The Violent, Deranged Origin Story Of The Tour de France
The Tour de France started as a PR exercise by Comte Jules-Albert de Dion, shortly after he was arrested for attacking the President of France during a racially motivated brawl at a local racetrack. That's a pretty crazy origin story for any sporting event, but things only got more ridiculous from there. Seriously, you're probably not that interested in the Tour de France, but just trust us -- this isn't an article about cycling. (It's an article about insanity.)
By its second year of existence, the Tour had degenerated into a no-holds-barred cheating contest involving itching powder, poison, broken glass, enraged mob attacks, a nefarious chimney sweep, and a surprising amount of gunplay from the race officials. Let's start with the bejeweled cane fight and work up to the man with the greatest mustache in history battling his way through an entire town using his bike as a shield.
Comte de Dion was an extremely wealthy aristocrat who ran France's biggest car company, which at the time basically meant bolting cartwheels to an actual steam engine and hoping the buyer made it out sight before the whole thing exploded. He was also a militant conservative. When racist elements in the French army framed a Jewish captain for treason and sent him to a nightmarish South American prison island, de Dion took the position that this was actually totally fine. However, in 1899, a new president was elected, who felt that the case should be reopened. Monocles popped out all over France, as the country's stuffiest old coots dropped their morning cognacs in unison and swore revenge.
Shortly after the election, President Loubet made the mistake of appearing at the Auteuil Racetrack in Paris. He was immediately charged by a collection of top-hatted posh boys, waving their fancy canes and harrumphing in rage, as elegant ladies swooned in horror. A crazed baron lunged at the president and "raised his cane to strike...the cane, descending on M. Loubet's hat, crushed it down, forcing it over his face like a candle extinguisher." Meanwhile, de Dion brawled with the president's bodyguards, eventually breaking his jewel-encrusted cane in half over a policeman's head. This outrageous assault earned him 15 days in prison, the harshest sentence ever given to a rich person in history.
De Dion's behavior was widely condemned in French newspapers, but he probably didn't read those anyway. However, he was shocked and outraged to learn that the editor of the country's biggest sports paper, Le Velo, had been calling him a jerk. De Dion was so furious that he withdrew all his advertising and then founded a competing sports paper purely out of spite, like an evil Larry David.
Since Le Velo promoted itself by sponsoring popular bike races, de Dion announced that he would use his vast wealth to sponsor the biggest bike race of them all, with a huge cash prize for the winner. And that's how the Tour de France was born, as a spite-fueled middle-finger to a non-racist sports writer.
But de Dion had no idea what he had unleashed. The massive prize attracted a huge field of contestants, each determined to win by any means necessary. Seriously, these people would kill if they had to. The favorite to win the very first Tour had to drop out midway through the race after drinking a poisoned bottle of lemonade. At one point, the eventual winner physically hurled another rider to the ground, then dismounted and stomped his bike to pieces in front of a horrified crowd of spectators. But things didn't really go crazy until the second Tour de France, which was such a spectacular shitshow that they almost abandoned the whole idea.
The first race had been a big success with the public, and the prize was still way more than most people's yearly income, so the 88 contestants were even more determined to win the 1904 edition. The favorite was Maurice Garin, the bike-stomping winner of the first Tour. Garin was a psychotically determined rider, who chain-smoked on his bike all the way through the race, which makes more sense when you learn his parents had sold him as a chimney sweep in exchange for a wheel of cheese as a child. At this point, breathing fresh air might have killed him.
He was also known for abusing his own teammates, and for his enormous appetite. During an earlier 24-hour race, he wolfed down 45 chicken cutlets, 5 liters of tapioca pudding, eight boiled eggs and an unspecified amount of oysters and red wine. God knows what was happening inside his stomach, but he was a formidable cyclist, propelling himself along with his favorite sports drink: a mixture of coffee and champagne.
Garin's arch-rival was Hippolyte Aucouturier, who we're going to be referring to as Wario for the remainder of this article, for reasons that should become clear right now ...
Wario had actually been the favorite in the first Tour, but was out-Warioed when somebody gave him that poisoned bottle of lemonade. He seems to have come away from that with two lessons: 1) Don't take drinks from strangers, and 2) Cheat your ass off. These formidable insights made him a dangerous competitor. The rest of the field was filled out with a ragtag collection of misfits, each one with a pocket full of nails and a lead pipe up his sleeve. There were so many different plans to cheat going on that it's a miracle they didn't all cancel each other out and somehow produce the most honest sporting event ever. Dick Dastardly would have been murdered 30 seconds into this thing, probably by somebody with a literal Dick Dastardly mustache.
Right from the start, things turned into the Hunger Games. Riders regularly put itching powder and ground-up stones into each other's jockstraps, meaning that like half the field waddled away from the race only able to find work as department store mannequins. So many tires were slashed in the night that they probably had to introduce a rota system just so they wouldn't constantly bump into each other creeping around with knives at 3 AM. The really serious contestants eventually gave up on smashing tires and just started kicking unsecured bikes to pieces under cover of darkness. Even if you slept spooning with your tires, they still weren't safe, as riders repeatedly threw nails and homemade caltrops into the road behind them. Meanwhile, Maurice Garin cycled with a squad of teammates, who were deployed to push other riders off their bikes when nobody was looking.
Wario spurned such crude methods of cheating and simply had himself towed behind a car for a chunk of the route. His method was to tie a string to the back of the car and attach the other end to a cork, which he gripped between his teeth (tooth strength was apparently way stronger before the adoption of dental floss than we've been led to believe). If being towed like that sounds like it would be obvious to everyone watching, bear in mind that the early Tours contained long stretches of night riding, and that spectators were probably too busy staring at his mustache anyway. And Wario wasn't even the only one cheating that way! There were so many wires going back and forth at night it looked like the race was being attacked by Walter from Hellsing (look, we don't do a lot of sports articles, we're trying to cram in as much nerd shit as possible to even it out). Other riders simply jumped on trains and raced ahead.
But the riders were comparatively well-behaved. The real trouble came from the spectators, who apparently felt that the point of attending a sporting event was to attempt to murder as many contestants as possible. They actually might want to bring that back for baseball, since it would definitely revive interest if you got to garrote an outfielder who strayed too close to the stands. On the 1904 Tour, riders repeatedly brawled with spectators, while armed mobs attacked the peloton on multiple occasions to ensure their favorite rider got the advantage. Sadly this did not continue in subsequent years, otherwise we'd have been able to see Lance Armstrong cycling around in full plate armor, swinging a mace-and-chain over his head.
One of the worst incidents occurred outside St Etienne, where hundreds of people armed with cudgels and knives suddenly emerged from the fields and surrounded the road. After waving on the local boy (who had suspiciously accelerated to the front right before this happened), they closed in on the other leading riders and treated them to a very aggressive massage. Maurice Garin was on the ground being worked over with a large club when Tour officials screeched up firing a revolver from an open-top car, forcing the mob to retreat back into the fields. At this point, some riders started to inquire about getting guns of their own, but things only deteriorated from there.
At Nimes, news that the local favorite had been disqualified prompted the town to riot, building barricades in the streets and engaging in bare-knuckle combat with the peloton. Wario had to dismount and batter his way through "using his bike as a shield." He ultimately made his getaway while being pelted from all sides with stones and bottles, only to discover the road leading away from town had been carefully strewn with broken glass. Once again, Tour organizers had to pull a gun to get everyone through. By this point they were probably feeling less like race officials and more like the stars of a John Woo movie.
At other stages, mysterious cars full of masked men tried to run the leaders off the road, or shouted threats. Garin, who was in the lead, told reporters he expected to win again, "if I'm not murdered before Paris." At one point, the local authorities called out a line of mounted policemen to keep an eye on the crowd. Unfortunately, they lined up in the middle of the road and the peloton suddenly shot around a corner and ran straight into the line of horses, causing a massive crash and leaving contestants struggling to extricate themselves from the groaning, kicking pile of men, horses and bikes. Even getting to the finish line was an ordeal, as angry locals tried to block the road into Paris with their carts.
Maurice Garin was crowned the winner, only to be disqualified months later, when it was alleged that he had strong-armed race officials into illegally giving him food throughout the race. Please take a moment to feel pity for the poor Tour employee who presumably had to smuggle a bunch of oysters in his hat and occasionally throw one to the defending champion like a sea lion. The second and third place medalists were also disqualified for cheating, as was Wario, who finished fourth (it turned out the string between his mouth and the car in front wasn't quite as invisible as he'd hoped).
In fact, so many riders were disqualified that the winner ended up being a random 20-year-old, still the youngest winner in competition history. The organizers were so disgusted that they almost gave up on the whole event, declaring "The Tour is finished ... driven out of control by blind passion, by violence and filthy suspicions, worthy only of ignorant and dishonorable men." But all the drama made the Tour a huge news event, sold a ton of papers, and made everyone a lot of money, so they went ahead and held it for another century anyway. That's the sporting ethos if we've ever seen it!
Top image: Maradon333/Shutterstock