Today it’s rare for Le Tour de France to enter the mountains so early in the race. The first week is usually for the sprinters as they fight for stage wins and intermediate sprints, the best among them with an eye on Paris and the Green Jersey of the leader of the Points Classification. It’s also an occasion for the breakaway artists to chance their strength, and luck, against the peloton as they seek to gain and hold a sufficient enough advantage to bring them to the day’s Arrivée before the pack sweeps them up. They seldom do. Behind them the sprinters teams organize the pursuit taking full advantage of the benefits of working as a group to gobble up the breakaway a few kilometres from the finish line, before launching their man into the whirlwind of the final sprint.
Stage 2 of the 1905 Tour was different. Its 299 kilometres from Nancy to Besançon included the ascent of Le Tour’s first official mountain climb, the Col du Ballon d’Alsace. First official, but not the first. That had been the Col de Republique near St-Etienne during the inaugural 1903 Tour, and again in 1904.
After the scandals of the previous year’s edition that had seen crowd protests, attacks on riders, barricades thrown across roads, sabotage in the form of nails and broken glass to cause punctures, and the post-race disqualification of 29 riders, including the winner Maurice Garin, Desgrange had threatened that Le Tour would never take place again.
The threat was short lived. Le Tour had been invented to sell newspapers and scandal helped sell more. What the organizers and officials needed was a race that was easier to supervise. An increased number of shorter stages (the longest in 1905. Grenoble-Toulon, was still 348 kilometres long) and morning departures reduced the need for racing into the night, while a General Classification based on points awarded for the position in which a rider crossed the finish line, rather than on time, went some way towards lessening the impact of delays to a rider caused by punctures or mechanical failure, or worse the actions of rival fans. And then there were the mountains, the brain-child of one of L’Auto’s staffers, Alphonse Steinès. Desgrange, typically afraid of failure, told Steinès that the blame would be placed at his feet if the riders failed to get over the mountain passes.
And perhaps Desgrange was right to fear that Le Tour could come to an ignoble end on the Ballon d’Alsace. From Saint-Maurice-sur-Moselles the unpaved road climbed for some 10 kilometres at an average gradient of 6.9 per cent before it reached the Col, 1,178 metres above sea level with 630 metres of vertical ascent. No mean feat on the single-speed fixed gear bikes of the day. Somewhat surprisingly for a man who once claimed that the ideal Tour would be one that only a single rider could finish Desgrange allowed for riders to change their bikes for one with a lower gear on the mountain stages.
Stage 1 threatened a repeat of the tumult and scandal of 1904. An estimated 125 kilograms of nails were strewn along the route by fans seeking to hamper their favourite’s rivals and the riders punctured left, right and centre. Jean-Baptiste Dortignacq who was to be 3rd overall in Paris was the only rider to avoid a puncture. By the time the race reached Nancy just 15 riders of the 60 who had left Paris made the time cut. 15 more arrived outside it and the rest straggled in by bike and train. Outraged, Desgranges cancelled the race but then relented, reinstating the riders who had failed to finish the stage.
More nails on the road faced the riders on Stage 2 and by the Ballon d’Alsace four riders, René Pottier, Hippolyte Aucouturier, Louis Trousellier, and the winner in 1904, Henri Cornet, found themselves contesting the slopes alone. Changing their bikes they began the ascent. When it comes to climbing gravity is the enemy and power to weight ratio the friend. Unsurprisingly the heavier Aucouturier and Trousellier were the first to be dropped, Trousellier slipping backwards from the group, followed rapidly by Aucouturier. Cornet and Pottier forged ahead but with a few kilometres left before they reached the Col, Cornet began to lose the pace. To add insult to injury when Cornet reached the top he was forced to wait for 20 minutes because the support car carrying his main bike had broken down. Pottier, wearing his trademark linen cap reached the peak alone, having never once dismounted, at an average pace of 20 kph, the first meilleur grimpeur, or ‘best climber’, the forerunner of today’s King of the Mountains.
Aucouturier meanwhile had been fighting his way up the Ballon and as he descended gained from the flip side of having more heft, catching and dropping Pottier. He rode into Besançon after covering the 299 kilometres in 10 hours, 11 minutes at an average speed of 29.36 kph. Pottier was second, 10 minutes behind, securing the General Classification on points. Tendonitis, or a crash the following day depending on which source you read, forced him to abandon on Stage 3. In 1906 he was back to win Le Tour, once more cresting the Ballon d’Alsace alone but on that occasion staying away to ride into Dijon as the stage winner 47 minutes ahead of second placed Georges Passerieu. Tragically, Pottier committed suicide in January 1907, hanging himself from the hook on which his bicycle was stored in his Peugeot team’s clubhouse after he learned of his wife’s extra-marital affair carried out while he was riding Le Tour. Shortly afterwards Desgranges erected a stele in his memory at the summit of the Ballon d’Alsace.
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