How did the Tour de France come to be known as the Tour of Suffering?
Professor David Walker:
When the Tour first ran in 1903 it was an extremely brutal event.
The early versions were raced over a similar distance to the modern race, but in only six stages rather than 20 or so.
In those early years, riders would spend 18 or 19 hours in the saddle at any one time and would often set off in the middle of the night in order to cover the the necessary distances.
From the very beginning it has been a test of true endurance and indeed the man who founded the race, Henri Desgrange did not want all of the riders to finish as it was supposed to be a test of the very strongest.
"People often talk about the drugs side of the Tour de France in modern times - and the reality is that in the early days the Tour was so tough that the riders would take drugs to keep going. In those days though it was brandy rather than EPO - in fact they often rubbed brandy and cocaine in their eyes because the grit hitting them in the face was so painful."− Professor David Walker
As late as 1924-26 the riders would complain that they were being exploited and victimised with the organisers insisting that they start at ungodly hours, stay in the saddle for hours on end and tackle enormous mountains that looked far too challenging for the human body to cope with.
Indeed, there was a famous journalist named Albert Londres who followed the race and couldn’t believe what he was watching. His previous reports had been about the camps where France would send its convicts to hard labour and he wrote that it seemed as though the bike riders were being condemned to this same kind of hard labour on the roads.
Londres came up with two famous phrases about the Tour in his report.
He described the riders as:
Les Forçats de la route – The convicts of the road
And he referred to the Tour as:
Le tour de souffrance – the tour of suffering.
His work was effectively a denunciation of the race and the conditions the riders were being put through.
You may ask why people put themselves through this ordeal. The reality is that some were poor and hoped to gain a prize. In fact, it was initially a bit like a ticket in a lottery – only with a great deal more pain involved. Then, there were others who were simply courageous or foolhardy and wanted to test themselves on what was already becoming the greatest of races.
I would say the Tour de France is probably the greatest sporting event on Earth nowadays. Even though the length of the stages has fallen and the way the race has been organised is less brutal, it is still no mean feat as many successful riders will testify.
For more information on the University of Sheffield’s Department of French, visit our website: http://www.sheffield.ac.uk/french
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