour a crown for one of his teeth decided it wanted out. The Tour organization is very complete, but it does no include an in-house dentist.

So at the stage town of  Pont-Ademer Quillebeuf David went hunting. [this was after stage 4 of the 1985 Tour.] He entered the first office he could find, explained his predicament to the receptionist, and in minutes was ushered into the dentists chair ahead of other clients.

The dentist told Mr. Walsh that his other patients would understand and upon leaving the gentleman refused all payment. It was his small effort to support the Tour.

So expeditious was the whole operation that Walsh left without ever learning the name of his benefactor!

Martin Early - "the luck of the Irish"

Stephan Roche and Sean Kelly have been Ireland's gift to top level cycling for a number of years now. They were joined in the peloton by a new recruit from back home, Martin Early. Like most beginners Martin must serve his apprenticeship doing  menial tasks.

He recounted a typical incident. "I was sent back to get water bottles for the lads. I put three in me pockets, two in me shorts and one down the front of me jersey. Just as I caught up to the field we began a bloody third category hill. I had to climbs it with six bottles on me! Now that's a different story from what you'll getting from Roche and Kelly! (Provide your own Irish accent.)

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Herrera's great fear-1985 Tour de France

Little about the Tour is haphazard. The fifth stage to Roubaix-Tourcoing, for example, featured five sections of the dreaded pavé, those  cobbled roads which are the principal feature of the April classic, Paris-Roubaix.

The Colombian, Luis Herrera, is a gifted climber, but he has never ridden of the "babies' heads" before. Their reputation was enough to intimidate him.

On the eve of the fifth stage he confided, "You may laugh when you see me after tomorrow's stage, but I might be crying. Quite simply, I hope to arrive before night time."

His fears proved groundless. He lost less than three minutes, time he could pull back on his chosen terrain, the mountains.


The American computer firm, Hewlett-Packard, is as well known in France as in the U.S., and part of the reason is that it is deeply involved  with the Tour.
As could be expected, their machines crank out daily results with all sorts of breakdowns for special interests. In addition, they have developed a number of medical programs, most spectacularly, one that can determine a rider's level of fatigue. Television coverage has been markedly enhanced by the special effects generated by the H-P wizardry. Finally, lest the point be lost by the general public, a huge truck built to look like a H-P 150 is a major feature of the publicity caravan the precedes the racers around France.


After being intimately involved with the World Soccer Cup and the Olympic Games, Coca-Cola has now embraced the Tour de France. The Perrier van, so long a permanent fixture of the Tour, has disappeared, to be replaced by the Coke dispenser. No longer do the riders' bottles read "Vittel", another French mineral water company. Now the bidons come in red with the white letters of the American soft drink company clearly inscribed on them. When the dollar speaks, the Tour listens.

Jacques Goddet

Forced retirement is not a concern of the Tour organization. The Tour is as much an affair of the heart as one of the pocketbook. Proof of this starts at the top. Jacques Goddet, co-director  of this great race, this year celebrated his 80th birthday and his 50th year at the helm of the event.

Of course the occasion did not pass unnoticed, but an hour before the festivities began, Goddet sat typing his daily column in a small chamber of the press office. Only a vase of fresh flowers made his cubicle a touch special.

Some things never change.
[Goddet was Tour director 1937-1988. He died in 2000]

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LeMond and Toshiba

Greg LeMond dreams of life in the yellow jersey. He has every right to do so. Only special circumstances have kept him from donning the symbol of cycling's highest accomplishment.

Nevertheless he was spared the "indignity" of wearing a normal trade team jersey. This year the Toshiba company has sponsored a combination jersey. It honored the rider with the highest overall placing in the Tour's four competitions. they consisted of:

1. yellow jersey - signifying the rider with the lowest overall time
2. green jersey - signifying the rider with the best average daily placing
3. polka dot jersey - signifying the rider most well-placed at the mountain summits
4. red jersey - signifying the rider with the most points acquired from the daily sprints during a stage, sponsored by the Catch insect repellent company.

Got all that? No wonder the Tour organization needed Hewlett-Packard to issue its results sheets. No mortal could have.

Anyway, the "combine" jersey that Greg wore for virtually the entire race look like a refugee from the rag bag, but was really supposed to represent a combination of the four jerseys. The real significance, of course, is that it gave Greg some official recognition for his superb riding in every department.

The Tour's "Other Women"

Rest day on the Tour is hardly that. Rather it's a day when everyone catches up on work deferred. Writers complete specials for the Sunday supplement, mechanics do tear downs on the bikes, and the racers even for a spin lest their legs seize up from a day off.

A lucky few get to visit with their families. For the on-continentals this brief contact is especially important. Isolated as they are from all that is familiar, alone on teams where they are separated by language and attitudes, a loving wife can be the deciding factor.

Greg LeMond's mother doesn't hesitate to attribute Greg's success in large measure to his wife, Kathy. "Americans have no idea how hard it is to break into the European cycling world." She says. "I know Greg is strong, but without Kathy I doubt he would have made it through that first year over here. She had to make as big an adjustment as Greg. How many young wives could cope with being left home alone for weeks at a time in a foreign country? She's so mature. She never complains. She knows this is what they have to do now in order to have what they want for the rest of their lives."

Even as she spoke, Kathy sat patiently in the courtyard of the team's hotel, playing with Jeffrey, waiting (for three hours, it turned out) until Greg could escape from the swarming hoards of journalists.

Steve Bauer, Doug Shapiro, and Phil Anderson could recite similar stories. Phil's wife, Ann, didn't wait for the rest day. She, their baby, her parents, and two friends followed the Tour in a camper. Frequently Phil could be seen sitting in his hotel parking lot a the door of their camper, playing with his little girls, laughing with his wife, and appearing utterly unconcerned about his role in the world's biggest bike race.

Appearances can be deceiving, of course.