In this extract from A Race For Madmen, Chris Sidwells tells how L'Auto journalist Geo Lefèvre came up with the idea of organising the longest bike race there had ever been – and how he convinced his editor, Henri Desgrange, to run with it
L’Auto had had a young cycling reporter called Geo Lefèvre, who was poached by Desgrange from Le Vélo. Lefèvre left because he believed in Desgrange and in what he was doing, but now his precarious position set him thinking. Lefèvre was really into cycling; he knew the pro riders and their fans. He raced as an amateur and he watched the pros whenever he could. Lefèvre knew it was long-distance road racers who had the biggest following, and the only way to switch their fans’ attention to L’Auto was to promote the longest road race there was.
There was something noble about the fortitude of bike racers battling through heat and rain for kilometre after endless kilometre that struck a chord with the French. Some social scientists say it’s because, up until mid-way through the twentieth century, France was an agricultural country. People who worked on the land day in and day out appreciated raw competition spiced with a battle against the elements and unyielding nature. It’s as good an explanation as any, but what is certain in that the French love of long-distance bike racing was real, so one day Lefèvre plucked up the courage to tell Desgrange that he had an idea and wanted to talk it over with him.
It was a big idea, and if successful would put L’Auto at the centre of French cycling. Lefèvre wanted L’Auto to promote and organise a race, but not just any old race: it would be the longest bike race there had ever been. He discussed it with his editor one day over lunch. Lefèvre first told Desgrange that his race would last more than six days, the longest bike races so far having been six-day races on the track. Then came the bombshell. He wanted his race to be a circuit of France, internally replicating the hexagonal shape of the country. And it would start and finish in Paris.
The idea was huge and scary. At first, as often happened in the Tour’s early story, Desgrange was sceptical, put off even. ‘What you are suggesting, my little Geo, is a Tour de France,’ he told his young colleague. But then Desgrange considered those words: Tour de France. The two spoke no more about it over their lunch, or in the office, but as the words rolled around in his head, Desgrange began to think.
A Tour de France already existed, and it had been a big part of French rural life for years. It was a rite of passage for apprentices. A tradition that began in Provence and the Languedoc region whereby a boy who wanted to learn a trade would be sent by that trade’s guild on a journey between towns, roughly in a hexagon around the outside of the Massif-Central.
In each town he learned the skills and lore of his chosen craft and was looked after by a network of guild mothers. The boys gave up their names, each being referred to by his region, and when he left a town to move on to the next, a noisy procession of drums and fiddles led him into the surrounding countryside.
Every boy’s Tour lasted four or five years, by which time he was a man and had become a ‘Compagnon du Tour de France’. His regional name would have also taken on a quality that had been noted by his guild as he passed from place to place. One man’s experiences of this Tour are recorded by Agricol Perdigeur, a cabinet maker from Avignon whose guild name was Avignonnais-le-Vertu, in a book called Les Mémoires d’un Compagnon (Memoirs of a Companion), published in 1854.
If it sounds idyllic, it wasn’t. Life on the road was tough for these youngsters, and the ‘mothers’ they passed between were in it for the money. Also, there was a fierce rivalry between guilds, and boys were often involved in bloody battles when they met rival trades on the road. Even well into the twentieth century rural France was a tough place with tough values, fierce local pride and a very narrow, parochial view of things. Those values and views would badly affect the first cycling Tours de France.
Left to mull it over at his own pace, Desgrange slowly warmed to the Tour de France idea. Lefèvre backed off, sat on his hands and tried not to let his enthusiasm get the better of him. As he would prove time and again Lefèvre, and the rest of L’Auto’s staff, knew exactly how to handle Desgrange to get the decision they wanted out of him.
Finally, in late January 1903, Desgrange had decided, and after further talks with Lefèvre and his staff he made this announcement in the pages of L’Auto: ‘We intend to run the greatest cycling trial in the entire world. A race more than a month long; from Paris to Lyon, then to Marseille, Toulouse, Bordeaux, Nantes and back to Paris.’
The race was initially scheduled to run for five weeks, from the end of May until 5 July, but as the summer approached it became obvious that the length of time an entrant had to commit to the race was attracting a limited field of top professionals. That wouldn’t do; Desgrange needed a spectacle. He wanted a big field with a big story, but lots of smaller ones besides, so he cut the duration, although not the distance, to just under three weeks.
He also put back the dates so that the Tour de France would run at the same time as something that was becoming a feature of French life, their annual two-week holiday. That was a masterstroke and one of the keys to the Tour’s success. To French people the Tour de France heralds the coming of summer, the holidays and happy memories. As much as anything that happy association has helped the Tour weather its bad times.
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
The first-ever Tour de France
The birth of the famous Yellow Jersey
The Tour de France goes into the mountains
The 1910 Tour de France: Taking on the Pyrenées