We'll Meet Again (Part I)
** This Article was originally written in 2005 **
This year the world remembers the 60th anniversary of the ending of World War II. In our two-part article we look at cycling during the dark days of both World War I and World War II. Part I starts with World War I:
When the ‘Great War' ended in November 1918 it was described as the war to end all wars. A whole generation had been decimated and yet just 21 years later Europe erupted into war again. This year we commemorate the 60th anniversary of the end of World War II. Largely for political reasons sport is encouraged during war time to boost public moral and to give an impression of normalcy. As Hitler was establishing his power base, the Olympic Games were scheduled to take place in 1936 in Berlin . Hitler grasped this sports opportunity to demonstrate the efficiency of Nazi Germany and to prove the reality of the ‘Master Race.'
Looking back over the history of cycle racing, it is somewhat astounding to find that big races with big name riders were still in action just before, during and soon after both world wars. Sadly, many of the great pre-World War I racers perished or were severely wounded in the trenches and battlefields of Europe . At the beginning of hostilities the Tour de France was only ten years old and by the time the Armistice was signed in November 1918, three of the Tour de France champions were dead: Francois Faber on the battlefield at Carency while serving in the French Foreign Legion, May 1915; Lucien Petit-Breton when his car crashed while on a special mission behind enemy lines, June 1917; and Octave Lapize in air combat over Verdun , June 1917.
The assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand in Sarajevo on June 28, 1914 , sparked the crisis. It just so happened that this same day Philippe Thys of Belgium won the first stage of the Tour, which covered 388 km. As the race continued on its way around France , most of Europe was mobilizing its armies. The mercurial Henri Pelissier won the final 340 km stage from Dunkerque to Paris , but overall honors went to Thys for the second year running. Nine days later the Great War consumed Europe and Tour founder Henri Desgrange, then 50, enlisted.
Tour de France heroes, who were experienced at cycling battles on the roads of France , enlisted in large numbers to fight the huge battle for France . Several weeks after the end of the 1914 Tour de France, Desgrange published an open letter to all cyclists in his newspaper, Le Auto. The letter said:
“For 14 years, Le Auto has appeared every day. It has never let you down.
So listen my dear fellows, my dear Frenchmen. There can be no question that a Frenchman succumbs to a German. GO! Go without Pity!”
With the gruesome and very stagnant trench warfare that established itself in French and Belgian Flanders, it is not surprising that the Paris-Roubaix, Tour of Flanders and Liege-Bastogne-Liege did not take place from 1915 to 1918. Of the other two monuments, Milan-San Remo was only cancelled in 1916 while the Tour of Lombardy took place every year throughout the war. Interestingly while his native Belgium was being destroyed, Thys won the 1917 edition of the ‘race of the falling leaves.' Although single-day races continued for much of the war in Italy , its Grand Tour, the Giro, halted until 1919.
With the return of peace in 1919, race organizers were faced with daunting obstacles. In France much of the army had yet to be demobilized. Equipment, vehicles, fuel and food were in very short supply. Roads and a landscape broken by years of war were in a terrible condition. To this day we know the Paris-Roubaix as the ‘hell of the North' because in 1919 journalists wrote that the war ravaged landscape looked ‘like a vision of hell.' Considering that the race approximately traces part of the original ‘front line' of 1914 from Compiegne to Roubaix , this is no surprise. Just a few years ago the Paris-Roubaix was diverted from its planned course as work was in progress to remove a recently discovered huge dump of World War I mustard gas containers.
It is generally agreed that the 1919 Tour was Henri Desgrange's finest achievement. Dramatic historical events were still taking place. The day before the Tour started Germany accepted the terms of surrender at Versailles . Nobody would have predicted that this surrender treaty would fuel yet another world war.
With the public celebrating a treaty designed to bring eternal peace to Europe , the Tour set out in its pre-war fashion of incredibly long stages. The stage 1 warm up from Paris to Le Havre was 388 km; with the longest, stage 5, a massive 482 km. This was the year that Desgrange introduced the now-famous ‘Maillot Jaune' and legendary rider Eugene Christophe was its first wearer. In fact Christophe was race leader for ten of the Tour's fifteen stages. Just over halfway through the race, Christophe fell in Nice and apparently weakened his fork, which gave out on him on brutal cobbles on the penultimate stage. Not allowed help, it took Christophe 70 minutes to repair the forks. His 28-minute lead over second-placed Firmin Lambot evaporated and Lambot rode up to Paris as the overall winner. For Christophe, the affair was startlingly similar to his famous experience on the Col du Tourmalet in 1913, when with broken forks he ran down the mountain to repair them in a small village forge.
The 1919 Tour is also remembered for the Pellisier brothers rebelling against the ‘inhuman conditions' Desgrange imposed upon the riders and coining the phrase ‘les forcats de la route' (convicts of the road). Also of note from this period is that the Tour winners from 1913 to 1922 (Thys, Scieur and Lambot) all came from the same small town of Florennes , which is located near the French border in the Southern Ardennes .
END OF PART I
Go to PART II