In this extract from A Race For Madmen, Chris Sidwells writes about how Henri Desgrange's assistant, Alphonse Steines, headed off on a recce of the Pyrenées to prove it was possible to take the Tour into the high mountains.
Steines drove his own car from Paris to Pau, one of the gateway towns to the high Pyrenées and seated almost at the foot of their highest pass, the Col de Tourmalet. When the locals found out what he was planning they laughed and told Steines about a Mercedes racing car that someone had just turned over while testing it on the climb. They were used to outsiders coming to the mountains to pit their strength against them. The mountains always won, they told him.
Undaunted, Steines put his plan to the superintendant of roads in the region, a man called Blanchet, who also laughed in his face. It was impossible. Maybe some of the roads over the passes could take the occasional car, but a whole entourage of support vehicles and 250 men on bicycles? Impossible. Not only were the roads steep, they were in a terrible condition. So Steines told him that he could do nothing about the steepness – that was the challenge for his racers – but he could do something about the road conditions. He could pull strings and get state help to repair them, state help that was beyond Blanchet’s wildest dreams. ‘Where the Tour de France is concerned nothing is impossible,’ Steines told him. Cannily, Blanchet asked for 5,000 francs. Steines called Desgrange, who phoned back within minutes offering 3,000. Blanchet took it. The roads would be fine by July, he assured his sudden benefactor.
With that sorted, Steines headed for the hills. Next day, and with some difficulty, he negotiated the Col d’Aspin then stopped in Ste Marie de Campan, at the foot of the Tourmalet, to ask local opinion on driving over the giant climb. It was May and the consensus was no, it was impossible. Come back in a month, Steines was told. But then one gnarly old man, who had been a guide to toffs like Steines on walking tours, shook his head, disagreed with the villagers and said that maybe it was possible. The old man said that he would have to drive Steines’s car, and Steines would need to be handy with a shovel and at laying sacking down under their wheels when they got stuck.
Unfortunately Steines’s guide was more talk than substance, and after slipping and sliding their way for six kilometres up the pass, the car got stuck in a snowdrift and the driver wanted to turn back. It was six o’clock, getting dark and there was a long way to go to the summit, and even further down to the next place of habitation. He also told Steines about the local bear population. There are still a few native bears in the area, and a few more imported Slovenian ones, but at the turn of the twentieth century they were a common sheep killer, and weren’t shy to attack humans if they felt threatened.
Steines wasn’t deterred. Although wearing city clothes he pressed on alone. He walked until darkness fell, then began to panic. At this point a shepherd found him and Steines paid the man to take him to the summit. Once there his guide told him to just keep walking downwards; as long as he could hear the Bastan stream close by him, he would eventually arrive in Barrèges at the end of the descent. Only it wasn’t as simple as that. Steines set off a small avalanche, fell over a precipice, and was eventually buried in a snowdrift. That was where he was found, hours later, by a bunch of concerned locals who’d heard that a mad Parisian was tramping around their mountain in darkness and had gone to look for him. By now it was three in the morning and Steines was almost dead with cold. Next morning, however, having thawed out, eaten and slept, he sent a telegram to Desgrange which read: ‘No trouble crossing the Tourmalet. Roads satisfactory. No problem for cyclists. Steines.’
That was it. Next day Desgrange announced in L’Auto that a stage of the 1910 Tour de France would cross the Col de Peyresourde, the Col d’Aspin, the Col du Tourmalet and the Col d’Aubisque. Interest was huge, Blanchet mended the roads, and Steines kept his mouth shut and fingers crossed.
A Race For Madmen: The Extraordinary History of the Tour de France, by Chris Sidwells.
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