The Tour and the Pyrenees: a love affair embarked upon one hundred years ago.
On its eighth edition in 1910 (4,737 km and 15 stages), the Tour de France had of course already introduced mountains into the race, in 1905, but this was a new kind of mountainous formula. The race director, Henri Desgrange, was sceptic about including these eleven mountain climbs, which were to culminate with the Tourmalet, its 17 km sloping climb, and 2,115 m high. Indeed, in the spring, Alphonse Steinès, his colleague at “L’Auto”, the newspaper that organised the race, and who had already “launched” the Ballon d’Alsace, coerced him into accepting the idea by trekking over the snow-covered slopes of the Tourmalet in an expedition to demonstrate that this climb was feasible.
The race’s fate was sealed during a two-day stretch on the 19th and 21st of July 1910, between Perpignan and Luchon (289 km of wild roads spiked with 4 major climbs) and, after a rest day, between Luchon and Bayonne (326 km long and featuring 7 brutal climbs).
Among the 110 riders that had signed up were champions like François Faber, Octave Lapize, Louis Trousselier and Gustave Garrigou, along with more minor figures with reserves of extraordinary courage. Desgrange was fraught with worry, and when he witnessed Lapize’s torturous efforts to win in Luchon after wrenching over the Portel (1,432 m) Port (1,249 m), Portet d’Aspet (1,069 m), and Ares (797 m) climbs, he left the race and directed the overseeing of the stage to Victor Breyer.
No multiple gears, obscure roads, the possibility of being stalked by bears and eagles, a 3.30 am start in the middle of the night: this was indeed a daunting prospect… Lapize, who battled in a Homeric duel with Faber, winner of the 1909 Tour, in a race based on points – the first earned one point, the second two… – not time, was the first to attack. In the lead in the Peyresourde (1,569 m) and Aspin (1,489 m), he tackled the Tourmalet riding his bike and pushing it for part of the climb. Behind him, Garrigou stayed on his bike all the way to the summit.
At the top there were a hundred or so cycling fans and onlookers, including an unknown photographer who captured the historic scene. It was 7 o’clock. Snow lined the roadside. Bib number 4, “Curly” Lapize, arrived, covered in mud and carrying his bike: a moment of pure magic. After negotiating this third “killer climb”, Lapize and Garrigou hurtled into the downward stretch and attacked the Soulor (1,474 m), Tortes (1,799 m) and the Aubisque (1,709 m).
Combat was fierce. Garrigou fell. Lapize, alone, continued on foot and in great distress. Upon enquiry from Breyer, Lapize rolled his eyes and replied: “You’re assassins, all of you! You can’t ask such things of mere mortals. I’ve had enough.”Breyer and Steinès feared the worst.
Yet, all of a sudden, a resounding cry echoed forth: “Yes, it’s me!” and François Lafourcade, a local rider from Lahontan, surged forward. He abruptly shot off ahead of Lapize, gaining a 16 minute advantage and was the first over the mountain summit. Lapize resumed the race. The finish was 175 km away. Lafourcade’s performance was admirable but not enough: he was caught before Osquich (507 m) by Lapize who won the stage in the sprint in Bayonne ahead of Albini after a 14 h and 10 min ride. They had achieved the impossible! The four points that Lapize gained on Faber in the Pyrenees were decisive in Paris where he was crowned champion. Lafourcade, the little Pyrenean, finished 14th out of 41 classified riders.