Tour de France, World of Pain

The Tour de France, which this year is 98 years old, begins Saturday. To celebrate, we’re publishing, for what we believe is the first time in English, an extract of a report of the first stage of the 1924 Tour.

By Albert Londres

Image of Ottavio Bottechia, winner of the 1924 Tour de France, celebrating after winning the 1925 Tour, courtesy Marcel Segessemann/Le Site du Cyclisme

Image of Ottavio Bottechia, winner of the 1924 Tour de France, celebrating after winning the 1925 Tour, courtesy Marcel Segessemann/Le Site du Cyclisme

Last night, at half past eleven, the men were still dining in a suburban Parisian restaurant. The scene was carnivalesque: from a distance, dressed in their gaudy jerseys, they could have been taken for Chinese lanterns. They downed their last drinks and rose from their seats to leave, but the crowd lifted them in high triumph, for these cyclists were about to compete in the Tour de France.

As for me, approaching one o'clock in the morning, I took the road to Argenteuil, overtaking perfectly respectable men and women pedalling in the night. One would have never guessed there were so many bicycles in the département of the Seine.

The number 63 tram was going about its daily business – which is to say, ferrying passengers to Bezons-Grand-Cerf – when these same respectable men and women brought it to a halt, shouting, “Out of the way! They’re coming!” And so they were. The competitors gathered at Argenteuil for the start of the race.

Soon enough, the suburb began to spring to life. Window sills were adorned with spectators in their pyjamas. The city square rumbled expectantly. Elderly ladies who’d normally have retired at dusk sat before their front doors. If I saw no infant suckling at its mother’s teat, it’s only because it was obscured in the darkness.

“Look at those thighs!” admired the crowd. “Just take a look at those thighs!”

The competitors gathered among the shrubbery for the count-down to the start time: one o'clock.

“Are we or are we not leaving?” asked one cyclist, enraged. Another chimed, “Don’t lose your nerve.”

A steward went through the roll-call: 157 names. French cyclists replied, “Présent.” The Italians replied, “Presente.” As for the Flemish, I have no idea what they said.

Then, “Allez!” shouted the steward, and from the crowd, a woman’s small voice was heard shouting, “Good luck, Tiberghien!” And 157 men took to the road.

Within a quarter-hour I came across number 223 changing a tyre on the side of the road – the first unfortunate. “Well, well,” I said, “out of luck already?”

“Someone has to be the first,” he replied.

Then a sudden volley of insults: “Swine! Snob! Flea-bitten scoundrel!”

I couldn’t help but notice that, though not in the slightest bit flea-bitten, the scoundrel was none other than myself. My car was blocking the forward march of a whole impassioned army that was following the cyclists with Olympian vigour.

It was night still, and we’d been driving for an hour through a forest emblazoned throughout by great savage fires. Were these tribes-people cowering from wild tigers? No, they were Parisians, keeping vigil beside these bonfires, waiting for the ‘kings of the road’ to pass by. At the forest’s edge, a woman shivered in her squirrel coat beside a gentleman wearing a cocked hat. It was 3:35am.

Day breaks and it is clear that, on this night, the people of France haven’t slept a wink. The entire province stands at its doorway in curlers.

Still the cyclists are on the treadmill. Number 307 is the first to succumb to stomach pain. He pulls a round loaf from a wine-red shoulder bag and bites into it toothily.

“Don’t eat bread,” advises a race veteran. “It bloats. Eat rice instead.”

A railway gatekeeper splits the peloton in two: a train is about to pass. Five guys who didn’t cross in time dismount, lift their bikes and skip across the tracks as the locomotive practically grazes their shoulders in passing. The gatekeeper can’t help but shriek in fright. And already the five cyclists are back in the saddle, pushing down on their pedals.

At Montdidier, there’s a refreshment break. I sidle up to the buffet, hoping the kings of the road, masticating politely, might be so considerate as to invite me to partake. All the more fool I… They pounce on pre-prepared satchels, snatch at cups of tea, step on my feet, sideswipe me, spit on my handsome coat, and clear out. They aren’t here to sightsee, as I’d thought, but to compete. Today, they’re racing all the way to Le Havre, barely pausing for breath, as if fetching a doctor for a dying mother.

Albert Londres was one of the 20th century’s great journalists, and is credited with having helped invent investigative journalism. In a series of reports for ‘Le Petit Parisien’ - at the time the highest circulating newspaper in the world - Londres reported on the 1924 Tour de France, a race that was then only 21 years old. The reports proved enormously popular and were eventually published as the collection, Tour de France, tour de souffrance (‘Tour de France, Tour of Suffering’, Le Serpent à Plumes, 1996), which has never been translated in full. This translation copyright Alex Landragin, 2011.

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