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Charles Terront: How to Win a Race…By Less Than a Tire

By Les Woodland

An excerpt from Cycling's 50 Craziest Stories

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Les Woodland has been kind enough to let me excerpt a chapter from his book "Cycling's 50 Craziest Stories". You can learn more about this fun book (available in print, Kindle eBook and Audio Book versions) by clicking here.

When Henri Desgrange wrote a book about tactics, he called it Heads and Legs. He knew what he was talking about. You need more than just big thighs to win a bike race.

Cycling's 50 Craziest Stories cover art

Take Charles Terront, for instance. You don’t get craftier than him. In fact, if you go to Nantes in France, you’ll find he has a street named after him. They like a bit of craftiness, the French. And no one was more French than Terront, who satisfied all the old stereotypes of his countrymen as bad-tempered, vain, contrary and, of course, devious.

In November 1878 Terront rode the world’s first six-day race, at the Agricultural Hall in Islington, north London, (the hall is still there, but it’s called the Business Design Centre these days; take the Underground to Angel station if you want to find it and follow the signs from there) and charmed nobody by openly racing for money, demanding his prizes in cash, regarding his rivals with contempt and considering himself altogether superior.

The British, who still had notions of sport as a challenge between gentlemen and accepted money only “reluctantly”, ganged up against him. They rode harder when Terront came on to the track. They chased after him when he put in an effort. They raced even faster when he left the track. And they arranged to have their food handed up as they rode, forcing Terront to go out into the street to find a restaurant.

At some time they suggested a truce. They brought him flowers which they insisted he sniff, he said. But Terront’s elegant French nose spotted more than the perfume of flowers. It sniffed out a trick as well. The flowers had been sprinkled with sleeping powder, he claimed, and from then on he wouldn’t accept anything from anyone. His café trips became not simply time-wasting but essential. And every time he made them, of course, the others lowered their heads to the handlebars and went as fast as they could.

The world’s first six-day race wasn’t a happy experience for him. He felt cheated and despised. He felt sick on the tight unbanked track that ran round a hall normally used for cattle shows. He felt, rightly, that the British despised him. And he went home to Paris with just £10 (about $15 but worth a lot more then) for coming fifth. The winner, with 260 km, was an Englishman called Bill Cann.
Maybe that was what made him ride from then on with both his head and his legs. It was all very well being France’s big star of long-distance racing, but that was no good if he couldn’t think his way out of a fix.

Charles Terront

Charles Terront in an undated photo

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The big sign that he had learned to both think and race came in February 1893, when a promoter in Paris engaged him to ride an extraordinary 1,000 km race against Valentin Corre of Brittany, his big rival who’d come third in Bordeaux–Paris. The race was to be held in the city centre, at the Galérie des Machines, and things went wrong from the start. As if the distance wasn’t enough, the people who ran Paris made things harder by refusing to keep the lights on all night. Faced with a disaster before the event had even started, the organisers were forced to borrow generators and lamps from workmen who were building a hangar near the Eiffel Tower.

That kept the track lit but when Paris said there would be no light they should have added that there’d be no heating either. This was February, remember. The organisers had to go back to the builders and borrow braziers to warm the spectators. But if you’ve ever seen strikers huddling around their makeshift fires outside factories, you’ll know that braziers don’t throw their heat very far. Those who got near them were as happy as they were likely to be on a cold winter night but the rest were still freezing. It didn’t take them long to find a solution: they ripped out 600 wooden seats from the stands, heaped them high, set fire to them and crowded happily round the bonfire.

Down on the track, Terront and Corre eyed each other nervously. Each was surrounded by a team of helpers, including relays of pacers who would set up the speed for them and provide a slipstream. That was considered not only normal but desirable in those days, because what people wanted was to see riders going as fast as they could.

There’s not much to say about the race. It was, after all, just two men going round and round and round. Spectators sensed the boredom they were in for and only the committed bought tickets. The stadium, with its smoking remains of wooden seats, was half empty. But then things took an unusual twist.

A 1,000 km race takes a long time. To be exact, this one took 41 hours and 2,500 laps. It also takes a lot of liquid. Both men had to deal, as the French newspapers expressed it, with their biological needs. Each also refused to give in until he’d seen the other climb off his bike and disappear into his trackside cabin.
Well, Corre watched and watched. The laps built up, the hours passed and the bottles of drink were emptied. But not once in 27 hours did Terront budge from his saddle. Not once did he show even a hint of distress. Corre looked on with growing despair and finally he could stand it no more. He called for his pacers to stop, steered painfully into the track centre, and felt the relief that only a man who hasn’t relieved himself for 27 hours can possibly feel.

Terront, meanwhile, cruised on unaffected. This was clearly a giant among men. Or at least a giant among bladders.

The relief took Corre several minutes and he was six laps down by the time he started racing again. The track was later rebuilt at 333 m and with bankings but in those days it was 400 m, so he had lost close to two and a half kilometers. More than that, he was mentally and physically broken. He managed only a few hours next time before he stopped, once more losing time as Terront rode on unperturbed. And still he couldn’t work out how Terront could do it.

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Next morning he found out. Some of his helpers had left the track at dawn to fetch more food and there they bought a paper. What they had missed from their position inside the track, the reporters sitting in the outside seats had spotted. The headline that caught the helpers’ eyes was Le coup de la chambre à air. A coup means what it does in coup d’état or coup de grace; a chambre à air in French is an inner tube.

Aghast, the helpers felt a cold chill run through them as they read the closely spaced black type that unveiled Terront’s ruse. Far from enjoying a superhuman bladder, he had simply cut half a meter from an inner tube, knotted one end and given it to his pacers. Every so often he had crowded his assistants around him, taken the knotted inner tube, pushed it down his shorts and filled it as he rode. It was as difficult as it was clever; cycling shorts were much looser in those days but Terront had no freewheel and he had to keep pedalling. When the job was done, Corre’s helpers read in horror, Terront had merely retrieved the tube from his shorts and handed it back to a pacer. The assistant then rode off the track, emptied the tube and kept it for next time.

If Corre’s team were impressed, it was nothing compared to the reaction of the people of Paris. The trick was the sensation of a cold winter’s day, and people who until then had had no interest in a boring bike race now wanted to see Terront use his inner tube. They wanted to see what Corre could come up with in revenge. They were so keen that crowds formed all down the street.

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The more the crowds formed, the more other people worried they were missing out on something. They began offering the organisers more than the five-franc value of the ticket so they could jump the queue. The promoters, who’d had enough of all the troubles they’d been through, found manna dropping from heaven all round them. This wasn’t a chance to be missed and they sold tickets for far more than the hall could hold. The flimsy upper balconies began filling ten deep and people started sitting in the rafters. Word got out and the police arrived and demanded they come down. But people in rafters are in a secure position so far as raids by the police are concerned and the more the gendarmes demanded they come down, the more they yelled insults from the safety of the roof. Meanwhile the promoters counted their cash.

The 1,000 km passed in 41:50:04, with Corre 9.3 km behind Terront. The crowd that the police hadn’t managed to evict came down on to the track to carry Terront in triumph. Corre, meanwhile, sat on his trackside bed exhausted and largely neglected.

“Terront didn’t even beat me by a tire,” he told journalists slowly with a wry smile. “He won by an inner tube.”

Terront became a huge celebrity, France’s first bike hero, the first André Leducq (“a rider who was liked by women, whom he honoured as frequently as his track contracts,” a friend recalled), Jacques Anquetil, Bernard Hinault or Laurent Jalabert.

Remember him if you ever ride Paris–Brest–Paris. Terront won it in 1891, when the roads were bumpy mud and cobbles were considered a luxury. He finished the 1,198 km in 71½ hours. Today, on smooth roads, on modern bikes with multiple gears and good lights, riding in huge groups, riders more than a century later consider themselves satisfied if they get round within 20 hours of that time.

We hope you enjoyed this story. There are 49 more in Cycling's 50 Craziest Stories.