Only a single stretch of gravel, 1.8 kilometers long, graced the course of the 2020 Tour de France, whereas virtually the complete distance of all the early Tours and classics were raced on dirt roads. Whether fighting dust or pushing through mud, the names of those Heroic Era riders are etched into the history of our sport, riders like Charles Terront, Lucien Lesna, Maurice Garin, Philippe Thys, Eugène Christophe and the Pélissier brothers.

du brabant 1909
Tour du Brabant 1909. Note the copies of Le Vélo newspaper in the crowd.

No two gravel roads are alike, but when the first true bicycles (those with two equal-sized wheels and a chain drive) went into mass production in the late 1880s, the roads of France were still being built for horses, donkey carts and stagecoaches. That had been the case since 1747, when the School of Bridges and Highways was founded in Paris to implement a true road network in France. Cobblestones had been around for centuries—protestors used them as weapons during the French Revolution—but most of the cobbled streets in Paris were built over a 30-year period in the 18th century. As for the 40,000 kilometers of the national road network, planned in 1738, that vast project took more than a century to complete after road construction was halted during the French Revolution and the reign of Napoleon I, when military transport caused major damage to the highways.

The pace picked up in the 1830s when French highway engineers began to solidify the national network. The main roads—the ones that would later host the first bike races—were called Trésaguet-McAdam roads, named for the engineers, one French, the other British, who pioneered longer-lasting construction methods. After being designed and surveyed, the roadbed would be laid out and graded; the base would be built from two 4-inch layers of broken stones; and then came a 2-inch top surface made from smaller angular stones, gravel and sand, bound together by water and the fine dust created by horse-drawn traffic. Linking those major roads to the smallest communities were half a million kilometers of country roads made from hardpacked earth that could become impassable in wet weather.

Building the main highways (the Routes Nationales), linking Paris to every part of France, came to a virtual halt in the 1840s because of the country’s increasing development of railroads—when improvements focused on city streets and feeder roads to the rail stations. Through the second half of the century, increasing use was made of rock asphalt from deposits in the Jura mountains and Provence, but the new material was restricted to creating smoother sidewalks and public spaces in the cities. So, it was on a mix of gravel roads—with only a few kilometers on cobblestone streets in the cities— that the new sport of long-distance bicycle racing was launched.

FIRST RACES

The first “bike” races were held in the late 1860s on velocipedes, those pedal-driven machines that had cranks attached to the front-wheel axles. They were heavy and cumbersome, but because their wooden wheels were rimmed with metal bands they rolled over the gravel roads much like horse-drawn carts. The most popular velocipedes were built in Paris by Michaux et Compagnie, which sponsored a 123-kilometer road race from Paris to Rouen on November 7, 1869. The winner was a Paris-based English doctor, James Moore, who completed the rolling course in 10 hours and 40 minutes (an average speed of 11.5 kilometers an hour).

The budding new sport, along with the French manufacture of velocipedes, came to an end after the Franco-Prussian War began in July 1870. As a result, the next technical developments happened in Great Britain, first with the penny-farthing high wheeler, then the first chain-driven bicycle (known as “the safety”) in 1885, and the pneumatic rubber tire in 1890. Racing on high wheelers, then the safety, was booming in Britain but there were conflicts between the cyclists, horse riders and police, which led to the nascent sport’s governing body banning road racing and restricting riders to individual record attempts, road time trials and velodrome racing.

So, the first true bicycle road races were in France, where the sport was quickly welcomed and competing cycling publications began to out-do each other with longer and longer races, utilizing the country’s extensive network of highways—regarded as the best in the world. A Bordeauxbased weekly cycling magazine Le Véloce-Sport organized the first major event, Bordeaux–Paris, in May 1891. It was meant to be a randonneur-like event for French amateur cyclists to prove they could ride long distances. As the fastest horse-drawn traffic traveled at close to 15 kph, the organizers expected that most of the riders would take two or three days to complete the 580 kilometers, and so towns along the way had set up rest stops complete with buffets, beds and bathrooms for the competitors. But the cyclists proved to be much faster than the stagecoaches….

the early hardmen loaded up for the rough road ahead
The early hardmen loaded up for the rough road ahead.

A main attraction was the entry of five British riders whose solo, long-distance, record-breaking exploits had been well reported in French magazines. The race favorite was Londoner Monty Holbein, who in 1890 set an English 24-hour record of 364.5 miles (586 kilometers). A dark horse was another road record champion, compatriot G. P. (George Pilkington) Mills, but he hadn’t raced for two years, having volunteered for the army. With their well-organized back-up personnel and more appropriate clothing (wool tights and sweaters, rather than the French riders’ more formal attire of thick pants and jackets), the British riders were better prepared for the marathon ride as they set out from Bordeaux on a damp, foggy morning. The early going was smooth. As the regional highway commissioner said at the time: “Our roads are swept and watered every day. No rugged eminences or depressions jar the nerves of the traveler riding over them. Neither dirt, decay, nor rubbish is visible to suggest neglect or bad care.” But after days of heavy rainfall farther north, some of the gravel roads were a mess, a mixture of mud and ruts created by horse-drawn carts and early-model automobiles, and the riders often had to zigzag to avoid potholes.

Because of the varied terrain (the only way to shift gears on the era’s single fixed gears was to change bikes!) and the difficult conditions (strong headwinds and rainstorms), Mills made frequent changes of his five different Humber-brand bicycles. Those steel bikes weighed around 35 pounds, but the wide, low-pressure tires were ideally suited to the gravel roads—not unlike the tires used today! Every rider was allowed a team of riders to make the pace. Mills’ main pacemakers were French professional cyclist Charles Terront and England’s 25-mile national tricycle champion, Lewis Stroud, an Oxford graduate.

Six hours into the race, according to the Véloce-Sport reporter, “Mills, marvelously paced by Stroud, suddenly increased the speed, leaving behind Holbein…taking an advantage that quickly grew.” Mills completed the race in 26:34:57 at an average speed of 21.816 kilometers an hour, more than an hour and a quarter ahead of Holbein. An English reporter at the early-Sunday-morning finish on the edge of the Bois de Boulogne in Paris wrote: “Mills was covered with mud from top to toe but seemed in pretty fair condition…. The reception accorded him was wildly enthusiastic, the cheering being renewed again and again.”

Such was the popularity of that inaugural Bordeaux–Paris that Pierre Giffard, the news editor at a major French newspaper, Le Petit Journal, proposed an even longer race: from Paris to Brest (on the western tip of France) and back to Paris, a distance of 1,200 kilometers. More than 200 riders started the ultra-marathon race, headed by the popular Terront. Despite being sponsored by Michelin, the French professional suffered a half dozen punctures, taking up to an hour to repair each one. Terront still won the race, hours ahead of the next riders, and was greeted back in Paris by an estimated 10,000 spectators. His winning speed was 16.814 kph (faster than the fastest stagecoaches). But riding the rockier gravel roads of Brittany was so grueling that the organizers decided that Paris–Brest–Paris wouldn’t be held again for 10 years.

charles pelissier
Charles Pelissier, stage 16 of the 1929 Tour de France.
ne christophe on the col de porte
Eugène Christophe on the Col de Porte, 1922 Tour de France.

CLASSICS AND THE TOUR

Bordeaux–Paris became the most prestigious classic, and it bred other long-distance, point-to-point races in the following decade. In 1892, a year after the Michelin company sponsored Terront in Paris–Brest–Paris, the tire manufacturer organized a race from Paris to its headquarters in Clermont-Farrand. Others included one from Marseille to Nice in the South of France; one heading to Brittany, Paris–Rennes; one to the south, Paris–Tours; and another to the north, Paris–Valenciennes. Perhaps the most significant event was held on September 29, 1894, a one-off 260-kilometer pro race from Paris to Bar-le-Duc, hometown of the inventors of the velocipede. Thousands attended the unveiling of a monument to Pierre and brother Ernest Michaux before greeting the race winner, a 21-year-old Frenchman, Lucien Lesna.

Earlier that year, Lesna won Bordeaux–Paris, which by then was being promoted by a daily sports newspaper, Le Vélo, owned by Giffard. That publication was then persuaded by the owners of a new velodrome in the northern city of Roubaix to organize a race from Paris with several laps of their track to finish it. It was first held in 1896 on a 280-kilometer route featuring 230 kilometers of “yellowish, potholed dirt roads” and 50 kilometers of “bonejarring cobblestones” and dirt sidewalks. The first winner was a German, Josef Fischer, while a rider who ran a bike shop in Roubaix, Maurice Garin, took the victory in 1897 and ’98.

Such was the growing popularity of the Bordeaux and Roubaix races through the 1890s that Le Vélo attained a daily circulation of 80,000. Unsurprisingly, a competitor emerged in 1900, L’Auto-Vélo, edited by a former champion cyclist, Henri Desgrange. To publicize his new paper, Desgrange put on the second edition of Paris–Brest–Paris in 1901. That Easter’s Paris–Roubaix winner Lesna was leading at the turnaround point in Brest but suffered in the heat on the return journey, and was caught and passed by Garin—who won at an average speed of 23 kph. That was 50 percent faster than the 1891 inaugural, showing how far bike technology and road maintenance had progressed in the decade.

Lesna got his revenge on Garin in other races the following year, winning a second Paris–Roubaix and then a new ultramarathon of 800 kilometers from Marseille to Paris, six hours ahead of the second finisher. Describing his race, Lesna said: “I suffered too much. I survived the rain and headwinds…. In the deluge, the roads became quagmires, and my helpers that followed me by car were also frozen. They wanted me to abandon…but I wanted to avenge my defeat at Paris–Brest and back. As for my speed, I had to walk during the night in the storm, avoiding the puddles, stones…and potholes.”

phillipe thys on the col de galibier
Phillipe Thys on the Col de Galibier at the 1913 Tour de France.

At the start of the 20th century, with motor traffic slowly increasing, the old gravel roads were becoming problematic. As the director of the U.S. Office of Public Roads said at the time: “The existence of our roads depends upon the retention of the road-dust formed by the wearing of the surface. But the action of rubber-tire motorcars moving at high speed strips the [gravel] road of all fine material, the result being that the road soon disintegrates.” The solution was to gradually convert the old Trésaguet-McAdam roads to asphalt, but gravel roads were still the standard in the century’s first two decades.

As for the prestigious road races, the impetus for their growth remained with the French sports newspapers (and with their peers in Belgium and Italy). In 1902, L’Auto-Vélo was stuck on a circulation of 25,000 when Desgrange decided to organize a Bordeaux–Paris race before the traditional one promoted by Le Vélo. For that newspaper’s owner, Giffard, this was tantamount to declaring war. He even sued L’Auto-Vélo for using a similar name, which resulted in Desgrange renaming his title L’Auto. Then, to upstage Giffard’s portfolio of singleday races, Desgrange and his editorial team came up with the idea of putting together a string of city-to-city races with one rest day between each one over a three-week period. The result was the inaugural Tour de France in 1903. The winner was the indefatigable Garin, whose palmarès already included Paris–Roubaix (twice), Paris–Brest–Paris and Bordeaux–Paris. The Tour’s popular success boosted L’Auto’s circulation and put Le Vélo out of business.

At just 5-foot-4 and 132 pounds, Garin had an ideal build to cope with the era’s gravel roads, which because of the increased weight and speed of motor vehicles were getting rougher rather than smoother. Garin, at age 35, won the Tour again in 1904—but he and the next three finishers were all disqualified for alleged “irregularities.” Garin was banned from racing for two years and he soon retired from the sport to run a gas station. After Garin left the scene he was replaced by another rider who’d become a French sports icon, Eugène Christophe.

Christophe, like Garin was short and sturdy, less than 5-foot-4 and 140 pounds. He became renowned for his endurance, placing seventh in Paris–Roubaix at age 19 and placing ninth in the Tour de France two years later. But his fame suddenly bloomed in 1910, at age 24. He first placed third in Paris–Roubaix and then traveled to the Italian classic Milan–San Remo. In hellacious conditions of wet, freezing weather, Christophe raced through snow when he topped the Col de Turchino alone and went on to victory. Only three others finished the 300-kilometer race.

But Christophe’s fame was truly made at the Tour de France. The 1912 Tour was decided on points (one point for every stage placing), rather than accumulative time, and Christophe was in a hole when he had stomach cramps on the opening stage and placed 23rd (giving him 23 points). He placed third on stage 2 and then won three tough stages in succession: stages of 331 kilometers over the Ballon d’Alsace climb to Belfort; 344 kilometers into the Alps at Chamonix; and 366 kilometers into Grenoble. For that third stage win, Christophe attacked solo over the Col du Galibier, gaining 12 minutes by the summit. He climbed the 33 kilometers in just over two and a half hours, surprising reporters by never getting off to walk his bike as the others did. However, L’Auto reported, “in the last 400 meters, he slid from his bike three times due to the damp rocks made slimy from melting snow.”

Despite that early handicap, Christophe finished second at that 1912 Tour, and was considered a favorite the following year. The first key fight came on stage 6 across the Pyrenees, 326 kilometers from Bayonne to Luchon. After race leader Odile Defraye abandoned before reaching the day’s major climbs, Christophe became the virtual leader, with the Belgians Philippe Thys and Marcel Buysse his main rivals. Describing the battle on the Col d’Aubisque, Henri Desgrange wrote: “The dirt, already in bad shape, has become appalling, and Buysse like Christophe finds himself dumped on the ground and must finish on foot the last 100 meters of the climb. They were otherwise feeling fresh and Christophe told me, ‘What a shame the dirt is so bad. I would have done it all easily on my bike.”

Those road conditions were repeated on the next climb, the Tourmalet, and after topping it solo, a stage win (and probably Tour victory) was in his sights. Christophe then felt something wrong with his bike as he began the 14-kilometer descent. He stopped to find that his fork was broken. Tour regulations forbid a change of bikes and Christophe had to walk the whole downhill before finding a blacksmith’s forge, where he spent more than two hours on the repair. Thys went on to win the stage and win the Tour; Christophe placed seventh. Christophe’s career continued after World War I and so did his bad luck at the Tour. He was the first rider to don the leader’s yellow jersey when it was introduced in 1920, but a broken bike again wrecked his chances and he placed third. He wore yellow for three more days in 1922 at age 37.

Despite those disappointments, the old warrior did win Bordeaux–Paris in 1920 and ’21, adding to that classic’s wild popularity with French fans, who loved the repeated victories of their countrymen, including those by Henri Pélissier in 1919 and his younger brother Francis Pélissier in 1922 and ’24. By the late 1920s, most of the gravel highways had been resurfaced with asphalt, though dirt roads remained on the remote mountain passes until the 1950s and ’60s.

When just a 1.8-kilometer stretch of gravel was raced atop an alpine climb at this year’s Tour, there were questions whether it was compatible with modern racing. Everything evolves; but celebrating the Heroic Era when gravel was king is a factor in the popularity of modern classics such as Strade Bianche in Italy and Tro-Bro Léon in France. There’s even talk that next year’s Tour will feature some gravel sections during the opening week in Brittany. Let’s hope so.

oscar egg descending
Oscar Egg descending the Galibier, 1914 Tour de France.
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