Tour de France, World of Pain, Part 2

At the start of the Tour de France, we published the translation of a report by Albert Londres of the race’s beginning in 1924. Today, to coincide with the race’s end, we publish an extract of his final report of the same race, won by Ottavio Bottecchia.

For a month, they’ve battled the road. In the dead of night, at first light, at noon, they struggled through fog thick enough to give you stomach-ache, against winds you could lean into, under a southern sun that threatened to knock them off their handlebars. They straddled the Alps and the Pyrenees. They saddled up, on occasion, at ten o'clock in the evening, only to dismount the following evening at six o'clock, as we saw on the Sables d'Olonne-Bayonne stage, for instance.

At times, the roads they travelled were hostile. At others, they were blocked. Railway crossings barred their paths. Their legs became entangled with cows, geese, dogs and men alike. And that wasn’t the worst of it. The worst of it was with them from beginning to end: the cars. For thirty days, they were flanked by cars on roads going up and roads coming down, throwing up clouds of dust. With eyes stinging and mouths parched, they put up with the dust without complaint.

They cycled on gravel. They copped the great big paving-stones of the north. At night, when it was too cold, they blanketed their stomachs with old newspaper. During the day, they threw jugs of water over clothes that would drip until dried by the sun. When they fell and bloodied legs and arms, they saddled up again. At the next village, they’d find the nearest pharmacy. Sometimes on a Sunday, as happened in Pézenas, the pharmacist told them he was closed. Rather than shake him by the lapels, the cyclist simply muttered, “Very well!” and saddled up again.

You’ll witness the arrival of Bottecchia, the Friulian mason. Bottecchia pierces you not with his eyes but with the tip of his nose, sharp as a blade.

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

You’ll witness the arrival of Mottiat, wearing his blue jersey. He’ll flash you his divine smile and look at you with grateful eyes, as if it were you who’d raced and he who’d been entertained.

You’ll witness the arrival of Tiberghien. I offered to sew onto his jersey the love letters he had found stashed in his refreshment bags, hidden between a chicken thigh and a sausage. He replied, “I’d need two jerseys.”

You’ll witness the arrival of Frantz, who gained everyone’s respect: he practically swallowed the Tour de France the way you’d swallow a glass of water. He cycled as if holding a book in his hands, reading a boy’s own adventure novel. I suspect he won’t even realise he’s arrived in Paris and will keep on pedalling for another seven or eight months.

You’ll witness the arrival of Cuvelier and Alancourt, those tenacious mongrels who bite at the heels of all before them, even those great Saint-Bernards, Brunero, Aymo and Lucien Buysse de Loothenhulle.

You’ll witness the arrival of Alavoine, alias John XIII, king of the tarmac, a man who belongs not to the roads but in the highest literary circles, endowed with a prodigious gift of the gab. Find me a writer, a marshal, a duke, a lawyer, a poet who, suffering nausea while climbing the Pyrenees, instead of saying, “What luck to be ill at such a time,” will rather exclaim, “How importunate, at this evil hour, to be assailed by such an inconvenience!”

You’ll see Garby and Nevers, who was reduced to tears in the Pyrenees. And Vertemati, who averaged three chickens, a dozen eggs and two legs of mutton daily. He carries not an ounce of fat. And you’ll see Kamm who, from the start, pedalling all the while, told me about his ambitions for the future. He once was a newspaper vendor, and the job still appeals. “Do you think I might be able to go back to selling papers?” he asked me between Brest and Les Sables. Between Perpignan and Toulon, he neared my car and asked, “About that job selling papers. If it could be anywhere near where my relatives live, I’d be much obliged.” Beween Nice and Briançon: “Or else of course at a pinch I’ll just go wherever I’m told.”

To read the end of the report, click here. Translation by Alex Landragin.

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