By Jen See
If the bike racing season follows the phases of the moon, Milano-Sanremo is the new moon, it winks with its hints of mysteries and new beginnings. The Tour de France is a full moon high in the sky. Try to turn away, and its brightness is inescapable. The great world spins, the tide swings, and boom! There’s the moon.
It’s the 100th edition of the Tour de France this year, and it’s been an impressive run for Henri Desgranges’ strange creation. Most good cycling stories involve coffee, and the invention of the Tour is no different. In spring 1903 l’Auto newspaper needed a miracle to revive its circulation.
During a staff meeting, a young journalist Geo Lefèvre blurted out the idea of a bike race around France without thinking too hard about it. L’Auto editor Desgranges and Lefèvre then headed to a café. There was coffee and talk of bike racing. Some things never change.
Desgranges looks like he might have been a cappuccino man, but it’s hard to tell from a distance. He rode bikes as well as wrote about them, and in 1893, he held the hour record. Photos from the time show Desgranges riding his fixie with its swept back bars perfectly shining. Dressed in skinny black pants, he sports a mustache notable for its abundance. Desgranges: Tour inventor and hipster poster child. No doubt he rode his fixie to the coffee shop. How else would he get there?
Just as there is always coffee in a story about bike racing, there is also always a man with a bag of money. Victor Goddard was the man with the money, and when Desgranges showed up in his office with the idea of a bike race around France, Goddard agreed to back it. It’s unclear if there was coffee involved in this part of the story. But if there was, it was dark brew served in a silver pot on a tray with a pitcher of cream and a bowl of sugar.
The 1903 Tour began on 1 July, and had six stages. This was the time of bike races of ridiculous length, and the stages were mostly in the 400 kilometer range. The shortest, which ran from Toulouse to Bordeaux, was only 268. The rest were monsters. On the final day, the Tour riders raced 471 kilometers from Nantes to Paris.
They also raced over the haphazard roads of turn-of-the-century France on heavy steel bicycles. This was the time before the invention of such useful things as carbon fiber and the derailleur. Men were men and saddles were not that comfortable, really. Maurice Garin reached Paris first in 1903 and won the inaugural Tour.
Though he had backing from Goddard, Desgranges was by no means convinced the race would succeed. In fact, he refused to turn up for the start. He didn’t want anything to do with a flop. By all accounts, Desgranges was not especially well-liked by his contemporaries. A combative sort, he had a temper on him. Only after it was clear the Tour was a success did Desgranges claim credit. Nobody likes a poser.
This year’s Tour fittingly rides the Pyrénées before the Alps. It’s hard to imagine the Tour without is signature mountains, but the high mountains only became part of the race in 1910 when the Tour rode into the Pyrénées for the first time. The mighty Col du Tourmalet was the Tour’s first major ascent.
The riders protested. Oh the inhumanity! There was talk of bears. From their lofty perch, the mountains have judged many riders and found them wanting, but fears of bears at least proved unfounded. Riders have cracked, crashed, and been wrung out and left for dry on the slopes of the high mountains, but no rider has ever been eaten by a bear at the Tour. In 1911, the Tour added the Alps.
After 100 editions, it takes a little work to make things exciting and new. This time around, the novelty is a double-ascent of the Alpe d’Huez. Though it has become one of the Tour’s signature climbs, the famed 21 hairpins did not make their first appearance in the Tour until 1952.
It’s not hard to guess who won that day, is it? In truth, there can be only one. Nicknamed the Heron for his long, spindly legs, Fausto Coppi attacked with seven kilometers to go, and won the Tour’s first Alpe d’Huez stage. Characteristically, Coppi crossed the line solo.
That 1952 stage was the first time the television cameras came to the Tour de France. Before the television age, writers followed the Tour by car and bicycle. They stood at the checkpoints and finishlines to watch the riders pass by. They asked questions about what happened. Then they filled the unseen gaps with imaginary feats of daring and grandeur. The early accounts of the Tour are as much fiction as truth for no one could ever really see the entirety of the race. The best legends are made that way.
Television cameras lit up the Tour’s shadowy secrets, but still, the race holds tight to its mysteries. Even the cameras can not be everywhere at once, so perspectivism is built into the thing. Turn around, look the other way, see a different bike race. And after it’s all over, let the coffee-fueled debates over what actually happened begin. Coffee and bike racing, they’re made for one another.
The Tour promises adventure, heroics, backstabbing, and controversy. For you know there will be at least one doping scandal, there always is. It’s everything you need for the perfect summer escape. The kaleidoscopic variety of emotions and events grant the Tour its longevity. It’s not about the winner any more than it’s about the bike.
Look to the periphery and find the subplots and supporting characters, for that’s where the true joy of the thing lies.
Cycling’s full moon rises. Pull another espresso and surrender.