In this extract from A Race For Madmen, Chris Sidwells explains the birth of the famous Yellow Jersey, as well as the origins of 'the Hell of the North'.
The Great War left France paralysed. Nearly a quarter of her population had been drafted, and of them just over six million men and boys were killed or badly wounded. The Tour de France lost Henri Alavoine, Edouard Wattelier and Emile Engel among its notable regular racers, plus many who had taken parts as ‘isolés’, and Lucien Petit-Breton, François Faber and Octave Lapize among its winners. Lapize became one of France’s first fighter pilots, but died when shot down during the Battle of Verdun.
The country was on its knees, and ordinary French people were almost starving, especially in the north where the fighting had been most fierce. The Somme, parts of the Pas-de-Calais and Le Nord were a waste land. Nothing grew, every tree had been blasted away and roads barely existed. It looked as though life would never be normal again in this living hell.
But life would be normal again, and just to help it along the Tour de France decided to go ahead in 1919. Not only that, it would run through the battlefields of the north, which, as it turned out, partly defined the race. It certainly wasn’t a titanic athletic struggle. Most of the contestants hadn’t ridden their bikes for four years, because they’d been busy trying to stay alive. And when the news broke that the Tour would be on, they had little time to prepare for it. Of the 67 starters only ten finished. The 1914 winner, Phillipe Thys, didn’t even make it through the first stage, but the race was still remarkable for two things that are part of cycling today: the yellow jersey and the introduction of the phrase ‘Hell of the North’.
Stage racing had become an accepted part of cycling. People understood it and liked the way a rider who had bad fortune one day could come back on another. That facet of stage racing reached the hearts and minds of working people in France, the majority of whom still earned their living from the land. Their life was dominated by overcoming setbacks; they expected them and had a gloomy suspicion of good luck. But the problem with stage races was that although fans could see the leader on the road when he passed through their village on any given day, they found it harder to identify who was leading the race overall.
It was suggested to Desgrange that it would help identify the leader if he wore the same distinctive jersey each day. He agreed and went off to buy enough for the leader to wear every day for the rest for the race. The official race history holds that yellow was chosen because L’Auto was printed on yellow paper, but the real reason is far more mundane. Desgrange needed 15 jerseys in different sizes, and they had to be the same colour, but the supplier only had that quantity in yellow, because yellow was his least popular colour.
And so the yellow jersey was born. Its first wearer was Eugène Christophe, the hero of the ‘broken forks’ episode on the Tourmalet – or so, once again, the official history has it. However, it’s recently been discovered that in the 1950s, when he was quite old, Philippe Thys told a French cycling magazine that he’d been asked to wear a yellow jersey by Desgrange when he was leading a Tour before the war. Unfortunately, if it did happen any record of it has been lost, but Thys wasn’t a man given to telling lies. Thys also added that he hadn’t wanted to wear it, and reckoned that he only did so after Desgrange paid him. Christophe was none too keen in 1919 either, claiming that its distinctive colour made it easier for the rest to pick out where he was on the road, so he was easier to mark. But on stage 14 from Metz to Dunkirk the colour of his shirt was the last thing on Christophe’s mind.
The stage went right across the north-east corner of France, from east to west, along what had just been the front line. The roads were awful, and the whole landscape was wrecked, prompting one journalist to describe the scene as the ‘Hell of the North’ when he saw the devastation around the industrial city of Valenciennes. It’s an area famous for the cobblestone tracks that were used originally by farmers and miners to get around. The tracks are called ‘pavés’, and every year they form the crux of the single-day Classic, the Paris–Roubaix race. They are still rough, demand a special riding skill, and today are protected by law from upgrading, as listed buildings are in the UK.
The Paris–Roubaix jealously protects its Hell of the North today, but in 1919 Christophe would have happily seen all those pavés tarmacked over, because the rough, bomb-cratered road broke his forks again. This time he found a bicycle factory, not a blacksmith’s, used their forge for the repair, and lost nearly two and a half hours because of it. He lost the Tour de France too. The winner was Firmin Lambot, the first Belgian from the French-speaking Walloon area to win.
A Race For Madmen: The Extraordinary History of the Tour de France, by Chris Sidwells, is out now
Read more from A Race for Madmen