467 kilometers in 18 hours. That is what it took Maurice Garin to win the first stage of the premiere Tour de France, leading from Paris to Lyon. Reading this you might wonder: How much has the race’s difficulty changed over the years?
(The very first Tour de France. Source: wikimedia.org)
Considering the circumstances Maurice Garin might be forgiven that he didn’t hesitate (most presumably) to cheat the following year. In spite of being the overall winner of the 2nd Tour, he was subsequently disqualified by the French Cycling Union because, although he never admitted it, he allegedly took a shortcut on the first stage of the Tour – by train!
Has it, in the course of its evolution, become more strenuous for cyclists or, on the other hand, are the achievements of contemporary cyclists no longer that exceptional as they were for the early (and now, sadly, mostly forgotten) victorious figures of the race’s early days?
(Tour de France in 1906. Source: wikimedia.org)
In the early days of the Tour, the course itself was more demanding and exhausting than the present one. Many differences are evident at a glance at the archaic photos from the early days. The components and the materials of contemporary bikes bear no comparison to those of yesteryear. The well-trained physiques of the modern, professional cyclists just don’t compare with those of the enthusiasts whose only training was to go to work by bike or to go cycling in their spare time.
Our early heroes weren’t on any king of special diet nor could they have a recovery period after finishing a partial stage, even though it was much further than today. Any kind of assistance with technical troubles was prohibited, which means a complete lack of support from a service team. The only thing they had was hard-work, hectoliters of sweat and a can-do attitude. A lot of effort with no guarantee of success – just the real, pure sport.
Today it is not only about making it to Paris anymore, but about strategies and the whole big picture since there are points to be gained for the UCI World Tour. For some cyclists it is more important to win a certain stage than wearing the yellow jersey, simply because they are specialized as climbers or sprinters.
(Maurice Garin, the winner of the first Tour de France. Source: wikimedia.org)
So, it is difficult to proclaim who might be the greatest hero of this legendary event, even if some of the gladiators triumphed in the previous ninety-nine Tours on more occasions. Maurice Garin was a chimney sweep, not a professional cyclist. Louis Trousseliere, the winner of the third Tour, was an army deserter, who just didn’t go back to barracks after a one-day pass, but took a one-month leave to ride the Tour. Some might consider these bygone pioneers the original heroes of the Tour’s history, because they were purely and simply all alone in the race.
Essentially, every single cyclist who climbs up the steep, seemingly endless hairpins of the French mountains in the burning hot sun or a heavy downpour heading up to reach those lofty summits, to descend again and spot the Eiffel Tower after three weeks of pain and body breaking exhaustion, is surely a true hero.