Modern Tour de France riders don’t have to worry too much about mechanical issues. Most of the time it’s relatively easy to get a replacement bike if something goes wrong. This was not always the case. How did riders deal with mechanicals back in the days of no support?
The 1913 Tour was the first to send cyclists around France counterclockwise. It was the longest Tour to date with 5,388 km and one of the favourites, Eugene Christophe, was dead set on taking the title back to France after last year’s Belgian victory.
Christophe was trailing 4 minutes behind 1912 winner Odile Defraye when the race arrived at the Pyrenees mountains. His plan was to attack during the legendary Peyresourde, Aspin, Tourmalet, and Aubisque stage. He attacked successfully and Defraye who was battling sore thigh muscle gave up at the bottom of Tourmalet with an accumulated deficit of more than an hour. The only Belgian within striking distance was Philippe Thys but he would need a miracle to catch up.
Christophe flew up the dirt roads to reach the top of Tourmalet where he took his back wheel off to change to a larger gear. It would be many years before derailleurs were used. Cyclists in the 1913 Tour had to use “two-speed” bicycles. They had two different chainrings on either side of the wheel. To switch gears, cyclists had to take the whole wheel off, flip it, and readjust it the other way. At this point, Christophe had a very comfortable 18-minute lead on Thys in the general classification. He was singing while descending, happy with how the race was going. But then a disaster happened. He later wrote:
“I felt that something was wrong with my handlebars about 10 kilometres before Ste-Marie-de-Campan. I was no longer able to control my bicycle. I stopped and got off the bike. And then I saw that my fork was broken.”
As a locksmith, Eugene Christophe could fix many things but a broken fork was a little too much. He was alone. So, he decided to take off his front wheel, carry it with his left hand while having the frame of his bike over the right shoulder. He continued his journey on foot while the competitors kept passing him by. He was sliding the hills between switchbacks on his butt and searched for sheep paths to save time. After 10 km on foot, he reached Ste-Marie-de-Campan where he saw a little girl.
“Where is the local forge?” Christophe asks.
“At the opposite side of the village. Mr Lecomte is the smith,” replied the girl.
“Take me there, please.”
When Christophe got to the forge in his ripped-up clothes and muddied face, the race organizers were already waiting for him there. They closed up the forge so the whole village wouldn’t come in to observe.
“I can fix your fork,” offers Lecomte.
The organizers were strict and didn’t allow the smith to do that. Any outside help would disqualify Christophe. So, Lecomte was only allowed to give verbal advice to Christophe as he started fixing the fork himself.
“You need both hands to hammer the fork,” says Lecomte.
“How am I supposed to operate the bellows at the same time to keep the flame going strong?” replies Christophe.
In desperation, he asked a 7-year-old boy who snuck in to man the bellows for him. He managed to repair the fork. After assembling his bike, he was ready to continue the race.
“Good work. But the little boy was operating the bellows for you. That is outside help. You will be penalized by 10 minutes,” the race organizer informs him.
Christophe cursed but kept focusing on the goal. At that point, he had lost more than 4 hours due to the whole incident. He stuffed his pockets with bread and started pedalling again. He managed to pass 15 more climbers that day and climb 2 more peaks. He did it but his dream of winning the Tour was gone.
Fan protests made the organizers reduce his penalty to 3 minutes but that didn’t change the result. Eugene Christophe finished 7th in the general classification. The 1913 Tour incident at Tourmalet made him more famous than any other champion of that era though.