1903: the first Tour, the Chimney-Sweeper and the Blacksmith


The 2017 Tour de France, the 105th edition, will begin on July 1 in Dusseldorf. In more than a hundred years the Tour has produced countless stories and events, and Sports Stories couldn’t miss the opportunity to talk bout them.

The little children ran up and down the street. The mothers stared from the sidewalks. Mustached men outside the bars, their jackets on, had given up their daily job to wait for the event. They drank light rosé wine talking about bicycles as though they’d know everything about it.

All at once, the kids cried. Far away a black spot advanced on the road in the sunlight. You could see the movement of his knees, regular, going up and down, in rhythm with his head. The women put their hands in front of their open mouths. As the spot grew bigger, somebody said they had recognized him.

Jean Dargassies tried to adjust himself, not to look too tired. He wanted his paysans to think he was ok with the race. He’d asked Maurice Garin, the leader of the classify, whether he could go on and salute the people he knew or not. Garin said it was ok, so Jean went ahead.

When he passed through his village, the children screamed his name, women held their breath and his old friends patted his back. He was the first cyclist in the Tour to be a “regional”, a local rider whom the group allows to go ahead and salute his village, have a glass of water or juice, or, who knows, white wine, and a piece of cake, then go back to the group to carry out his job.

Jean heard of the Tour a month earlier, while he was buying a new bicycle. Mounsieur Desgrange of the magazine “L’Auto”, thought to create a cycling race across France. The newspapers wrote about it and when Dargassies entered the bicycle shop and discoveredit, he said to himself that he wasn’t scared to work, he was a blacksmith, used to fatigue, and was ready to run it.

Desgrange didn’t believe much in his creature. An elegant man, with an angry grin, a passion for command and a few clear ideas, he wanted to ride the growing passion for bicycles, though he directed “l’auto”. He set up the race to be carried out across France in a circular way, starting clockwise from Paris, touching the Alps and Pyrenees, then going north to get back to Paris.

Since it was the first race of this kind, there were no ways to compare and think how to build it. The stages were about 400 km long (250 miles), and the cyclists were individual, not yet in teams. The most important names were Maurice Garin, twice winner of the Paris Roubaix, Aucuturier, another Roubaix winner, and the German Josef Fisher.

Professional races had already been there for more than a decade. Though we think about those times with tenderness, the vices of modern sports were already there: betting, corruption, cheats. In order to win you had to be strong and smart, find the right allies, in case not hesitate to give money to ask for help or use strong manners.

One of the biggest dangers were trains. The cyclists knew very well the timetables and there was the risk that somebody would take a train to cut part of the race. The intermediate control points sometimes were not enough. Pacers also were not allowed. In the spirit of the race, Desgrange wanted the competitors to count only on their own forces.

But cameras were not there yet and the final prize of 2500 francs was a big bait. So who can tell what really happened?

The race was won by Maurice Garin, at the considerable average speed of more than 25 km/h (almost 16 miles/h). The roads had no asphalt, the bikes were heavy, so it is a feat not to be underestimated. Garin was already a successful cyclist. He was sponsored by La Francaise, a bicycle brand. He was actually born in Italy, near Aoste, and as a teen-ager he went to France.

At 15 he was a chimney Sweeper, that’s why Desgrange called him like that. When bicycle races started, Garin became one of the first champions. He ran until 1911 and afterwards he lived in Lens, near the Pas-De-Calais, where he owned a fuel station. The Italians always joke about this, saying that the first winner of  a Tour the France, was actually an Italian, as the best things in France, are Italian.

Beside jokes, the Tour was a huge success. L’Auto had to publish special numbers and Desgrange saw his idea becoming always more important.

Dargassies went back home by train, with 145 francs due to his 13th place. When he got back to Grisolles, he sent a telegram to Desgrange: “got back home today. All my compatriots are crazy, crazier than me. Everybody at the station, music, flowers, speech. Fame! Fame!”

The legend of the Tour the France was born.