Tour de France 21 Stories: Bottecchia’s Breakthrough

Saint–Lô—Cherbourg-en-Cotentin, 183km
In the 1920s, when the Tour went through a phase of putting on the same route every year, there was one rider who owned the Le Havre—Cherbourg stage. Romain Bellenger won four out of six of his Tour de France victories here, in 1921, ’22, ’24 and ’25. His loss to an unknown rider in 1923, however, marked the arrival of one of the Tour’s great stars.
Born in a Northeastern suburb, Bellenger was part of an impressive clique of tough Parisian riders, which included the champions Henri and Francis Pélissier, Honoré Barthélemy (who lost his eye in a crash in the 1920 Tour yet still finished eighth) and Eugène Christophe (of Pyrenean fork-welding fame.)
Henri Pélissier recalls stage 2 of the 1923 race in Roger Bastide’s La Légende des Pélissier: “My friend Romain Bellenger, Noisy-le-Sec born and bred, is nonetheless proud of his Norman origins and has a particular liking for the Le Havre-Cherbourg stage. He won it in 1921 and 1922. A leopard doesn’t change its spots; I have a sudden urge to needle him and forget my resolution to ride cautiously. Francis and I accelerate, again and again. I puncture. I make it back. The stage finishes on the summit of the côte d’Octeville. I keep a close eye on Bellenger; I challenge him with a look. We ride on opposite sides of the road, ready to do battle good and proper. And another rider accelerates out the middle. A halfwit, for sure. We’re more than two kilometres from the finish and he’s just turned himself into a target. Yup! He doesn’t turn back once. He holds us off at 50 metres and it’s impossible to catch up. He’s wearing a purple Automoto jersey, just like me, so I decide to live with it. I let it go. After all, Bellenger is nicely wound up, which was all I’d wanted. He was as surprised as I was and even had a strip torn off him by Mottiat who took second place.”
So who was Henri’s mystery teammate who ‘stole’ Bellenger’s stage? “We’ve been sitting at the same table the last three nights and he hasn’t once opened his mouth,” Henri reports. “He’s called Ottavio Bottecchia and he doesn’t speak a word of French.”  The Pélissiers’ sponsors Automoto had decided to bring in some foreign riders to boost sales abroad. Bottecchia had turned up in Paris with, “a patched up jacket, a pair of velvet trousers, hobnail boots and a worn and faded proletarian cap, you can picture the type. He carried a small suitcase in one hand and a handle bar in the other. It’s a miracle he reached the headquarters of Automoto, on the avenue de la Grand-Armée, without getting himself lost in the big city.”
As the only one out of four expected Italians to turn up, Bottecchia was nearly sent back, were it not for one of the team’s directors insisting that since the chap had made the effort, they might as well use him.
He finished the Tour that year in second place, sandwiched between Henri, who won, and Romain. The following year he became the first Italian to win the Tour, repeating the feat in 1925. His brilliance was such that Nicolas Frantz, his closest rival, once claimed it would be ‘suicidal’ to follow him up a mountain pass. “His pace is so high, so relentless, that we would be suffocated.”
And what of Bellenger? Although he didn’t win his favourite stage, 1923 marked the highpoint of his career, with two days in yellow to complement his podium spot. Google him, however, and you’ll only find a list of his victories, the dates and locations of his birth and death and a couple of photos. Like so many talented riders of the early Tour years, his story has disappeared, along with the many races he won, radiating from the capital like the spokes on a wheel; Paris—Nancy, Paris—Dunkerque, Paris—Lille, Paris—Chateauroux…

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