The First Serious Crisis
In 1904 the second ever Tour de France ended as a fiasco and nearly killed off the race for good. Such were the complexities and blatant depth of the conspiracies that took place. It took the French cycling federation, Henri Desgrange, and his sponsoring newspaper L'Auto until November of that year to announce their ratification of the final race results. The first four riders in the General Classification were disqualified and suspended. For Maurice Garin this would have been his second Tour win and he protested his innocence until his dying day.
Earlier in 1904 the Bordeaux-Paris classic had also been subject to widespread cheating (the first four riders were subsequently disqualified). Subsequently the events of the Tour de France cycling experienced its first serious crisis.
The dirty tricks ranged from riders getting in cars and trains for part of the race, throwing tacks on the road behind them and having thugs attack opponents (under the direction of team management? ). The problems even extended to attempted murder on one stage of the 1904 Tour when local thugs planned to support their local hero by knifing his opponents! Much of the cheating was driven by the sponsors who stood to make huge sales numbers if their team succeeded in topping the General Classification table.
Newspapers, which were the only viable form of mass media and their skilled journalists, had created intense public interest in the evolving sport of cycling. For the bicycle manufacturing industry and for race organizers a tremendous economic fountain had been turned on. But in 1904 an evolutionary turning point had been reached and the future of cycling could have gone either way.
Through the iron will of men like Henri Desgrange a new phase in the evolution of cycle sport germinated as soon as the distasteful events of 1904 had been dealt with and the details made public.
At the end of the 19th Century and up until the Great War (World War I) society was awakening to exciting new technologies. The telephone, motor vehicles, air flight, electric light and much more was heralding a social revolution and the modern era. Up until those years most people had lived out their lives confined to their immediate locale. By 1900 historians tell us that the average European citizen rarely traveled further than 25 miles (40kms) from their home. Imagine their wonder when a bike race came hurtling into town and then disappear out the other side. In one day the racers often covered in excess of 400kms. For the townsfolk these racers would be like superhuman beings racing to and from places that they may have only read about in the newspaper. However out of all the new technology being introduced the bicycle was the one thing that was within reach of a large cross-section of the population. This new found mobility opened never before dreamed of possibilities and astute businessmen felt the lure of big money.
The Draconian Master of Cycling
Much has been written about Henri Desgrange's often Draconian rules applied to his races. Driven by a desire to create the utopian athletic challenge, his ideas were tempered by rules to eliminate the chaotic and rampant cheating that had reached crisis point in 1904.
Up until Desgrange's death during World War II, he ruled the Tour with an iron fist. Many of his imposed conditions verged on inhuman treatment of the athletes. By the 1920's Tour stages exceeding 400kms were not uncommon. Starting in the early dawn hours and finishing late in the evening, the riders would slog away with help from team mechanics or anyone else absolutely forbidden. “ Les Forcats de la Route ” (convicts of the road) was a phrase famously coined by the journalist Albert Londres during the 1924 Tour. Londres description came from memories of a previous assignment where he had reported on those imprisoned in French penal colonies. Such was the morale and physical condition of some of the riders that he followed that it reminded him of those men he saw during his previous assignment.
Desgrange took the scathing critique as a complement but the defending champion, Henri Pellissier and his brothers, fought Desgrange before quitting the 1924 race in full view of Londres. It took quite a few more years but from the events of 1924 race rules were slowly modified to improve the lot of “Les Forcats”.
Desgrange, seeking a more dynamic Tour, changed his formula in 1927. Up until then the race had been run with between 15 and 18 ‘marathon' stages. The 1927 Tour had 24 shorter stages (although four stages still exceeded 300kms each). The result can be seen on our ‘Historical Average Speeds' chart with the 1927 Tour's winner's average speed. At 27.2kmph it was about 3kmph faster than any of its predecessors since WWI.
Improvements Take Cycling into the Golden Age
By the late 1920's cycling saw not only racing conditions evolving but the effects of technology were being felt. Technology was improving cycle components and roads were slowly being transformed from cart tracks into paved surfaces.
Meanwhile cycling in general was evolving with more reliable cars to provide support, international travel was becoming common place and training techniques becoming increasingly sophisticated.
During the 1930's crude gear shifting mechanisms that could (with skill) move the chain across two or three rear sprockets started to be used. As a result average race speeds continued to climb but the real breakthrough came in 1951 when Campagnolo introduced the first modern derailleur mechanism. By this time conditions for the racers themselves had considerably improved and most importantly in-race team help from supporting cars was allowed.
After WW2 cycling entered a “Golden Age”. An impoverished Europe turned to the bicycle both for recreation and sport. However until the 1980's bike technology was stuck in a rut. Steel frames, pedals with toe straps, five speed gears, leather saddles and woolen clothing were the rule of the day.
Big bike races bred superstars like Bartali, Coppi, Van Steenbergen and Anquetil. But lurking in the background, as it had done since the dawn of the sport, was the issue of drugs. Once when confronted with the doping issue Jacques Anquetil said “ You don't think that we do all this on mineral water do you? ”
Up until Anquetil's time (during the 1960's) tests for performance enhancing drugs was almost no-existent. An evolutionary watershed should have occurred following Tom Simpson's tragic death on Mont Ventoux during the 1967 Tour. In fact the following year drug testing was implemented and the Tour was dubbed the “ Tour of Health .” Unfortunately it was no more than a marketing sham. The doping scourge continued with the occasional scandal with little penalty.
It was not until the ‘ Festina Affair ' during the 1998 Tour de France that cycling once again faced a crisis, this time in earnest. The Tour that year was almost abandoned mid-race and there were widespread fears that sponsors would desert the sport wholesale.
Once the ugly facts had fully emerged and new control in place many believed that the Festina crisis had finally scourged the sport of drugs. The world of bicycle racing moved on assuming that everyone had learned their lesson. Unfortunately right up to the present day the war continues with Operation Puerto and deposed Grand Tour winners such as Heras, Basso and Landis leaving a huge blemish on our sport.
Critical Evolutionary Milestone
Evolution is a painfully slow process. For cycling it has been almost 120 years since the first ‘Champions of the World' (Jimmy Michael and Arthur Linton) both died in their 20's as a result of drugs administered by their trainer. Athletes (and not only cyclists) still continue to meet premature deaths as a direct result of performance enhancing drug use and blood doping.
From what we can see the opening decade of the 21st Century is becoming a critical evolutionary milestone for cycle racing. High tech analysis equipment and men driven to stamp out drugs in sport are combining to eliminate use of performance enhancing techniques. A whole generation of racers are learning that there is almost nowhere to hide. It is to be hoped that in our future a largely “clean” sport awaits us.
Cycling's Evolutionary Survival
In recent years the media has been full of articles writing cycling's epitaph. But most of the “experts” overlook one major thing: Cycling is an unbelievably beautiful sport. Last year three million people lined the roads of England for the Tour's “Grand Depart”. Millions more lined the roads of Belgium and France. Yet if you asked most of these people “Who won the 2006 Tour?” they would have known about race winner Floyd Landis falling foul of the drug tests. Still the road-side scenes at the Tour were often matched at the other Grand Tours and all the major classics. The general public understands the drug situation (in all sports). They obviously do not like it but at least in the case of cycling it is known that much is being done to eradicate it. Complacency is dangerous but so long as honest and very serious efforts are maintained to control every type of cheating, the public will continue to be enthralled by the sport of cycling.
When it is time for the 2008 Spring Classics and the Grand Tours we will again see that cycling is surviving evolution.
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