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Interview: Gareth Cartman

The first ‘maillot jaune’
The first ‘maillot jaune’
La Vie au Grand Air (BnF)

Gareth Cartman’s novel We Rode All Day tells a story of the 1919 Tour de France, how it was lost by Eugène Christophe and won by Firmin Lambot, using the imagined voices of some of the race’s key protagonists to tell the tale. Here he talks to us about the race and the book.

Podium Café: I’d like, if we could, to quickly tell the story of the 1919 Tour, for those unfamiliar with it. Let’s start with Henri Pélissier: he had been a close second in the Tour, in 1914, beaten by Philippe Thys. He came into the 1919 Tour on the back of victory in Paris-Roubaix – where, I think, L’Auto’s headline compared him to a well-bred greyhound – and he gets off to a good start, especially when Thys abandons. Then...?

Gareth Cartman: Pélissier really should have won this Tour.

As other riders point out in the book, he’s hugely unpopular with the peloton but he’s a world apart in terms of fitness and ability. There’s an interview at the end of stage three when Pélissier refers to the other riders in the Tour as ‘workhorses’, and it’s clear that the peloton has it in mind to attack him at some point on the way down to Sables d’Olonnes [the fourth stage]. When Pélissier stops, the peloton instinctively attacks him, and he spends the next 300 kilometres chasing them down. It’s probably one of the greatest chases the Tour has ever seen, and yet he still comes in half an hour behind Jean Alavoine, Firmin Lambot and Eugène Christophe.

He withdrew that evening – as did his brother – potentially both through exhaustion. Or shame. A Desgrange editorial would point to the latter (they hated each other), logic might point towards the former.

Henri Pélissier
Henri Pélissier came into the Tour on the back of victory in Paris-Roubaix in April (left) and only recently out of his military uniform (right). In 1910 Pélissier had had his compulsory military service cut short, on health grounds, and so was not called up when the war began in 1914. After the death of a brother in 1915 and a brother-in-law in 1916 Pélissier volunteered and was assigned first to a cycling division and then to an air division, where he acted as a telegraphist. The 1919 ‘grande boucle’ was just one of several Tours Pélissier abandoned in a fit of pique, 1924 being the most famous.
La Vie au Grand Air (BnF) | BnF

PdC: Christophe takes the race lead then, at the end of the fourth stage and was still in the lead come the start of the penultimate day’s racing nine stages later. Was he challenged much in the mountains or did he have firm control of the race?

GC: The mountains were almost neutralised from the point of view of the race lead. Lambot attacked whenever he could but his opportunities were few and far between. Remember, Lambot was effectively the King of the Mountains before the war – he came with a reputation, but ended up struggling to land a blow on Christophe.

The 1919 Tour in the mountains
The 1919 Tour in the mountains
La Vie au Grand Air (BnF)

PdC: The penultimate day. Christophe breaks his forks, sheds a load of time, a comfortable advantage on the clock turns into an insurmountable deficit. On the one had, he’s grabbing defeat from the hands of victory, but on the other hand, this was the making of him. He ended earning more in defeat than he would have with victory, yes?

GC: I felt that 1913 was the making of him, and that 1919 was nearly the breaking of him.

After the Tour, he seriously considered working for the smithy where he fixed his bike in Raismes – indeed, he was giving a speech at a post-Tour dinner and he stood up and announced that he would indeed be working for Monsieur Persiaux, the owner of the forge he repaired his forks in.

France has always preferred the plucky loser (PouPou), and the outpouring of genuine affection for Christophe was huge. He received money from soldiers and even homeless people – as well as Baron Rothschild. He’s recorded as feeling incredibly guilty at how much he made from the 1919 Tour – far more than Lambot himself.

Eugène Christophe in 1910, 1912 and 1922
Three views of ‘le vieux gaulois’: Eugène Christophe in 1910, as a young man, when his pash for an old school ‘tache led to him being called ‘le vieux gaulois’, the Old Gaul; 1912 and the disappointment of losing the Tour; 1922 and the first curtain fall on his career (he came out of retirement a few years later, divorce leaving him having to do what we today might call an alimony Tour)
Coureur (VCCL) | BnF | BnF

PdC: Christophe’s career before 1919: he’s shown himself to be tough, winning the French cyclo-cross championships each year between 1909 and 1914. He’s won a snow-blighted edition of Milan-Sanremo in 1910. But his Tour record is a bit ... patchy. Ninth in his first two Tours, either side of his military service (1906 and 1909), DNF in 1911, the moral victor of the 1912 race (in some quarters), mechanical misfortunes in the 1913 race, his preparation for the 1914 race disrupted when the army called him up for manoeuvres that spring. In the modern peloton, who would you compare him to, Nairo Quintana perhaps?

GC: Quintana’s an interesting parallel, but I was thinking more Richie Porte who, of the modern riders, is perhaps one of the best not to have won a Tour.

PdC: The issue of luck – whether it’s something we’re blessed with or afflicted by, whether it’s something we have a degree of control over – seems central to We Rode All Day. Where do you stand on it?

GC: Desgrange has a monologue at the end where he’s wondering whether Lambot deserved the win or not. He concludes that ‘of course he bloody deserved it. He deserved it for every minute he spent a prisoner of the filthy Prussians, for every day he went hungry in Antwerp…’ and of Christophe: ‘how can it be that one man’s forks break twice in the space of three Tours while another man’s forks hold firm? He blames the witch, but that’s a superstition that only arises through failure. You don’t find a Tour winner transported to the line by magic fairies; you don’t find a stage winner thanking the goblins and the pixies!’

Luck does play a huge role in the book, and perhaps more so the repercussions of good or bad luck. I was particularly interested in how Christophe reacted to the same mechanical misfortune six years apart, and how Firmin Lambot would have reacted to being ‘gifted’ the Tour. We know that Lambot’s first words to Christophe as he crossed the line at the velodrome were along the lines of ‘I wish I could have beaten you fairly.’

The idea that I really wanted to play on was how Christophe’s ill fortune in 1913 felt like a victory, while the same misfortune in 1919 felt like the end of his career. At the same time, Lambot’s good luck gave him no particular satisfaction, and I imagine he felt the same a few years’ later when he was gifted another Tour.

Christophe re-enacting 1913 in 1951
Quite when the myth of 1913 became established is difficult to pin down. Obviously, it was the accepted reality by 1951, when the event was re-enacted for the cameras. But little was made of it in 1913 – it was the first day in the mountains, it’s hard to say Christophe would have won without that incident – and it wasn’t the issue it’s become when he serialised his life story in ‘Miroir des Sports’ over the winter of 1922/1923.
Coureur (VCCL)

PdC: You have Christophe saying cyclists are different, are twisted – is that something you subscribe to yourself, the notion shared by many that the Tour is a race for madmen? Personally, there’s something about the way we reduce the Tour to such epithets that worries me, if feels like we’re dehumanising the riders, we’re reducing them to caricatures, balls of steel, hard as nails. We lose sight of them as rounded personalities, with lives on an off the bike.

GC: I don’t necessarily subscribe to it, no. On the one hand, yes, it does take a certain character to ride in these conditions, but one of the reasons I decided to write in the first person is that this whole era (with one or two exceptions) feels reduced to the balls-of-steel madman-on-a-bike epithet, whereas as you say, they’re rounded personalities with a life on and off the bike.

I wanted some humanity to come through, which is perhaps why I most enjoyed writing the parts of the book where they aren’t riding their bikes – the dinner in Nice, or Scieur’s conversation with the lady in Isigny. In the end, they’re just men on bikes and the fact that we can all relate to that is what I hope helps bring the era to life and helps us relate to the riders.

PdC: In telling the story of 1919 you’ve obviously had to play many stories down, or leave a lot out completely, side stories such as Jean Rossius winning the opening stage but never actually leading the Tour, or Jules Nempon’s battle to finish the race, the last of the independent, unsupported riders to survive. Engaging stories in themselves, but they don’t advance the central story. Do you have a favourite tale that you wish you could have included?

GC: Actually the Rossius tale is one that I played with, but it became more of a distraction as I focused on a handful of riders. He gave Philippe Thys a water bottle at some point in stage one – allegedly because Thys was feeling sick – and was penalised 30 minutes when Desgrange found out the next day. Thys quit the race – either through sickness or because of a dispute with Desgrange over money (Desgrange initially believed it was the money, but later admitted Thys was ill). In hindsight, I’d have liked to have brought some of the scandal into the book, but as neither man was to get very far in the Tour, they were left on the cutting floor.

There are a few other tales that could have made the cut – there’s a part in Strasbourg where Christophe is visited by the ‘blue devils’ – his fellow soldiers from the 4th cyclist regiment. This could have made a nice story with some war context, and I was desperately trying to find out more about the cycling club in Sables d’Olonnes who manned the cafe where the riders checked in at the end of the stage. Unfortunately, there are precious few records of those men.

Christophe doing his compulsory military service in 1907, and during the war in Fort de Noisy, Paris, 1915
Christophe doing his compulsory military service in 1907, and during the war in Fort de Noisy, Paris, 1915, where he acted as a mechanic for a cycling division. Later in 1915 he joined Peugeot – who had sponsored him before the war – working on aeroplane engines they were providing for the war. In 1917 he was assigned to an aviation division, as a mechanic. Like Henri Pélissier, Christophe was able to get time off from his duties to take part in races, such as Paris-Tours in 1917.
Miroir des Sports (BnF)

Gareth Cartman is the author of We Rode All Day. You can read a review of it on the Café bookshelf.

You can find Gareth Cartman online at WeRodeAllDay.cc or on Twitter at @CleverGareth.

Our thanks to Gareth Cartman for taking part in this interview.

We Rode All Day, by Gareth Cartman
We Rode All Day, by Gareth Cartman