If a lie lasts forever it’s practically true
~ Séan Millar, ‘Happy Can Be’
The story of how the Tour de France came to tackle the Col du Tourmalet in the Pyrénées for the first time in 1910 is one of the most oft-told tales of Tour history. But how much of it is true, how much of it really happened the way we claim it happened?
Part I – What the Historians Tell Us
According to some, Alphonse Steinès set out for the Col du Tourmalet in January of 1910.(1) Others say it was a few weeks before the start of that year’s Tour, May(2) or maybe June.(3) Almost all agree that Steinès’s aim was to convince Henri Desgrange that the grand boucle should visit the Pyrénées, something the Father of the Tour was reluctant to permit. No one had ever raced over these mountains,(4) no one knew if man was capable of even riding over these mountains.(5) Steinès had finally worn Desgrange down with his badgering and, if he could show that the Tourmalet was passable, it would be included in the itinerary of that year’s race.(6)
Some say that, first, Steinès was told to write about the possibility of taking the race into the Pyrénées and Desgrange would then make a decision based on the public response to what he wrote.(7) That response exceeded expectations, with locals claiming the roads were blocked by snow almost all of the time and when not closed were little more than goat tracks.(8)
Steinès travelled down to Pau,(9) almost at the foot of the Tourmalet.(10) Either he drove himself the 700 kilometres south from Paris,(11) or he took the train and hired a car locally.(12) Or he travelled the Pyrénées on his bicycle.(13) Foreshadowing the danger yet to come he was told that a Mercedes had recently overturned attempting to cross the Tourmalet.(14)
Steinès sought out the superintendent of roads in the region, Blanchet,(15) who laughed at the suggestion of taking the Tour over the mountains, the roads then being too poor for 250 men on bicycles and their entourage.(16) Steinès promised that L’Auto would pay to prepare the roads.(17) Blanchet asked for 5,000 francs.(18) Steinès called Paris and Desgrange offered 3,000.(19) Or 2,000.(20) Or 1,500.(21) Or 500.(22) Blanchet promised the roads would be fine by July.(23)
Some say that last bit actually happened months before Steinès attempted to cross the Tourmalet, as part of an earlier reconnaissance trip.(24) Others say it happened after he’d made it down off the Tourmalet.(25)
Steinès headed into the hills.(26) He crossed the Col d’Aspin, with some difficulty.(27) He started his ascent of the Tourmalet from Sainte-Marie-de-Campan,(28) on the north-eastern side of the mountain. Villagers told him it was impossible to cross the Tourmalet,(29) that it was barely passable even in July.(30) Ignoring these warnings he hired a local driver, Dupont,(31) and was driven toward the summit but was stopped by snow blocking the road two kilometres from the top.(32) Or it could have been three.(33) Or maybe four.(34) Or five.(35) Or even six.(36) Steinès pressed on alone and on foot.(37) The snow was four feet deep.(38) Many agree it was at this stage early evening, six o’clock.(39) Or maybe it was later.(40)
A local shepherd agreed to guide him to the top of the mountain.(41) It took Steinès two and a half hours to walk the remaining kilometres to the summit.(42) There then followed a series of misadventures:(43) stumbles and tumbles in rivers and snowbanks,(44) leaving him cold and wet and fearing for his life: he almost killed himself,(45) setting off an avalanche and falling over a precipice and finding himself buried in a snowdrift.(46) He eventually made it off the mountain under his own steam.(47) Or he was rescued by a search party sent out to find him.(48) It was by then three in the morning.(49)
The following day – the day after he started his ascent or the day after that, no one is clear – a telegram was dispatched to L’Auto’s Montmartre offices.(50) The wording varies from account to account but the basic gist all agree was that Steinès claimed the Tourmalet was perfectly passable.(51) Some say it was a phonecall, not a telegram.(52) Upon receipt of the message Desgrange had the next edition of L’Auto include an article informing readers and riders that the route of the 1910 Tour would include the Pyrenean cols of the Peyresourde, Aspin, Tourmalet, and Aubisque.(53) Almost immediately more than two dozen riders pulled out of the race.(54)
Steinès kept quiet about what really happened.(55)
1 Ellis Bacon – Mapping the Tour; Daniel Friebe – Mountain High; Graham Healy – The Shattered Peloton; Serge Laget et al – The Official Tour de France Centennial 1903-2003; Martyn Lyons – The Pyrenees in the Modern Era; Richard Moore – Tour de France 100 / 2 Jean Bobet – Lapize: Now There Was an Ace; Martin Carr – Savage Frontier; Bill and Carol McGann – The Story of the Tour de France; Owen Mulholland – Uphill Battle; Matt Rendell – Blazing Saddles; Chris Sidwells – A Race for Madmen; James Witherell – When Heroes Were Giants / 3 Woodland / 4 Giles Belbin – Tour de France Champions; Isabel Best et al – Tour 100; Graeme Fife – Tour de France / 5 Witherell / 6 Fife; Les Woodland – Dirty Feet; Geoffrey Wheatcroft – Le Tour / 7 Sidwells / 8 Sidwells / 9 Mulholland; Woodland / 10 Sidwells / 11 Sidwells / 12 Witherell / 13 Paul Fournel – Cartes du Tour / 14 Sidwells; Woodland / 15 Woodland / 16 Sidwells / 17 Fournel; Sidwells; Witherell; Woodland / 18 Leonard; Sidwells / 19 Sidwells / 20 Witherell; Woodland / 21 Fournel / 22 Leonard / 23 Sidwells / 24 Woodland / 25 Leonard; Witherill / 26 Sidwells / 27 Sidwells / 28 Woodland / 29 Sidwells / 30 Friebe, Sidwells / 31 Sidwells, Witherell; Woodland / 32 Leonard / 33 Friebe; Robin Magowan – Tour de France; Les Woodland – The Unknown Tour / 34 Fife; Giles Belbin – Mountain Kings; Giles Belbin – A Ride Through the Greatest Cycling Stories / 35 Sidwells; Mulholland; Witherell / 36 Mulholland / 37 Belbin; Sidwells / 38 Lyons / 39 Mulholland; Sidwells; Woodland / 40 Fournel; Leonard / 41 Leonard; Mulholland; Sidwells; Woodland / 42 Woodland / 43 McGann / 44 Woodland / 45 Bacon / 46 Mulholland; Sidwells / 47 Best; Fife; Wheatcroft / 48 Belbin; Carr; Fournel; Lyons; McGann; Moore; Mulholland; Woodland / 49 Best; Friebe, Healy; Leonard; Lyons; McGann; Moore, Mulholland, Sidwells, Witherell; Woodland / 50 Healy; Mulholland; Sidwells / 51 Bacon; Belbin; Carr; Fife; Friebe; Healy; Laget; Lyons; McGann; Mulholland; Sidwells; Witherell; Woodland / 52 Fournel; Leonard / 53 McGann; Mulholland; Sidwells; Witherell / 54 Woodland / 55 Bacon; Moore; Sidwells
That, more or less, is what the history books tell us today: a story about Steinès convincing Desgrange in 1910 to include the Pyrénées in that year’s race, with a lot of embellishment surrounding Steinès’s visit to the Tourmalet. But what did cycling fans know in 1910? What did readers of L’Auto know about the Tour’s expansion into the Pyrénées ahead of the riders crossing the Col de Port and the Col de Portet d’Aspet on July 19 and the Col de Peyresourde, the Col d’Aspin, and the Col du Tourmalet along with the conjoined triplets of the Col du Soulor, the Col de Tortes, and the Col d’Aubisque on July 21?
To try and get a handle on that we have to begin not with Steinès and the Tourmalet in June or May or January of 1910, but with Henri Desgrange himself, in July of 1909, halfway through that year’s Tour de France.
Part II – Talk of Things to Come
July 20, 1909 – P-364 days
The first inkling L’Auto’s readers had that the Tour might soon enter the Pyrénées came during the seventh edition of the race. The Tour had exited the Alps and was halfway between the Mediterranean and Atlantic coasts, running north of the Pyrénées by way of Toulouse. A malaise seemed to fall over Henri Desgrange. “The Tour de France came out of the mountains after the Estérel,” he wrote, “and our riders drag themselves miserably on national roads, scorched by the sun.”
Ahead lay the long slog up the Atlantic seaboard before the sprint for home and even the master mythologiser seemed to find it impossible to whip up enthusiasm for what was to come. The Tour had reached a turning point in that year’s race but Desgrange also thought the race had reached a turning point in its history. And he told his readers so: “next year we have to go to Tunisia and Algeria, and to tackle the Pyrénées head-on as we tackle the Alps.”
While Desgrange attributed his morose mood to the tedium of the racing since exiting the mountains – once again one rider was dominating the race, François Faber this time – we should probably also note here that the Tour had acquired a new rival. Across the border in Italy the Giro d’Italia had successfully completed its first edition less than two months previous. Desgrange could not rest on his laurels. The Giro would force the Tour to up its game.
1903: Col de la République (1,161m)
1904: Col de la République (1,161m)
1905: Ballon d’Alsace (1,178m); Col Bayard (1,246m)
1906: Ballon d’Alsace (1,178m); Col Bayard (1,246m)
1907: Ballon d’Alsace (1,178m); Col de Porte (1,326m); Col Bayard (1,246m)
1908: Ballon d’Alsace (1,178m); Col de Porte (1,326m); Col Bayard (1,246m)
1909: Ballon d’Alsace (1,178m); Col de Porte (1,326m); Col Bayard (1,246m)
Quite what constitutes a climb in the early Tours is a matter of debate, with Desgrange & co rewriting the race’s history to suit their needs. The Ballon d’Alsace in the Vosges is, famously, the race’s first mountain, despite the presence of the Col de la République in the first two editions of the Tour. Officially the Tour only went into the Alps in 1911, after tackling the Pyrénées in 1910, even though it had been crossing the Col Bayard in the Dauphiné Alps since 1905.
September 30 – P-292 days:
The first L’Auto’s readers knew for sure that the Tour would enter the Pyrénées came two months later, at the end of September when – across a third of the front page and almost half of page three – Desgrange offered them a look at plans for 1910’s Tour de France, the eighth edition of the race.
“The Tour de France will enter the Pyrénées, which it has only been touching the edge of. The eighth stage will abandon its old route to Narbonne, and end in Perpignan.
“Then, in one leap, and in two stages succeeding each other one day apart, the Tour de France will go from Perpignan to Bayonne. The first stage will go from Perpignan to Bagnères-de-Luchon (289 kms), and the second from Bagnères to Bayonne (325 kms). These two stages will take place on July 20 and 21.”
NB: Bagnères-de-Luchon is Luchon. Bagnères is usually used as the shortened version of Bagnères-de-Bigorre but above refers to Luchon. Bagnères are thermal baths.
The Pyrénées paled in comparison with the Alps when it came to tourism, for all sorts of reasons ranging from transport infrastructure to snobbery. But over the course of the second half of the nineteenth century they had been playing catch up with their Alpine cousins. Outside of those who lived there, those who knew the Pyrénées knew them as places of retreat, spiritual and medicinal, Lourdes and the spa towns – Luchon, Bagnères, Argelès, Eaux-Bonnes etc – drawing in those seeking to cleanse body or soul. The route thermale – inspired by Napoleon III, the one dethroned after the 1870/71 war with Prussia – linked the various spa towns. The Touring Club de France – which promoted the rights and needs of cyclists, liaising with hoteliers and local communities to develop cycling infrastructure – was working on a route Pyrénées, a network of roads stretching from one end of the mountains to the other and taking travellers over all the high cols.
Later in L’Auto’s article readers got more detail on the new Pyrenean stages: the Perpignan to Bagnères-de-Luchon stage would go via Quillan, Foix, the Col de Port, Saint-Girons, and the Col des Arts [a misprint of Col des Ares]; the Bagnères-de-Luchon to Bayonne stage would go via Arreau, Barèges, Argelès, Eaux-Bonnes, Oloron, Mauléon, and Saint-Jean-Pied-de-Port. Apart from naming the Col de Port and (misnaming) the Col des Ares, none of the other passes the riders would have to cross were named. Using the details given and knowing the overall distances of the two stages (289 kms and 325 kms, which remained unchanged when the Tour finally reached the Pyrénées) readers with access to a good atlas – or local knowledge – would have been able to work out for themselves the major peaks the race would be climbing when the riders tackled those two stages ten months later.
January 4, 1910 – P-196 days
L’Auto’s readers were once again treated to a preview of the coming Tour in the early days of 1910, at which point they were informed of a minor modification to the itinerary: instead of tackling the two Pyrenean stages back-to-back the riders were to be granted a rest-day between the two. Much of the rest of January was taken up by a detailed discussion of the race’s rules.
January 26 – P-174 days
The route of the 1910 Tour was again revisited, this time with readers and riders being provided with a list of the controls riders would have to sign in at during the race, including those for the new Pyrenean stages.
January 31 – P-169 days
Once again the route of the Tour was repeated in the pages of L’Auto. There could be no excuses for not being aware that the race was going into the Pyrénées.
The First Étape du Tour – What Might Have Been
February 4 – P-165 days
Legend has it that Henri Desgrange was morally opposed to the derailleur. Various apocryphal quotes on the subject have been attributed to him and whether he ever actually said any of them or not is a matter for another day. What we do know is that Desgrange did have fixed views on variable gears. And in February 1910 he proposed offering those who disagreed with him a challenge.
“I have often been accused of being the opponent of the multi-geared machine,” he wrote in L’Auto, “whereas I have always tried, on the contrary, to make it clear that one could not logically be compared to the other. The multi-geared machine is an instrument of touring, the machine of the men of the Tour de France is a racing machine.”
That fundamental difference notwithstanding, Desgrange proposed letting the multi-geared cyclo-tourists pit themselves against the men of the Tour on their single-geared machines, on the same terrain, on the same day. Specifically, the second and harder of the two Pyrenean stages, from Bagnères-de-Luchon to Bayonne. If a sufficient number of cyclo-tourists expressed an interest, then the race – or sportive, we should probably call it, it being a proto-Étape du Tour – would be on.
In a short article in the Touring Club de France’s monthly magazine in May Desgrange’s offer was rejected, the TCF noting that the Tour’s riders could stop and change gear by manually shifting their chain onto a different sprocket in order to use a lower gear on a climb: “those who we thought were our adversaries have become our supporters and our participation in the Luchon-Bayonne stage is useless, the professionals themselves being responsible for providing the proof we wanted in favour of gearing.”
Part III – Across the Pyrénées with Ravaud and Abran
May 17 – P-63 days
Back then, road racing was still in the shadow of track, and would stay there for many more years to come. People went to the races when they were on, or read about them, but there wasn’t many road races demanding their attention. For French riders, the key road races of the early part of 1910 – and their winners – were the following:
March 27 – Paris-Roubaix (267 kms) – Octave Lapize (Alcyon)
April 3 – Milan-Sanremo (289 kms) – Eugène Christophe (Alcyon)
April 17 – Paris-Menin (306 kms) – Cyrille Van Hauwaert (Alcyon)
May 1 – Paris-Bruxelles (400 kms) – Maurice Brocco (Legnano)*
May 8 – National championships, France (100 kms) – Émile Georget (La Française)
May 14 – Bordeaux-Paris (590 kms) – Émile Georget (La Française)
May 18 to June 5 – Giro d’Italia (2,890 kms) – Carlo Galetti (Atala)
June 5 to 19 – Tour of Belgium (1,742 kms) – Jules Masselis (Alcyon)
* Lapize was originally declared the winner of Paris-Bruxelles but following a complaint lodged by the Legnano team Brocco, who originally finished seventh, was promoted to first.
With so few opportunities available to them to race on the road, the stars of the day also raced on the track, and with Desgrange’s newly refurbished Vélodrome d’Hiver having opened in February they had even more opportunities to do that than in previous years.
Three of those early season races – Paris-Roubaix, Paris-Bruxelles, and Bordeaux-Paris – were organised by L’Auto. Once the last was out of the way all eyes in the Rue du Faubourg offices of the paper turned to the Tour, with riders invited to sign up for participation in the race.
Even before the big road races of the spring had peaked with Bordeaux-Paris and L’Auto had called upon riders to submit their entries, the work of organising the Tour was already well underway, with Georges Abran – the man whose pistol shot had started the riders of the first Tour on their way – driving the full 5,000 kilometre route of the race, setting out from Paris in the middle of April. Abran’s job was to identify in advance any problems the race might encounter and to liaise with locals: glad-handing mayors, meeting L’Auto’s local stringers, and sorting out who would man the controls the riders would have to sign in at (in order to prove they were following the full route of the race and not taking shortcuts).
Abran filed reports from the road as he was chauffeured around France, the first coming from Roubaix on April 15. Foul weather was the order of the day from the outset and would follow him as he made his way around the route of the race, a task that would take him two months to complete. As he headed east from Paris he travelled on roads soaked by floods. At the Ballon d’Alsace – the first real climb of the race – he encountered snow at the summit, as he did atop the Col de Porte. Before arriving in Nice he had to detour, a landslide having taken away a section of road. It was a bad weather year, the Seine breaking its banks in Paris in January and the snow-blighted Milan-Sanremo in April going down in history as one of cycling’s toughest days in the saddle.
On the day L’Auto opened registration for the Tour Abran was en route to Perpignan, on the Mediterranean side of the Pyrénées, where he was to be joined by his colleague Charles Ravaud. The two were due to cross the Pyrénées together and would provide their readers with more detail of what the riders would face come July 19 and 21.
May 20 – P-60 days
Ravaud and Abran can be seen as the Mason and Dixon of Tour de France route surveying (with the legendary Alphonse Steinès such a larger than life figure that he fulfils the roles of Lewis and Clark in one man). With just two months to go before the Tour’s riders would tackle the route, on May 19 the intrepid duo set out to cover the first half of the first Pyrenean stage, driving from Perpignan to Saint-Girons. The following day’s paper carried a report of their journey:
“we set off this morning for Saint-Girons, where we arrived without incident, after having crossed Saint-Paul-de-Fenouillet, Quillan, Col de Portet (1,400 metres altitude), Col de Babourade, Col d’El-Teil [probably Col del Teil], Lavelanet, Roquefort, Foix, Tarascon-sur-Ariège, Col de Port (1,249 metres), Massat and Saint-Girons.”
NB: The reference above to the Col de Portet is an error. Most likely Ravaud and Abran meant to refer to the Col du Portel, which comes shortly after Quillan, but only climbs to about 600m. There are several Cols de Portet further to the west of Quillan, none of which climb to 1,400m. That altitude figure possibly comes from the Col de Portel, which comes after Foix and rises to 1,432m.
As was usual with these columns the report then turned into an advertorial for the Impéria automobile and its Dunlop tyres:
“Despite the rain, despite the snow, the car and the tyres behaved wonderfully and we, Abran and I, were able to admire one of the most beautiful panoramas in the world. What roads! What descents!”
Ravaud and Abran completed the route of the first stage the following day (May 20), reporting to L’Auto’s readers that “Nothing can depict the beautiful difficulties of the stage.” True to their words, nothing was said of the route beyond that, not even a mention of the Col de Portet d’Aspet or the Col des Ares. Readers would have to wait several days to learn about them.
When L’Auto did return to the missing mountains Ravaud and Abran’s report read like a tourist’s postcard:
“The glaciers of the Pyrénées appeared to us scintillating under a single ray of sun, having made its hole in the threatening clouds; the sight of the valley of Saurat – marvellously green, profound, superb – tore from us cries of admiration; our valiant riders will perhaps not have time to enjoy such a spectacle on the day when they will compete in the ninth stage of the Tour; but let them be reassured, Abran and I have, in advance, enjoyed it for them.”
It wasn’t all just sight-seeing: L’Auto’s intrepid explorers warned riders to be wary of the wild animals that made the Pyrénées so fearsome. Not the stuff of legend, the hungry bears over from the Spanish side of the mountains or the eagles big enough to pluck a man off his bicycle. No, this was the more prosaic danger of the cows and the horses and the sheep that roamed the roads of the Pyrénées as if they owned them.
On the third day of their passage across the Pyrénées Ravaud and Abran reached Bagnères-de-Bigorre, where they were laying up having failed to cross the Col d’Aspin in the first part of the route of the second Pyrenean stage:
“Abran and I are in Bagnères-de-Bigorre, although this charming town does not appear on the itinerary of the tenth stage of the Tour de France, which goes from Bagnères-de-Luchon to Bayonne. The fault lies neither in our wonderful Impéria, nor in the soft Dunlop with which it is shod, but in the snow which still obstructs, at this time of the year, the top of the Col d’Aspin.
“After leaving Bagnères-de-Luchon, we cleared the Col de Peyresourde (1,333 meters) without incident, crossed Bordeyres [Bordères-Louron] and Arreau and began to climb the Col d’Aspin (1,492 meters).
“There was only us and tall and cramped walls of snow, and we could not cross the summit where eight meters of snow was piling up. The road was gone! To our great regret, we had to go back down and reach Bagnères-de-Bigorre by La Barthe-de-Neste, thus making a detour of 47 kilometres.
“Tomorrow we will return to the route of the stage in Sainte-Marie and try to cross the Col du Tourmalet (2,122 meters).”
NB: The altitudes given in these reports vary in accuracy. The Col de Peyresourde is actually 1,569m. The Col d’Aspin is close to its modern height (1,489m), as is the Col du Tourmalet (2,115m)
Putting their readers’ minds at rest, Ravaud and Abran reported that snow at high altitude in May and June was not unexpected but that by July it would be melted, leaving clear passage for the Tour.
On the fifth day of their odyssey Ravaud and Abran reached Bayonne at the western end of the mountain range, having had to make more than 200 kilometres of detours – and after adding an extra day to their journey – in their attempt to trace the route of the Tour’s two new stages:
“The torrential rain could not overcome our resistance. The roads no longer existed in the mountains. They had disappeared under avalanches of snow and swollen rivers, it was impossible to follow the entire route. The Col du Tourmalet, which pierces the sky at more than 2,100 meters in altitude, did not want to be violated any more than did the Aspin.”
The Col du Soulor, Col de Tortes and Col d’Aubisque – a three-for-the-price-of-one Pyrenean ordeal – were also left unviolated, still being impassable, with various detours needed to take Ravaud and Abran on to Bayonne.
The Pyrénées crossed – albeit with significant gaps – Ravaud returned to Paris, leaving Abran to complete his reconnaissance of the remainder of the Tour’s route alone save for the presence of his driver, Oscar Sauvenière, in their borrowed Impéria with its Dunlop tyres.
May 26 – P-54 days
Upon Ravaud’s return to Paris, L’Auto again sought to reassure riders and readers that the snow that had blocked his and Abran’s passage in the Pyrénées would not be an issue come July:
“At this time of year, it is normal for snow to remain on the high peaks. There have also been reports of torrential rain and floods. However, if our comrade Ravaud and our inspector general Abran could not cross the Cols d’Aspin, Tourmalet and Aubisque, it does not follow that in July we will not cross them. No, these Pyrenean stages will certainly be tough, but they will not be impossible. On the contrary, good weather will bring good roads and the Tour de France – brushing the Iberian Peninsula, after having touched Belgium, Luxembourg, Lorraine, Switzerland, Italy and the Atlantic Ocean – will be the real Tour de France, the most colossal event in the world.”
NB: Lorraine was at this stage still a scar on the French psyche, occupied by the Germans since the Franco-Prussian war of 1870/71
Part IV – It Can’t Be Done, It Has Been Done
Having first announced the 1910 Tour’s route in September 1909 – including its extension into the Pyrénées – and having revisited some of those details in January 1910, and having in February invited cyclo-tourists to accept the challenge of riding a proto-Étape du Tour, L’Auto then ignored the Tour for the next two months or so, allowing the early-season races and other non-cycling events to take pride of place in the paper. From mid-April through to mid-June Abran’s postcards from the road appeared. From mid-May through to mid-June previews of the individual stages were printed. Alongside these L’Auto also ran frequent reports of who had signed on to participate in the race, along with occasional discussion of the race’s rules. Bit by bit the tension – anticipation – was ratcheted up.
By and large the coverage in L’Auto was all positive and even when it was negative – even when Ravaud and Abran had been unable to drive the full route of the new stages – readers and riders were assured that all would be well come July. Outside of L’Auto none of the major periodicals gave the Tour a second thought. In June the first real criticism of the route appeared, in the pages of L’Auto.
June 7 – P-42 days
Joseph Tucker Burton-Alexander was one of those dilettante British sportsmen whose wealth exceeded his abilities. The money came from family lands in Pavenham, near Bedford, which he mortgaged in order to fund his passions for trains, automobiles and powerboats. As a racing driver, L’Auto in 1905 – ahead of the Gordon Bennett race, in which he DNF’ed – noted that he was talented but reckless. A claim backed up to some extent by his motor racing palmarès, scant as it is. In addition to engine-powered pursuits Burton – he tended to drop the hyphenated half of his surname – had also done some mountaineering in Switzerland, during his time in Cambridge at the turn of the century (1899 and 1900).
Burton enters our story when, in June of 1910, he wrote to L’Auto from his Revel residence, the Château de Gandels, offering himself as something of an expert on the mountains:
“I am currently here, in a superb house with a park of five hectares and I live here days of incredible calm and serenity. That’s wonderful. On the horizon, I have every day the view of the grandiose Pyrénées, but because of the bad weather I could not go near Abran and Ravaud who passed a few tens of kilometres from my residence.
“I am surprised to have seen you choose the Perpignan-Bayonne route for your Tours de France.
“I know the whole country. You are bold in L’Auto.”
Burton went on to explain all that was wrong in the route from one side of the Pyrénées to the other.
“The descent from the Col du Portet d’Aspet is dangerous and slippery even in summer.
“After Luchon your audacity goes beyond the limits. There are no less than four passes. It is a bit much.
“Peyresourde is not easy, the descent is bad in summer because the ground is friable and sandy, especially in the lower bends.
“Aspin is tough and when it’s sunny you’re uncomfortable there. The descent requires caution.
“Despite this, the king of all passes is the Tourmalet, which your colleagues were unable to do because of the snow. Well! I am ready to offer a hundred francs to the rider who will climb the Tourmalet without dismounting. The climb is terrible. The descent is extremely dangerous.”
Desgrange, always eager to take every franc offered in primes for his riders, accepted the challenge offered by Burton. And well he might, knowing as he did the history of cycling over the King of All Passes. Readers of L’Auto unfamiliar with that history were reminded of it a few days later, when L’Auto published a response to Burton’s missive.
“I read Mr Burton’s imprudent wager the other day.
“Certainly yes, his 100 francs will be won, and by several, I hope! Let him remember that in 1902, at the TCF’s event, there were three of us who climbed entirely by bicycle, and twice in a row, the famous Col du Tourmalet.”
The letter was signed A Benoît and he was referring to the Touring Club de France’s Touring Bicycle Contest, held in August 1902. That event sent the riders over a circuit that went from Tarbes to the Col du Tourmalet – by way of Lourdes and Barèges – then up to Bagnères-de-Bigorre, back to Lourdes by way of Loucrup and then back over the Tourmalet again and up to Bagnères before heading home to Tarbes, for a total of 215 kilometres.
The TCF’s event is more important than history books – which barely mention it – suggest. Among the riders to take part were several professionals who had already won some of the bigger road races of the time and who would go on to feature in early Tours: riders like Hippolyte Aucouturier, Jean Fischer, Rodolfo Muller, and Édouard Wattellier. There was also Hippolyte Figaro who rode under the mononym Vendredi and was the first Black rider to start and finish Paris-Roubaix. And there was Marthe Hesse, who as well as riding up the Tourmalet in 1902 as part of the TCF event also rode up Mont Ventoux the following year.
The TCF event wasn’t really a race, as such, it was a test of the bikes the riders rode. They were checked before the ride and again after, the objective being to road test the bikes and judge which machine was best, not which rider. For all that Desgrange like to bang on about la tête and les jambes – the head and the legs – the men in the TCF thought it was le vélo that mattered most. Writing about the event in 1902 Desgrange noted that the TCF “treats bicycles as anatomical parts.”
In 1905 the TCF ran a similar event, the Route des Trois Cols, taking in the Col de Porte, the Col du Cucheron, and the Col du Frêne, two years before the Tour first tackled the Col de Porte.
The TCF’s ride up the Tourmalet in 1902 was not the first time cyclists had tackled the mountain. While the TCF generally encouraged riders to write up their journeys for public sharing – they’d have loved Strava – not every cyclist has the ego to think their exploits are in any way worth sharing, except with friends over a drink, and so there will doubtlessly have been rides that went unrecorded. But one group of riders with ego aplenty came from the London Bicycle Club and in 1879 – Ordinary days – they took on the Tourmalet and the Aubisque, along with several other Pyrenean cols, and spilled plenty of ink writing about it in their club’s gazette.
Theirs was just one of three accounts of trips to the Pyrénées that appeared in the LBC’s gazette in 1879, the most adventurous of the three, the other two sticking to lower passes. The author of the account, Norman Morris, didn’t offer much detail on the bikes used, save to mention that his group had a spare machine, a 52-inch Stassen. Of the other two trips, one detailed the bicycles used: 56-inch and 54-inch machines from the Coventry Machinist Company. Big wheels. Over-geared for climbing.
Much of Morris’s account involves he and his clubmates walking their bikes up and down mountains, with their passages of the Tourmalet and the Aubisque more akin to hikes than bike rides. Nonetheless, the fact that even in the era of the high-wheeler cyclists were drawn to the highest peaks of the Pyrénées is worth noting.
Another important point comes in a comment made by Morris concerning the nature of the road over the Aubisque:
“I have lately heard the road over the Col d’Aubisque called a ‘mule track;’ this is not correct, for it is a regular carriage road, as is proved by the fact that some American friends of ours drove over it the day before we were there; and moreover I affirm that no real Pyrenean mule track can be used by a bicycle.”
Part V – The Roadbook
From May 17 through June 16 L’Auto treated readers and riders to previews of the coming Tour de France’s fifteen stages.
The Tour at this stage was still largely ridden by riders operating independently of the major manufacturers, fending for themselves. Of the 110 riders who would eventually take the start in the 1910 Tour only 30 were riding for the major marques – Alcyon, Legnano, Le Globe – while the rest were (in the official parlance) isolés (or, informally, the déshérités, the disinherited, or the deprived). An isolé could represent a manufacturer but they couldn’t be provided with the same support those riding in teams got, such as mechanics and soigneurs. This allowed a small manufacturer like, say, Armor, to have riders riding in its name and generating publicity but without the expense of having to look after them.
The pages of L’Auto were a key way of giving riders information on the race, especially the isolés. It was like publishing piecemeal what would in time become the Tour’s roadbook. The man whose job it was to write most of it was Charles Ravaud, which is partly why he joined Georges Abran when he was arranging marshals etc for the Tour’s two new Pyrenean stages. For Ravaud that was a research trip.
For the most part Ravaud’s previews were somewhat utilitarian accounts of the route of each stage: lists of towns and distances, with details of where the controls were to be located. The following, for instance, is the roadbook’s entry for the second of the two Pyrenean stages.
BAGNÈRES-DE-LUCHON – BAYONNE (326 kms)
July 21, 1910 – Depart at 03:30 hrs
Note. – Riders are advised, especially between Bagnères and Argelès, to be careful of the cows and other large animals that roam freely on the roads.
BAGNÈRES-DE-LUCHON, 0 kms – Rider sign-in. Signing-in will take place be at the Hôtel de la Paix and the departure will be from the Place Carayon-Latour, under the direction of Mr Paul Dupont, our correspondent, assisted by Mr Puch.
Saint-Aventin (6 kms), take the path on the right leading to Bourg-d’Oeil. Gernu (9 kms), Col de Peyresourde (12), Estavielle (18), Avayau (21), Bordères (24); at the entrance to Bordères do not cross the Louron Bridge.
ARREAU, 30 kms – Flying control at the Café de Londres, under the direction of Mr Peyroutin, L’Auto’s correspondent, assisted by Mr Ratio. At the exit of the village, follow the two bends in the road.
Col d’Aspin (41), Espiadet (46), Payole (48), Sainte-Marie-de-Campan (54); at the church, turn left to commence the ascent of the Tourmalet; L’Auto’s correspondent, Mr Dantis. Cabadeur (57), Gripp (58), Col du Tourmalet (69).
BAGNERES-LES-BAINS, 82 kms – Flying control, Hôtel Richelieu et d’Angleterre, under the direction of Mr Lanne-Camy, L’Auto’s correspondent. The descent is very hard before the control.
Betpouey (86), Luz-Saint-Sauveur (90), L’Auto’s correspondent, Mr Poucy; turn right, then left immediately after the Hôtel de Londres. Pont-de-Hiladaire (95), Pont-de-Villelongue (101), Soulom (102), Pierrefite-Nestelas (103), Adast (105).
ARGELES-GAZOST , 109 kms – Fixed control at the Café de Cercle, Place de la Mairie, under the direction of Mr Paul Genthien, L’Auto’s correspondent, assisted by Mr Cachon; at the entrance to the village take the left turn.
Arras (112), Aucun (118), Marsous (119), Arrens (121), Col de Soulon [should be Soulor] (129), Col de Tortes (134), Col d’Aubisque (139), Gourette (143).
EAUX-BONNES, 149 kms – Flying control at the Hôtel de Londres, under the direction of Mr Deletté, L’Auto’s correspondent.
Laruns (155), Bielle (164), Louvie-Juzon (167), L’Auto’s correspondent, Mr Chesserand; don’t cross the bridge and leave by the right on the road to Lurbe. Arudy (172), Buzy (177), Herrière (185).
OLORON-SAINTE-MARIE, 191 kms – Fixed control at the Hôtel de la Poste, Place Gambetta, under the direction of Mr Moura, L’Auto’s correspondent, assisted by Mr Chambot (follow the tracks of the small departmental tramway as far as Mauléon).
Sainte-Marie (192), Féas (202), Ance (203), Aramots (207), Lanne (210), Montory (216), Tardets (221), Troisvilles (223), Saint-Etienne (226), Gotein (230).
MAULEON, 234 kms – Flying control at the Café du Commerce, Place Croix-Blanche, under the direction of Mr Jaurgain, L’Auto’s correspondent, assisted by the SA Mauléonais.
SAINT-JEAN-PIED-DE-PORT, 272 kms – Fixed control at the Café Teillagory, at the corner of the bridge, under the direction of Mr Tellagory, L’Auto’s correspondent. At the exit, turn right in the direction of Bayonne, leaving on the right the road to Saint-Étienne-de-Begorry.
Ascarrat (274), Eyharce (284), Ossès (288), L’Auto’s correspondent Mr Mendiboure. Bidarray (292), Loubrosson (299), Cambo (307), L’Auto’s correspondent M. Louis Dessarps. Ustarritz (313).
BAYONNE, 326 kms – Fixed control. The finish will be on the road to Cambo, 2 kms from the town. The crowd will be held back by 400 metres of rope barrier. Armed with a ticket, riders will sign the form at the Brasserie Schmidt, Place de la Liberté. All the operations of the control will be under the direction of Mr Saint-Vanne, L’Auto’s correspondent, assisted by the VC Bayonne-Biarritz and by Mr Elysseiry. In the evening there will be a reception in the headquarters of the VCBB and a festival in the Place d’Armes.
Such utilitarian descriptions were fine where stages had already appeared in previous Tours. For the new Pyrenean stages, however, additional information needed to be conveyed to both readers and riders. This was particularly true for the climbs. In this regard Ravaud provided more details in a series of articles that appeared between May 24 and June 3. These were then supplemented on June 9 and 10 by a local cyclo-tourist, Émile Moutin, who provided a detailed report of the route of the second and tougher Pyrenean stage, Bagnères-de-Luchon to Bayonne. Taking all these reports together, we can summarise what readers and riders would have learned about the major climbs that were about to make their début in the Tour.
Col de Port (1,249m)
Before 1910, the Col de Porte (1,326m) in the Chartreuse mountains of the Isère was the reference point for the Tour’s grimpeurs. Previewing the race’s new stages on May 24, Ravaud wrote that “the Col de Porte is nothing compared to the Pyrenean passes.” The first of those passes – the first major one, above 1,000 metres – was the Col de Port, one of the two cols specifically named by L’Auto when the route of the 1910 Tour was announced in September 1909.
Very little was said of the climb – which begins in Tarascon-sur-Ariège – save that it wasn’t very difficult initially “but after the first kilometre, it steepens terribly to become very hard in the village of Saurat, located about a third of way up the climb” after which, according to Ravaud, “the road is lost in imposing lacets along the mountain.” The descent to Massat (12 kms) was described as being fast and dangerous.
Col de Portet d’Aspet (
Starting in Audressien, the climb to the Col de Portet d’Aspet was reported to pitch up to 10-11% in the village of Ogribet and 13-14% in the village of Portet d’Aspet. Some cars, Ravaud reported, would probably need to take the turns near the top of the climb in reverse.
Col de Peyresourde (
Beginning in Bagnères-de-Luchon – the starting point of the second of the new Pyrenean stages – the Col de Peyresourde served up some difficult hairpins soon after leaving the town. A series of lacets covered the final three kilometres of the climb which, overall, Ravaud described as being less tough that the Col de Portet d’Aspet.
Émile Moutin provided more detail, saying the climb was 10-12% at first, pitching up to 15% but then settling down to 4-5% as you climbed up through Saint-Aventin and Garin, until you came to the final hairpins which kicked up to 7-10%. All told, Moutin gave the Peyresourde an average gradient of 6.5% for 14 kilometres of climbing. Some of the lacets on the descent, Moutin warned, needed to be approached with caution.
Col d’Aspin (
The Col d’Aspin was the first of the Pyrenean passes Ravaud and Abran had been unable to cross, because of snow. From the information he had gathered from locals, Ravaud told L’Auto’s readers that it was a dozen kilometres long with an average gradient of 7%, with the descent similar to the climb.
Moutin was able to offer more detail, putting the average gradient at 6.6%, with the 12 km climb gaining 800m in altitude. “The first kilometre is gentle,” Moutin wrote, “but as soon as you cross a small bridge you approach the first lacet of about two kilometres at 10% with the bend on a rock. Watch out for skidding! The ascent is very curious, the road curls up on itself, you pass the same point half a dozen times, but rising more and more.” The seven kilometre descent down to Payolle was described as easy at first but once you entered the wooded area it became more dangerous.
Col du Tourmalet (
Though unable to climb it himself because of the snow, Ravaud described the Tourmalet as the most fantastic climb. “Starting from 910 metres,” Ravaud wrote, “the riders will climb up to 2,122 metres above sea level, in the middle of glaciers, dominated by the imposing Pic du Midi de Bigorre and its observatory”.
Moutin again had more to offer than merely repeating the local tourist office’s guidebook. The first eight kilometres of the climb, he reported, climbed at an average of 4-5% and took you up to the Gripp waterfall. You then faced a three kilometre long hairpin taking you above the waterfall, with the gradient here kicking up to 7-8%. After that the first glaciers appeared and the summit was finally reached by way of a series of bends where, according to Moutin, the gradient reached 18-20%.
Col du Soulor (
1,550m 1,474m) / Col de Tortes ( 1,650m) / Col d’Aubisque ( 1,710m 1,709m)
Of all the climbs that premiered in the 1910 Tour, the ‘one’ of the Soulor–Tortes–Aubisque has undergone the most change, with the Tortes closed to cars and now a hiking trail. In 1910 the distance between the Soulor and the Aubisque was 11 kms, today, without the Tortes, it’s only eight.
Like the Aspin and the Tourmalet, Ravaud and Abran had been unable to cross these three passes and consequently Ravaud had little to say about them, other than that between them they covered 46 kilometres of road and took the riders from 464 metres altitude in Argelès-Gazost to above 1,700 metres at the top of the Aubisque.
Moutin’s report told L’Auto’s readers that the first 11 kilometres of the climb, from Argelès to Arrens, climbed at a gentle 3-4%. “To reach the Col de Soulor, at 1,550 meters, the road climbs for eight kilometres by innumerable lacets and bends at acute angles, which the rare cars only approach by reversing. The average slope is 9%, that is to say that some of the bends reach 15% and 20%.”
After the Soulor, Moutin wrote, you passed through a short tunnel cut through the rock of the mountain before reaching the Tortes and after that the Aubisque itself. In these last 11 kilometres the road surface was just rocky scree, with grass growing in it. While the grass growing in the road attested to the lack of traffic, there was still a canteen atop the mountain, serving those tourists that did pass.
Beyond the roadbook...
Something not explained in L’Auto was that the area around the Aubisque supported forestry and mining enterprises. Also not discussed was that, as with all the cols on the route thermale, during the tourist season (July to September) shuttle services taking tourists from one spa town to the next crossed the high peaks several times a week. Wild and remote they might have been but unexplored they were not.
Between them, Ravaud and Moutin gave some idea of what would face the riders when the Tour reached the Pyrénées in the third week of July, even if they left a lot to the imagination. Those who were serious about their Tour chances needed more concrete information.
Part VI – The Tourmalet Levelling Syndicate
June 16 – P-33 days
Back in the eighteenth century, back when Louis XIV sat on the French throne, the Sun King’s grandson ascended to the throne in Spain, prompting Louis to claim that the Pyrénées had ceased to exist. Least ways that’s what Voltaire claimed and it’s not like we’ve ever got anything to do with him wrong. L’Auto reminded its readers of Louis while reporting news that members of the Alcyon-Dunlop team – along with their directeur sportif Alphonse Baugé, his driver Gauderman, and a couple of isolés – were heading to the Pyrénées in order to see for themselves what would face them when the Tour reached the high mountains four weeks later.
Before hitting the hills, the Alcyon riders planned riding the third of the Tour’s new stages, Nîmes to Perpignan (216 km), which today we’d consider a transition stage leading into the mountains. A couple of days later L’Auto carried a report of their ride and noted they were having an easy time of it, “rolling on velvet” as the paper put it. Life in the Pyrénées would be a little bit more difficult, L’Auto predicted, and the riders would soon need to “pull on their handlebars”.
June 17 – P-32 days
Alphonse Baugé, his Alcyon riders and their two guests crossed the Col de Port in the morning of their second day on the road. L’Auto’s man on the ground in Lavelnet met them for lunch and reported that they wouldn’t be crossing the Col de Portet d’Aspet until the following day, having decided to break the Perpignan to Bagnères-de-Luchon stage into two parts.
June 19 – P-30 days
Two days later Baugé wrote from Bagnères-de-Luchon, a letter directly addressed to L’Auto’s Charles Ravaud:
“My dear Ravaud,
“Do you know that old song: Montagnes Pyrénées, you are my loves!... Well, I assure you that it is not our riders who will sing it.
“Ah! my friend, where the hell does Mr Desgrange take us? In truth, it’s frightening, and I’m convinced that never has a professional cyclist got himself into shape on similar roads.
“What hills, and especially what descents! It’s ‘Looping the Loop’; it’s a beautiful ‘Circle of Death’, it’s an avalanche of broken brakes, of tires torn off or punctured by flints, in two words: it’s frightening!
“And, it seems, Luchon to Bayonne is even worse!”
Luchon to Bayonne was the big one, the one with the Col de Peyresourde, the Col d’Aspin, the Col du Tourmalet, and the Col d’Aubisque all to be climbed. The four mountains we today think make up the Circle of Death. But here you have Baugé, after only getting over the Col de Port and the Col de Portet d’Aspet, already invoking the image of the Circle of Death. What that has to do with what we today think of as the Circle of Death is something for another day, when we will go in search of the source of the Circle of Death.
Baugé’s report to Ravaud went on:
“Well, my dear Ravaud, I swear to you that an American eager for sensational spectacle will never have seen anything similar to that of the passage of the Pyrénées by the Tour de France, and this passage will certainly remain legendary in the annals of cycling sport.
“And to think that a King has been found to tell us that there were no more Pyrénées: what were they like in those days?”
Baugé went on to express concern for the isolés and looked forward to tackling the Tourmalet (“Faber would like us to stop at the top of the Tourmalet for three or four days so that he can go up and down it three or four times a day”) and closed his letter promising an update in a couple of days.
June 20 – P-29 days
Lanne-Camy from Barèges – L’Auto’s recently appointed stringer in the area – had good news for L’Auto, its readers, and the riders of the Tour de France:
“BAREGES, June 20 – The road is extremely bad in the Tourmalet, but you can pass. We are impatiently awaiting the riders of the Alcyon-Dunlop team. – Lanne-Camy.”
June 21 – P-28 days
Writing from Argelès-Gazost Alphonse Baugé reported that Lanne-Camy was in error in claiming that the Tourmalet was open. Very much in error.
“My dear Ravaud,
“We are leaving in an hour for Oloron-Sainte-Marie, and before that, I would like to write you a few lines about our stage yesterday. I would need ten pages and also the time to write, to tell you about this ordeal of the thirteen men (six Alcyon, five Legnano and the two isolés who will represent the Armor brand, Ernest Paul and [Charles] Cruchon) who nevertheless wanted to cross the Tourmalet. I will be more eloquent when we get to talk.
“For today, it will suffice to tell you that [Louis] Trousselier fell into a swollen river, that [Georges] Cadolle suffered a fall which could have been serious following a slip in the snow on the descent to Barèges, and that all my riders arrived exhausted at Barèges.”
“The road on the Tourmalet does not exist. It is lost under six to eight metres of snow. The poor devils, after an extremely painful climb, were obliged to descend the formidable slope seated on the snow, holding their machines behind them to brake, having attached themselves to the wheels with either their stockings or with handkerchiefs.
“They scampered down like this, with bare feet, and arrived at three-thirty in Barèges, having travelled 13 kilometres in four hours, with 10 kilometres of descent. It was there that we caught up with them again, Gauderman and I having – like you – been obliged to go around by way of Lourdes.”
Baugé went on to say that he expected conditions to be just as bad on the Aubisque and that his riders would be back in Paris in a couple of days, with he following a day or two behind them.
June 23 – P-26 days
Arriving at Gare d’Orsay at eight o’clock in the morning of June 23 the riders were met by L’Auto, with Charles Ravaud interviewing them. They told him that it was appalling to make them cross the Tourmalet, and that they had terrible memories of the Pyrenean passes. Even before they had reached the snowline they had been struggling, with some getting off and walking, while others tried to hang on to Baugé’s car.
“Long before the summit of the col they found the snow, and the road gone! Fortunately, three road-menders took it upon themselves to guide them up the mountain. Without this unexpected meeting, they would have been obliged to go back down to Sainte-Marie-de-Campan.
“Baugé told you about their descent. The riders from Alcyon and Legnano confirmed it to me. Cadolle, slipping on the snow, almost fell off a precipice. Trousselier tumbled into a river. There were many broken brakes, and above all a number of worn pads. In short, in the riders’ memory, it seems that no race has ever taken such a hard route.
“The ordeal began again on Tuesday with the three passes of Goulor [Soulor], Tortes and Aubisque. Our riders had to cling to Baugé’s car to climb it. They covered 36 kilometres in seven hours. It is enough to underline the fantastic effort they must have produced.
“All came back to us in good shape and hoping that the passage will be easier, in the Pyrenean passes, on July 21.
“We are convinced that their hope will come true. In any case, if chance would have it that, contrary to previous years, the Tourmalet and the Col d’Aubisque were as impassable as they are at this time, we would consider modifying the route in due course.”
That L’Auto would publicly consider at this late stage – the start of the Tour was just ten days away – modifying the route of the race is one indicator of just how serious they took the words of the Alcyon and Legnano riders. But before accepting the need to make any changes to the route of the race L’Auto intended to play one more card:
“Our collaborator Steinès will be leaving shortly to assess the state of the roads and he will prepare a very detailed report for us upon his return. However, it is infinitely probable that the route of the tenth stage will not undergo any modification, because many tourists and in particular Mr Moutin, who recently described the Pyrenean passes for us, are unanimous in telling us that the col will be free of snow by the time the race reaches it. One month still separates us from the moment when the riders of the Tour de France will be called upon to attempt the assault on the Pyrénées. By then the snow will have fully melted. So let’s not beat ourselves up too much and instead simply record the Alcyon and Legnano teams’ scouting of the route of the new stages as one more feat to the credit of the future competitors of our great adventure.”
To the public, Ravaud and his colleagues in L’Auto were putting as calm a face on it as they could. Inside the offices on the Rue du Fabourg, however, things were far from calm. In 1910 readers of L’Auto weren’t aware of just how panicked things had become: that story would take a few years to seep out.
Part VII – The Steinès Version
June 28 – P-21 days
Across five days – June 28 through July 2 – L’Auto published Alphonse Steinès’s account of his adventures in the Pyrénées.
Steinès arrived in Bagnères-de-Luchon on June 27. “This morning, a radiant sun flooded the peaks,” he wrote. “All the snow around Luchon is gone and the roads are being restored.” Together with one of L’Auto’s recently appointed stringers in the area – Paul Dupont, who would be helping with the stage finish in Bagnères-de-Luchon – he met with a man called Darrespen, one of the engineers with responsibility for roads and bridges in the local area. Steinès was assured – and he in turn reassured L’Auto’s readers – that all was well and all roads would be open in time for the main tourist season, running from July through September.
Extracting a promise from Darrespen that the roads to be travelled by the Tour would receive particular attention Steinès and Dupont, aboard a 16 HP Dietrich driven by Isidore Estrade-Berdat, set out to cross the Col de Peyresourde, the Col d’Aspin, the Col du Tourmalet and the Col d’Aubisque. “I will telegraph you this evening the result of our explorations,” he wrote in a message sent before leaving Bagnères-de-Luchon, “but as of now I can tell you that much has been exaggerated this way and that with claims that it was easy to pass when others said it was impossible. It is neither impossible nor easy, it is simply doable.”
Reaching Campan in the afternoon Steinès was able to dispatch an update to Paris: “We have just crossed the Col de Peyresourde and Aspin. They are both wonderful and I wonder how it got in anyone’s mind that the riders of the Tour wouldn’t climb these mountains.” Steinès and his two travelling companions then headed for a date with destiny, a night much misremembered.
June 29 – P-20 days
On June 29 L’Auto’s readers were told that Steinès had crossed the Tourmalet on foot and that further details would follow in due course. The news had reached Paris by way of brief dispatch sent by Lanne-Camy, the hotelier in Barèges who had recently been appointed one of the paper’s stringers. His message was reproduced in full:
BAREGES, 28 juin - Alphonse Steinès a passé le Tourmalet, à pied, hier soir, à 10 heures - Lanne-Camy
BAREGES, 28 June – Alphonse Steinès crossed the Tourmalet on foot last night at 10 o’clock – Lanne-Camy
The same day that that message was reported, L’Auto also reported that a 38 HP Minerva automobile with six people on board had successfully crossed the Tourmalet. Quickly they had reason to doubt the accuracy of that report.
July 1 – P-18 days
It was July 1 before L’Auto’s readers learned what had befallen Steinès on the Tourmalet, with the man himself writing a detailed account of his Pyrenean adventures. By that time the paper had already informed them that he had successfully crossed the Col d’Aubisque too and would soon be returning to Paris, job done.
Steinès’s account of his night on the Tourmalet was both dramatic and poetic.
“Were I to live to be a hundred I would always remember the adventure of my struggle against the mountains, the snow, the ice, the clouds, the ravines, the darkness, the cold, against isolation, against hunger, thirst, against – in a nutshell – everything. All that Baugé wrote, all that the riders told Ravaud, is accurate. Nothing was exaggerated. As it is now, it is madness to try and cross the col.
“The men of the mountains warned me that I could not pass. But on leaving Paris I had promised our Director to see for myself, and I wanted to get through at all costs; I nearly paid for this reckless folly with my life.”
Steinès’s attempt to drive over the Tourmalet was halted two kilometres from the summit. A shepherd was tending a herd of cows nearby. Steinès quizzed him on the state of the pass. Deciding that the shepherd’s responses were too vague Steinès resolved to find out for himself. Leaving his driver and his travelling companion – Estrade and Dupont – to take the Dietrich back down the mountain Steinès, guided by the shepherd, set out on foot for the summit. It was seven o’clock in the evening.
The sky was blanketed in cloud and a sepulchral silence enveloped the mountain. They were in a wasteland of snow, snow that had been hardened by the cold so that it was possible to walk on it. From time to time the snow gave way beneath Steinès. It took an hour to cover the two kilometres to the summit, identified by a trig point, showing an altitude of 2,133 metres, a little higher than the mountain is measured today.
Looking down toward Barèges Steinès could see that the snow extended further than the two kilometres it covered on the Sainte-Marie-de-Campan side. It was by then seven days since the riders from Alcyon and Legnano had had their own adventure on this mountain and all trace of their passage was gone. The light was fading – it was by now eight o’clock – and Steinès’s clothes were soaked by the snow. The shepherd told him he could take him no further and had to return to his cows.
“Have you ever felt in your life an immense despair, an immeasurable emptiness, this indefinable thing that one feels in front of the unknown and that one must perceive when one sees death coming? Yes! Well, that’s how I felt. I first beg my shepherd not to leave me like this, not to abandon me in these Siberian steppes, in this snowy desert where I would not dare to take a step, because I would risk breaking my bones, in this country that I don’t know, where there is neither path nor track, in this pass which is frequented by bears who come from Spain. After having begged, I threaten, and I believe that if I had been carrying a revolver I would not have hesitated to use it. We defend ourselves as best we can when life is at stake, and I realized very clearly that mine was. Nothing helped; he ran away, disappearing in the snow.”
Steinès got down on all fours, to crawl down the mountain. He tumbled, head over heels. Rolling, falling, crawling, he descended four kilometres down the mountain. Having hermetically sealed his pockets he was able to extract some matches and light one, in order to check the time on his watch. But it had stopped at 8:20. By now it must be nine, or ten. He continued, guided by the sound of water falling. Suddenly he saw tracks in the snow.
“It is the wake of a bicycle wheel. Safe! Yes, saved! I follow this track on all fours, touching it with my finger. A stroke of good fortune!”
After a kilometre he came out of the snow and onto the road. He rose and ran, as fast as his legs could carry him. A kilometre, no more. Then he collapsed with fatigue.
“I sit down by the side of the road and, alone, abandoned in the endless night, I cry, I cry profusely. I think of everything: of my family, who believe I’m in a good hotel chatting with other travellers; of my colleagues no doubt busy preparing a funny story for the paper. Let’s dry those tears. Let’s go!”
Ahead he spied a light. And two shadows in the light. Gendarmes. He made himself known to them. Told them the tale of his adventures. They took him to the Hôtel Richelieu. He was in Barèges. The hotel run by L’Auto’s recently appointed stringer for the area, Lanne-Camy. The man who, the next day, sent the message to L’Auto we’ve already read. His luggage in the Dietrich, Steinès borrowed a change of clothes from the hotelier.
“Ten minutes later, I was seated in front of a lavish dinner. It was half past ten in the evening. The other travellers came and stared at me like I was a circus freak. I am the gentleman who has crossed the Tourmalet at night. They’ll be talking about it for a long time in Barèges and the surrounding area.”
A century and more on, they’re still talking about it in Barèges, and much further afield too, albeit in a much mutated form.
Recovered from his exertions, on June 29 – his third day in the Pyrénées – Steinès crossed the Col d’Aubisque, which was reported in L’Auto the following day: “Well! We have just crossed it, the one that everyone said was impassable; we have just crossed the Col d’Aubisque.” Continuing, Steinès summed up his whole adventure: “Let the riders know that our 16 HP Dietrich, with its Bergougnan tyres, has passed and therefore a bicycle will be able to pass. It is physically possible to cross all the cols that are on the route chosen by our editor-in-chief. It was necessary to prove it and to prove it in an irrefutable way. It is done.”
July 2 – P-17 days
Three days later a full report of the crossing of the Aubisque was published in L’Auto. Starting out from Argèles-Gazost, Steinès and his travelling companions – L’Auto’s stringer in Bagnères-de-Luchon, Dupont, and their driver, Estrade – had been informed that the road over the Aubisque was still closed. Desiring more information he detoured 50 kilometres north, to Pau, in order to talk to the man with overall responsibility for roads and bridges throughout the Basses-Pyrénées department (France’s equivalent of counties). There he was told that the clearing of the road over the Aubisque had been completed two days previously.
Rather than returning to Argèles-Gazost and crossing the mountains east to west, the same as the Tour would, Steinès instead went to Eaux-Bonnes and crossed the mountain west to east. This enabled him to then head to Tarbes after crossing the Aubisque, where he intended to meet the chief engineer for the Hautes-Pyrénées department.
Shortly after reaching Eaux-Bonnes and commencing the ascent of the Aubisque – from the bottom of what, for the riders, would be the descent of the mountain – the weather took a turn for the worse:
“It’s a deluge: raindrops the size of saucers, hail the size of pigeons’ eggs, snow, everything is mixed up. It is extraordinary. We no longer dare move forward. Torrents of water descend the bare mountain, carrying rocks. There is nowhere to shelter. We stoically weather the storm.”
The storm weathered, Steinès and his companions began their ascent. Trees blocking the road had to be cleared. They climbed through a section where nothing separated the edge of the road from the void below: “On one side a precipice whose depth can vary between two and three hundred metres; no railings, no boundary stones, not the slightest ledge to indicate where the road ends and the precipice begins. And it lasts for kilometres.”
They passed a road crew working to repair the damage done by landslides etc. Eventually they reached the col itself, where sheep, goats, and cows roamed freely. “These herds occupy the entire road and do not dream of letting us pass. Why would they bother. They are at home here. We are the intruders.”
In the passage between the Aubisque and the Soulor, via the Tortes, the road was in an indescribable state of disrepair. “This is where we fully realize the devastation done by the harsh winter that has just ended. There is still snow everywhere, and there will be still when the riders come, but the road is cleared, and in some places we drove between two walls of snow.”
The descent down to Argèles-Gazost – what for the riders would the climb of the Soulor – Steinès thought was in good condition, albeit somewhat daunting for the many turns on the road.
His task completed Steinès reported that he was returning to Paris.
His meetings in Pau and Tarbes with the chief engineers for Basses-Pyrénées and the Hautes-Pyrénées departments served as bookends to a trip that had begun three days before in Bagnères-de-Luchon where Steinès had met one of the people responsible for roads and bridges in the area, Darrespen. He was a conducteur des ponts et chaussées, an engineer in charge of the maintenance of roads and bridges working at the level of a supervisor. Over the course of his trip Steinès met several other supervisors. There was Freche, in Arreau, who had responsibility for the Col d’Aspin. Lesparre in Bagnères-de-Bigorre, who dealt with the Col du Tourmalet, as did Lartigue in Luz-Saint-Sauveur on the other side of the mountain. In Argelès there was Gassan, also responsible for part of the Tourmalet, as well as the Col d’Aubisque. In Larans there was Meheut, who shared responsibility for the Aubisque.
Of all the people he met, it is the chief engineer in Pau who has gone down in legend, with his request for 5,000 francs to bring the road over the Aubisque up to a suitable standard for the Tour to cross it. That part of the story, though, was not made known to readers of L’Auto in 1910.
Before moving on to looking at how we got from what Steinès wrote in L’Auto to the version of the story we tell today, a quick recap of Steinès’s version of the story.
Steinès arrived in Bagnères-de-Luchon on Monday, June 27. He met with one of the engineers responsible for roads and bridges in the area, Darrespen. He was accompanied by one of L’Auto’s recently appointed stringers in the area, Paul Dupont. In a Dietrich driven by Isidore Estrade-Berdat they set out for the mountains. From Campan later in the day Steinès reported that they had crossed the Col de Peyresourde and the Col d’Aspin and were en route to the Col du Tourmalet.
On Tuesday, June 28, Lanne-Camy reported to L’Auto that Steinès had crossed the Tourmalet the previous night.
On Wednesday, June 29, Steinès crossed the Aubisque, met with the chief engineers for the Hautes-Pyrénées and Basses-Pyrénées departments and prepared to return to Paris.
Each of these events was reported in L’Auto the day after they happened: Steinès’s arrival in Luchon on the June 28, Lanne-Camy’s message on June 29, the crossing of the Aubisque on June 30. On July 1 and July 2 L’Auto provided more detail of Steinès’s ascents of the Tourmalet and the Aubisque. On July 3 the 1910 Tour de France commenced.
Across all of that reporting there is one notable absence: there was no telegram from Steinès claiming the Tourmalet was passable.
Part VIII – Forging a Legend
Some speculation. Were you to be told that, just four days before the start of the 1910 Tour de France, Alphonse Steinès was negotiating with the chief engineer of the Hautes-Pyrénées department in order to have a road built over the Col d’Aubisque, you wouldn’t believe it. And you shouldn’t, because it didn’t happen. But Steinès did meet that man a few days before the start of the Tour. It just wasn’t to get a road built. It was to ensure that an existing road was fully repaired ahead of the arrival of the Tour’s riders three weeks later.
Instead of approaching the story from that angle, however, some have decided that a road was built and because that is such a colossal undertaking then it must have been built long before the Tour’s arrival. And so they’ve sent Steinès to the Pyrénées in January. Some have even taken the date of Steinès actual visit – June 27 – and decided that that must be a typo and it was really January 27.
In part, I imagine, that’s how we got from the story Steinès originally told then to the story we tell now: like Eric Morecambe’s attempt to play Grieg’s Piano Concerto, our version has all the right notes, but not necessarily in the right order. We’ve also jazzed it up a bit, adding detail from other stories and improvising new elements. Most notably we’ve kept Steinès on the mountain until three o’clock in the morning and we’ve transformed a message sent by Lanne-Camy into a telegram sent by Steinès.
We’ve been able to do this – have had to do this, even – partly because so much of L’Auto’s history got lost in the second world war and partly because actually going back and reading available copies of L’Auto has been such a difficult task to undertake until recently. It’s only in the last few years that Gallica has made made L’Auto available online to all of us, no matter where we are in the world, removing the need to go to Paris to read the paper.
That’s a generous reading of what has happened, an easy excuse for the lies told by many in the name of history. The reality is that that we’ve turned Steinès’s story into the whispers game, every telling of the tale different, distorted. But it’s not just us, today. Even in the 1920s Steinès’s adventures on the Tourmalet were being twisted this way and that according to the tastes of the teller. Take, for instance, a version of the tale that appeared in La Pédale in 1924.
Ravaud having failed to cross all of the Pyrenean cols to be included in the Tour, according to La Pédale’s telling of the tale, Steinès was sent south to see what the story was. He crossed the Peyresourde and the Aspin. He got to within three kilometres of the top of the Tourmalet before snow stopped him. He set out on foot and three hours later he reached the col. Two metres of snow filled the road as he started his descent to Barèges. It was by now dark. Twenty times Steinès almost stumbled off the road into nothing. Twenty times his blood ran cold with fright. He sat in the snow and cried like a child for his mother. He resumed his descent, using matches to light his way. When they ran out he got down on all fours and crawled down the mountain. Finally he reached Barèges, at nine o’clock in the evening.
By the time that Victor Breyer (briefly) touched upon Steinès’s adventures of the Tourmalet, in a 1950 edition of But et Club, he had closed the gap between Desgrange becoming convinced of the need to enter the Pyrénées and Steinès being sent to assess the condition of the Tourmalet and the Aubisque, leaving the impression that one had quickly followed on the heels of the other.
Those tellings of the tale are just two examples of the way in which the story can be seen to change over time. Two later versions of the tale look like important steps in the way we have arrived at the version of the story we have today: a version found in Marcel Diamant-Berger’s Histoire du Tour de France (1959); and a version found in Pierre Chany’s Fabuleuse Histoire du Tour de France (1983).
The Diamant-Berger Version
In Diamant-Berger’s version it’s the beginning of 1910 when Steinès convinces Desgrange to take the Tour into the Pyrénées. The plan is announced in L’Auto and there’s a public outcry. Steinès is sent to recce the route. When he arrives in the Pyrénées – no date is given but this must still be early in 1910 – he’s told a Mercedes with four people in it had overturned the previous week.
Steinès travels to Pau to meet the man in charge of roads and bridges, Blanchet, in order to talk to him about the Aubisque, which he has just come from. Blanchet wants 5,000 francs to bring the road up to the standard needed to let the Tour cross it. Steinès calls Paris, speaks to Desgrange. He offers 1,500 francs. Steinès talks him up to 2,000. Blanchet says he’ll find the rest somewhere and promises to start work on the road the next day. Steinès returns to Paris, leaving the Tourmalet to be tackled another day.
He returns to the Pyrénées a month before the Tour and heads to Sainte-Marie-de-Campan, where he has lunch in the inn opposite the church. The owner tells him he doesn’t know if the Tourmalet is open yet. Someone comes in and says the road is open. Another person says the road is still closed. Steinès decides to check it out for himself. Dupont, from Bagnères-de-Bigorre, is his driver. Three kilometres from the summit they encounter snow. After another 500 or 600 metres the road is blocked. Dupont says that this will bring out the bears from Spain, to eat the French livestock. It’s six o’clock.
Steinès sets out on foot. Within a kilometre the snow is more than four metres deep. He sees in the distance shepherds guarding sheep. He asks one of them to guide him to the col. It takes two-and-a-half hours to cover the remaining two kilometres. Night is falling, a cloudy sky blocking out the stars. Steinès asks the shepherd to take him down to Barèges but he refuses and returns to his sheep. Steinès does the math: it’s 19 kilometres to return the way he came, 14 kilometres down to Barèges. He heads for Barèges.
The snow collapses beneath him and he slips off the side of the road. His feet get wet in a rivulet. He climbs back up onto the road. He uses the sound of a river to guide him. The snow begins to clear. He comes across a kilometre marker, sits on it and cries. He continues. He sees lights in the distance. The outskirts of Barèges. They’ve had a phonecall from Sainte-Marie-de-Campan, several teams of guides are out looking for him. It is three o’clock.
He’s taken to Lanne-Camy, L’Auto’s local correspondent. Has a warm bath and borrows a change of clothes. Sits down to another meal. Has a sleep. When he awakes he tells Lanne-Camy he must telegraph Desgrange. He’s asked what he’ll say. He pauses for thought. Writes: ‘Henri Desgrange. L’Auto. Paris. Passed Tourmalet, stop. Very good road, stop. Perfectly doable.’
« Henri Desgrange. L’Auto. Paris. Passé Tourmalet, stop. Très bonne route, stop. Parfaitement faisable. »
Diamant-Berger’s version of the telegram that never was.
The Chany Version
The second version of the story comes from the fabulist Pierre Chany, who for more than 30 years was L’Équipe’s chief cycling writer. His aptly titled Fabuleuse Histoire du Tour de France (1983) – a colourful and inventive history of the Tour – takes Diamant-Berger’s version of the story and adds new elements to it.
It’s the beginning of 1910 when Steinès convinces Desgrange to take the Tour into the Pyrénées. Steinès heads south, to Eaux-Bonnes at the bottom of the Col d’Aubisque. He gets the story of the Mercedes. Goes to Pau. Meets the man in charge of roads and bridges who wants 5,000 francs to sort out the road over the Aubisque. Steinès wires Paris. Desgrange offers 2,000 francs.
Steinès heads to Sainte-Marie-de-Campan, where he goes to the inn opposite the church. He’s told the road over the Tourmalet isn’t usually open until July. Steinès decides to check it out for himself. Dupont, from Bagnères-de-Bigorre, is his driver. Four kilometres from the summit they’re stopped by snow. It is six o’clock.
Steinès sets out on foot. Soon the snow is more than four metres deep. Night falls. He crosses the col. Begins the descent. Disappears into a snowdrift. Falls into a stream. Sees the lights of Barèges. Meets L’Auto’s correspondent, Lanne-Camy, on the outskirts of the village. Lanne-Camy has been alerted by Dupont to be on the lookout for him, several teams of guides are out searching for him. It is three o’clock.
Bath. Food. Sleep. Steinès prepares a telegram for Desgrange: ‘Passed Tourmalet. Stop. Very good road. Stop. Perfectly passable. Stop. Signed: Steinès.’
« Passé Tourmalet. Stop. Très bonne route. Stop. Parfaitement praticable. Stop. Signé : Steinès. »
Chany’s version of the telegram that never was.
Steinès returns to Paris. Conceals what really happened. Tells Desgrange that he’s prepared a new route for the Tour, one that bypasses Toulouse and goes instead to Perpignan, from where the race will cross the Pyrénées by way of Bagnères-de-Luchon before tackling the Peyresourde, Aspin, Tourmalet and Aubisque en route to Bayonne. The news is published the next day in L’Auto. Other papers condemn Desgrange for a dangerous and far-fetched initiative.
Part IX – The Steinès Version, Revisited
To complicate this story somewhat, we have a second account from Steinès of his adventures in the Pyrénées. This appeared in early 1959 in a magazine published by L’Équipe, the successor to L’Auto. This account heaps confusion upon the version Steinès first offered in 1910, beginning with its headline: “Alphonse Steinès (86 years old), the man who convinced Henri Desgrange to take Tour into the mountains tells us how he made the road over the Aubisque for 3,000 francs!”
This account begins by touching on the difficulties of convincing Desgrange to make changes to the Tour. “With persistent obstinacy,” Steinès wrote, “I managed to convince the ‘patron’, Henri Desgrange, that a Tour de France should follow the roads closest to the borders, whether they be plains or mountains. It was a first victory that was to give the race a lustre it did not yet have. There was so much self-esteem to manage, so many interests, that Desgrange hesitated for a long time.”
Steinès’s first success had come in 1905, with the ascent of the Ballon d’Alsace. In 1907 he had convinced Desgrange to take the race into the occupied territories of Alsace and Lorraine, with a stage that finished in Metz. He also took the race deeper into the foothills of the Alps.
These successes were not all warmly received. In 1907 the Touring Club de France mocked the Tour’s temerity, criticised it for its failure to embrace the high passes of the Galibier, Izoard, Vars and Allos on France’s eastern borders, and for not venturing into the mountains that formed the southern border.
Though little criticism of the Tour’s entry to the Pyrénées appeared in L’Auto in 1910 – and virtually none appeared in any other paper – Steinès claimed that, from the moment it was announced that the Tour would cross the Peyresourde, Aspin, Tourmalet and Aubisque, they received an avalanche of letters heaping insults upon them. Whether that was in September 1909, when the route of the race was announced but without naming the main cols to be crossed, or after May, when Ravaud and Abran had attempted to traverse those passes, is not told. The only critical letter L’Auto did publish was the one that came from JT Burton in early June.
Steinès was able to recall the contents of one of the letters received:
“‘So you don’t know that the roads of which you speak do not exist? If there is a good one on the Tourmalet there is none on the Aubisque. It is a simple path by which loggers bring tree trunks down the mountain, pulled by teams of oxen.”
Those trunks, Steinès explained, dug holes in the road, holes deep enough to bury a man in. Though, of course, when he wrote in 1910 of driving over the Aubisque Steinès didn’t mention any holes deep enough to bury men in. Maybe to describe them so was just an exaggeration for effect, something we can’t help letting potholes bring out in us whenever we talk of them, then or now.
This letter quoted by Steinès led to a stormy argument with Desgrange, who no longer wanted to hear about the cols of the Pyrénées. “However,” Steinès wrote, “I got the better of his aversion to the high passes and, that same evening, I set off with my bike to reconnoitre the contested parts of the route.”
Missing from this account are some important points. That Ravaud and Abran had failed to cross the Aspin, Tourmalet, and Aubisque in May. That Lanne-Camy had told L’Auto the Tourmalet was open on the same day that the Alcyon and Legnano riders found it buried deep in snow. That, when the Alcyon and Legnano riders returned to Paris, they were interviewed by Ravaud and it was immediately announced that Steinès was being sent to the Pyrénées to report on the true state of the roads over the high passes. This perhaps is the biggest problem with this 1959 account: it is problematic not so much for the things it says but for the things it leaves unsaid. The gaps it leaves for others to fill.
With those elements left out, we get something very close to the version told by Diamant-Berger and Chany, both of whom include the argument with Desgrange about the condition of the road over the Aubisque, with Desgrange lecturing Steinès on the damage done to the road by the forestry workers.
“As I had promised the ‘patron’,” Steinès’s 1959 account continued, “so I left with my bicycle to reconnoitre the four passes, from where I almost didn’t came back alive. The profession of a journalist has its risks, is sometimes fatal. I had the dreadful experience of that. The guides in Barèges can testify to this. I still suffer today, at 86, the consequences of it.”
Steinès’s account of his night on the Tourmalet is here reduced to a single paragraph:
“I must go back to my tragic misadventures on Tourmalet where, at night, in the darkness, I was lost and alone in the icy desert, struggling and not wanting to die on a hostile and unknown mountain, at an altitude of 2,255 meters, covered with a thickness of four meters of snow, over an extent of ten kilometres. Teams of guides from Barèges and Sainte-Marie-de-Campan, who went to my rescue, did not find me. I saved myself alone, but not without difficulty and not without terrible dangers, after having lived for hours on end in mortal anguish, without assistance, and in the sinister and nocturnal silence of the high mountains.”
Steinès’s tale then jumps to the Aubisque:
“Having crossed the 1,750m Col d’Aubisque and stopped at Gourette for a snack – Gourette at that time was only an antimony mine with a modest canteen, whereas today it has become a famous winter sports resort – I slept that night in Eaux-Bonnes. There I learned that, a few days earlier, a big Mercedes that had, like me, wanted to cross the pass – but instead of being on a bicycle, it was on four wheels with four passengers including the driver – had skidded on the loose road surface, and crashed 400 metres below. The car was in pieces and the travellers in a better world. Four dead, it throws a chill, especially when you’ve come close to meeting the grim reaper two days before.”
Steinès by his earlier account – and supported by a brief message sent to L’Auto by one of this two travelling companions – had crossed the Aubisque west to east, starting in Eaux-Bonnes. After descending to Argèles-Gazost he had headed to Tarbes to meet the chief engineer of the Hautes-Pyrénées department, who had overall responsibility for the Col du Tourmalet. He had already been to Pau earlier in the day to meet the chief engineer of the Basses-Pyrénées department, who had overall responsibility for the Col d’Aubisque. To get back to Eaux-Bonnes that night must have involved more than 250 kilometres of driving in one day.
Returning to Pau the following day, that can be reconciled with what we’ve previously been told. Steinès’s first visit to Pau was in consequence of being told that the Aubisque was still closed. Told it had been opened two days before he was then able to go and see for himself what state the road was in. Concerned by what he saw, it is not unreasonable for him to have returned to Pau the next day in order to talk to the chief engineer about getting the road repaired.
In his 1959 account, Steinès offered this take on his meeting with chief engineer in Pau:
– You know of the accident with the Mercedes? The road is not passable.
– I know all of that. You need to fix the road. The riders will pass there in a month. Understand me well: they will pass.
– But it’s impossible! First of all I have no budget!
– If it’s a question of money, we’ll provide it for you; but they will pass.
He asked the chief engineer to see if he could get Paris on the phone, and to ask for the offices of L’Auto, and the ‘patron’ himself, Desgrange.
“Half a century ago, you couldn’t get a call from Pau to Paris in one or two minutes like today. After an hour the bell rang and – oh miracle! – I had Desgrange on the line. I gave him a short – very short – account of my trip across the Pyrénées, assuring him that all was well, that the Tourmalet was very rough, very doable for an average cyclist, and would be in order in a month because men were already working on removing the snow. Moreover, our correspondent in Barèges would keep us informed. Good! As for the Col d’Aubisque, obviously the road was not very passable, but I was discussing that with the chief engineer of roads and bridges for the whole of the Basses-Pyrénées department. He not having a budget for the maintenance of the routes thermales I promised we could help him.”
Desgrange asked how much was needed. Steinès said it would cost about 5,000 francs. Desgrange told him to offer 500. At which point the call was abruptly cut off. Steinès promised the engineer that, once back in Paris, he would work on Desgrange and get him to increase his offer. He succeeded in increasing it to 1,500 francs. The chief engineer was able to find enough to match that and Steinès reported that, at a cost of 3,000 francs, repairs were carried out on the road covering the second half of the climb of the Col du Soulor and the passage over the Col de Tortes to the Col d’Aubisque.
“Well! dear readers and friends, it is with this modest sum of 3,000 francs that the work to improve the road over the Aubisque, between Arrens and Gourette, was undertaken the very next day, with me watching on. It is thanks to this very modest sum of money that we were able to take the Tour over this route some had deemed impossible, and with great success. And it was, and still is, thanks to this that the routes thermales, previously not well maintained, have become national roads, and nowadays rank among the most beautiful and picturesque roads in France.”
Steinès’s own claim of having the road between the Aubisque and the Soulor improved is markedly more modest than what L’Équipe claimed in its headline, which suggested that a road was built from scratch. How modest is Steinès’s claim that it is thanks to the Tour that the route thermale became as popular as it did? That’s harder to assess. As mentioned earlier, the Touring Club de France had by 1910 already been working for several years on promoting a route Pyrénées. Books like CL Freeston’s 1912 Passes of the Pyrenees show that motor cars also played a role in popularising the Pyrénées. The Tour alone was not responsible for what followed in subsequent years. But at the same time I don’t think it’s an exaggeration to claim that the Tour played a major part in that.
Between these two accounts by Steinès – from 1910 and 1959 – we have most all the major elements of the story we tell today, albeit in a different order and with a few additions drawn from elsewhere. The most notable gap in the story is why we keep him on the Tourmalet until three in the morning when, by his own account – and by Lanne-Camy’s message telegraphed to L’Auto – he was off the mountain by ten o’clock and eating a meal by ten-thirty. Other versions of the story told before 1959 may one day help explain how we came to invent that part of the story.
Part X – The Abridged Version
- As early as July 1909, a full year ahead of the Tour’s first Pyrenean stages, Henri Desgrange was indicating that the 1910 Tour would enter the Pyrénées;
- The route of the 1910 Tour was announced in September 1909, with two stages in the Pyrénées included. Alphonse Steinès has to have convinced Desgrange to take the Tour into the Pyrénées before that;
- The Tour’s route through the Pyrénées was scouted by Charles Ravaud and Georges Abran in May 1910 with regular reports of their progress appearing in L’Auto;
- Ravaud followed those reports with detailed descriptions of the two new Pyrenean stages, while a local cyclo-tourist, Émile Moutin, added extra detail on the second and harder of the two stages;
- The threat of bears in the Pyrénées may have been real but it was the threat of the cows, horses, sheep, and pigs that freely roamed the roads that L’Auto felt riders needed to be warned about;
- L’Auto published just one letter criticising their choice of Pyrenean climbs, though Steinès claimed they received many more. None of the other papers or magazines criticised L’Auto;
- The Touring Club de France had already sent riders over the Col du Tourmalet in 1902, including Hippolyte Figaro, the first Black rider to start and finish Paris-Roubaix, and Marthe Hesse, one of the women riding in those days whose name is still recalled. Riders in the TCF event also included several professionals whose names we today still recall for their participation in early Tours;
- It was following the Alcyon team’s recce of the Col de Port and the Col de Portet d’Aspet that Alphonse Baugé first used the term Circle of Death to refer to any of the mountains in the Pyrénées;
- Six riders from the Alcyon team, along with five from Legnano and two isolés, had their own misadventures in the snow on the Tourmalet and were forced to descend to Barèges on their backsides with their bikes held behind them to act as brakes. One rider nearly slipped off the road into the abyss below while another fell into a river;
- Steinès was dispatched to the Pyrénées and arrived in Bagnères-de-Luchon on June 27. After having crossed the Peyresourde and the Aspin during the day, that evening he set off up the Tourmalet accompanied by Paul Dupont and their driver Isidore Estrade-Berdat. It was seven o’clock when he abandoned Dupont and Estrade and started walking. By ten-thirty he was back in civilisation and eating a meal in the Hôtel Richelieu in Barèges;
- While it is true that search parties were sent out to look for him, Steinès made it down off the Tourmalet under his own steam;
- Steinès’s telegram is a fiction. The actual message was sent by Lanne-Camy and simply said that Steinès had arrived in Barèges having crossed the Tourmalet on foot;
- Having crossed the Tourmalet Steinès then tackled the Aubisque and had a meeting in Pau with the chief road engineer for the whole of the Basses-Pyrénées department. He wanted about 5,000 francs to bring the road between the Soulor and the Aubisque up to the standard Steinès desired. Desgrange offered 500 francs, Steinès was subsequently able to increase that to 1,500 francs, with the chief engineer securing matching funds;
- It was only at the end of his trip, with all the cols passed, that Steinès learned that a Mercedes with four people on board had recently crashed on the Aubisque killing all on board;
- A full account of Steinès’s trip to the Pyrénées, including his night on the Tourmalet, was published in L’Auto over several days immediately after;
- Much of the version of the story we tell today appears to come from a 1959 book by Marcel Diamant-Berger, which was later copied and added to by Pierre Chany in the 1980s.
Next: Assassins of the Aubisque!
My thanks go to: Tom Isitt, whose 2017 Rouleur article, ‘Truth or Lies’, kicked off this attempt to look at the less fictitious history of how the Tour discovered the Pyrénées (at this distance we may never know the truth but we can dismiss those accounts that are patently false); and to Max Leonard whose own research unearthed a crucial portion of the story told above, which he graciously shared with me. Go raibh mile maith agat.