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Interview: Peter Cossins

Peter Cossins talks about his history of the first Tour de France which challenges what we think we know about the birth of the Tour

L'Auto reports the end of the first Tour de France
L'Auto reports the end of the first Tour de France

The most famous cycling race in the world began with what is probably the most famous lunch meeting in sport. On the Saturday before Christmas 1902, as the citizens of Paris prepared for the festivities to come, Henri Desgrange and Géo Lefèvre sat across a table from one and other in Montmartre's Brasserie Zimmer. Festive cheer was not much in abundance. Desgrange was the editor of the sports newspaper L'Auto-Vélo and was much troubled by the poor circulation of his journal.

Lefèvre was the paper's cycling editor and he had just suggested to his boss a cycling event the like of which no one had organised before. Why not, he proposed, link up six one-day races - classics - which could be run back-to-back, with the winner being the man who had the shortest elapsed time across all six races? Starting and finishing in Paris and taking in the cities of Lyon, Marseille, Toulouse, Bordeaux and Nantes, the race would be a veritable tour of France. And that was the name Lefèvre proposed giving the endeavour, the Tour de France. The reason Lefèvre proposed six - not five, not seven, but six - stages was that Six Day racing was already a popular part of cycle sport and that is what Lefèvre saw his race as being, a Six Day race on the roads of France.

As origin stories go, that's a story that goes well. Except - as Peter Cossins's history of the Tour's birth shows - it's bullshit. Or, if not quite better suited to the roses, then not quite true, not in a verifiable sense. The date? That's disputed: Pierre Chany says the meeting happened in November, Serge Laget says December. The venue in which in the Tour was first proposed? Some say it was the Brasserie Zimmer, some the offices of L'Auto-Vélo. The people in attendance? Some leave it at just Desgrange and Lefèvre, elsewhere you'll find other members of the newspaper's staff also in attendance. The influence of Six Day racing? Well, while the first Tour ran to six stages, it also stretched across 19 days and in 1921 Henri Desgrange said it was Théodore Joyeux's 1895 ride around France - 5,500 kilometres in 19 days - that provided the idea for the Tour.

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Is anything we know about the first Tour correct? How about the notion that it was a walkover for Maurice Garin? The Italian-born French star - Garin, born in Arvier, Italy in 1871, had won Paris-Roubaix in 1897 and 1898 along with Paris-Brest-Paris in 1901 and L'Auto-Vélo's edition of Bordeaux-Paris in 1902 - was odds-on favourite for victory from the outset and won three of the race's six stages, finishing the Tour nearly three hours ahead of his nearest rival, Lucian Pothier. But his victory was far from as easy as it seemed.

First, had events not worked out the way they did, Garin might not have been such a clear favourite for victory: that role might have been filled by Lucien Lesna. Born near Neuchâtel in Switzerland to French parents in 1863, Lesna was winner of Bordeaux-Paris in 1894 and 1901 and Paris-Roubaix in 1901 and 1902. A year before the launch of the Tour he won the Marseille-Paris race organised by L'Auto-Vélo. Here's what Peter Cossins had to say when I asked him about Lesna and Garin:

"Theirs was the Froome-Quintana rivalry of its time.

"Widely regarded as the two best road riders around, they had fought a great duel in the 1901 edition of Paris-Brest-Paris, which went Garin's way.

"The following year they were due to take each other on again in Marseille-Paris, which was L'Auto's first big attempt at creating a new race to boost sales. Unfortunately, Garin had to pull out due to injury, leaving Lesna to cover the 938 kilometres to Paris almost unchallenged through a deluge.

"They should have met in the first Tour, but on that occasion, Lesna had to cry off with injury. His absence certainly worked in Garin's favour."

Other would-be rivals fell away during the race: Hippolyte Aucouturier came down with a dicky stomach on the opening stage and had to abandon while Émile Georget came down with a similar ailment later in the race. And then there was the incident with Fernand Augereau and the blind eye turned by the race jury to allegations of assault:

"The jury was essentially L'Auto's editorial team on the race and as the future of their title depended on the Tour being a success and, consequently, boosting their circulation. It was almost inevitable that they turned a blind eye to any misdemeanours that might reflect badly on the event.

"As I say in the book, this was particularly the case with the incident involving Maurice Garin and Fernand Augereau, when the former rendered the latter's bike useless by jumping up and down on it mid-stage. Garin was leading the race and went on to win. L'Auto certainly didn't want to cast doubt on his achievement."

One of the stories you will come across in reports of Garin's victory is how he rode into the Parc-des-Princes at the end of the Tour wearing a green armband that signified he was the leader of the Tour. It is one of those stories I particularly like, opening up as it does the possibility of an alternative world in which the brassard vert takes the place of the maillot jaune. But did it actually happen?

"All of the riders eligible for the general classification had green armbands, those eligible just for stages had yellow, and another group of riders in one stage had white. I've not seen anything that said Garin wore anything to mark him out as race leader. Given that L'Auto, Le Vélo, Le Monde Sportive nor any other publication covering the Tour never mentioned it I'm almost certain this was invented later."

In fact, not only was his lead in the race not signified by a brassard vert, Garin completed most of the last stage incognito, having eschewed his normal white jersey in favour of something less conspicuous, being concerned about the prospect of fans interfering with the race and stopping him from reaching Paris as winner of the first Tour.

Peter Cossins interview

The Tour de France, the history books tell us, educated L'Auto's readers on the geography of France, tracing as it did the hexagone, as shown in this map of the first Tour that appeared on the front page of L'Auto on July 1st

Consider some other ideas that have been passed down to us, like the notion that - from the very beginning - the Tour was free to view for all. Was that really the way it was? Up to a point:

"Although there was no velodrome finish or even exhibition event at the end of the first stage, these did occur on all of the subsequent stages. The spectators at the velodrome had to pay to enter.

"In order to attract them and entertain them while they waited, promoters put on a host of track races, but there's no doubt that the arrival of the Tour riders was the main event and what the crowds paid to see."

Road racing, at this stage, was still in its infancy. Both it and track racing more or less began at the same time, the 1870s, but in the first three decades of cycling history track was leagues ahead of road. And track - thanks in no small part to the role played by the American promoters behind the Six Day race held annually in New York's Madison Square Garden - was a truly international sport, with stars of the day crossing oceans to race in America, Australia and Europe. Road racing, on the other hand, was developing as a more parochial affair. But - Cossins argues - the Tour effected a shift in balance and helped road racing eclipse track cycling. How long, I asked him, did that take to happen?

"It was already happening to an extent.

"Track racing was still attracting big crowds, but road racing took the sport into new areas and drew in even bigger audiences, offering bike manufacturers greater opportunities to market their products.

"I believe the first Tour was the tipping point, where road overtook track in terms of audience and importance."

Peter Cossins interview

At the end of the first Tour, in the Parc-des-Princes, the aristos of the piste and the vagabonds of the road meet, cycling's past and future sizing one and other up: Maurice Garin and Edmond Jacqueline, as depicted on the front page of the July 20th edition of L'Auto

Among those following the Tour as part of the entourage was one of the future stars of track, Louis Darragon, whose funeral during World War One brought parts of Paris to a standstill as crowds gathered to watch his coffin pass. Reporting the race was Alphonse Baugé, a former track rider who went on to become one of the most successful - if not the most successful - team bosses in Tour history (nicknamed le Maréchal he was directeur sportif during the victories of François Faber, Octave Lapize, Gustave Garrigou, Odile Defraye and Philip Thys before the war as well as Firmin Lambot and Léon Scieur after). And present as a spectator for the Tour's departure from Paris was one of the race's first real stars, Eugène Christophe, who in 1919 wore the very first maillot jaune (or didn't, if Philip Thys is to be believed) and, that same year, became famous for the incident in the forge during the race six years before. Cossins quotes from an entry in Christophe's diary from the start of the Tour:

"It looked more like the start of an amateur race to me. These guys may be among the biggest names we know but they looked like riders who had won their first inter-club race."

I asked Cossins if he was surprised to see so many well known names on the periphery of the race:

"It quickly became apparent when researching the book that the first Tour and its competitors were very much role models for a new generation of racers.

"You mention Darragon and Christophe. Lucien Petit-Breton, Luis Trousselier and other stars of the future were also on the verges of the race.

"What was also interesting was how almost all of the first Tour's 60 starters disappeared from the sport within two or three years, as new, more talented and better prepared riders emerged and began to dominate."

On the topic of surprises, try this one: as early as that first Tour, some riders were already building their whole season around the Tour, with Maurice Garin holding back from important early season races such as Paris-Roubaix and Bordeaux-Paris in order to focus on the Tour, training hard and reconnoitering the course. I asked Cossins about these surprises and the manner in which they reflect our perception of the Tour day:

"As I point out in the book, there were plenty of surprises of this nature.

"The race may have been 114 years ago and can seem like ancient history, but in many ways it was the same race then as it is now.

"I was astounded, for instance, to find out to what extent riders and teams carried out reconnaissance of the race route, and how Garin bullied and threatened his rivals in much the same way that Lance Armstrong did almost a century later.

"There's no doubt, though, that Garin realised quicker than most that the Tour was an exceptional event and that in order to prove himself the best rider of his era it was essential that he won it. Nothing's changed in that sense."

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As writers like Benjo Maso and Jacques Calvet have shown, much of the Tour's history is really mythology: stories told and retold and accepted as fact because it suits everyone to treat them so. Take the notion that Théodore Joyeux was the real inspiration behind the Tour. I asked Cossins if he thought Desgrange was being truthful or whether the Father of the Tour was just trying to rewrite history later in life in an effort to turn the Tour toward a different audience:

"I love the story about Joyeux, a barber and part-time racer, covering 5,500 kilometres in 19 days, eight years before the first Tour took place.

"I wouldn't be surprised if Desgrange had rewritten the story of his influences to include Joyeux as this kind of 'reassessment' is a frequent feature of French cycling journalism - don't let facts get in the way of a good story.

"Joyeux's tale is important, though, in what it says about the idea of riders, craftsmen and others touring France well before the Tour was even thought up. It was there in the French consciousness. Desgrange and Géo Lefèvre simply gave it a new form."

No discussion of the Tour's foundation myths would be complete without reference to Captain Alfred Dreyfus, the French artillery officer convicted of treason. It being such a wonderful story, the idea of it having even a loose connection to the Tour has encouraged many to play up its role, encouraged many to claim that the creation of L'Auto-Vélo was down to its founder, Jules-Albert de Dion, taking one side in the affaire and his rival publisher Pierre Giffard the other. Here's Cossins:

"There's some truth to the Dreyfus story having an impact, but the foundation of L'Auto and, subsequently, the Tour was primarily based on a desire to advertise/market/promote automobiles and bikes.

"Many manufacturers felt that these opportunities were limited in Giffard's Le Vélo, the established market leader, because of high ad rates and the influence that one major manufacturer had over that title.

"It made economic sense to establish a rival publication, and indeed two others titles were established soon after L'Auto, underlining the rapid growth in this market."

Rather than damaging the Tour, having its foundation myths challenged in the way Cossins does in his history of the race's birth - and the way Paolo Facchinetti and Jean-Paul Vespini did in theirs - only adds to the appeal of the grande boucle. Many of the myths we cherish reflect the times in which they were established. In some ways, having a more confused picture of the Tour's birth - a picture that doesn't try to over-simplify, a picture that doesn't attempt to air-brush away the unsavoury - is reflective of our own times and thus more suited to the way we today view the Tour. Just five years ago we were witness to the biggest attempt to rewrite the race's history since Maurice Garin was excised from the history of the second Tour. We can cope with having our understanding of the Tour's birth challenged. We may have to abandon certain favourite stories - no more Dreyfus, no more brassard vert - but in return Cossins is offering us a picture of the first Tour that helps us realise that so much of what we think of as modern innovations have been part of the Tour from the off, giving us an opportunity to see anew the birth of the Tour and realise how little it has really changed across the course of a dozen decades. The Tour then and the Tour now are far more alike that we tend to acknowledge.

Peter Cossins interview

Modern Tour champions love showing off their off-spring on the final podium. Maurice Garin was doing that back in 1903

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Peter Cossins's history of the birth of the Tour de France is published in the UK as Butcher, Blacksmith, Acrobat, Sweep - The Tale of the First Tour de France by Yellow Jersey Press (2017, 268 pages) and in the US as The First Tour de France - Sixty Cyclists and Nineteen Days of Daring on the Road to Paris by Nation Books (2017, 268 pages).

Peter Cossins - Tour de France 1903

UK and US covers

You can read Chris Fontecchio's review of it here.