Title: 1923 – The Mystery of Lot 212 and a Tour de France Obsession
Author: Ned Boulting
What it is: The clown prince of cycling commentary wipes off the greasepaint after acquiring a Pathé newsreel from the 1923 Tour and sets off on a voyage of discovery
Strengths: There’s something about bike racing in these years
Weaknesses: Boulting doesn’t even attempt to offer an argument for why his piece of Pathé history is important
Cycling is full of half-remembered forgotten heroes. Take my good friend Teddy Hale, the Irishman who wasn’t. I and others have tried to research and write about his story, have buried ourselves in the archives and spoken to his descendants and still we know little about this Englishman who won the 1896 Madison Square Garden International Six Day Race while pretending to be an Irishman.
Or how about the first woman of the Hour, Mlle de Saint-Sauveur? Several people have tried to find out more about her but all we’ve been able to learn at this stage comes from a couple of races before her Hour record and a couple of races after. We don’t even know her first name.
Resurrecting the forgotten, remembering the overlooked, reinstating those airbrushed from history, it’s what keeps the publishing industry alive. Ned Boulting’s 1923 – The Mystery of Lot 212 and a Tour de France Obsession concerns itself with bringing back to life Théophile Beeckman, whose palmarès includes two Tour stage wins and some close-calls in the Tour and other races.
Yes, you may well be able to find Beeckman’s name in Christopher Thompson’s Tour de France. And it goes without saying that he appears in Bill and Carol McGann’s two-volume Story of the Tour de France, and all the other blow-by-blow Tour histories too: winning a Tour stage gives you a certain immortality. But like many other immortalised Tour stage winners, Beeckman doesn’t really feature anywhere. In the big picture of the sport, he was never all that important. Which is true of 99% of those who have contributed to the history of the sport. (And the ghost of Homer whispered...)
Beeckman fell into Boulting’s life when the ITV commentator-come author – How I Won the Yellow Jumper (2011), How Cav Won the Green Jersey (2012), 101 Damnations (2014), On the Road Bike (2014), Boulting’s Velosaurus (2016), Heart of Dart-ness (2018), Square Peg, Round Ball (2022) – acquired at auction a portion of a Pathé newsreel from the 1923 Tour and then set about turning its two-and-a-half-minutes of celluloid into a book and a TV programme.
Other Pathé newsreels from this era exist and you can see many of the same people in them, including the likes of Henri Desgrange, Ottavio Bottecchia and Henri Pélissier. You’ve probably seen some if you’ve ever watched any of the French TV programmes celebrating the Tour’s history. But this one is a fresh discovery.
The footage comes from the fourth stage of that year’s Tour, the 400-plus kilometre haul down from Brest to Les Sables d’Olonne. It starts about 150 kilometres and six hours into the stage, still another 260 or so kilometres and more than nine hours of racing to go. After Henri Desgrange gives the signal for the riders to restart after a two-minute stop to sign-in at the control in the town of Lorient, the peloton gets underway again.
The film cuts to the riders on the road to Vannes, riding behind Pathé’s camera-carrying car. Then it cuts to just before La Roche Bernard, 250 or so kilometres into the stage and getting on for noon, as Beeckman launches a solo attack. We see him riding through the town before the film abruptly ends before he reaches the exit.
The first six seconds of film Boulting describes in a couple of hundred words. Even with added adjectives you can see that a written description of two-and-a-half-minutes of film won’t fill a 300-page book. But nor will the life of Théo Beeckman, with the sum of Boulting’s knowledge of the man summarised thusly:
“I conduct an audit of what I know of Beeckman: that he was small, that he was normally quiet, that he was respected, strong, and that he grew up in modest circumstances. He won certain races, perhaps not as many as he should. He married, he had a daughter, he retired and ran a garage. He died in 1955, aged 59.
“It’s not much, really.”
What’s a man to do when there’s a book and a TV programme at stake? Pad it.
“Théo Beeckman had been a month old when, in December 1896, there was a particularly riotous theatrical evening staged at the Nouveau-Théâtre on the Rue Blanche in Paris. It was a seminal night in the history of French theatre, which saw the premiere of an extraordinary ground-breaking play called Ubu Roi. The shock which emanated from its first performance would change theatre forever. In fact, it closed on its opening night, and it would be a long time before it was performed again, except by puppeteers. But it is often credited with being the inspiration for what would become the Dada movement.”
Most of Boulting’s padding comes from the On This Day in History files, the story of the 1923 Tour augmented by stories from the same time but elsewhere.
There’s the Seznec affaire, in which someone gets murdered and that is somehow linked to the very day of the Pathé newsreel by virtue of some piece of paperwork or other being signed by someone on that day.
On the same day, there’s the bombing of the Duisburg-Hochfeld bridge spanning the Rhine, in which several people were killed.
Jump forward to July 8 and across France Boulting finds news of a four-year-old boy killed in Argenteuil, a plane crashing and killing its pilot in Le Havre, and a woman committing suicide in Nantes.
Two days later a cyclone hits Rostov-on-Don “slaughtering dozens of cattle and killing 23 people.”
Wherever Boulting looks, death is to be found. It’s almost like he’s living out a Fast Show sketch.
This manic on-this-day-in-history ‘Not The 1923 Tour’ strand takes up a large part of 1923 and when you join the dots – see the pattern! – I think it’s supposed to have something to do with the Second World War being a repeat of the First, Covid being the Spanish Flu, and Russia’s invasion of Ukraine being the German invasion of Belgium (which one I forget), all of this telling us how history repeats and we might as well just give up now. Which is actually quite funny in a way as the riders of the 1920s’ Tours were seen as sandwich-board men hawking the wares of the bicycle industry and Boulting does come off a bit like one of those men standing outside parliament with hand-made signs hanging on his chest and back, warning us of our impending doom.
Getting back to the cycling, Beeckman’s story being thin gruel we get brief portraits of Henri Pélissier, who was killed by his lover; of Ottavio Bottecchia, who died in mysterious circumstances; and of Jean Alavoine, who died following a crash (I know that this is history and in history everyone dies, but Boulting really does trowel it on thick, it’s like he’s adapting Horrible Histories’ ‘Stupid Death’ sketches by removing the laughs).
When the story does get back to Beeckman, as it does occasionally, I am left wondering how reliable a narrator Boulting really is. From the off he’s told us he knew little of the history of the Tour in this era, how he had only vaguely heard of Henri Pélissier, who won the 1923 race. But at this stage I’m so used to the blind leading the blind in books like this that I didn’t really consider how limiting this might be. I’d even switched my brain off when it came to the various factual infelicities that invariably appear in books like this. Until, that is, I got to this passage, which follows a section in which Beeckman has been reported as moving from the Griffon team – where he rode in 1923 and 1924 – to Alcyon for the 1925 season:
“But, and this throws me off-kilter, Théophile Beeckman never made the move to Alcyon. Somewhere along the line, shortly before the racing season began, the transfer must have collapsed. For he is a Thomann-Dunlop rider the next time the Tour de France comes round in 1925. The reason for the move breaking down is lost to time, unreported and now unknowable. But it is further evidence that Beeckman may not have been the most straightforward man to manage, after all.”
Fun fact for you: as the French bicycle industry went from boom to bust, the surviving companies had a tendency to pick up the pieces left behind by their fallen comrades. And so – in the same way that, today, Bianchi and Peugeot and Gitane are owned by the same company – Alcyon had subsidiary brands in its portfolio. Brands like Armor. And Labor. And Thomann. So while Beeckman was riding in a Thomann jersey in 1925, he was still part of the Alcyon stable.
The real issue here isn’t that Boulting isn’t aware that Thomann was an Alcyon subsidiary (never mind that it’s even on a rather well-known digital encyclopedia). It’s that, just because Boulting doesn’t understand it, the explanation is “lost to time, unreported and now unknowable.”
The picture of Beeckman Boulting has built up in his head – and which becomes a series of imagined accounts from the man himself – is based on what cycling journalists said about him in race reports. The problem with using these as the basis of a portrait of the man is that they’re bullshit. As a now forgotten French author once wrote, the Tour is like an epic, the riders are archetypes. You can’t rely on Henry Decoin telling you that Beeckman was a “timid man, modest, who never says anything except with his legs” because Decoin is playing with stereotypes to sell a particular image of the Tour. Men of action, not men of words.
But Boulting does rely on Decoin, and others like him. And so when he finds something that doesn’t fit the romantic portrait he’s painted in his head – such as the news that in later life Beeckman may actually have been a bit of an arse – he isn’t able to do as Daniel Coyle did in Lance Armstrong’s War and show that our hero is actually more like us than we realise. He gets thrown off-kilter.
Sometimes he even throws himself off-kilter. Take these two pictures:
“A very few photographs of the Belgian rider are instantly searchable. It’s hard to discern much from them save for the fact that he was rather short and very slight. You can plunder Google Images for Beeckman and be finished within a minute or two.
“And yet there are, as I later discovered, two quite captivating and detailed portraits of Beeckman stored on the French national archive. They took a bit of searching for. In both pictures the Belgian has the same disarmingly serious gaze, though in one he appears startled, perhaps from the elation of success. In this image, he holds a victor’s bouquet in one hand and his bike in the other, by the side of the track at what appears to be the Parc des Princes velodrome in Paris. The year of this photo is 1925, perhaps in the spring or even the late autumn as his bike is fitted with mudguards. It’s hard to know.”
Hard to know? Really?
Here’s how hard it is to know. Go to Gallica, the French national library’s website. Type Théo Beeckman’s name in the search box and hit return. Click images in the left sidebar. In among other images the two above will appear. Both captioned as having been taken in the summer of 1923, August.
The one Boulting says Beeckman looks startled in (or is that sadness in his eyes?) and appears to have been taken in the Parc des Princes was actually taken in Luxembourg (the Vélodrome du Bel Air, a quick jaunt elsewhere tells us), at the end of the first stage of the Critérium des Aiglons. The victor’s bouquet is actually for having finished in third place on the stage.
That’s four-for-four, in case you’re counting the assumptions Boulting got wrong.
The other photograph, that one actually was taken in the Parc des Princes, where the Petit Tour de France was being held, a post-Tour track-meet Desgrange organised annually and which forms an early step on the road to today’s post-Tour critérium circuit. If Boulting even mentioned the Petit Tour in 1923 – or, for that matter, the Critérium des Aiglons – I must have missed it.
I have no idea how Boulting managed to get this so wrong, missed Gallica’s captions and somehow dated the pictures to 1925. But wrong he got it. And then he went and compounded the error by making a mystery out of it, with eagle-eyed Ned spotting something he thinks significant in the picture with the bouquet:
“It looks like he is a wearing a wedding band, so it must have been taken after February 1925 [when he married]. But he is wearing a Griffon jersey, a team he reportedly left at the end of 1924.”
Another fun fact for you: the third finger, left hand thing, while it’s great to know when you’re looking for someone to hit on in a bar, it’s a cultural thing, not legal. It’s more a guideline than a rule. There are some of us who ignore it.
Faced with a cultural assumption and competing probable and improbable outcomes – Griffon jersey, saying the photo is either 1923 or 1924, and possible wedding ring, meaning the photo would have to be after 1925 when he should be wearing a different jersey – which razor do you think Mr Occam would suggest you choose to shave with? Boulting may reach for the one designed by Heath-Robinson but you should be going for the single-bladed Bic disposable.
When the facts contradict your assumptions, it really is a good idea to question your assumptions.
In case you think that Gallica has simply miss-captioned the images – it happens – reports from the Critérium des Aiglons can be found in Le Miroir des Sports, including another photograph taken that same afternoon, similar to one of the other photographs available on Gallica.
In the land of the bland the one-eyed man may well be king. But he makes for a poor tour guide in things like this. With so little available to get right about Beeckman, getting any of it wrong is an issue. Boulting leading himself astray is one thing, but when he then tries to take his readers with him down some duff history cul-de-sac, that’s a problem.
One substitute for not knowing where to look is knowing who to ask about where to look. When reviewing the last book to land about Desgrange’s era, Adin Dobkin’s book about the 1919 Tour, I mentioned some of the other books covering early cycling history, from Peter Cossins’ book about the 1903 Tour through David Coventry’s novel about the 1928 race, with stops for Dave Thomas (the 1911 Tour), Tim Moore (the 1914 Giro), Gareth Cartman and Ian Chester (both also covering the 1919 Tour), and Tom Isitt (the 1919 Circuit des Champs de Bataille). We now also have Michael Thompson’s recent book about the 1935 Tour. There are people out there who can offer pointers to anyone researching pre-WWII racing, people who are often very accommodating when you ask if you can bounce ideas off them.
But 1923 isn’t the type of book that seeks to build on the work of others (needless to say, none of those authors appear in Boulting’s bibliography … but three books by Hemingway do). This is a journey of personal discovery, with Boulting presenting himself as one man against a world indifferent to his inquiries, a man alone putting right what once went wrong by remembering the forgotten, uncovering the overlooked and painting in again a man who has been airbrushed from history, Beeckman somehow having acquired the full trifecta of historical annulments.
But how right has he put it when really all he does is see the interwar years as a “tense, troubled peace that had fallen like a shroud” which he feels impelled to pull back in order to show us death stalking the land? How right has he put it when he pushes his romantic, idealised image of Beeckman off into the background of the story and still manages to get basic facts like these wrong?