Tour de France 21 Stories: The Giant of Colombes

Stage 21: Chantilly–Paris Champs-Elysées


The final stage passes through the Parisian suburb of Colombes, the home of François Faber, ‘The Giant of Colombes’.


Faber was a powerfully built man: he was 1.86m tall, which made him tower over his colleagues, and weighed 91kg. He was a giant in his achievements, too. He remains the only rider in the history of the Tour to have won five consecutive stages, which he did in 1909, aged 22, when he also won the overall, with a final tally of six stages.


His team manager, Alphonse Baugé, called him ‘The god who came down to ride a bicycle”, perhaps because he won the most miserable Tour in history. Over four and half thousand kilometres, riders had to contend with below zero temperatures, freezing rain, gales, snow, mud and unsurfaced roads which at times were so flooded, the peloton would be calf-deep in water. Seventy-seven riders abandoned in the first six stages.


But where others failed, Faber thrived. He’d started the Tour five kilos over his ideal race weight, which turned out to be the prefect strategy. Solid as an ox, he simply broke away from the peloton, riding solo for as much as 200 kilometres, to win stages more than 300 kilometres long. Twice he crossed the finish line more than 30 minutes ahead of the next rider.


Adversity was merely inconvenient. On two occasions his chain snapped, forcing him to run the final kilometre. Crossing the Col de Porte in a gale he got blown off his bike, twice, then attacked by a horse, which kicked his bike 15 metres down the road. He kept going.


Fans, whipped into a frenzy, turned up in their thousands to witness the superman. Men sent him poems; women, marriage proposals.


Faber inspired a generation of future champions. “François Faber [was] my god,” wrote André Leducq, who won the Tour in the 30s. “I put him above everyone.”
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Another great French champion, Henri Pélissier, became a close friend, even though the two riders seemed polar opposites. While Pélissier was similarly tall, he was so thin, friends called him The String, or The Feather. He was fragile too; highly-strung and prone to lung infections. Where Faber was a genial, eternal optimist, Pélissier was moody and volatile. Where Faber would persist, Pélissier would abandon in protest.


In 1914, Faber backed up Pélissier’s campaign to ride the Tour. Their manager demurred. Henri might be a brilliant sprinter, but he hardly had the stamina. To reassure Beaugé, Faber suggested he take his friend on a reconnaissance trip to the Alps.


“We all know Faber’s menus,” Pélissier later recalled. “He’s an ogre on the bike as much as at table. I was obliged to follow him, my vegetarian tendencies and preference for light training notwithstanding. For one day’s outing, he suggested a climb up the Lautaret and the Galibier, descending into Valloires and Saint-Jean-de-Maurienne! They warned us that the Galibier was covered in snow. He paid no heed.”


About three kilometres from the summit, the road disappeared under snow, but Faber ignored Pélissier’s suggestions they turn back. “Follow me!” he cried, like a scout-leader on a picnic. With their bikes on their shoulders, the two companions were soon thigh-deep in drifts. They found a refuge filled with trapped mountaineers, who simply couldn’t believe their eyes. Fearful of Faber’s potential appetite, and that he might eat them out of their rations, they sent the riders on their way with a bottle of wine and an oil lamp.


Once through the tunnel at the Galibier’s summit, they descended using telegraph wires as their only guide, throwing their bikes ahead to gauge the snow’s resistance. They reached St–Jean–de–Maurienne as night fell and had just enough time to buy a change of clothes, their own having turned to frozen cardboard.


Their hotelier was even more incredulous at their story than the men in the refuge. “He wouldn’t have looked at us any differently had we been creatures from another planet,” Pélissier recalled. “François finishes him off by ordering, just for himself, six cutlets and an omelette made from a dozen eggs. Then, his face glowing and his eyes sparkling with delight, my gentle giant announces, ‘Tomorrow, we’ll attack the Aravis!’”


Henri’s younger brother, Francis, recalled François taking him under his wing as an amateur, calling him, “the nicest, greatest guy”.


“He’d been a docker and it’s obvious straight away, from his size, his shoulders, his gait. He could crush you with one hand,” Francis declared, while attesting to his genial nature that inspired instant friendship.


Faber was not French; he’d been born in Luxembourg and was thus the first foreigner to win the Tour. Yet his loyalty to his adopted home was such, he joined the French Foreign Legion as soon as the First World War broke out. He died heroically in 1915 while trying to rescue a comrade.


“The day I heard he’d enlisted, I had a premonition he wouldn’t come back,” Henri recalled. “He was so sure of his chances, too sure, not out of foolishness, but out of a natural confidence in his fellow beings. For him, everything was beautiful, everything good. Overflowing with infectious vitality, he feared neither God nor devil.”

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