November 2004

By Barry Boyce, CyclingRevealed Historian


Henri Desgranges, the race director of the Tour de France (TdF), described his vision for this grand race, “The ideal Tour would be a Tour in which only one rider survives the ordeal.” Desgranges meant this ideal to inspire the riders to greatness, not unduly restrict them with harsh conditions, demanding racecourses and strict rules. French superstar Henri Pelissier, during the 1920 Tour, received a “time penalty” for the act of discarding a flat tire during the race. The infraction was minor, but the rule's enforcement was harsh. Similar incidents over the years started a grumbling within the peloton. The very strict Desgranges consistently opposed the changing or even loosening of the rules. He demanded race officials enforce the rules to the “letter of the law.”

A journalist from the newspaper “Petit Parisian” named Albert Londres described the 1924 Tour as “Le Tour de Souffrance” (the Tour of Suffering). The center of controversy came back to defending champion Henri Pelissier. The independent thinking Pelissier had a dubious relationship with the authoritarian Desgranges, and battled his inane rules on a yearly basis. He and Desgranges, both known for voicing their opinions, carried on a daily “war of words” in the press.

At the start of stage 3 in Cherbourg, one of the race officials very carefully checked the number of jerseys Pelissier was wearing. The rules very specifically banned the discarding of clothing or equipment along the race route. The “letter of the law” did not take into consideration the fact that stages started in the cold temperatures of the pre-dawn hours and finished in the hot sun of a summer afternoon. Somewhere near the Town of Coutances, as the day warmed-up, Henri shed his long sleeve, woolen jersey. When the race official confronted Pelissier mid-way through the stage, they threatened to penalize him for the rules infraction. The emotional Frenchman became enraged and immediately retired from race.

Albert Londres found Pelissier and his brothers shortly after their abandonment at a local Inn. He questioned the brothers and the information received in the interview gave Londres enough to write the Tour’s legendary “Les forcatsde la route” (Slaves of the Road) article.

The clamoring for change began to escalate. The stubborn Desgranges steadfastly resisted any changes to his ideal Tour. Through the Tours of the late 20’s the pressure continued and slowly Desgranges, the dictatorial race director, did institute new rules to ease the strict “letter of the law” rules


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