Tour de France 21 Stories: stage 8

Stage 8: Pau—Bagnères-de-Luchon

There are lots of stages in the history of the Tour that could be described as ‘the worst’ and rides that could be described as ‘the most heroic’. The story about this one, from the 1920s, certainly deserves a spot on the podium.

Once upon a time there were three brothers, Marcel, Lucien and Jules Buysse, who grew up in a small Flemish town and all became professional cyclists. Marcel, the oldest, rode in the pre WWI years. He won six stages and came 3rd in the Tour in 1913. Some argued he would have won if his handlebars hadn’t snapped.

Middle brother Lucien rode his first Tour in 1914 but didn’t hit his stride until the 1920s, when he came 8th, 3rd and finally 2nd in 1925.

By 1926 he was 33 years old. Was it too late to make it onto the top step? The Tour started promisingly, with younger brother Jules winning the first stage and wearing the yellow jersey. But tragedy struck back home, when Lucien’s daughter died. He wanted to abandon the race but his family insisted he continue.

By the time the Tour reached the Pyrenees, he was in 8th place on GC with another Belgian, Gustave Van Slembrouck, in the yellow jersey. The Bayonne-Luchon stage was 326k long and would cross the cols of the Aubisque, Tourmalet, Aspin, Peyresourde and d’Osquich. It would begin and end in the night.

The weather was foul. Torrential freezing rain and thunderstorms turned the unsurfaced roads into rivers of mud on which tyres could gain no traction. At other times, visibility was reduced by fog. Wheels and chains became hopelessly clogged, with riders forced to urinate on them to clean their drivetrains.

In the midst of all this, Lucien Buysse went on the attack. He reached the summit of the Aubisque with a margin of 1 minute and 45 seconds over the next rider. Ottavio Bottecchia, his team captain and defending champion, arrived 7 minutes and 45 seconds later, only to abandon somewhere before Barèges, coughing uncontrollably, his career effectively over. All along the route bikes could be seen leaning on the walls of inns and houses where riders sought refuge.

Buysse kept ploughing on. At the summit of the Aspin he had a lead of more than five minutes, by the top of the Peyresourde it had grown to nearly 23.

Plastered with mud and unrecognisable, he finally reached Luchon more than 17 hours after the race start with a margin of 25 minutes over the Italian rider Bartolomeo Aymo. Van Slembrouck trailed in an hour and fifteen minutes later, plunging to 10th place on GC.

Of the 76 riders who started the stage, only 54 finished. “I have never suffered so much on a bicycle in all my life,” declared a young Marcel Bidot, riding his first Tour. “I reached Luchon as night fell, in the company of touriste-routier Rossignoli. We were an hour and a half behind Buysse,yet we were classified among the top 20! At 11pm, only 40 survivors had presented themselves on the allée d’Etigny. Riders were lost in the mountains, in the middle of the storm. Cars and buses were sent to look for them.”

Conscious that things had gotten a bit out of hand, Tour director Henri Desgrange made the unprecedented decision to allow everyone to start the following stage, including those who’d reached Luchon by car. It’s thought that only the first five riders made it to the finish without help. Buysse, who in one fell swoop had ridden his way into the yellow jersey, went on to win the next day’s stage as well, then held onto the lead all the way back to Paris.

On finally reaching the Parc de Princes he prayed aloud to his daughter: “I thought of you during all the hardest hours of the race.”

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