Yesterday’s stage of the Tour de France is not the first time that spectators encroaching on the road have caused problems for the cyclists.
Below is an extract from ‘The Shattered Peloton’ by Graham Healy which tells the story of how fans of French rider Henri Pélissier may have prevented him from winning the 1914 Tour.
On the final stage, Pélissier broke away in an attempt to overcome the small deficit to race leader Philippe Thys. However, his way was blocked and his opportunity was gone.
Pélissier would go on to win the 1923 Tour though. The Tour that year was the last before World War One would break out and was taking place as the threat of war was growing throughout Europe. Below is the extract.
The penultimate stage of the Tour took place the day after the Austro-Hungarians had delivered their ultimatum. The stage would take the riders from Longwy to Dunkirk.
François Faber won his second stage in a row, finishing in the same time as Henri Pélissier and Philippe Thys. However, despite Pélissier not being able to break clear of the Belgian, his deficit had been reduced from nearly thirty two minutes to just one minute and fifty seconds. The commissaires had penalised Thys by thirty minutes for breaking the rules.
He had collided with Faber during the stage and broken a wheel when he fell. He chose to buy a new one, rather than try to repair it.
The rules stated that a rider had to repair any mechanical issues himself without any outside help. Alternatively, if a race commissaire deemed it to be irreparable, he could get assistance.
Thys knew he would receive a thirty-minute penalty, but he gambled that it would take him longer to make the repair. It was all set up for a fight to the finish on the final stage.
Little did either the spectators or the cyclists know prior to the final stage that this would be the last Tour de France action that would be seen for nearly five years. The riders signed on that morning in the Café des Arcades in Dunkirk before setting off on the 340-kilometre stage to Paris.
Pélissier did his very best to break away from Thys that day, but to no avail. The weather didn’t favour Pélissier, either, as the peloton would have to face a really strong headwind on the road to Paris.
A headwind tends to favour the bunch rather than those trying for a breakaway attempt, and as a result the bunch would stay together for much of the stage. Pélissier would have to bide his time.
To the west of Paris, at Marly-le-Roi, Pélissier finally attacked and gave it his all. It was now or never. He set a ferocious pace, and it was starting to look like he could overcome his deficit. However, it all went wrong for him at the bridge at Saint-Cloud to the west of Paris.
A sizable number of his supporters had gathered on the bridge, and as they tried to cheer and push their man to victory, they ended up impeding his progress. It was incredibly frustrating for the Frenchman seeing his chance at victory slipping away.
Pélissier described the scene afterward: “The rows of spectators narrowed, leaving me with just a small gap. They cheered me as if I had won, and they are trying to make me lose. I had to dismount. I cried in desperation, but my voice was lost.”
He was soon caught by three others, including Thys. His chance at glory had disappeared. It would be of little consolation to him that he was still strong enough to take the final stage win.
He had lost by just one minute and fifty seconds, which would remain the smallest margin between first and second for over forty years.
Thys meanwhile, at the age of just twenty-four, had become the second rider after Lucien Petit-Breton to win the race twice.
The future looked bright for the man from Anderlecht, and in one of the best team performances ever seen at the Tour, the Peugeot team won twelve of the fifteen stages and placed ten riders in the top thirteen.