As the Tour de France peloton gathers in the lovely town of Embrun, nestled on a cliff above the Durance river, the riders may well be cursing Christian Prudhomme for sending them on a leg-sapping 222km ride down to Salon-de-Provence, the longest stage of this year’s tour.
They should count themselves fortunate not to have been racing during the reign of Henri Desgrange, who thought nothing of taking the Tour from Les Sables d’Olonne on the Atlantic coast in 1919, all the way through the Vendée and down to Bayonne in the Basque region for a mighty 482km in the saddle, an all-time record distance.
Early Tours were very much a circuit of France, hugging its borders without much troubling the interior, and completed by bicycle: no train transfers, making for extraordinary daily distances.
Bearing in mind the Treaty of Versailles had only been signed the day before the 67 starters left Paris, and northern Europe and its roads remained in tatters following World War One, it should come as no surprise that 1919 also holds the record for the least number of finishers in the race’s history: ten men are shown in the official records. (An eleventh, Paul Duboc, was disqualified having been found to have completed the final stage by car, and who can blame him?).
Indeed, by the end of the second stage, just 27 riders remained in the hunt for the maillot jaune, only introduced that year as a way of identifying the leader from a pack of grey jerseys. It was a savage race of attrition, completed by extraordinary men in extraordinary times.
And the winner of the 482km stage to Bayonne on a Sunday in July, 1919? Jean Alavoine of France, in a time a few minutes shy of 19 hours. It was followed by two consecutive rest days. You can’t say they hadn’t earned them.
This article is an extract from Rouleur #63.