Tour. When the sun didn’t rise

Tomorrow, for the excited excitement of cycling lovers and for the annoyance of those who don’t really care about the pedal wheels and who would prefer the calm d’une petite promenade, the Champs Elysees will be closed so that, in the center of Paris, the world capital of cycling sport, another Grande Boucle is put to an end, that is, more specifically, the 109th edition of the Tour de France by Bicycle.

I confess, I can never resist, I confess, at times like these, defoliating the trees of history and getting lost in the woods of memories in search of episodes that justify why, over time, collective exhibitions continue to fill the imagination of people who don’t even know where it all started. In the time of the Tour de France, the Tour is churned up like Madame Curie churned up pitchblende in search of the radio, and the legend of the names that made it the greatest cycling race in the world is brought to the surface again.

David Guénell, journalist, chronicler, scholar, once wrote: «En 115 ans, les participants in the Tour de France ont tout enduré. Ils ont subi toutes les souffrances, éprouvé toutes les misères, ont dû lutter contre les éléments, contre leurs adversaires et même, parfois, contre les organisateurs et leurs règlements absurdes’. This text was published four years ago and about what would have been the worst, the most brutal, the most violent and demanding stage in the entire history of the Tour de France. And listening to the greatest experts, there was no doubt: 1926, 10th stage, Bayonne-Louchon! 326 kilometers through mountains.

That year, the longest Tour de France of all time was run: 5,745 kilometers. The route was designed in such a way as to tread almost completely all the borders of the Hexagon, even the maritime ones. And the mountains, always the mountains: it was necessary to climb them at the beginning and at the end of the race. 17 stages: start on June 20th and end on July 18th. For the first time, the match did not take place in Paris or its surroundings. It all started in Evian.

Urinating in your hands!

The stage between Bayonne and Luchon didn’t seem to have anything that made it a puzzle. Others had already been carried out much longer. And yet, there were details that allowed an aura of mysticism to grow around it: the difference in altitude, which reached 5500 meters, the execrable weather that was felt on that July 6th, the roads that became practically impassable. And those magically named spots that appeared on the paths that led to the snow-white peaks: Aubisque, Tourmalet, Peyresourde…

Two o’clock in the morning. Cyclists gather in front of Brasserie Miremont to sign the starting sheets. The calmest seems to be the Belgian Lucien Buysse. He is confident that it won’t take long to rescue his compatriot Gustaaf Van Slembrouck’s yellow jersey. He knows this is a good cyclist but no one believes he has the guts to keep it up for long. Six minutes and seven seconds separate them.

Buysse is not a particularly elegant runner, it always seems to be in effort. But he is a bulldog of the roads and attacks from the beginning, still the day he was not born. He knows the route like the back of his hand: he has walked it six times. The mud clogs the bicycle tires, many are forced to take them by the hand until they find a way to regain control over the pedals.

Ottavio Bottecchia, the first Italian to win the Tour, champion of the last two editions, suffers brutally with the drop in temperature. At one point he stops, he puts the bike down, and starts crying like a child on the side of the road. Adelin Benoît, another Belgian who had been big the previous year, suffers a brutal fall. He will arrive in Luchon by car.

Buyse strength. He is 1’45 over Huysse and Parmentier, 2’40 over Dejonghe and 3’30 over Tailleu. Benoit was already 6’20 behind and Bottecchia, reborn, was 7’40 behind. A dangerous mix of flint, rocks and weeds often cause punctures and the rain gives runners no rest. The sun never came up.

A fog, a penumbra, surrounds the platoon. Visibility does not go beyond 30 or 40 meters. So much concentration is required to not give up that some forget to eat. Dejonghe chews on some bamboo roots. His hands are so cold that he loses 11 minutes to the first in that interregnum. It’s the stiffened fingers that don’t dominate the brakes on steep descents. Some people decide to urinate on their hands to warm them up. Terrible falls. At 10:40 pm in Luchon, there were 31 cyclists out of the 76 who had left Bayonne.

At the Café Central checkpoint, search groups were being prepared to find the missing. Some appeared on the ride of whoever caught them, fallen. Fernand Besnier, the last one, concludes the stage six hours after Buysse, the future winner of the lap and first to reach Luchon at the end of 17h 12m and 4s. Charles Ravaud, accustomed to the greatest epics of the Tour, underlines in the pages of his newspaper: “Non, vraiment, cette étape était trop dure!”.

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