Every time I leave and enter my home I pass my copy of the limited print edition of this painting by Pat Cleary which hangs in my hallway along with photographs of Merckx, Hinault, Coppi and Simpson from the collection belonging to L’Equipe. The painting captures a moment in the 1961 edition of Le Tour de France as hot and thirsty riders seize the opportunity to fill their bidons and drink from a public drinking fountain somewhere in what I take from the background scenery to be a location in Southern France.
It is a scene that we are unlikely to see repeated in modern professional cycling. Team cars start the day stocked with water, soft drinks, and the latest in sports performance drinks to ensure that the riders remain hydrated and fuelled. And, should they find themselves separated from the team car, there are always the motorbikes that shadow the peloton, ever ready to distribute their sponsors wares.
In the early days of Le Tour contestants, even those in sponsored teams, were required to ride as individuals and were expected to make their own arrangements for feeding and watering. Food and drink was bought en route and everything they needed had to be carried on the bike. To make matters worse, they had to arrive at the finish line with everything they had carried at the start of the stage. Race commissaires manned secret checkpoints and would spring out to check the riders and stamp the time and date on their wrists. In 1920 Henri Péllisier frustrated beyond measure by the draconian rules quit the race when a commissaire penalised him for throwing away a spare tyre.
In the 1929 Tour Victor Fontan, then wearing the yellow jersey, crashed in the Pyrenees in the dark during the early hours of the 323 kilometre long stage 10 from Luchon to Perpignan. Fortunately unhurt, his forks were broken and Fontan had no option but to knock on the doors of sleeping villagers until he found a bike he could borrow. Race leader or not, rules were rules, and in 1929 they stipulated that a rider finish the stage with the bike he had started it with. Fontan strapped his bike to his back and rode another 145 kilometres in the high Pyrenees chasing the best riders in the world before quitting in tears, beaten by an arbitrary race rule. In Paris second placed overall rider, Belgian Jef Demuysere, was given a 25 minute penalty for the crime of taking drinks at a point in the race where that was not allowed, relegating him to third place overall.
The press was critical that race rules relating to mechanical failure had cost Fontan the race while race organiser, Henri Desgrange, was equally angered at the final outcome. Despite that years edition being run without teams the eventual winner, Maurice De Waele, had won with the collusion of other members of the Alcyon team he rode for. De Waele had come down with an illness and on stage 15 the Alcyon riders rode shoulder to shoulder across the road as the peloton left Grenoble, preventing any other rider from getting away, and then nursed De Waele over the climbs of the Lauteret, Galibier, and Aravis and on to the stage finish in Evian. From there until Paris the Alcyon riders did everything in their power to keep De Waele in yellow.
Desgrange was furious, “A corpse has won my race!”, he thundered, and asked, “How can such a soft touch retain the yellow jersey?” He might not be able to change the result but he could change the playing field and for the 1930 edition Desgrange introduced a palace revolution. In a snub to the manufacturers trade teams all bikes were to be supplied by Le Tour and painted yellow. National teams from France, Belgium, Germany, Italy, and Spain were to enter 8 riders apiece, and 60 touriste-routiers were to be selected by Desgrange and his organization. Food and lodging for the riders was to be paid for by Le Tour and a publicity caravan of trade vehicles selling to roadside crowds was introduced to raise the necessary funds.
While independent entrants were suspended in 1938 following the Belgian teams withdrawal in 1937 in protest at the time penalty imposed on yellow jersey wearer Sylvère Maes after he was assisted by two Belgian independents, Gustaaf Deloor and Adolf Braeckeveldt in chasing back second placed overall Roger Lapébie, the format of national teams was to continue until 1961.
The 48th edition of Le Tour was, by all accounts, one of the dullest editions run in its history. Jacques Anquetil, the first 5 time winner of Le Tour, good to his word that he would take yellow on day one, took the 28.5 kilometre time trial at Versailles on the opening day by 2 minutes 32 seconds and proceeded to wear the jersey all the way to Paris, extending his opening lead to 12 minutes 14 seconds by the time he reached the finishing line at the Parc des Princes velodrome. Ably assisted by a strong French team Anquetil never came under any real pressure, and to confirm their superiority André Darrigade won the points classification and the French won the team classification.
From 1962 Le Tour has been contested by trade teams with the exception of the 1967 and 1968 editions. Cleary’s Watercarriers captures a moment at the end of an era in Tour history and speaks of a moment in Tour tradition that has now passed. Rules, it is often said, are made to be broken, and the rules of Le Tour on taking drinks and team support are a case in point. Denied direct support from team cars and restricted to taking on water supplies at official controls thirsty riders took on fluids whenever, and however, they could, most colourfully in the unofficial café raids.
These were impromptu descents on cafés and restaurants by the domestiques who would throw their bikes down at the side of the road, burst into the establishment and strip it bare of any bottles they could lay their hands on. With pockets full and any additional bottles stuffed up their jerseys the riders would hightail it back to the peloton to distribute their plunder among their team mates. For the café and restaurant owners it was good fun, a chance to rub shoulders with the riders and be part of the history of the race, and it gave them a story with which to regale customers for weeks to come. In most cases the race organizers would settle the bill afterwards.
The organizers of Le Tour have put an end to the café raid and the rules on taking on water have eased thanks to a better understanding of physiology and the importance of hydration in physical performance. Riders continue to take on drinks at official feeding stations but may also be continuously supplied from kilometre 50. Restrictions still exist, most notably on final climbs and in the last 20 kilometres of a stage but this is more to prevent vehicles from impeding the race or providing a tow for riders taking advantage of their slipstream. It is a far cry from the 1961 Tour, the winner of which, Anquetil, when asked how much water a rider should drink replied, “Dry is best.”
Domestiques take part in a cafe raid during the 1974 Giro d’Italia
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