08 May 2009

Albert Londres and the Tour de France: Convicts of the road

Several posts ago, I mentioned Albert Londres (above) and his writings on the 1924 Tour de France. Londres was a renowned French investigative journalist, best known for his 1923 stories on the infamous bagne (penal colony) at Îles du Salut, off the coast of French Guyana, to which Alfred Dreyfus had been banished a generation before. In his career, he also exposed the horrors of asylums, forced labour camps in North Africa and colonial exploitation in West Africa.

In 1924, this novice to cycling decided to follow the Tour de France, which he would dub "Le Tour de Souffrance" — the Tour of Suffering. He filed eleven stories from the race for Le Petit Parisien newspaper. I'll be posting a couple of these stories, the first of which is below. (The second is here.) The translation is by Graeme Fife and comes from a booklet given away free with the August 1999 issue of Cycle Sport magazine. Fife's footnotes are included where appropriate.

Some exposition: Henri Pélissier was the defending champion. "Desgrange" is Henri Desgrange, the founder and patron of the Tour. He was almost gleefully sadistic about the arduousness of his race; according to him, "The ideal Tour was a Tour which only one rider would have the necessary power and endeavour to complete". He once advised a rider: "Suffering is the full unfurling of the will". Pélissier did not subscribe to Desgrange's philosophy and often let it be known, much to Desgrange's displeasure: he called Pélissier "a pigheaded, arrogant champion".

Anyway: onwards.

Coutances, June 27, 1924

This morning, we set out before the peloton...

We reached Granville as the bells chimed 6.00am. Suddenly, some riders came through. As soon as they appeared, the crowd, sure that they recognised them, shouted "Henri! Francis!" Henri and Francis were not in the bunch. Everybody waited. Both categories of riders went by — first-category professionals and the 'shadow men'. The shadow men are the touriste-routiers, a bunch of gutsy guys, independents not under contract to the wealthy bike manufacturers. They have a hard life but they've got plenty of fight in them. Neither Henri nor Francis appear. The news came through: the Pélissier brothers had abandoned. We climbed into the Renault and, without a thought for the tyres, drove back up to Cherbourg. The Pélissiers are well worth a set of tyres.

Coutances: a mob of boys chattering about the scoop.

"Have you seen the Pélissiers?"

"I even touched them," says one of the grubby little urchins.

"Do you know where they are?"

"In the Café de la Gare. Everybody's there."

Everyone was there. I had to push through to get into the bistro. The crowd stood in silence, just staring, open-mouthed, towards the back of the room where three jerseys were installed in front of three bowls of chocolate. It was Henri, Francis and the third was none other than the second, I mean Ville, who came second at Le Havre and Cherbourg. "You have a brainstorm?" I asked.

"No," said Henri, "only we're not dogs."

"What happened?"

"It was over a trifle, rather it was over a jersey. This morning in Cherbourg, a commissaire came up to me and, without saying a word, pulled up my jersey. He was checking I hadn't got two jerseys on. What would you say if I just pulled up your waistcoat to see if you really were wearing a white shirt? I don't like their manners, that's all."

"Why was he bothered about you wearing two jerseys?"

"I could be wearing 15, but I can't leave with two and arrive with one."


"It's the rules. We not only have to ride like animals, we either freeze or suffocate. It's all part of the sport, apparently. Anyway, I went and found Desgrange. 'I'm not allowed to ditch my jerseys on the road, is that it?'

"'No. You must not throw away any material belonging to the organisation.'

"'It doesn't belong to the organisation, it belongs to me.'

"'I'm not discussing it in the street.'

"'If you won't discuss it in the street, I'm going back to bed.'

"'We'll sort it out in Brest.'

"'It will be completely sorted out in Brest because I'll have quit.' And I quit."

"And your brother?"

"My brother's my brother, yes, Francis?" And they kissed over their chocolate.

"Francis was already on the road with the bunch. I caught him up and said 'Francis, I'm chucking'."

"It was like fresh butter on hot toast," said Francis. "Just this morning I'd got a stomach ache. I didn't feel at all good."

"And you, Ville?"

"Me?" replied Ville, laughing like a baby. "They found me in bad trouble at the side of the road. Both my knees were seized up, dead."

The Pélissiers not only have legs, they have a head. And in that head they've got judgement.¹

"You have no conception what this Tour de France is," said Henri. "It's a Calvary. Worse: the road to the Cross has only 14 stations; ours has 15.² We suffer from start to finish. You want to know how we keep going? Here..." He pulled out a phial from his bag. "That's cocaine for the eyes. This is chloroform for the gums."

"This," said Ville, emptying his musette, "is liniment to put some warmth in our knees."

"And the pills? You want to see the pills? Take a look, here are the pills." Each one of them pulled out 3 boxes.

"Fact is," said Francis, "we keep going on dynamite."

Henri continued: "You haven't seen us in the bath after the finish. Buy a ticket for the show. When we've got the mud off, we're white as a funeral shroud, drained empty by diarrhoea; we pass out in the water. At night, in the bedroom, we can't sleep, we twitch and dance and jig about like St. Vitus. Look at our shoelaces, they're made of leather. Well, they sometimes give out, they break, and that's cured hide. Just think what's happening to our skin."

"There's less flesh on our bodies than you'd see on a skeleton," said Francis.

"And our toenails," said Henri. "I've lost six out of ten, they get worn away bit by bit every stage." [From being cramped into the soft cycling shoes, rather like dancing pumps, under constant pressure against the toe-clips.]

"They grow back for next year," said his brother. The brothers kissed once more over the chocolate.

"So, that's it. And you've seen nothing yet; you wait till the Pyrenees, that's 'hard labour' [he uses English].³ We put up with all that, but we wouldn't make a mule do what we have to do. We're not work-shy, but in God's name we won't be kicked around. Physical punishment we can take, but we won't tolerate abuse. My name's Pélissier, not Fido. If I put a newspaper over my stomach and set out with it, I have to come in with it. If I throw it away — penalty. When we're dying of thirst, before we put our bidon under the running water, we have to make sure there isn't somebody 50 metres away working the pump, otherwise — penalty. You need a drink, you do your own pumping. The day will come when they'll put lead in our pockets because someone reckons that God made men too light. It's all going down the chute — soon there'll only be tramps left, no more artists. The sport has gone haywire, out of control."

"Yes," said Ville, "mad, haywire."

A young boy came up. "What do you want, lad?"

"Er, well, Monsieur Pélissier, seeing as how you don't want to any more, who's going to win now?"



¹ Desgrange said that to win the Tour a rider needs tête et jambes (head and legs, ie. racing nous as well as physical strength).

² The French commentators still use Calvaire (Calvary), evoking Christ's stations of the cross on the way to his crucifixion, to describe a passage of extreme suffering endured by a rider, usually during a mountain stage. And at the turn of the century, the surrealist writer Alfred Jarry — a fanatical cyclist who rode his bike round and round his tiny apartment — caused a stir with a magazine article entitled 'The Passion Considered as an Uphill Bicycle Race'.

³ This is the origin of the notorious phrase used by Londres: forçats de la route. Forçat means 'convict condemned to hard labour', as in the penal colonies, the subject of Londres' book Au Bagne; la route means 'the road'. Desgrange had used the same phrase some years earlier but, in his perverse way, as a compliment for the suffering he inflicted and the powers of endurance he demanded of 'his' riders. He said that the ideal Tour de France would be a race which only one rider managed to complete. What riled HD about Londres applying the words to the riders — especially the "cosseted" (HD's word) Pélissiers — was the innuendo. To make comparison between the privation suffered by criminals and the noble ordeal of the Tour de France was, in his view, despicable.

Modern sweat-resistant fabrics make the practice less common, but you'll still see riders grabbing newspapers from bystanders at the tops of cols to shove up their jerseys as insulation against the cold on a fast descent.

Henri Pélissier had quit once before, in 1920, when he was penalised for throwing away one of his spare tyres. HD had said then that "This Pélissier knows nothing about suffering; he will never win the Tour". He was wrong. The ablest of the three brothers, Henri won in 1923, after a bad start. Trounced in the Pyrenees by Robert Jacquinot, his riding in the Alps was majestic. After his victory, HD was comparing his artistry to that of Monet and Debussy — never one to stint on praise or censure, Desgrange. He actually tailored the 1932 Tour to suit the youngest Pélissier, Charles, whom he favoured and thought unlucky not to have won. Poor climbing had reduced his chance so HD introduces time bonuses; Pélissier was a consistent stage winner. However, Charles Pélissier withdrew and never did win.


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