Weird History 11 Insane Stories From The Early Years Of The Tour De France  

Genevieve Carlton
11 items

Everyone has heard stories of officials busting modern cyclists for doping at the Tour de France. More than a century ago, however, athletes competing in the event cheated, fought, and even poisoned their way to the finish line. By comparison, these cyclists make Lance Armstrong look like a saint. 

From poisoning lemonade to sneaking on trains, early competitors took drastic measures to get the upper hand during the nearly 300-mile stages. Some cyclists even threw tacks, nails, and glass onto the road just to hurt their fellow riders. Just like athletes at early Olympic games who drank beer before events, the cyclists downed alcohol to make it through the grueling race. And as in other professional sports brawls, the cyclists weren't afraid to get physical - often shoving each other off their bikes to steal the win.

And that's just the competitors. The first fans didn't hesitate to get involved and make sure their favorites got to the finish line first. With all the Tour de France controversies in the early years, the French almost canceled the race entirely. Thankfully, the race - and the drama - has continued.

Cyclists Threw Tacks And Nails On The Road To Take Down Their Rivals

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Photo:  Nationaal Archief/Wikimedia Commons/Public Domain

Cheating started with the inaugural Tour de France in 1903. In the first contest, rivals Maurice Garin and Fernand Augereau nearly came to blows after Garin told his friends to knock Augereau off his bike twice. When Augereau recovered, Garin lept from his bicycle and stomped on Augereau's bike himself until the wheels were mangled and inoperative.

Physical attacks were just the beginning when it came to cheating in the early days. The long night rides during the race practically encouraged cheating, since race officials couldn't monitor the riders. In the second race in 1904, riders reportedly tossed tacks and nails onto the road to puncture tires. Some riders hopped onto trains to get a head start during the race.

The prize motivated the cheating. The overall winner took home 3,000 francs, the equivalent of two years' wages for a manual laborer. While professionals were the favorites, the field was filled out with amateur cyclists looking for a big payday - and they were more than willing to cut corners to get that windfall.

A Mob Blocked The Path And Beat Up Cyclists During The 1904 Race

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Photo: Agence Rol/Wikimedia Commons/Public Domain

The second Tour de France might be the dirtiest in history. In the first stage, four men in a car jumped out to attack the previous year's winner, Maurice Garin. During the second stage, fans of cyclist Antoine Fauré tossed glass on the road, causing flat tires throughout the pack. And fans lined up to throw rocks at cyclists during multiple stages.

But the worst offense has to be the brawl in Saint-Étienne. Townspeople created a human blockade to aid hometown favorite Fauré. As Garin and another cyclist approached, the mob began to beat the athletes. The fracas only stopped when journalist and Tour de France architect Géo Lefèvre showed up and fired a pistol. Ultimately, the melee failed to serve its purpose: Garin went on to win his second straight Tour de France (which was later stripped away amid widespread accusations of misconduct).

Racers Even Poisoned Each Other To Win The Race

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Photo: Neantvide/Wikimedia Commons/CC-BY-SA-3.0

Long before turning to steroids to win the race, Tour de France cyclists took to dosing their rivals to gain an advantage. In 1903, favorite Hippolyte Aucouturier had to quit the race after he was poisoned in the opening stage. The cyclist had a reputation for drinking wine and abusing ether, but those habits didn't hinder him. Instead, Aucouturier had to quit over debilitating stomach cramps caused by a bottle of poisoned lemonade he received from a spectator. 

The 1911 Tour de France saw another poisoning scandal. This time, cyclist François Lafourcade poisoned Paul Duboc's drink after Duboc won two stages in a row. The poison left Duboc vomiting in the road as Lafourcade rode by with the rest of the pack. Lafourcade not only got away with it, but he framed another cyclist, who was forced to ride with bodyguards and don a disguise when the Tour passed through Duboc's hometown.

Cyclists Stopped At Bars During The Race, And One Even Had A Butler Set Up Picnics

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Photo: Unknown/Wikimedia Commons/Public Domain

Today, sports nutrition is a major industry. In the early 20th century, though, cyclists came up with their own food strategies. And many turned to beer. Maurice Garin stopped at bars during the 1903 Tour de France. The next year, Henri Cornet drank champagne throughout the race. Cornet also drank 11 liters of hot chocolate and 3 pounds of rice pudding each day as he covered hundreds of miles.

Because the route was not highly monitored, cyclists were known to stop wherever they wanted to eat. In the 1910s, a rich cyclist even ordered his butler to set up a roadside picnic in the middle of the race. And cyclists definitely didn't see the problem with using drugs during the race. Rider Henri Pélissier explained to a reporter at the time that the racers used "cocaine for our eyes and chloroform for our gums."