The first Tour de France in 1903 was quite a wild ride. The 60 cyclists threw down tacks to flatten the tires of their opponents, carried an assortment weapons for self defense and self offense, fought one another with flying fists and their weapons, several hopped on trains for parts of the super-long stages, and others were towed by motor bikes and cars.
“They would trail a thin piece of wire right behind a motor car, which, at one end, had a cork fixed to the end of it,” wrote Peter Cossins in his book The First Tour de France. “And the rider would wedge the cork between his teeth. And then get towed along with this thing, this wire, pulling hm along.”
Wow, these guys must have had some super-strong teeth. And may have lost a few by the time they reached Paris and the end of the ride, led by Maurice Garin – the very first Tour de France winner. Garin, known far and wide as le Petit Ramoneur (the Little Chimney Sweep), was a superb rider, and an outstanding cheater.
According to Cossins, during the 5th stage (of 6), which went 264 miles from Bordeaux to Nantes, Garin was in the lead group with three other members of the La Francaise team. There were no teams allowed back then, but, well, everyone sort of looked the other way and/or just shrugged. As they approached Nantes, after riding through the night, Garon told the others: “I’m gonna win this stage today,” according to Cossins.
Everyone said “oui, le Petit Rmoneur” except Fernand Augereau, who said, “non.” Garin, the leader of the team, didn’t like this very much and ordered one of his henchmen, I mean teammates, to knock Augereau and his bike over. Which he promptly did. Wonder what Phil Liggett would have to say about this tactic?
There’s no record of Augereau’s nickname, but I dub him le Petit Bouledogue (the Little Bulldog) due to his determined nature. He got up and caught the three leaders. And so, Garin had him knocked over again. And then, according to Cossins, Garin jumped off his bike “and grabbing hold of Augereau’s bike and jumping up and down on his wheel and smashing them to pieces, rendering the bike useless. And then the three of them rode off.”
The determined and adrenaline-fuled Little Bulldog grabbed the bike of a spectator and rode off, in pursuit of Garin and gang. Unfortunately, he had a double flat before the finish line. I think there were a lot more flats back then.
A Little Background
The Tour de France was the idea of Henri Desgranges, the editor of the L’Auto newspaper. It was a way to boost circulation. It accomplished this task, and created a national sensation and the world’s most famous bike race. Perhaps the world’s most famous – and scenic – race in any sport.
To entice the top riders, Desgranges (1865 – 1940), a record-setting cyclist in his day, offered 3,000 francs to the winner of this new race. That was big bucks back then. “The average daily wage for a manual worker was about five francs a day at that time,” Cossins wrote. “So 3,000 francs — the possibility of winning 3,000 francs for three weeks’ work — was a huge amount of money. Riches beyond any of them could have dreamed of.”
More than enough to make cheating a viable option. And, isn’t it interesting that throughout the long history of the Tour de France, big bucks and fame have always made cheating a viable option that way too many riders can’t seem to resist. Hey, who am I to preach: Perhaps I would have cheated if given the opportunity. You never know.
Up until this point in time, all the big, famous, popular road races were one-day, point-to-point races. The Tour de France was the first stage race.
Anyway … the six stages were:
Paris to Lyon (290 miles)
Lyon to Marseille (232 miles)
Marseille to Toulouse (263 miles)
Toulouse to Bordeaux (167 miles)
Bordeaux to Nantes (264 miles)
Nantes to Paris (293 miles)
The competitors rode the entire length of each stage in one go, through the night, and into the next day, with little support. The riders often stopped in cafes for drinks and food, and perhaps a little vin rouge. Or a lot of vin rouge. There were hundreds, maybe thousands of spectators lining the roads, some of whom were hired goons for some of the competitors. Which meant many riders had to fight their way through these crowds.
There were then a couple days off between the stages for the riders – and their bikes – to recover.
Garin won the first stage, as well as the fifth – with some help from his teammates. And was well ahead in the overall standings. The Little Chimney Sweep was the real deal, a great rider, perhaps the best in the world in 1903. He had won Paris-Brest-Paris in 1901, Paris-Roubaix in 1897 and 1898) and Bordeaux-Paris in 1902. Then again, maybe he cheated his way to all those victories. And then again (again), if everyone cheated, didn’t this make for a level playing field? And yes, this is an argument some modern-day cyclists who’ve been caught doping have used. It’s an interesting debate … but I come down on the side of: Nobody should cheat. It ruins the sport.
Garin (1871-1957) was an actual chimney sweep before he became professional bike racer. He was 5-foot-4 and weighed about 130 pounds, the perfect physique for sweeping chimneys and bike racing.
The Little Chimney Sweep won the 6th and final stage, winning the Tour de France by a whopping 2 hours, 59 minutes and 21 seconds. To this day this remains the biggest margin of victory.
“Lance Armstrong was a modern day Maurice Garin,” Cossins wrote. “That’s what Maurice Garin was like. He intimidated everybody. He wanted everybody to do things in the way that he saw was fit. He wasn’t subtle about what he was doing at all.”
Garin won the 1904 Tour de France, once again cheating his way to victory. However, he seems to have gone a little bit overboard, and was way too obvious. Garin and 11 others cyclists were disqualified, several for hopping on trains for a portion of a day’s stage. The fifth overall finisher, Henri Cornet, was declared the winner. He was called Le Rigolo (The Joker) and did indeed have the last laugh at the 1904 Tour de France.
What Happened to Garin?
As for Garin, he used his 1903 Tour de France winnings to purchase a gas station in the town of Lens.
According to legend, he was asked to give an interview after winning the 1903 Tour de France. Instead of answering questions (was the Little Chimney Sweep shy?), he handed Desgrange a prepared statement. It read: “The 2,500km that I’ve just ridden seem a long line, grey and monotonous, where nothing stood out from anything else. But I suffered on the road; I was hungry, I was thirsty, I was sleepy, I suffered, I cried between Lyon and Marseille, I had the pride of winning other stages, and at the controls I saw the fine figure of my friend Delattre, who had prepared my sustenance, but I repeat, nothing strikes me particularly.
“But wait! I’m completely wrong when I say that nothing strikes me, I’m confusing things. I must say that one single thing struck me, that a single thing sticks in my memory: I see myself, from the start of the Tour de France, like a bull pierced by banderillas, who pulls the banderillas with him, never able to rid himself of them.”
Here’s the link to my Biking France books (Provence, Bordeaux, Normandy, the Loire and the Dordogne). I recently took all five off Amazon, iBooks and all the other eBook platforms because they took about 60 percent of the revenue. Now, thanks to even more tech advances, I can make them available as PDFs.