Tour de France 21 Stories: Fontan’s Woes


“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.”

Louis Delblat was not adding to the polemic on the online forums on Thursday, but writing in L’Echo des Sports, in 1929.

Then, just as on Thursday, the Tour de France was gripped by controversy following an accident that had befallen the yellow jersey wearer. After all of stage 12’s stormy emotions, Froome should take comfort from the fact he wasn’t in Victor Fontan’s shoes [above], although their flat leather soles might have served him better, both for his little jog, and on that borrowed Mavic bike—87 years ago.

Fontan came from the Pyrenees. The son of a clog-maker, he turned professional in 1913, fought in the First World War where he was shot twice in the same leg, then carried on cycling when the war ended. He was a brilliant rider, who won several stages and the overall in both the Tour of the Basque Country and two editions of the Volta a Catalunya. He preferred to race locally, however, and only became well known towards the end of his career.

In 1929 he was riding his third Tour de France, at the age of 37. At the start of the Luchon–Perpignan stage he was on home turf, in the yellow jersey. He must have been pretty happy.

Seven kilometres and an encounter with a dog later, however, he was in a ditch with broken forks. According to the rules, riders could replace broken parts, or even borrow bikes from spectators, but they had to show the damaged material to the race commissaires. If there were none around, they had to bring it to the stage finish. There are plenty of photos in the archives of pissed-off looking riders with buckled wheels on their backs. On no terms whatsoever could domestiques—who didn’t officially exist, anyway—swap their own material with their leaders’, nor could teams have a vehicle following the race with spare parts. It was the rider’s job to be resourceful.

The Tour’s stages at this point were so long, they usually began in the middle of the night. Fontan had no choice but to stumble around the next village in the dark, knocking on people’s doors and waking them up, begging them to lend him a bike. He finally got one, but by this point the Tour caravan with all its commissaires was more than half an hour up the road. So now Fontan was riding a borrowed bike while carrying his own on his back, trying to catch up… on a 363-kilometre stage. Because men were made differently in those days, he persevered.

Eventually two radio reporters found him in Saint-Gaudens, sobbing by a fountain. He had finally given up, having ridden on his own, carrying that bloody bike, for 145 kilometres. Within two hours his sobs were being broadcast across the country.

The ensuing scandal prompted Henri ‘Napoleon’ Desgrange, the Tour’s founder and director, to loosen his rules—just a little bit, the following year. Froome should nonetheless be thankful Desgrange’s ghost wasn’t sitting in the race officials’ meeting on Thursday.

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