That the Tour de France was even held in 1919 seems like a small miracle, attributable to the incorrigible belligerence of Henri Desgrange to return the race to the roads of France.
La der des ders, World War I, had concluded less than 12 months prior to the start of the 1919 Tour and the race got underway on June 29, the day after the armistice was finally signed with Germany. The main protagonists at the Tour, France and Belgium, had suffered grievously on the Western Front. Belgium and northern France were the battlefields and Belgium suffered close to 500,000 military casualties and well as its economy devastated.
The numbers for France in World War I were worse: 1.4 million dead and around 3 million wounded (one-third permanently disabled), according to sources. Two-thirds of soldiers were from rural occupations and lists of the dead can still be seen on monuments in even the smallest villages all over France. In northern France, estimates put the devastation of farmland at 2.5 million hectares, with 62,000 kilometres of roads and 5,000 kilometres of railway lines needing rebuilding.
Remarkably, cycle racing had not stopped entirely during the war and Paris-Tours was run in 1917 and 1918. Paris-Roubaix returned in 1919 over roads so terrible and in weather so desperate that a journalist from L’Auto christened the race with its famous name.
Desgrange wanted to return the Tour to its central place in French sport and society, as well as to uplift a ravaged nation. “This is the France of tomorrow,” L’Auto editorialized, “Spirited, energized, determined and healthy, which will begin the most beautiful of crusades, sowing along the route, with potent, graceful gestures, the good news of sports.”
Post-War privations affected the Tour of 1919 acutely, from food to bikes to tyres and even the riders’ jerseys. The powerful bike companies of the pre-War era were forced to combine into one consortium, La Sportive, to supply riders. But Desgrange made no concessions, adding another 150 kilometres to the 1914 Tour’s length for a total of 5,560 kilometres over 15 stages. Only 67 starters signed up and the first stage – 388 kilometres from Paris to Le Havre – subjected the riders to the appalling roads of the region and eliminated some 26 on its first day. Only 11 riders would make it to the finish at the Parc des Princes velodrome, with one later disqualified for having hitched a ride in a car to go and repair his pedal.
But there was one significant innovation. With the riders in drab grey jerseys, due to the lack of dye, team director Alphonse Baugé suggested to Desgrange, according to Matt Rendell, that the leading rider should wear a yellow jersey – matching the pages of L’Auto as well as representing a “rebirth” of the Tour, L’Auto said, with a jersey the colour of the sun.
There was apparently a delay in the dying of the requisite five jerseys and it was finally presented to the race leader at the end of stage 10 in Grenoble. The first wearer was therefore Eugenè Christophe, La vieux Gaulois, or Cri-Cri, as his fans preferred.
Christophe was a certified hard man, even by the standards of the time, and was staunchly against doping of any kind, despite the various medications that were rife in the peloton in that era. He had won Milan-San Remo in a blizzard in 1910 but was most famous for the incident in 1913 when he was forced to repair his broken forks at a forge in the Pyrenean village of Sainte-Marie-de-Campan, suffering a series of indignities under Desgrange’s draconian rules. (Cruelly, the commemorative plaque of the event in the village would misspell his name.)
As the first wearer of the maillot jaune, Christophe apparently pulled it on with pride but later complained that spectators laughed at him and called him a canary. Still, his goal was to win the Tour and he looked to be in a dominating position, up by 28 minutes on his chasers.
But he was only to wear the yellow jersey as far as Dunkerque on the penultimate stage of the Tour. The rough roads from Metz broke Christophe’s forks again and he lost nearly 2 hours making repairs (Desgrange had still not relaxed his rules about spares). The maillot jaune was lost and the resolute Belgian Firmin Lambot was the winner in Paris, in front of a rapturous crowd at the velodrome. “Bravo, Lambot,” L’Auto exclaimed, and noted that, “Applause resounded all around the immense arena of the Parc.”
The crowd, though, was reportedly delirious for Christophe, who was “feted like a god” and was so overwhelmed that he had tears “wash over his eyes”. L’Auto readers would later compensate the misfortune of his broken forks with a generous monetary collection, but Christophe would never win the Tour and finally, at an Armstrong-esque age of 37, again have his chances wrecked by another broken fork in 1922. In that Tour he wore the maillot jaune for the last time, for three days.
Since 1919, the yellow jersey has become the most coveted prize in cycling – even more exclusive in that it is worn only in the Tour, unlike, for example, the World Championship jersey. For the grand champions, it is the prize for overall victory. For the domestique it is an elusive prize, one that might be grabbed temporarily, for a few days, until it passes to the shoulders of the team leader. Only on rare occasions has the dauphin grabbed the prize from the prince.
The jersey confers prestige. Even the most junior team member will not have to fetch his own food or water if wearing the jersey; he has the respect of the peloton. There will also be interviews, talk of renewed or new contracts with higher salaries, and offers for lucrative criteriums. And in retirement, there will be a jersey to hang on the wall of the rider’s café or bike shop, and perhaps return invitations to the Tour to present prizes or chaperone sponsors. The wearer of the yellow jersey will never be forgotten.
Examples abound of riders who have grabbed the spotlight from the stars and profited. One such example is Raymond Delisle, a French rider who raced between 1964 and 1977. Delisle achieved a certain measure of public adoration – French, at least – when he won the Bastille Day stage in the 1969 Tour, whilst working for his Peugeot team leader Roger Pingeon, also whilst wearing the jersey of the French national champion – apparently the only rider to do so.
“J’ai roulé à bloc tout le temps,” he reportedly said, of his win on the July 14 stage from Castelnaudary to Luchon, leading over the mountains of the Portet d’Aspet, Mente, and Portillon. Delisle later told the story of how he approached several young boys before the start in Castelnaudary to ask them about the road conditions out of the town and the weather. One of the boys apparently later became the mayor of the town.
Unfortunately, for Delisle, his team, and Pingeon, the 1969 Tour was completely dominated by one Eddy Merckx, who beat Delisle into second place by nearly 18 minutes and won all three titles – the overall, the sprinters prize, and the king of the mountains. Understandably, that was all anyone was talking about that year.
In 1976, however, there was more talk about Delisle. On the stage from Port-Bacares to the ski station at Pyrenees 2000, Delisle took advantage of the hesitation to attack from the favourites – Van Impe, Zoetemelk, Poulidor, and his own team leader Bernard Thévenet. It was a tough stage over 200 kilometres, but the three climbs were only one cat.3 and a cat.2 to the finish. And Delisle had to shake off several riders, including Roger Legeay.
Van Impe was in the yellow jersey during the stage and seemed unconcerned to let Delisle go, despite the urgings of Zoetemelk to make chase. Close to the finish, Geoffrey Nicholson wrote: “At last Delisle in sight at the bend, agonizing his way uphill, head nodding over the handlebars. People press closer but have the good sense not to push him. Cheering travels forward like a rainstorm across a crowded beach.”
For the greater designs of the race, Delisle’s win and taking of the yellow jersey was a distraction. “Well played,” Jacques Goddet wrote in his editorial. The main story was the rise of Van Impe from mountain man to Tour contender, and the collapse of the previous year’s giant slayer, Thévenet. But Delisle wore the jersey for two days, defending it the next day in the mountains. He would also go on to finish fourth in Paris, only just behind Raymond Poulidor. For Delisle, it was his best Tour.
While it would be foolish to draw the linkage too strongly, Delisle’s ride in 1976 and the prestige of the yellow jersey no doubt helped him to be more comfortable with his family in retirement. Now aged 65, he runs a hotel with his wife – a Chateau no less – in Hébécrevon, in Normandy, in the same department as his birth town of Ancteville. Un fier chevalier normand, indeed.