2019 marked a number of milestones for the Tour de France.

It is the 30th anniversary of Greg LeMond’s 58-second defeat of Laurent Fignon in the final time trial on the Champs-Élysées to win the 1989 Tour de France by 8 seconds, the slimmest margin in the history of the Tour de France.

It is also the 50th anniversary of Eddy Merckx’s first of five Tour de France victories in 1969. In his début appearance, Merckx took the first 6 of his 34 stage wins and wore the maillot jaune as leader of the race for 18 stages in the process. By the time the race finished in Paris, Merckx had also clinched the Points and King of the Mountains competitions on his way to an overwhelming 17’54” victory over second-place finisher Roger Pingeon, with third-place finisher Raymond Poulider at 22’13”.

2019 also marks the 100th anniversary of the introduction of the maillot jaune, the yellow jersey worn to signify the leader of the race, and that is a story in itself.

Eugène Christophe sporting the first maillot jaune, 1919 Tour de France. PC: Unknown

The 1919 Tour de France, which had been suspended from 1915 to 1918 due to The Great War, was announced in L’Auto in November 1918, just days after the Armistice bringing a halt to fighting was signed; however the Treaty of Versailles, officially ending the war was not subsequently signed until June 28, 1919, just one day before the start of the Tour.

Many of the pre-war stars of the Tour de France had been killed in the fighting. Luxembourger François Faber, the winner of the 1909 Tour, joined the French Foreign Legion and was killed during the Battle of Artois in 1915. Octave Lapize, winner of the 1910 Tour, became a fighter pilot during the war, and was shot down in July 1917, subsequently dying from his injuries in hospital. Lucien Petit-Breton, winner of the 1907 and 1908 editions of the Tour was killed in December 1917 while driving for the French Army. In total, over 60 professional riders, on both sides, were killed during the course of the war.

While the Armistice did bring a cessation to hostilities, since the war was not officially over until the Treaty of Versailles was signed, the French army only demobilized soldiers over the age of 30 over the winter. Younger soldiers were kept in service in case the armistice fell apart and fighting resumed. While this did not happen, by the time the Tour did start on June 29, 1919, there were only 67 entries; 43 professional riders and 24 isolés(unsponsored amateur riders), almost all of whom were over the age of 30.

Northern France was devastated during the war. The 1919 Tour avoided the worst of the battle-scarred regions, unlike the ill-fated Circuit des Champs de Bataille (Tour of the Battlefields) whose solitary edition was held a few months earlier in April 1919. However, road conditions in the summer of 1919 were still not ideal for a bicycle race, and by the finish of the race on July 27, 1919, only 11 riders remained, of whom 10 were professionals. Of these, Paul Duboc was later disqualified for accepting a ride in a car.

Many stars of the peloton who had survived the war were not able to survive the brutal conditions of the race, abandoning along the way. Abandonments included the French Pélissier brothers, Henri and Francis; the Belgian Buysse brothers, Lucien and Marcel; and the Belgian winner of the 1913 and 1914 editions of the Tour, Philippe Thys. All of the amateur riders, save one, also dropped out of the event along the way.

Jules Nempon, the sole remaining isolé, thus earned the honor of a 10th place finish, taking the prize for being the lanterne rouge, the last rider in the process. Henri Pélissier would eventually go on to win the Tour de France in 1923, while Lucien Buysse would do the same in 1926.

Also amongst the 10 official finishers was the Frenchman Eugène Christophe, whose tragicomic story sealed his place in Tour de France history.

By 1919, Christophe was already well known in Tour de France lore for his experiences in the pre-war Tours de France.

After a scandal-ridden 1904, the Tour was scored on points instead of time from 1905 through 1912 in an effort to reduce cheating by the riders. In 1912, Christophe won three consecutive stages in the mountains, opening up quite a large time gap to his rivals, most notably the Belgian Odile Defraye. Defraye was primarily known for his sprint, but he was able to limit his time losses in the mountains. Christophe, on the other hand, did not have as strong sprint, and would generally finish a little further down the order on the flat stages. By the end of the Tour, Christophe had the lowest overall time, but because the Tour was scored on points, the overall victory went to his Belgian rival.

In the 1913 Tour de France, after being hit by a race vehicle, Christophe’s fork broke while descending the Col du Tourmalet as the leader on the road. In those days, riders were responsible for carrying out all repairs on their own. Christophe was forced to hike 10km down the mountain to the village of Ste-Marie-de-Campan, find a blacksmith with a working forge, and repair his own fork, then climb back up the mountain to the site of his mishap to resume his race nearly 4 hours later. Adding insult to injury, he was fined an additional 10 minutes by the race commissaires for allowing a village boy to operate the bellows on the forge while he conducted repairs. Christophe ultimately finished that Tour in 7th place, a little over 14 hours behind the winner, Philippe Thys.

By Stage 10 of the 1919 Tour, Christophe was once again the general classification leader of the Tour de France. However, spectators and the press had problems distinguishing one rider from another on the road, as most were wearing the grey woolen jerseys of La Sportive, a conglomeration of bicycle manufacturers whose businesses survived the war. Until this point, the leader of the race was designated by wearing a green armband, which could easily be missed in wet and muddy conditions, or in a fast-moving peloton.

The suggestion was made to Henri Desgrange, L’Auto’s publisher and organizer of the Tour, that the general classification leader be given a special jersey to wear so that he could be easily picked out of a group of riders. Desgrange approved of the idea, and a yellow jersey was found and given to Christophe to wear starting with Stage 11 on July 19; whether the color of the jersey was inspired by the yellow paper on which L’Auto was printed, or was simply the only color available due to postwar shortages is up for debate.

Eugène Christophe, for his part, was initially none too pleased by the yellow jersey, claiming that he was mocked by the other riders for looking like a canary.

Unfortunately for Christophe, he would not be able to wear the yellow jersey into Paris. On the penultimate stage 14, on July 25 on the cobbled roads near Valenciennes, he once again broke his fork. This time, he only had to travel one kilometer to find a bike shop with a forge, but as in 1913 he had to conduct his repairs by himself, losing about 2.5 hours in the process to stage and eventual overall winner Firmin Lambot, ultimately finishing in third place in Paris.

Christophe’s story captured the imaginations of L’Auto’s readership, and Henri Desgrange launched a subscription to raise money to award him for his perseverance; ultimately Christophe’s prize of 13,310 francs was nearly triple the 5,000 francs awarded to Firmin Lambot for winning the overall race.

Eugène Christophe, July 1, 1925 on the montée d’Aubisque in the Tour de France. This was his last Tour at age 40. He finished 18th. Photo by Agence Rol, Source gallica.bnf.fr – National Library of France.

Sadly, Christophe’s bad luck would continue, and in 1922, once again he was forced to hike out of the mountains, this time off the Col du Galibier, with a broken fork. In 11 total participations in the Tour, Eugène Christophe would finish a total of 8 times including his final attempt in 1925 at the age of 40, spending a total of 13 days in yellow in 1919 and 1922. He would finish twice on the final podium, in 1912 and 1919, but never as the overall winner.

Nonetheless, the rider who was mocked for looking like a canary had the honor of wearing the first maillot jaune, still one of the sport’s most coveted prizes 100 years later.

Rank Rider Category  Time
1  Firmin Lambot (BEL) A  231h 07′ 15″
2  Jean Alavoine (FRA) A  + 1h 42′ 54″
3  Eugène Christophe (FRA) A  + 2h 26′ 31″
4  Léon Scieur (BEL) A  + 2h 52′ 15″
5  Honoré Barthélemy (FRA) A  + 4h 14′ 22″
6  Jacques Coomans (BEL) A  + 15h 21′ 34″
7  Luigi Lucotti (ITA) A  + 16h 01′ 12″
8  Joseph Van Daele (BEL) A  + 18h 23′ 02″
9  Alfred Steux (BEL) A  + 20h 29′ 01″
10  Jules Nempon (FRA) B  + 21h 44′ 12″

For more on the 1919 Tour, read We Rode All Day: The Story of the 1919 Tour de France, by Gareth Cartman. Imagined and told from the perspectives of the riders and organizers, this is not a typical historical recap of the race but attempts to take the reader into the minds of those who made the event special. 236 pages.

For more on the impact the Great War had on pro cycling, read The Shattered Peloton: The Devastating Impact of World War I on the Tour de France, by Graham Healy. 240 pages.

The 2019 Tour de France starts on Saturday, July 6, 2019 in Brussels, Belgium to commemorate the 50th anniversary of Eddy Merckx’s first participation and victory. The anniversary of the maillot jaune will be celebrated during the Stage 13 time trial in Pau on July 19, 100 years to the day after the first maillot jaune was awarded to Eugène Christophe.

Throughout this year’s race, an individual jersey design will be awarded to the general classification leader featuring an appropriate image for that day’s stage. The jersey issued after Stage 1 (to be worn on Stage 2) will feature the Atomium, to commemorate the race start in Brussels. The jersey issued after Stage 2 (to be worn on Stage 3) will feature an image of Eddy Merckx. The jersey to be worn during the Stage 13 time trial will feature an image of Eugène Christophe, the first wearer of the maillot jaune in 1919. The final jersey issued after Stage 20 (to be worn on Stage 21) will feature Paris’s iconic Arc de Triomphe on the Champs-Élysées, which has hosted the grand finale of the Tour de France every year since 1975.

This article originally appeared in the Summer 2019 issue of Cycling West magazine.

 
Steven Sheffield
Cyclist. Writer. Photographer. Reverend. Chief Semantics Officer. Opinions (freely offered) not sanctioned by any national or international organizations.