Canadian Cycling Magazine
What it takes to cancel the tour de France, and bring it back
Since the Tour de France began in 1903, it’s run every year, except for 1915–18 and 1940–46. The event has faced many external and internal challenges, including workers’ strikes blocking the race and the riders themselves protesting their treatment during the Festina doping scandal of 1998. In 2019, dangerous weather and landslides ended Stage 19 early. The damage they caused on the roads meant the Tour’s Stage 20 had to be shortened. But only World Wars have completely prevented Tours de France from sending riders across the country.
In early spring of this year, with all racing on hold for months because of the covid-19 pandemic, the fate of the 107th Tour de France wasn’t clear. French Minister of Youth and Sports Roxana Mărăcineanu proposed a Tour behind closed doors, an idea that race director Christian Prudhomme later ruled out. Mărăcineanu later said that “it won't be the end of the world” if the Tour couldn’t proceed.
Prudhomme had moved the race start from late June to Aug. 29, but so much still depended on the trajectory of the coronavirus pandemic and on how French authorities would manage lockdowns as well as bans on public gatherings. Quite simply, a year without a Tour de France loomed, not because of war, but because of a virus.
The first time the Tour de France was interrupted was 1915 to 1918 during the fighting of the First World War. Men from many professions served in the trenches. Dozens who had raced in the Tour were killed, including 1907 and 1908 winner Lucien Petit-breton, 1909 champion and first foreign winner François Faber and 1910 titlist Octave Lapize, a pilot who was shot down on Bastille Day in 1917. On Stage 5 of the 2014 edition, the Tour de France honoured the fallen cyclists and other soldiers of the First World War when it started in Ypres covered the cobbles of Paris-roubaix. That day Vincenzo Nibali seized control of
the race and Chris Froome crashed out.
Straddling the four-year gap in competition caused by the First World War were seven years of Belgian dominance at the Tour. Philippe Thys won the 11th and 12th editions before the war – his first stage victory in the 1914 race came on the day Archduke Franz Ferdinand was assassinated – and the 14th in the post-war period. Thys’s compatriot Firmin Lambot was the first champion when la Grande Boucle returned to action in 1919, the year the yellow jersey was added to the event. He earned his second maillot jaune in 1922.
The Second World War cancelled the Tour de France from 1940 to 1946. Although a state of war between the Allies and the Axis powers had existed since September 1939, a 1940 edition of the race was planned for a still-free France. The course ran near the famous but doomed Maginot Line. Then came the blitzkrieg. The organizer of the Tour was still its inventor, the newspaper L’auto. France’s German overlords tried to persuade the paper to continue, but race director Jacques Goddet refused. Instead, a rival newspaper organized a six-day Circuit de France in 1942, with Belgian rider François Neuville, a Tour de France stage winner in 1938, its champion. L’auto’s initiative was to hold a series of one-day races, including Paris-roubaix, called the Grand Prix du Tour de France in 1943. It was successful enough to be underway again in 1944 when the battle for the liberation of France brought it to a halt.
After the war, L’auto was shuttered for collaboration with the Nazis. The French government took over the race rights of the Tour before allowing two partnerships of newspapers and magazines to vie for the organizing prize, each holding a five-stage race in the summer of 1946 as an audition. L’équipe and Laparisienlibéré’s la Course du Tour de France was deemed to be the better contest, and had a French winner to boot, Apo Lazaridès. The return of the Tour de France in 1947 also saw a French champion, Jean Robic.
The great Fausto Coppi/gino Bartali rivalry of the post-war era didn’t arrive at the Tour de France until 1949. Bartali had claimed the 1938 yellow jersey, but Italy – along with Germany and Spain – didn’t race in the next edition on the eve of the war. At the Tour’s 1947 return, neither Coppi nor Bartali were included in the 10-strong Italian national team. Bartali would distinguish himself as the rider with the longest gap between Tour wins in 1948. He then came runner-up to the stronger Coppi on the latter’s debut in 1949. Coppi would have to wait out the early-1950s Swiss domination of Ferdinand Kübler and Hugo Koblet to even up the Tour wins with Bartali at two apiece in 1952.
Gino Bartali’s legacy runs much deeper than his two yellow jerseys and three Giro wins. He is recognized as one of the Righteous Among the Nations by Israel’s official memorial of the Holocaust for his assistance to Jewish Italians during the war. Bartali delivered information and documents for the underground network, which included members of the Catholic Church, helping Jewish Italians to escape the country. These deliveries happened on Bartali’s “training rides” around Tuscany and as far away as Assisi, with smuggled items in his bike frame. Clad in jerseys prominently sporting his name, he wasn’t bothered by Fascist Italian police and German soldiers. The great champion’s role in the network wasn’t known until this century and is explored in depth in Aili and Andres Mcconnon’s Theroadtovalour.