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Heroes of the Tour: Octave Lapize

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The shouts of "Assassins!" still rings in our ears as the Tour enters the Pyrenees.

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Branger

One moment in time that's as famous as any in cycling has been fixed in my brain lately, the shouting of "ASSASSINS!" at the Tour de France directors as the race made its first-ever foray into the Pyrenees Mountains. The voice on the giving end of that moment was that of one Octave Lapize, and he's our Hero of the Day today.

The occasion is of course the entry of the 2016 Tour de France into the Pyrenees, something it does every year without fail. I'd have to do some searching but I can tell you that from 1910 until the start of World War I the Pyrenees were included, and the Alps were added in 1911, giving us the modern Tour format, at least with respect to climbs. This year's race includes a very healthy serving of both.

But the start of high mountain climbing in the Tour de France did not go off without some serious reservations. Bicycles in 1910 did not have more than a single gear, and roads were unsealed gravel affairs, something that might not matter for climbing but would have serious consequences in a tricky descent. Take a bad version of a modern bike, reduce the stopping power of the brakes by half, increase the weight by some other factor, and then try to imagine going downhill on a steep, curvy gravel road. Really, and we think modern riders are tough...

The idea of climbing mountains was a seed that germinated already by 1910. In fact, it was the 1905 Tour de France, the third edition of the race, where riders first encountered something classified as a "mountain." France has plenty of hills, and the first two Tours had summited at the Col de la Republique, a mellow ascent to 1160 meters. But in the third edition the race directors had something else in mind.

Henri Desgrange, the famous (infamous?) first Director of the race, oversaw the use of mountains, and probably gets credit for them in ways I'm sure he'd appreciate today if he could. But in fact, Desgrange was reluctant to add proper mountains, thinking he would be criticized for making the race too hard -- a notion that's tough to square with so many of his other choices regarding the Tour. But anyway, history will note that he did not want to go forward until his lieutenant, Alphonse Steinès, drove Desgrange in a car over the Col Bayard and Ballon d'Alsace, and showed Desgrange that the roads were passable enough to use. Desgrange made it clear that Steinès would be blamed if it didn't go well, but it did. Subsequent editions would see the Col de Porte, Cerdon and Laffrey climbs added to the Bayard and Ballon d'Alsace

Steinès then began using his imagination, and by 1910 he was ready to take the race to entirely new heights. Again Desgrange was reluctant, so he sent Steinès into the Pyrenees by car to reconnoitre the roads. Snow had hampered the 1909 edition, and it was clear that the roads had to be passable to be included. Steinès drove up on January 27, 1910 -- a time of year when it was unreasonable to attempt to do so -- and got stopped by snow on the slopes of the Tourmalet. He then proceeded on foot to continue his recon, only to fall into a ravine and from which he would not be rescued until 3am the next morning. Once he recovered, he sent the following telegram to Desgrange:

Have crossed the Tourmalet on foot STOP Road passable to vehicles STOP No snow STOP

So yeah, bad leadership wasn't unique to our lifetime. Anyway, Desgrange signed off on the inclusion of the Pyrenees. Newspapers reacted negatively, and 26 of the 136 registered participants dropped out of the race. This actually led to the invention of the Broom Wagon, a vehicle to pick up abandoning riders, and the rule on the tenth stage, the one entering the Pyrenees, was that you could hop in the broom wagon and start the next day. Several of those early Tours were decided on a points system, where you would get a number of points assigned to you based on your placing on the stage (second place = 2 pts, etc) and the lowest total would win. So the abandonees would simply get some maximum point score and keep going for the sake of finishing.

Octave Lapize on Tourmalet

Lapize climbs the Tourmalet on foot in 1910 -- Source unknown

The reluctant peloton hit the Pyrenees on stage 9, but there had already been plenty of drama. One cyclist, Adolphe Heliere, had become the first to die during the Tour de France, albeit while swimming on the sixth day. On stage 7, Francois Faber, the defending winner, hit a dog and was injured, though he would continue on. The ninth stage saw the race enter the high mountains for the first time ever, summiting the Port, Portet d'Aspet and the Ares climbs. Desgrange saw the difficulty of those efforts first-hand, and concerned for what would come on the fearsome tenth stage he did what you'd expect -- he left the race and handed over his Director duties to Victor Breyer.

The tenth stage was to ascend the Peyresourde, Aspin, Tourmalet and Aubisque climbs, as well as three smaller ones. Lapize, who had begun his Tour de France career the previous year by finishing second on a stage but then withdrawing, was in excellent form, and saw that Faber was struggling. He trailed Faber by 49 points to Faber's 36, but took off on the climbs with his teammate and another Frenchman of note, Gustave Garrigou. How it played out... I'll quote Le Tour 100, by Peter Cossins:

Seeing an opportunity, Lapize went on the attack, followed by another team-mate, Gustave Garrigou. An intense battle ensued with Lapize crossing the Peyresourde and Tourmalet first. The pair looked set to dominate the Aubisque when a local rider, François Lafourcade, overtook them. Reaching the summit first, his face contorted with suffering, Lafourcade simply ignored astonished race marshals who asked his name. Lapize, arriving 15 minutes later, was more vocal, "Vous êtes des assassins!" … "you are murderers" he spat, insisting he would abandon at the next check point. He picked up on the descent, however, and went on to win in Bayonne (only 10 riders officially completed the stage).

Garrigou won a prize on the Tourmalet for finishing the climb without dismounting, but Lapize took the stage in a sprint over Pierino Albini and narrowed his gap to Faber -- third on the stage -- to 10 points. [Garrigou faltered to eighth.] Lapize kept chipping away with high stage finishes, and after stage 12 he was a single point behind Faber. The next day he beat Faber by 10 minutes and gained a three point lead. On stage 14 Faber turned the tables, breaking away, but flatted and saw Lapize get towed back to him by Garrigou. Lapize took the stage and had a six point lead heading into Paris. Then he flatted and saw Faber leave him behind, only for Faber to flat again. Faber took fourth on the stage, Lapize sixth, and his points victory secure by a mere four.

For Lapize it was his only finish, while Faber went on to challenge several more times, but never win. As more mountains were added, Faber's advantage in stage sprints was diminished, and his best finish after 1910 was fifth in 1913. Garrigou would win in 1911 and go on to wear the yellow jersey on 13 occasions, a high number for that era. Of his eight Tours, Garrigou would finish on the podium six times, albeit with a lone victory. Lapize would be known as well for his six stage wins and his victory in Paris-Roubaix. But his shout of "Assassins!" is probably the mark that lives on most clearly to this day.

Lapize, a pilot, died in World War I when his plane was shot down over Flirey, France. Faber joined the French Foreign Legion and died from a German bullet near Carency in 1915. Garrigou survived the war but was done racing by 1919.