“Stage 17 – Wednesday 22 July : Bourg-Saint-Maurice–Le Grand Bornand, 169.5km
Today was what’s known in cycling terms as the ‘Queen Stage’ of the Tour de France. I don’t know where the term originated, but it’s usually given to the hardest day of the race and, with one second-category climb and four first category mountains to be covered on the 170km through the Alps, today was never going to be easy.”
~ Nico Roche, Inside the Tour de France
When did bike races get queen stages? And why are they queen stages in some countries but king stages in others? What even is a queen stage?
The Queen and Me
The very first cycling book I read was The Great Bike Race, a book about the 1976 Tour de France written by the Observer’s then sports editor, Geoffrey Nicholson. A friend I rode with had found a copy in a second-hand bookshop in Dublin and we devoured it, even though it was already a generation out of date by the time we came to it. Other kids my age, they were sharing copies of Goodbye to the Hill – this is Ireland, we’re literary and even our porn comes in book form – but there we were, noses deep in The Great Bike Race. What can I say, I had a depraved childhood.
Flicking through The Great Bike Race again – I have to flick carefully, half the pages are falling out and it’s in danger of turning into a version of BS Johnson’s book-in-a-box, The Unfortunates – there is a curious absence: there is no queen stage in Nicholson’s account of the 1976 Tour.
Nicholson’s front-of-book glossary – the book was published in the 1970s and the English then hadn’t a clue what even a maillot jaune was (“Yellow jersey worn by the race leader; the term applied to the leader himself. It was introduced in 1919 so that the crowds could identify their hero more easily. It is worth £120 a day to the wearer on stages 1 to 14, £50 a day thereafter.”) – had entries for various kinds of étapes (étape, demi-étape, tiers d’étape) but no étape reine.
That seemed odd, given the ubiquity of the phrase today. So I turned to Sam Abt, the dean of American cycling journalism, a few of whose books from the 1980s and 1990s I have. And she wasn’t there either. I looked in a few other books. Jeff Connor’s Wide-Eyed and Legless and it’s up-dated version, Field of Fire: no queen stage. David Walsh’s Inside the Tour de France: EPO, yes, queen stage, no. I even looked in the fabulist Pierre Chany’s aptly titled Fabuleuse histoire du Tour de France and, even in that collection of made-up nonsense she didn’t put in an appearance.
None of my older books appear to talk of the Tour having a queen stage. How odd is that?
Queen’s Greatest Hits
The earliest reference I can find to the Tour having a queen stage comes from a May 1920 edition of L’Auto, in which Henri Desgrange dubbed the Bayonne-Luchon stage l’étape reine:
“What is the hardest stage? It is indisputable that this is the Bayonne–Luchon stage, and since we are explaining the route to our readers, this is the moment to justify this opinion. Bayonne–Luchon is the queen stage because after 150 kilometres of terrain presenting hardly any difficulties other than the Col d’Osquich, the stage places before the riders – at the moment when the sun is already scorching – nearly 200 kilometres with six formidable cols.”
The cols to be conquered were the mountains we today think of as the Circle of Death: the Col d’Aubisque, the Col du Tourmalet, the Col d’Aspin and the Col de Peyresourde. That’s only four but the Aubisque was a three-for-the-price-of-one bundle that also contained the now disused Col de Tortes along with the Col du Soulor. In this west-to-east passage those two were – despite Desgrange’s hyperbole – just minor rises on the descent off the Aubisque, not formidable in any fashion.
While we today think of these climbs as being the Circle of Death, in the 1920s that was not the case. A decade earlier, while reconning the route of the 1910 Tour, the great directeur sportif Alphonse Baugé had described the descents in the Pyrénées – specifically those off the Col de Port and the Col de Portet d’Aspet – as being like the acrobatic cycling shows ‘Looping the Loop’ and the ‘Circle of Death’. Baugé used the English name for ‘Looping the Loop, by which this act was universally known, he didn’t Frenchify it.
The French national library, the Bibliothèque nationale de France (BnF), makes available online a lot of out-of-copyright material, which for newspapers and magazines – including the likes of L’Auto and L’Équipe – takes us up to the early 1950s. Apart from that one usage in L’Auto in 1910, nowhere in the BnF’s corpus can I find the Circle of Death – in French or in English – again being used in connection with the Tour. No one in L’Auto picked up on Baugé’s coinage and ran with the idea of the those Pyrenean climbs being a Circle of Death. Nor did anyone anywhere else pick it up and run with it. It was a one-and-done reference until some point in more recent years – how recent is a question yet to be answered – when it became commonplace. The Circle of Death, it’s a part of our sport’s past, but not in the way we’d like to think it is.
Desgrange is clear in what he wrote that the queen stage is the hardest stage, a king-sized day of pain and altitude gain. There are, though, people who argue that the queen stage derives from a chess reference. The queen being the most mobile piece on a chessboard, she exerts the most influence on the game, therefore the queen stage is the stage that is expected to exert the most influence on the outcome of the Tour. While undoubtedly cerebral and elegant, this is – to use the academic term – complete bollocks. It’s us trying to fill in the blanks and come up with a pretty explanation but nothing more than that, a pretty explanation. That it befits the Tour more than the way Desgrange used l’étape reine – hardest is just brutish, and cycling is supposed to be chess on wheels – is neither here nor there. It’s wrong.
We have done the same thing with crafting explanations for the origins of the Circle of Death. Graeme Fife, in Tour de France: The History, the Legend, the Riders, says this of its origins:
“In what locals called the ‘Circle of Death’ in the Pyrenees, bears roamed and some riders, finding themselves alone in the remote high places, stopped, fearing attack from the wild creatures.”
According to Rosalie Maggio’s biography Marie Marvingt, Fiancee of Danger (2019) the name arises as a result of “the vicious brown bears that roamed the area. (After riders had been threatened and even hurt by the bears, bikers and fans used to shout “Assassin!” at Desgrange when he appeared in public.)”
Maggio’s shouts of assassin, that’s her being an ass and rewriting the history of the Aubisque and trying to make it relevant to the story of Marie Marvingt (who we fantasise rode the route of the 1908 Tour (despite there being zero evidence supporting this), which was two years before the Tour even added the Aubisque).
Fife and Maggio’s bears, they come from a single reference by Alphonse Steinès in his account of his evening on the Tourmalet in June 1910, a single reference from which some have generated imaginary editorials written by Desgrange warning riders to be on the lookout for ursine predators. The only animals the riders of the 1910 and subsequent Tours were actually warned to be wary of were the cows and the horses that crossed the roads at will, a danger to themselves as well as to people travelling on those roads.
If Fife is to be believed and locals did use the name the Circle of Death, how was that phrased in French? There’s a Cirque de Gavarnie, 40 kilometres south of Argelès-Gazost, down near the Spanish border. And there’s a Cirque du Litor, near the Col du Soulor. Cirque here means not a circus but a natural amphitheatre, a bowl-shaped geographical feature, usually formed by retreating glaciers. So the Circle of Death, if it really was a local name, could it originally have been the cirque de la mort? Would that it were, for instead of riders scared by bears then we could tell tall tales of riders traumatised by circus clowns. Which would be far more colourful, inventive and downright funnier than anything the fabulist Pierre Chany has ever lied to us about.
Sadly, Giles Belbin in A Year in the Saddle (2015) and again in A Ride Through the Greatest Cycling Stories (2017), bursts that bubble by telling us that locals simply called the Circle of Death le Cercle de la Mort. Oddly, the Pyrénées has fewer cercles than it does cirques. One hundred per cent fewer, by my calculations.
Crossing the streams, you can even find one source claiming that the Circle of Death is not a place at all but is the name given to “the hardest Tour de France stage in the Pyrenees”. In other words, the Circle of Death is often the queen stage. I really shouldn’t tell you where that is taking my imagination but it involves teeth and is definitely NSFW.
Queen of the Slipstream
Whether Desgrange coined the phrase himself, or came across it elsewhere and borrowed it, we cannot say. What matters here is how quickly and how widely the phrase was taken up by others. The short answer? Not quickly and not widely.
L’Auto didn’t return to the well until 1924 – the year Albert Londres did not use the phrase forçats de la route to describe the Tour’s riders but L’Auto did con people into believing that he had – when it was said that it was a close call between Nice–Briançon (which included the Col d’Izoard and its lunar-like Casse-Déserte) and Bayonne–Luchon as to which stage was the toughest of the race. The presence of the Tourmalet tipped the hand in favour of the latter being the queen stage.
At the end of that Tour, La Gironde’s Gaston Bénac – who went to take over the sports pages at Paris Soir and create the GP des Nations – joined the fray in a syndicated report that also appeared in Le Réforme des Charents in which he noted that it was in the queen stage – Bayonne–Luchon – that Ottavio Bottecchia proved himself a great rider and effectively won the Tour.
The following year, 1925, I can find only a single reference to the queen stage – again, Bayonne–Luchon with, again, Nice–Briançon described as a close second – appearing in an uncredited report in L’Évenement.
Two years later, 1927, L’Auto was for only the third time in eight years declaring Bayonne–Luchon l’étape reine. They were again joined in this endeavour by Gaston Bénac, in both La Petite Gironde and Le Peitit Marseillais.
The phrase was now also being picked up by others, and can be found appearing in La Presse, Le Courier de Saône-et-Loire, La Croix du Nord, and L’Express de Mulhouse. In La Presse, the queen stage was in one report described as the one in which first place in the Tour was at stake and in another was the hardest stage of the race. In La Croix du Nord it was the stage with the reputation of being the hardest and where the big fight for victory commences.
A year on, 1928, there was once more no mention of l’étape reine in L’Auto but Gaston Bénac was still championing its usage in Le Petite Gironde, where he had Victor Fontan as le Roi de la Montagne, in l’étape reine – King of the Mountains, in the queen stage. Echoing the notion of the Queen getting her King, a report in L’Indépendant des Basse-Pyrénées had Fontan as le Roi des Grimpeurs in l’étape reine – the King of Climbers.
The phrase also appeared in the weekly cycling magazine La Pédale, where the queen stage was the one that “gives us the most beautiful emotions.”
The 1920s ended with Gaston Bénac still the principal champion of the phrase, deploying it in reports in Paris-Midi (where again Fontan was le roi de la montagne) and in Le Petite Gironde.
It was also in use again in L’Indépendant des Basse-Pyrénées and was also picked up in Le Soir, and appeared in a syndicated report that was reproduced in La Gazette de Biarritz-Bayonne et Saint-Jean-de-Luz and the Gazette de Bayonne. The Bordeaux-based weekly sports magazine L’Athlète also ran with it, both in its report and in an ad for Victor Fontan’s bicycles.
A decade after its first appearance in L’Auto, then, it was Gaston Bénac who had done the most to champion the usage of l’étape reine while L’Auto itself wasn’t really getting behind it. A handful of regional papers had picked up on it but its usage wasn’t really widespread.
Ballad of a Teenage Queen
Across the 1930s, use of the phrase waxed and waned: it appeared in some important places, magazines like Le Miroir des Sports, but it was still Bénac and the regional papers who were most getting behind its usage, with L’Auto showing little or no interest.
L’Auto used it a couple of times in November 1931 when looking ahead to the 1932 cycling year. At the other end of the decade, 1939, it was used in passing in a report from the Tour. And in 1935 and 1939 it was used in connection with other races, the Tour of Belgium and the Tour of Morocco. Paris-Soir had actually been first to employ the phrase in connection with other races, in reports from the Giro d’Italia in 1932 filed by Valdo Cottarelli.
Throughout the ‘30s it was again Gaston Bénac who did the most to champion the use of the phrase: in Paris-Midi (1930, 1931, 1933, 1938), Paris-Soir (1931, 1932, 1935, 1936, 1938, 1939) and La Petite Gironde (1934). Bénac was also joined in this endeavour by Albert Baker d’Isy, his close associate at Paris-Soir and his partner in the creation of the GP des Nations.
Bénac had also filed reports for L’Indépendant des Basses-Pyrénées in the early 1930s (1930, 1932) and usage of the phrase continued there in later years (1935, 1936, 1937, 1939). Le Patriote des Pyrénées also consistently celebrated the Tour on its doorstep (1930, 1931, 1932, 1933, 1934, 1935, 1937, 1939).
Some titles adopted sporadic usage.
L’Athlète (1930, 1935, 1936, 1937, 1939). La Dépêche (1931, 1932, 1936, 1937, 1938, 1939). Le Miroir des Sports (1931, 1933, 1937). Le Grand Écho du Nord de la France (1930, 1931). L’Intransigeant (1930, 1934, 1935). Match L’Intran (1931, 1932). France Olympique (1932, 1933).
Elsewhere, it can found being used just once across the whole decade.
Les Sports du Nord (1930). Excelsior (1930), Le Journal (1932). Journal de Confolens (1933). La France de Bordeaux et du Sud-Ouest (1934). L’Avenir du Bassin d’Arcachon (1935). Le Populaire (1935). Le Petit Journal (1935). Le Petit Méridional (1936). L’Ouest-Éclair (1936). L’Express de l’Est (1936). Le Bigourdan (1937). Le Bon Sens Pyrénéen (1937). Le Radical de Marseille (1938). La Voix du Bearn (1938). La Dépêche de Brest (1938). Ce Soir (1939).
It was even used once in a kids’ magazine, Benjamin (1938).
While the manner of its usage throughout the decade suggests readers must have been expected to understand what was meant by l’étape reine, by the end of the decade – 20 years after Desgrange used it in 1920 – l’étape reine hadn’t really gained the sort of widespread currency it has in recent years.
Dreaming of the Queen
During the years of the Occupation, Cyclo Magazine indulged in nostalgia and l’étape reine can be found in issues from 1940, 1941, and 1943. Come the various ersatz Tours de France, Le Cri des Travaileurs used it in connection with the Critérium de La Rébublique in 1946 and Liberté-Soir used it for the Course du Tour the same year. In 1947 L’Instransigeant wanted the world to believe that the Tour of Belgium could have une étape reine.
The Return of the Queen
When the Tour returned in 1947 L’Auto’s successor actually remembered the Tour’s queen stage. The following year, L’Équipe gave both the Tour and the Giro queen stages. Over the next three years – 1949, 1950, 1951 – L’Équipe consistently used the phrase. In 1951 they even had Jacques Augendre giving the Critérium du Dauphiné Libéré an étape reine. But the following year, 1952, they dropped it.
The newly launched But et Club found Gaston Bénac once again championing its usage in 1946 and 1952. In the same magazine, Félix Lévitain followed suit in 1947 and Jean Antoine in 1948.
The Tour had been reborn in 1947 and was finding new audiences, and even in the pages Femme Françaises a reference to the queen stage could be found, in a profile of Réne Vietto. Other papers and magazines to use the phrase include:
Alger Républicain (1949, 1950, 1951, 1952), L’Avenir Normand (1947), Le Bourgogne Réublicaine (1952), Ce Soir (1948, 1949, 1950), Cyclo Magazine (1947, 1949), L’Echo d’Alger (1947, 1949, 1950, 1951, 1952), Écho du Centre (1949, 1950, 1951), L’Est Républican (1948), France Tier (1948), L’Humanité (1949, 1952), Paris-Dakar (1947), Le Paysan de Cochinchine (1949), Le Petit Morocain (1949, 1950), Le Populaire du Centre (1948, 1949, 1952), Tunise-France (1952), La Virgie Marocain (1950).
At least a quarter of those appearances came courtesy of one man: Gaston Bénac’s former associate at Paris-Soir, Albert Baker d’Isy. Baker d’Isy was a man who liked a good turn of phrase: in 1949 he was the first person to refer to Paris-Roubaix as a Monument, a concept that was finding its feet and, between its first appearance in 1903 and the end of Gallica’s corpus in the early 1950s, can also be found being used in association with the Tour itself, Bordeaux-Paris and, er, the Tour d’Algérie.
The Queen is Dead
As much as Baker d’Isy – along with Bénac – can be credited with doing the most to promote the idea of an étape reine at the Tour and other stage races, by 1951 he was questioning whether the Tour still had a queen stage. That was Koblet’s year, the year of Brive–Agen. In Le Populaire du Centre Baker d’Isy noted that the Gap–Briançon stage – that year’s queen stage – had eliminated just two riders and caused few changes in the GC. Carcassonne–Montpellier on the other hand had seen the failure of Fausto Coppi and Briançon–Aix-les-Bains had done for Louison Bobet. “It would be fun,” Baker d’Isy suggested, “to hold a referendum among the riders and the fans to find out which is the real queen stage of the Tour.”
The same question could profitably be asked today. Mountains are still a crucial part of the Tour, but dreams get dashed in echelons just as easily as they do on summits. There are no easy days (except for the rolling rest days when a truce is declared). In Netflix’s Ride to Survive series (Tour de France : Au cœur du peloton / Tour de France: Unchained) Thibaut Pinot, when asked what is the Tour’s hardest stage, replied ‘all of them’.
Queen of the Savages
Why is it the queen stage, why is it l’étape reine? One common – quite common, even – answer is that it’s down to grammar. Étape is a feminine noun and therefore, in French, takes only feminine modifiers. It can’t be l’étape roi, it has to be létape reine.
While pedantically on point, that explanation is more than a little misleading, suggesting as it does that it should be king stage but the grammar pedants won’t allow that. That might work if we were dealing with English, where king has become linked with size and means big (see: mattresses). But while king size has been around since the 1820s – it was first used in the world of art, to denote a size of canvas – it wasn’t really until the 1940s that the world of marketing, in the US, picked up on it and began applying it to everything from cigarettes to cars, sweets to soft drinks. That’s a good two decades after l’étape reine’s appearance in L’Auto in 1920.
The Centre National de Ressources Textuelles et Lexicales offers as one definition of reine ‘that which dominates, prevails over others within a group, by its own qualities.’ Which is quite different to the English usage of king size. Add in connotations of beauty and majesty and, perhaps, you can justify Desgrange thinking of a mountain stage in such terms.
But he was also perhaps thinking of another, similar phrase: l’épreuve reine, the queen event. This is used across a range of sports, from horse racing to sailing, motor racing to skiing. Today, the French use it as shorthand for the 100 metres in the Olympics, an event which in English is usually considered the Blue Riband event. L’Épreuve reine had been used before l’étape reine and, when both phrases found champions in the 1920s, its usage took off faster, partly down to it having more uses. The Tour de France was itself l’épreuve reine in the cycling calendar.
God Save the Queen
When the French use l’étape reine, they mean l’étape reine, not l’étape roi. But should we translate that as queen stage in English? Should we have adopted the simple, literal translation or should we have found a phrase that actually means something, as has been done with the 100 metres in the Olympics? In other countries l’étape reine has become the king stage, such as Slovenia and Germany. But not in English. Or, for that matter, Dutch.
In Italy they don’t even bother going with royalty, the Giro’s queen stage is the tappone, the big tappa (stage). Which, for some reason, always reminds me of ‘Rapper’s Delight’ or something like that and I imagine the Sugar Hill Gang rapping “Tappa, tappa, tappa, tappone, if you want to get on then you got to get goin’”, as if running through the Giro’s itinerary and offering advice to would-be champions. Queen stage just doesn’t set any music going in my mind.
Surely we could have done better?
The Queen of Hearts
We know when l’étape reine first appeared in the records available to us today. We can see how it was used over the next three decades. But with the records available to us cutting off in the early 1950s, we cannot say for certain how it was used after that.
We have evidence of it continuing to be used sporadically in French cycling books before gaining wider usage in the 1990s and widespread usage in the 2000s. Ask people who were in and around the Tour 20 or 30 years ago and the answer is generally the same, it’s not something they remember being used, it’s something they’ve only noticed being used in recent years.
Even without the same level of evidence we have available for the first half of the twentieth century, it’s clear that today’s widespread usage of l’étape reine only took off in recent years.
Various reasons can be offered for why this might be so. None of these can be said categorically to be why the usage of l’étape reine took off, but they are possible factors that should be taken into account when considering what has happened here.
First, there’s l’Étape du Tour, which generally follows the route of the queen stage. It may be that people riding l’Étape, and people promoting l’Étape (ASO), like marking that stage of the Tour out from the herd.
Then there’s the age of the Tour: the race celebrated its centenary in 2003 and that led to new ‘historians’ reading old books and writing histories of the race that mixed up things ancient and modern. A lot of nonsense got popularised on the back of that centenary.
There’s also the increase in the Tour’s popularity, a whole new audience coming to the race off the back of new heroes in the 1990s and 2000s: Danes with Riis, Germans with Ullrich and, of course, Americans with Armstrong.
And then there’s the internet. Before, a reference to the Tour having a queen stage in, say, L’Indépendant des Basses-Pyrénées or Le Patriote des Pyrénées, that had a small, local audience. When the internet came along, a reference in a paper like that could be picked up and spread throughout the nascent online cycling community, where it could then spread into offline publications.
The Red Queen
Those are channels by which l’étape reine may have been championed for a modern audience. But, to achieve the widespread take-up it has achieved, something else is needed. And that’s our desire to believe that cycling’s past is still alive in its present, that cycling today and cycling then are unified.
Bikes are lighter and faster, riders are better prepared, the roads are better surfaced, but at heart the Tour today and the Tour yesterday are one and the same. We are attached to the legends of the géants de la route because they help us to bind the past to the present, we are attached to the Tour’s history because that helps us to bind the present to the past.
But in binding the present to the past we do have a tendency to misrepresent cycling’s history. We want to believe that the Circle of Death has ancient heritage even though it is a modern misunderstanding. We want to believe that the big five Classics were celebrated as Monuments long before we started marketing them that way in recent years. And we want to believe that the queen stage has long been a part of the Tour’s lexicon, even though it took more than 80 years for it to be really adopted by more than a small handful of writers.
L’Étape reine, it is part of cycling’s past, a very small part. But in the way we today use it, and other ancient coinages like the Circle of Death, we have gone beyond imitating the past. We aren’t just using the past to shape the present, we reshape the past itself.
In cycling history, we rewrite the past to imitate the present.