There are many reasons why a rider will abandon Le Tour mid race. Crashes, illness, heat exhaustion, injury, forcible expulsion for infringements of the rules including doping offences, and even high dudgeon have all seen cyclists leave Le Tour over the years.
Broken collarbones, a particular hazard for cyclists who suffer a spill as the natural inclination to put an arm out to break the fall sends the shock of the impact up the arm where it snaps the clavicle, have been a repeat offender. In 2014 two of the favourites for the overall retired after crashing. Alberto Contador breaking his tibia in a crash on stage 10, while Chris Froome withdrew after falling three times in two days, suffering bruising to both hips and hurting his wrist, claiming he could no longer safely control the bike. Joseba Beloki’s horrific crash in the 2003 Tour left him lying moaning in pain on the tarmac, his right femur broken in two places and his elbow and wrist broken.
Henri Pélissier, whom Henri Desgrange once described as, “this pigheadedly arrogant champion,” left Le Tour twice in a huff. Once in 1919 after he took offence at the rest of the peloton trying to teach him a lesson and also at Desgrange for refusing him an extra glass of wine with his evening meal, and again in 1920 when he was penalised by a race official for throwing away a flat tyre rather than carrying it to the finish as the rules demanded.
On two occasions entire teams have withdrawn thanks to the threat from French spectators. Belgium in 1927 and Italy in 1950. In 1991 the PDM team were all forced to abandon with a claimed virus according to their manager, or food poisoning according to the press, who noted that only riders and not support staff or management were affected by the mysterious virus. In fact the entire team had been administered intralipid intravenously and a dodgy batch had made them all fall ill. Suspiciously intralipid can mask other products and the symptoms displayed by the PDM riders were uncannily similar to those that we now know would result from an overdose of EPO.
Genuine illness and medical conditions have caused other riders to abandon. Greg Lemond abandoned in 1992 at Saint-Jean-de-Maurienne, a few kilometres before the Croix de Fer, tortured with saddle sores. Bernard Hinault was forced to withdraw in 1980 with tendinitis in his knee. In 1996 Lance Armstrong quit on stage 6, suspecting bronchitis that turned out to be an early sign of his immune systems fight with the cancer that was invading his body. In 1960 Stan Brittain was forced to retire in the Pyrenees, one of the victims of stomach bugs that have ended many a riders Tour prematurely.
Accident, illness, and injury are one thing. To be regretted, avoided if at all possible, but ultimately largely out of a riders control. In 1929 however, Victor Fontan was the victim of Le Tour’s regulations. When he founded Le Tour, Desgrange envisaged it as an ultimate test of the individual. Riders were to win on their own merits and this included not only their riding form but also the ability to support themselves. This was a practical measure on the organizers part. In 1903 L’Auto simply didn’t have the logistic and financial resources to provide adequate food and water, mechanical support or accommodation in the fledgling race. As a result riders were required to fend for themselves, carrying their own food and spare parts and making their own arrangements for hotels. The rules also required that riders finish each day’s racing with everything they had started the stage with, including any broken parts they had been forced to replace during the day, and on the same bicycle. By 1929 little had changed. The organizers now provided feed stations en route but the rule on carrying all items throughout the stage was still in force.
Stage 10 in 1929 was a monster. 363 kilometres from Luchon to Perpignan that took in the climbs of the Portet d’Aspet, and the Col de Port. After finishing second on the previous day Fontan was now in Yellow with a 9 minute advantage over Maurice de Waele. With a long day ahead of them in the saddle the riders left Bayonne in the early hours of the morning before sunrise. Disaster struck Fontan after just 7 kilometres when a dog loomed out of the darkness knocking him off his bike. Dusting himself and his bike off he discovered that his forks were broken.
Riding as an independent Fontan had no team to whom he could turn to for a replacement bike. The race officials had already passed which left him unable to appeal to them for an official replacement if he could have proved that his bike was irreparable. Undeterred, he shouldered his machine and marched to the nearest village where, in the blackness of pre-dawn, he knocked on the inhabitants doors asking if they might have a bike he could borrow. One of the villagers, no doubt surprised by the rude awakening and Fontan’s request, agreed and Fontan finally set off in pursuit riding on a bike that was slightly too big for him.
By then he was at least 45 minutes behind the other riders on the road. To make matters worse he was now carrying the bike that the rules demanded he must cross the line with strapped to his back. Fontan struggled gamely on climbing and descending the Portet d’Aspet and the Col de Port before finally giving up in tears and with his back bleeding from carrying his broken bike for 145 kilometres. In Les Echos des Sports Louis Delblat wrote:
“How can a man lose the Tour de France because of an accident to his bike? I can’t understand it. The rule should be changed so that a rider with no chance of winning can give his bike to his leader, or there should be a car with several spare bicycles. You lose the Tour de France when you find someone better than you are. You don’t lose it through a stupid accident to your machine.”
For once Desgrange was sympathetic to criticism. Perhaps Fontan, who had been wounded twice during his service with the French Army in World War One, touched a chord in his patriotic heart. Perhaps he saw the sense in Delblat’s words. The rules were changed in 1930 to allow for teams to supply spare bicycles and riders were no longer required to be solely responsible for the repair of their own machines. It was too late for Fontan however, forced to abandon as a result of an inflexible rule.
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