Hemingway’s grimpeurs (EH part 1)

Ernest Hemingway was a great fan of sports, most notably bull fighting and fishing. He also followed cycling, particularly the 1920s six-day races in Paris, which – along with horse racing – were among his pastimes chronicled in A Movable Feast.

Hemingway was well known for his obsessions with different sports and other activities, learning them quickly and wanting to become a master in all aspects. He learnt about bull fighting in Spain in the 1920s, but not big-game fishing until the 1930s in Quay West, but became an expert in both. Boxing was a life-long pursuit, as well as shooting and hunting.

It is perhaps no surprise that in his ‘sporting life’, Hemingway developed a detailed knowledge of cycling during his European years.

“Hem knew all the statistics and the names and lives of the riders,” friend and author John Dos Passos once said.

In The Sun Also Rises, Hemingway shows some of his familiarity with the sport of the time towards the end of the book when the narrator, Jake Barnes, is in San Sebastian, Spain.

There was a bicycle-race on, the Tour de Pays Basque, and the riders were stopping that night in San Sebastian. In the [hotel] dining room, at one side, there was a long table of bicycle riders, eating with their trainers and managers. They were all French and Belgian, and paid close attention to their meal, but they were having a good time…

The next morning at five o’clock the race resumed with the last lap, San Sebastian-Bilbao. The bicycle riders drank much wine, and were burned and browned by the sun. They did not take the racing seriously except among themselves. They had raced among themselves so often that it did not make much difference who won. Especially in a foreign country. The money could be arranged.

The Spaniards, they said, did not know how to pedal.

I had coffee out on the terrasse with the team manager of one of the big bicycle manufacturers. He said it had been a very pleasant race, and would have been worth watching if Bottechia had not abandoned it at Pamplona. The dust had been bad but the roads were better than in France. Bicycle road-racing was the only sport in the world, he said. Had I ever followed the Tour de France? Only in the papers. The Tour de France was the greatest sporting event in the world. Following and organizing the road races had made him know France. Few people know France. All spring and all summer and all fall he spent on the road with the bicycle road-racers. Look at the number of motor-cars now that followed the riders from town to town in a road race. It was a rich country and more sportif every year. It would be the most sportif country in the world. It was bicycle road-racing did it. That and football. He knew France. La France Sportive. He knew road-racing. We had a cognac.

Hemingway was of course referring to the Tour of the Basque Country, the Vuelta al País Vasco in Spanish, the first edition of which was held in 1924, which was the year that Hemingway visited Spain and used the trip as the inspiration for his book.

He mentions the dominance of the French and Belgian riders, who won the first six editions of the race starting with Francis Pélissier in 1924. A Spanish rider did not win until 1930.

The team manager also discusses the role of cycling in opening up France to spectators at a time of booming post-war recovery, continuing the role of the Tour in showcasing all parts of the country to its residents and visitors. Pictures from the time do show the cavalcade of cars following the race, as well as the spectators turned out in their 1920s finest to witness the world’s ‘greatest sporting event’.

Despite the popularity of cycling in general, the 1920s were tough years for the Tour de France. Many French riders preferred the lucrative track racing events in cities like Paris to the privations of the open road, and the race in this decade was dominated by the Belgians. The riders were also increasingly frustrated with Henri Desgrange’s rules and regulations for the Tour. Tactically, it became clear that the biggest time gains were to be made in the mountains, so bunch finishes – much to Desgrange’s chagrin – became common on the flat stages. Perhaps money even changed hands.

The Bottechia that Hemingway referred to was undoubtedly Ottavio Bottecchia. The Italian had turned professional in 1923, after riding in the Italian bicycle corps in World War I. Coincidentally, Hemingway himself had served on the Italian-Austrian front during the war as an ambulance driver and used another Italian cyclist, a contemporary of Bottecchia’s, Bartolomeo Aymo (sometimes Aimo), as the inspiration for a character in his book of that conflict, A Farewell to Arms: “Here it is a great thing,” Aymo said. “A bicycle is a splendid thing.”

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Ottavio Bottecchia with his Automoto jersey and Hutchinson tubes

Bottecchia showed his capabilities in the 1923 Giro, placing fifth. But with the giants of Italian cycling, like Alfredo Binda, dominating the race in that era, Bottecchia had more success in France. In that year’s Tour he placed 2nd behind Automoto team leader Henri Pélissier (brother of Francis), who gave France its first win since 1912.

But even Pélissier was clear as to who the rising star was: “Bottecchia will succeed me.” His prediction proved accurate and Bottechia, dubbed ‘Le maçon de Frioul’, the bricklayer from Friuli, became in 1924 the first Italian rider to win the Tour de France.

The 1924 edition was dubbed ‘the Tour of Suffering’ with its long stages, early starts, and more draconian rules from Henri Desgrange, which forced out the Pélissier brothers (despite their mobile pharmacies of ‘dynamite’). Bottecchia dominated from start to finish, wearing the yellow jersey the entire race and winning four stages.

He was a dominant force in the mountains. Second place finisher, some 35 minutes back, Nicolas Frantz of Luxembourg, said: “It would be dangerous to follow Bottecchia up a mountain pass, it would be suicidal. His pace is so high, so relentless, that we would be suffocated.”

Bartolomeo Aymo placed 4th, riding on Frantz’s Alcyon team, behind Bottecchia’s domestique, Lucien Buysse from Belgium.

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Bottecchia climbs the Col d’Izoard in 1924

Bottecchia was starting to live dangerously, however. He was stalked during the race by an obsessed female fan. And, as a result of being outspoken against Mussolini’s fascism, he received threatening messages and had his tyres slashed on several occasions.

In the 1925 Tour, however, he was undistracted from racing and won again in dominant style. Taking advantage of relaxed rules by Desgrange for racing tactics, he shadowed the wheel of team-mate Buysse for much of race but still won four stages and narrowly missed repeating his feat of leading the race from start to finish. Buysse was second with Aymo third and Frantz fourth.

The year 1926 boded well for Bottecchia and he started a bicycle company under his own name that still produces bikes today. Interestingly, he placed second behind Frantz in the Tour de Pays Basque. The Tour de France for that year was the longest ever, some 5,745 km, adding 315 km from the previous year. The race was plagued by horrendous weather, unfortunately, which forced Bottecchia to withdraw.

Loyal domestique Buysse stepped up to take the win. On the brutal 326 km stage from Bayonne to Luchon, which included the climbs of Osquich, Aubisque, Soulor, Tourmalet, Aspin, Peyresourde, Buysse’s winning time for the stage was over 17 hours, such were the conditions. Of the 76 that started the stage, only 54 finished, including Aymo in second place – who finished third in Paris behind Buysse and Frantz.

Previously overshadowed by Bottecchia, Buysse showed his mountains prowess and is still regarded by many as one of finest climbers produced by Belgium. He also marked out the perfect template for winning the Tour: conservative on the flat stages and fearsome in the mountains.

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Bottecchia in the mountains in 1925

In 1927, tragedy struck. Perhaps foreshadowed by earlier events, Ottavio Bottecchia was found in a pool of blood by the side of the road in Italy on 14 June. He died of his injuries and the identity of his assailant(s) remains a mystery. A farmer claimed he had accidentally thrown a rock at a man stealing grapes (eating grapes in June, and why did the farmer not recognize him?), while a gangster later confessed to his contract murder. Others suspected a ‘crime passionel’.

Some, however, cited Bottecchia’s anti-fascist leanings and pointed the finger at Mussolini. But again, it was not clear exactly what motive the sometimes buffoonish dictator might have had for murdering a well-known Italian sporting hero. The mystery remains.

Nicolas Frantz finally succeeded in the Tour, winning the 1927 edition. The following year, in 1928, he followed in Bottecchia’s footsteps and wore the yellow jersey from start to finish. This achievement was repeated in the race’s history only one more time, by Belgian rider Romain Maes in 1935.

In 1928, it was also the last year of wins for Bartolomeo Aymo, who placed third in the Giro. Unlike Bottecchia, though, and also unlike Hemingway’s character, the real Aymo went on to live a long life and died only in 1970, aged eighty-one.

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Lucien Buysse on his way to Tour victory in 1926

Hemingway’s grimpeurs, much like the author, cut distinctive figures during their time, with their cycling exploits, in the mountains and on the flat, often in the devastatingly-tough riding conditions of the era.

And Hemingway himself was not ignorant of the challenges.

The man who had a matter of two minutes lead in the race had an attack of boils, which were very painful. He sat on the small of his back. His neck was very red and the blond hairs were sunburned. The other riders joked him about his boils. He tapped on the table with his fork.

“Listen,” he said, “tomorrow my nose is so tight on the handlebars that the only thing touches those boils is a lovely breeze.”

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Ernest Hemingway (far left) in the 1920s
This post was first published October 6, 2007.