History of the Tour De France – 1920-1939 – Les Forcats De La Route

By the 1920s, the Tour de France was a fierce competition. Belgium was leading the way with four victories and French morale was low.

The Tour de France had become the toughest sport in the world. When non -cyclist journalist, Albert Lourdes, covered the event in 1924, he found that the riders had a startlingly low morale, acting much like men he had written about who were imprisoned in French penal colonies. He referred to the riders as Les Forcats de la Route- convicts of the road. The race seemed to be run only to sell newspapers. Morale was low and it wasn’t helped by the lack of a French winner. The first four races after the world were won by Belgians. Finally, in 1923, Henri Pelissier won, the host country’s only win between 1910 and 1930. Thus began the host country’s love/hate affair with the race. This attitude continues today. For example, during the doping scandals of the 1990s, many French had sympathy rather than disgust for it.

The Yellow Jersey

The famous yellow jersey was worn for the first time following World War I. Although it is now the most coveted garment in cycling, the first rider who was ever offered it, rejected it. He didn’t want to become a moving target for his rivals.

The Winners:

* 1919 Firmin Lambot (Bel)

* 1920 Philippe Thys (Bel)

* 1921 Leon Scieur (Bel)

* 1922 Firmin Lambot (Bel)

* 1923 Henri Pelissier (Fra)

* 1924 Ottavio Bottecchia (Ita)

* 1925 Ottavio Bottecchia (Ita)

* 1926 Lucien Buysse (Bel)

* 1927 Nicolas Frantz (Lux)

* 1928 Nicolas Frantz (Lux)

* 1929 Maurice De Waele (Bel)

By 1920, the race was now 5,500 kilometers in length, with long overnight stages and crazy, draconian rules. For example, riders were still restricted from getting outside technical assistance and they couldn’t change bicycles or even clothes. Riders must finish each stage with everything they had started with. The defending champion of 1924, Henri Pelissier, and his brothers quit the race. Their issue was clothing. Races started very early in the day, when it was still cool but the race continued into the heat of the day. Little wonder that riders stripped in layers. Pelissier quit in disgust.

Races during the 1920s said a lot about the Europe of the day. In 1924 and again a year later, Ottavio Bottecchia of Italy won. He became one of his country’s major sports figure. Then, in 1927, he was murdered while on a training ride. It became obvious that not everyone appreciated his success. Some even feared it. A deathbed confession years later confirmed what many had long suspected. He had been murdered by Fascists.

The 1920s were overshadowed by the overt commercialism of the race. It also didn’t help that the French had only won once, in 1923. Team time trials and national squads were experimented with. Substitute riders could come off the bench if a rider was injured. Everyone had to ride identical bikes. The tour’s popularity had begin to waiver. All of these changes were short-lived but they did have one major benefit. They allowed France to build a strong force. France won the first five tours of the 1930s.

Technological Advances

In 1937, the derailleur system was introduced. This allowed riders to change gears without having to remove wheels. Previously, riders would have to dismount in order to change their wheel from downhill to uphill mode. The Tour de France had proven it could adapt in order to survive. It had gained back national appeal and respect.

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