Pyrenees – 100 Years (Official Tour Guide – 2010)
RIDE Media has produced the official Tour de France Guide (Australian edition) since 2003. The 2012 edition will be on sale mid-June. During the production period, we will be looking back at certain features from over the years.
In this flashback we take a look at the 100 years of Tour racing in the Pyrenees.
Like in all clans, there are divisions. Some prefer Jacques, others Raymond. Some swear only by Lance, others by Alberto. But when the calendar throws up a fixed date, the cycling family unites with one voice, to enhance its own legend. Above all, it’s about commemorating a centenary, an occasion which doesn’t happen that frequently anymore.
In 2010, the Pyrenees are the heroes of the party. The peaks of this mountain range have provided organisers with the ingredients for the meal de résistance of the Tour de France; four stages rise up out of the legend. Because for barely 100 years, the riders have had to face the merciless slopes of the Pyrenees. And if sometimes they are allowed to survive, they immortalise the ephemeral moments of a sport in which the ultimate goal is to stop only once the finish line has been crossed.
The Tour was born a second time in 1910 by the will of Henri Desgrange. Taking the race to altitude gave the race director a widened horizon which made his contest a perennial event. Yet he must have been ill-informed to envisage the marriage of la Grande Boucle with an almost inaccessible massif.
At the time, its rutted trails were scarred with perilous potholes and deep trenches dug by loggers.
The slightest storm brought forth torrents of mud, due to a roadway that was classed as a “thermal route” because it was supposed to be the link between the main stations of the region.
But the Tour was beginning to doze off in what was nothing more than a succession of bland stages and the bicycle manufacturers were trying to gain control of the results. Desgrange was forced to react. He gathered his collaborators and drew on their imaginations in order to spice up the route with some of their innovations. Alphonse Steinès dared to offer a proposition which defied belief, suggesting the greatest challenge to be thrown at men, while perched on rudimentary bicycles.
From this project that came the idea of the “pire est née” (which translates to ‘the worst is born’ and also rhymes with Pyrenees in French): to make the riders cross the peaks of the taut mountain range between France and Spain. The legend could be incorrect. More than towards Peyresourde, more than towards Aspin and more than towards the Siamese peaks of Soulor and Aubisque, the blazing looks immediately turned towards the Tourmalet. This privilege is due to its size: 2,115 metres makes it the highest peak of the French Pyrenees. But this favouritism also owes something to the magic of the region, the meeting place of two glaciers.
This year the race organisers allowed themselves to become captivated by the Tourmalet in envisaging that competitors would cross the summit two times: on 20 July, they will pass over it during the stage which was roughly designed around the first passage during the Tour – that day back in 1910, between Bagnères-de-Luchon and Pau – and again on 22 July, when riders will end their day at the summit. A finish at altitude is a rare event at this place, with only one precedent.
The Tourmalet is above all a place of initiation where a cyclist accomplishes his life’s work, making a companion of the Tour de France – maybe even more so than the day he buckles the belt of la Grande Boucle at the end on the Champs-Élysées. None of those who have reached the heights of the Tourmalet has emerged unscathed from the test, one which riders subject themselves to willingly. In a century, close to 5,000 competitors on “la grande randonnée” – as it was named in 1910 – have abandoned, at the same time leaving their strength and a part of themselves on the sides of this mountain, which subjects them to the harshness of rain or snow if she wishes, or to the fierceness of the sun, if it suits her.
In tracing out the course, race organisers put the keys in the hands of the competitors. It’s up to them to choose what to do with the road that lies ahead. If the strength is given, they will pass through, alone or in small groups, the gates to glory. If bad luck overwhelms them, they will remain in the gruppetto on the threshold of anonymity. In a century, many riders have seized this opportunity to enter into the legend.
Among so many heroic performances, three in particular stand out. Three solitary rides each with a different motivation and with diverse consequences.
One should have seen, in 1947, Jean Robic, having escaped the peloton around the suburbs of Luchon (the site of the stage start) and then recover, without the help of anyone except that of the time bonuses, 16 of the 23 minutes he had lost to his adversaries. Before the race he had sworn to his young wife that he would win the Tour. He was to keep his word.
One should have seen, in 1969, Jacques Goddet, the director of the Tour, witness one of the finest exploits of Eddy Merckx, set in motion 100 metres from the summit of the Tourmalet. An attack of 140 kilometres, while his best adversaries tried to pull him back and a merciless stopwatch continued to register a growing gap. The Belgian champion was already dressed in the maillot jaune. But “ce don fait au Tour de France” – this gift to the Tour de France – submitted himself to the judgement of God, to proclaim once again that his Giro exclusion some weeks before would remain a parody of justice.
One should have seen, in 1986, another Frenchman from Brittany, Bernard Hinault, who the day before appeared to have won a race which he had promised to Greg LeMond, attack on the descent of the Tourmalet, to general amazement. He was alone in his pain, rather than comfortable in the midst of the peloton, for 100 kilometres and three enormous climbs. The abracadabra-esque attack resulted in the spectacular failure of the five-time winner of the Tour and a maillot jaune on borrowed time, with a gap of 48 seconds over his American team-mate who would eventually triumph, as agreed, in Paris.
How could we not also mention the most legendary defeat in the history of cycling. For it was a setback in sporting terms, even if it was only due to a dangerous encounter between a bicycle and a car. Eugène Christophe, who contributed so much to the mythology of the Tour de France, had destroyed his bike fork in 1913 on the slopes of the Tourmalet, like he would destroy it in 1919 between Metz and Dunkerque. The uncompromising rule concocted by the original director of the Tour, Henri Desgrange, excluded any form of assistance for a competitor in difficulty. But as the ‘Old Gaulois’ didn’t think of abandoning even for a moment, he did what he had to do: 10km on foot with his heavy bike over his shoulder, then four hours of repairs at the blacksmiths in Sainte-Marie-de-Campan, under the watch of the commissaires. He then resumed his journey, without batting an eyelid.
The best pages are yet to be written, everyone hopes they will come in this year of commemoration like the centenary. The organisers are dreaming that, in addition to all the grands classiques of the Pyrenees, they have offered riders a menu of the most recent recipes, one which has the ingredients to stimulate their appetite for victory: the Port de Pailhères and the Plateau de Bonascre. Bon appétit!
A whole book was necessary to evoke the 63 times the Tour de France has crossed the Tourmalet – including three finishes at La Mongie and one finish at the top of the pass. L’Équipe has done this. None of those who have shown themselves on the slopes of the Tourmalet miss out on a mention. Be they French, from Octave Lapize, the first in 1910, to Pierrick Fédrigo, the most recent and second over the climb in 2009, or foreigners. Be it that they showed themselves just one time or that they showed a particular affinity with the climb to the point that they passed over in the lead several times: Federico Bahamontes, four times, Jean Robic, Julio Jiminez and Lucien van Impe, three times. Be it that they were a revelation like Bernard Thévenet, Louis Mottiat, Honoré Barthélémy or Victor Fontan. Be it that they were beaten or that they consolidated their final victory like Odile Defraye, Fausto Coppi, Louison Bobet, Gino Bartali…
Or be it that they were unfortunate or weak, the reporters from the daily sports journal have seen, heard and written everything to immortalise their memory. The reader needs only to open these pages with their powerful photographs to instantly relive a century full of inspiring and tortured memories.
by Christophe Penot