The original grimpeurs

Vous êtes des assassins!

It is perhaps the most famous, often quoted phrase in Tour de France history, shouted by Octave Lapize to onlookers as he struggled over the Col d’Aubisque in the 1910 Tour.

Some accounts, such as Geoffrey Nicholson in ‘The Great Race’, say that Lapize simply uttered only one work – Assassins – and he directed it towards Tour organizer Henri Desgrange.

But this telling missed the story of journalist Victor Breyer, who had apparently been given oversight of the stage that day by Desgrange, who had been taken ill, apparently fraught with worry over his inclusion of the high mountains for the first time in the Tour.

By Breyer’s telling, Lapize was certainly vocal, heaping further curses on him as Breyer enquired as to his condition, then threatening to abandon at the bottom of the mountain in the village of Eaux-Bonnes.

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Lapize on the Tourmalet

Then there is the translation.

Well-known scribes of the Tour, Owen Mulholland and Nicholson translate the French assassins directly into English as the same term, whereas others such as Geoffrey Wheatcroft, Les Woodland, and Richard Yates prefer the more colloquial ‘murderers’ as the equivalent.

As an adjudicator, ‘The Official Tour de France Centennial 1903-2003′ taken from the French volumes ’100 ans de Tour de France’ (and culled from the pages of L’Auto and L’Equipe) stamps its imprimatur on ‘murderers’ but there is no indication from the publisher and translator Weidenfeld & Nicolson that there might be a debate on this.

Interestingly, the reference dictionary Le Petit Larousse defines assassin as someone who pre-meditates a murder (auteur d’un meurtre avec préméditation). Plus, a murderer is a meurtrier, from the noun meurtre.

As we shall see below, Desgrange’s decision to send the riders to face the Pyrenees, the first serious mountains to be included in the Tour de France, was certainly pre-meditated. An assassin, indeed.

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“I’ll make them repair their bikes as well.” Desgrange wanted the Tour to be epic.

Desgrange’s inclusion of the Aubisque and the Col de Tourmalet is another Tour legend, and the exact details are also subject to some dispute.

Despite being a known despot, and perhaps a sadist and a misogynist as well, Desgrange did not plan for his riders to tackle the narrow, rutted and desperately wild roads of the Pyrenees or Alps. He was convinced of the merits by one Alphonse Steines, variously described in different accounts as Desgrange’s friend, assistant, colleague, and topography expert (he might indeed have been all these).

Under pressure to liven up the Tour, Desgrange sent Steines to investigate the feasibility of cyclists actually riding over the great passes in the Pyrenees.

By most accounts, Steines surveyed the Tourmalet when it was covered in snow. He struggled over the summit after abandoning his chauffeured car because of snow drifts, was nearly lost in the dark as night fell, but made it – only just – to the village of Barèges where his was welcomed by incredulous villagers, forewarned by his astute chauffeur who had driven a flatter route.

The next day, Steines sent his famous telegram to Desgrange, at least according to Woodland: “Crossed Tourmalet. Very good road. Perfectly practicable. Steines.”

But this is where the legend starts to get a little murky.

Several accounts say that Steines travelled first to the Aubisque in January, and was informed that a car had careered off the summit road just the week before. Also, the spring snow melt would probably leave the road difficult to navigate and would need repair. A local official (perhaps seeing an opportunity) suggested that 5,000 francs would cover it.

Steines then telephoned Desgrange who, according to Yates, said: “2,000 and not a penny more.”

Then, according to Yates, in his account in ‘Ascent’, Steines surveyed the Tourmalet and reasoned that if he could cross it on foot in January, the riders could do it on their bikes in July.

But by Mulholland’s telling, Steines made a separate “springtime” visit to the Tourmalet, having presumably found the conditions absolutely impossible during his January visit to the Aubisque.

Woodland says that Steines visited the Tourmalet “just before the race”, although it was still covered in snow; ‘The Official Tour de France’ unhelpfully says that the visit was in “the New Year” and that the road was blocked by snow, but makes no mention of Steines’s trip on foot and has the famous telegram being sent in the evening.

Robin Magowan writes in ‘Tour de France’ that Steines’s trip was in June. But he confuses the timeline by claiming, citing Steines’s own (un-referenced) account, that Steines visited both mountains, but that the Tourmalet was surveyed first, and that there was an ordeal in the snow – but no telegram. Steines spoke to Desgrange via telephone several days later, after Steines had seen the Aubisque and was negotiating the rate for the repairs.

Magowan further says that the route, including the mountains, had already been announced in April and that Desgrange had sent Steines to ensure the state of the roads after the announcement had generated a storm of controversy.

Exhausting the typical printed sources, online accounts have Steines in the Pyrenees two months before the Tour, surveying both peaks; but Barry Boyce puts him on the Tourmalet in January, to be rescued from his snowy ordeal “dazed and bewildered” by local villagers.

A background by Radio France dates the trip in May while the French historical site ‘lagrandeboucle.com’ gives “springtime” again as the timeline with the route published in L’Auto in April.

Just what was Alphonse Steines up to in the first half of 1910?

In the English-language sources, Yates’s confident account is the most comprehensive seen by this author, with all the action, see above, taking place in January. Confusingly, though, Yates says that L’Auto published the route shortly after Steines’s return.

But a quick scan of some grainy online covers of L’Auto has the first appearance of a Tour de France announcement on April 12, consistent with two other sources.

Also, logic would suggest that January would be a particularly poor time to visit the region, given the likelihood of the mountains and the surrounding area being snow-bound. Some accounts of Steines’s telegram say that he also said ‘no snow’ when reporting on the Tourmalet, an implausible claim in January that Desgrange would surely not have fallen for (Yates provides no text for the telegram, though).

A visit in spring, as others have suggested, would have made more sense and that the Tourmalet still had snow on it entirely possible, even likely.

Yates cites a number of authoritative French sources in his bibliography, but the conflicting accounts of the timeline remain. It is entirely possible that these accounts have been poorly researched and, drawing on poor sources, have perpetuated alternative narratives.

It does seem possible, though, in the absence of additional information, that Yates could have confused the New Year with January when sources may have meant a springtime month, such as early April. This would be consistent with several accounts and would allow for the April 12 publication of the route in L’Auto (but would rule out Magowan’s telling of the story, and well as Woodland’s two visits.

Some degree of mystery over this man Steines, therefore, still remains.

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The victory poster of the 1910 route (Horton Collection)

There is no dispute, however, that the riders of the 1910 Tour had to face the toughest parcours the Tour had seen. Indeed, many prospective competitors apparently decided against racing when the route was announced, incredulous over the inclusion of the wild mountains, hard up against the Spanish border, with roads of unknown providence and even tales of bears stalking the forested peaks.

Degrange once said that the ideal Tour would be one in which only one rider finished. Despite the inclusion of the mountains, there were hardly any concessions to this maxim. At 4,737 kilometres the 1910 edition was nearly 300 kilometres longer than in 1909, with fifteen stages instead of fourteen.

Stage 9 from Perpignan to Luchon featured four major climbs (including the Portet d’Aspet) over its 289 kilometres, but it was stage 10, after a rest day, that was the real mountains challenge. Luchon to Bayonne, 326 kilometres over five climbs: the Peyresourde (1,569 metres), d’Aspin (1,489 metres), the Tourmalet (2,115 metres), the Aubisque (1,709 metres), and – in case it were thought too easy – the Osquich at 390 metres to finish it off.

The only small concession was that Degrange introduced for the first time la voiture-balai, the broom-wagon to sweep up any riders unable to carry on.

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Broom-wagon hijinks from 1934

Even so, the mountains proved daunting and only 110 riders signed up in 1910, compared to 150 in 1909. There were only three professional teams, of ten riders each, with 80 amateur isoles making up the balance. Only 41 finished (37%), compared to 55 out of 150 in 1909 (35%) so it would seem that only the tougher riders decided to tackle the course.

The race for that year was expected to be another battle between the giant Francois Faber, winner in 1909 and second in 1908, the reed-like Gustave Garrigou, second to Faber in 1909, and Lucien Petit-Breton, winner in 1908 and 1907.

Initially it seemed that Faber, a dockworker measuring over 6’2″ in height and 200 lbs (who attracted fans simply wanting to see this giant of a man), was on course for another victory. But after the first mountains stage in the Pyrenees, it was clear that Faber’s Alcyon teammate, the curly-haired Octave Lapize, winner of that year’s Paris-Roubaix, was the one to watch.

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Francois Faber: le Giant de Colombes, his adopted town.

For stage 10, the riders started at 3am. Lapize and Garrigou duelled over the first two climbs and on the Tourmalet. Garrigou had wisely decided to use lower gearing, 45×22 (although this author could find no mention of Lapize’s ratio), and was able to stay on his bike all the way to the summit – claiming a cash bonus – whilst Lapize had to push his machine for part of the climb.

On the Aubisque, however, it was the isole Francois Lafourcade, from nearby Salies-de-Béarn, also apparently riding a lower gear and having good local knowledge of the roads, who led the professional riders over the summit. His efforts were good enough, though, only for fifth place – Lapize took the stage, ahead of the Italian rider Pierino Albini with Faber surging back for third.

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Lapize wishing for a lower gear

Lapize went on to win in Paris but his victory was his pinnacle at the Tour. He abandoned in the next four editions, from 1911-1914. He was, however, French champion from 1911 to 1913. But World War I put an end to his victories. A pilot in the French air force, he was shot down over France in 1917 and killed.

The 1910 Tour was also the best placing for Faber, with a fifth place in 1913 his best subsequent ride. He also did not survive the war. Born in Luxembourg, Faber served in the French Foreign Legion on the Western Front. He was killed in 1915 in the trenches, apparently shot whilst carrying a wounded colleague on his shoulders or, by another account, having jumped out of his foxhole after receiving a telegram that his wive had just given birth.

Garrigou survived the war years. In 1937 he was tracked down by L’Auto and quickly shook off any notion that the stages through the mountains were anything special. “It wasn’t anything superhuman because we weren’t supermen,” he said. “I’m the proof, a man like anybody else.”

Lapize finished stage 10 of the 1910 Tour in 14 hours and 10 minutes. For 326 kilometres, that is an average speed of just over 22 kph. Yes, hardly the average speeds that are ridden in today’s Tours, but many casual cyclists or even amateur riders would be hard pushed to complete such a stage at that speed even on today’s roads.

With such a ride, the overall title, and a memorable quote for the history books, Lapize stands tall amongst the ranks of the original grimpeurs.

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Lapize as national champion (Horton Collection)

But what of the little-known Lafourcade, the silent winner of the Aubisque climb? Tour records show that he had six goes at the Tour: 13th in 1907, abandoned in 1908 and 1909, 14th in 1910, another abandon in 1911, then 28th in 1911 – and all as an amateur isole. Tragically, he too was killed on the frontlines in 1917.

If he had only spoken to Breyer when questioned, instead of riding on without even turning his head, his place in the history of the Tour would surely have been more prominent. Perhaps he could have spoken the now-famous lines. It would have taken only one word. And it could even have been meurtriers. Murderers!

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The fearsome Col d’Aubisque

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