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

Updated September 19, 2020 5k views11 items
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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.

  • Cars and Motorcycles Gave Competitors A Helping Hand

    Photo: Unknown / Wikimedia Commons / Public Domain

    Racers even cheated by getting rides from cars and motorcycles. Hippolyte Aucouturier developed a stealthy method of catching a ride: in the 1904 race, he held a piece of cork in his mouth, attached to a piece of string or wire. A car towed Aucouturier by the hidden tether to give him a boost. He might have pulled off the stunt unnoticed had the vehicle towing him been a bit slower. During that particular stage of the 1904 Tour de France, Aucouturier and the car towing him crossed the finish line on the heels of race officials, who had made the trip via car, as well. 

    The early years weren't known for particularly fast races, after all. When Garin won in 1903, his average speed was 15 miles per hour. If the wire trick didn't work, cyclists could always dump itching powder in rivals' shorts or ask supporters to hit them with sticks - both of which happened during the 1904 race.

  • Cyclists Dropped Like Flies During The Race, And The Loser Had To Wear A Red Lantern

    Photo: Jules Beau / Wikimedia Commons / Public Domain

    The first stage of the inaugural Tour de France forced riders to cover 300 miles in a single day. Of the 60 cyclists who left Paris at 3:16 pm on July 1, 1903, only 37 reached Lyon. All of them had to ride long into the night. It took stage winner Maurice Garin more than 17 hours to reach Lyon, winning the first leg by a single minute. 

    When the cyclists rode into Lyon early the next morning, race officials said they were "riding like sleepwalkers." Because of the ambitious length of the race, only 21 of the original 60 cyclists completed the entire 1903 Tour de France. And the race made sure to shame the loser: The rider in last place had to wear a "Red Lantern." In 1903, the last racer crossed the finish line more than two days after winner Maurice Garin. 

  • The Grueling Route Forced A Third Of The Cyclists To Quit On The First Day

    Photo: L'Auto-vélo / Wikimedia Commons / Public Domain

    The first Tour de France forced cyclists to cover 1,500 miles in just six stages. On opening day, the route took racers from Paris all the way to Lyon, a nearly 300-mile journey across dirt roads on heavy, unwieldy bikes without helmets. It's no surprise that of the 60 men who set off from Paris, more than a third quit on the very first day. During the inaugural Tour de France, riders had to cover an average of 250 miles each stage, with as little as a single rest day between rides. By comparison, the average stage of the 2017 Tour de France was just over 100 miles.

    The first riders were not allowed to receive help from anyone during the race and had to make their own repairs. Cyclists wrapped spare tires around their bodies just in case they had a flat - a common occurrence due to other competitors throwing glass and nails on the ground.

  • The 'Little Chimney Sweep' Cheated His Way To Victory Twice

    Photo: Unknown / Wikimedia Commons / Public Domain

    The winner of the 1903 and 1904 Tour de France races, Maurice Garin, was affectionately known as "The Little Chimney Sweep." Garin often rode with a cigarette in his mouth and was known for winning an 1893 precursor to the actual Tour de France. He credited his 1893 victory to his diet during the race: red wine, oysters, several liters of tapioca, and hot chocolate. But it wasn't wine that helped Garin win the first two Tour de France races: It was cheating. 

    Garin knocked riders off their bicycles, stomped on their wheels, and even caught a train ride to shorten one stage. The tactics helped Garin cross the finish line before anyone else and bag a fortune in prize money. As historian Peter Cossins told WBUR, “Crime paid to a certain extent for Maurice Garin." Although he was eventually stripped of his second Tour win, Garin used his fame to buy a gas station, which he ran for the next 40 years.