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The Explainer – Disqualified!

  • By Charles Pelkey
  • Published Dec. 3, 2008
  • Updated Feb. 9, 2011 at 12:09 PM EST

Dear Explainer,
Whenever I read about Floyd Landis’ disqualification from the Tour de France it’s always referred to as the first rider to be “stripped of his title of his title for a doping violation.” Why the qualification? Isn’t he just the first guy to lose the Tour after the fact, period?
Jon Byrnes
Bloomington, Indiana

Dear Jon,
Ahhh, yes, you raise an interesting question that goes to the heart of cheating in a bike race. It’s hard to imagine these days, but back at the start of the Tour de France — 105 years ago — skirting the rules came in what would, today at least, be quite overt forms of dishonesty.

Garin - seen here after winning Paris-Roubaix - won the 1903 Tour and thought he won in `04. | AFP file photo

As you know, the Tour de France began in 1903 as some sort of wild-hair publicity scheme for the sports daily L’Auto, a paper that eventually evolved into what is now L’Equipe. The race differed remarkably from the one we know and love today. The original Tour could probably best be described as a synthesis of a modern stage race, that exercise in sleep deprivation known as the Race Across America (RAAM) and a mountain bike race, held under original NORBA rules.

Like the Tour, it was a stage race. Like RAAM, the first Tour was an individual sport, with no cooperation between riders allowed. Like an old NORBA race, riders were completely on their own, required to provide their own support and mechanical assistance.

The 1903 Tour de France was 2468 kilometers, but involved only six stages. These things were monsters, ranging from the shortest – Stage 4’s 268km run from Toulouse to Bordeaux - to the longest, Stage 6 from Nantes to Paris at 471km. (Obviously, the Tour’s tradition of turning the final stage into a victory parade for the overall leader had yet to take hold.) Instead of one or two formal rest days as we now see, the 1903 Tour’s stages were separated by gaps of several days. The 1903 Tour began in Paris in July 1 and ended in Paris on July 19.

You can see from the finishing times that things must have been quite different than they are today. Frenchman Maurice Garin won the first Tour, with an impressive time of 94 hours, 33 minutes and 14 seconds. Lucien Pothier finished second, two hours and 49 minutes behind the winner. If you think that’s a substantial time gap, keep in mind that there was a whopping 63-hour gap between the first and 20th-place finishers. They’d obviously not come up with the concept of a time cut, either, leaving attrition to make those calls. Indeed, of the 60 starters, only 21 finished.

So, we’re imagining France soon after the turn of the 20th century, with rough roads, few cars and guys on heavy, clunky bikes riding for hours on their own, often in the dark of night, without benefit of street lights and few, if any, fans watching the action. It’s a far cry from today when we see the entire peloton screaming along modern roads while each and every pedal stroke is recorded on video for posterity.

OK, so the 1903 Tour comes off without a hitch and Garin pockets a hefty 3000-franc winner’s purse (probably around $44,000 in today’s money) and everyone is happy. Race organizer Henri Desgrange is happy, the folks at L’Auto are happy and the few people who were able to witness the spectacle from the side of the road were happy. So, Desgrange decides to do it again and he figures that there’s no use in messing with a winning formula, so the 1904 Tour is run on what was essentially the same route, with nearly identical stages and the same rules. The winner’s prize money, however, was raised to 5000 francs and 88 riders signed up.

On July 2, 1904, the second edition of the Tour de France rolled out of the Paris suburb of Montgeron for a 467km stage to Lyon. Now remember that a lot of those hours out on the road were covered in very solitary fashion, without the scrutiny of cameras, other riders, fans or even race officials. Desgrange, for example, never even left Paris during the ’03 Tour and spent only a little time out on the road for the second Tour.

Well, it’s a long story — one quite nicely documented in Jacques Seray’s book “1904, the Tour de France, which was to be the last” — but by the time the Tour reached Paris on July 23, nine riders had already been disqualified for cheating, having relied on all sorts of methods to gain advantage, including taking trains or loading themselves and their bikes into the backs of cars for the long, boring stretches through the French countryside. Obviously, you can’t get away with that today … Phil and Paul would probably make note of it during your daily Versus coverage:

“Phil, ol’ Chevallier is really putting the light to the blue touchpaper in that sprint into Marseille!”

“No, Paul, I believe he’s riding on the TGV!”

But that wasn’t the end of it. While Garin was again named the winner, there were all sorts of allegations of cheating, including charges of illegal cooperation, more motorized assistance and even a planned attack by stick-wielding fans against one particularly strong — and apparently honest — rider.

That last charge was well-documented, since the police ended up having to break up the near riot by firing guns into the air. (And you probably thought those drunk Basque guys in the orange T-shirts were a pain in the ass.)

With the race already finished, Desgrange wasn’t really interested in pursuing the matter, but the national governing body of the sport sure was. The Union Vélocipédique Française opened an investigation into the race and by the time all was said and done — in late November — the top four finishers, who also happened to have won every stage between them — Garin, Lucien Pothier, Garin’s brother César and Hippolyte Aucouturier — were DQed. Of the 87 original starters (Frenchman Georges Serres was signed up, but didn’t make the start), only 15 were officially credited with reaching the finish line in Paris.

As a result of the UVF decision, the 1904 Tour de France was officially won by the apparent fifth-place finisher, 20-year-old Henri Cornet, who remains the youngest Tour winner in history.

Desgrange wasn’t a happy man and he spent months firing off vitriolic letters to the UVF complaining that they had destroyed his race. Unfortunately, we’ll probably never get to see just how angry he was. The heated exchanges were, of course, on paper, but all of the UVF’s early files were lost during World War II.

As was the more recent case with the ugly Festina scandal in 1998, many were predicting the end of the Tour de France. An angry and disgusted Desgrange was among those who thought the 1904 Tour would be the last. Nonetheless, by the time July rolled around in 1905, he and the owners of L’Auto were ready to do it again, but this time the organizers eliminated the cover of darkness, shortening all of the stages and almost doubling their number. The 1905 Tour covered 2994km, but included 11 stages, ranging in length from 167km to 340km. The 1905 Tour also featured the first real mountain stage in the Tour’s history, with the inclusion of the Ballon d’Alsace, a climb along the French/German border that still pops up on the Tour route these days.

So there you go. Floyd Landis was disqualified from the Tour, but he was not the first apparent Tour winner to lose his title, merely the first to be DQed as the result of a doping violation.


“The Explainer” is a regular feature on VeloNews.com. If you have a question related to the sport of cycling that our editors might be able to answer, feel free to send your query to WebLetters@CompetitorGroup.com and we’ll take a stab at answering. Not all letters will be published and some questions may be combined with those of other readers. Please include your full name and hometown.

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