Updated: Dec 9, 2022
The Yellow Jersey, the most iconic piece of apparel a competitor can pull on, made its first appearance during stage 10 of the 1919 edition of the Tour De France (hereafter Tour or Tours). As the title suggests, in its centenary year the author, Ian Chester, travels the route of the 1919 Tour in celebration of the Tour and the Yellow Jersey. During this odyssey, Chester writes not just about the 1919 Tour, but about future and past Tours. In addition, the historical context of the 1919 Tour is addressed, for it began just hours after the signing of the Treaty of Versailles, ending the Great War. The differences in post-war and modern Tours - and the treatment of the riders - is very marked. Outside of all this, Chester also reflects on general cultural differences, and his experience of touring in France (he uses a camper van to follow the route, stopping at campsites en-route , and having day-rides from the campsite on his bike, where possible riding the same 1919 route). Part of the trip is also a homage to the author’s great grandfather who fought in the war.
The Witch is introduced on page 42, where Chester uses the French phrase Voir la Sorciere aux dentes vertes. As he writes, “seeing the green toothed witch” is a well known part of Peloton folklore, and refers to any piece of bad luck suffered during a race.
“...according to the legend, and cyclists love legends, at the fatal moment, when a cyclist can be at their lowest, deprived of strength, a vision of a witch with green teeth will appear. She towers over the unfortunate rider, giving him the evil eye, and pointing her craggy finger towards the object of his misfortune.”
This character was immortalised in a series of cartoon books called Les Pieds Nickeles by the cartoonist Rene Pellos. The author includes some prints from the comic showing the dreaded witch. But it wasn’t just pelotons that had to be beware of the witch, for during this odyssey Chester himself was bedeviled on more than one occasion, one time so seriously that that trip had to be abandoned for a number of months. The Yellow Canary has a less spooky genesis: The jersey shares its colour with the bird of course, but with a neat piece of symmetry, one of the nicknames its first wearer, Eugene Christophe, was cri-cri - the call of a small bird.
As Chester writes, the ink was drying on the Treaty of Versailles when the Tour began, but there were far more visible reminders of the war: Bombed out towns and cratered roads. Some of the roads the riders had to ride on were in an atrocious state, made even worse by the appalling rain during some of the stages. For Henri Desgrange, who did most to develop and drive the Tours, this might fit well with his philosophy of a Tour so tough that only one rider finishes. At the end of stage 2, when already %60 of the riders had abandoned, even Desgrange might have thought he was taking this too far. Come stage 5, only 18 riders remained. Note too that the riders were using fixed wheel bikes, and “changing gear” meant stopping, taking the back wheel off, flipping it over, and putting it back on. Thus you would ride one side as far as possible, and flip your wheel over for the alpine stages. It is also telling that the shortest stage of the 1919 Tour was 85km longer than the longest stage of the centenary Tour last year! Riders would sometimes also have to be up very early for 2am to 5am starts, and one stage was ridden entirely in the dark (riders who abandoned during a night stage became known as “shadows”).
This punishing schedule was done to fit in with the publication of L’Auto, the daily paper edited by Desgrange. Desgrange’s paper was later superseded by L’Equipe, which is still published today. If you take Desgrange’s views seen above, you can see what an uncompromising character he was. He was very patriotic too, and the reader, after learning more of what he thought and said, might think he took this too far, for some of what he says would make a diplomat wince. And then some. It comes as no surprise to learn then, that if Desgrange could get up the noses of current or former enemies by the route his Tours took, all well and good, especially if at the same time it reinforced French ascendancy and National pride. For this reason some of his routes were deliberately provocative.
On a lighter note, some of riders had amusing nicknames, some examples being:
Basset Hound (Philippe Thys)
Unwanted (Odile Defraye)
Glass Eye (Honore Barthelemy)
Upstart (Jules Nempton)
For the Eternal Second (Jean Rossius), Rossius might have hoped to buck this trend by coming first in stage 1. Alas for him, he was later discovered to have psassed a water bottle to another rider, and the resulting penalty took him back down to 11th! The rules were very strict (Chester lists them on pp22-3).
For the Old Gaul (Eugene Christophe), his forks gave way. Chester tells of him going to a smithy, and the Blacksmith offering to fix his forks. Because of the rules, Christophe couldn’t accept this help, so requested instruction, and under the watch and guidance of the Blacksmith, was able to weld the forks back together himself. Later, the owner of the forge offered him a job as foreman. A far cry from today’s Tours!
Review by Bernie