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The Explainer – Surviving in the hardest of times

  • By Charles Pelkey
  • Published Sep. 2, 2009
  • Updated Nov. 3, 2009 at 11:39 PM EST

By Charles Pelkey

Marcel Kint, seen here following Jules Rossi in the 1938 edition of Paris-Roubaix, went on to win the race in 1943. 1943?!?!?

Photo: AFP

Dear Explainer,
It occurs to me that the Tour de France (and likely the other major races) could very easily have died during, or after, the major European conflicts of the past century. Luckily for us all, they didn’t- but this had to be the work of a few stalwart diehards.

I would be fascinated to know more about who brought the Tour de France back after WWI and WW II, and what sort of challenges they met. Do you have any thoughts or suggested readings?

Thanks for your articles. I greatly enjoy them.
Best in all,
Rob Simpson
Athens, Georgia

Dear Rob,
You hit on a subject that has caught my interest in the past. I’ve even thought of writing on the topic in depth, largely because there isn’t a lot out there.

You’re absolutely right that those races could have disappeared, particularly after WWI, when road cycling was still in its infancy – or maybe adolescence, if you measure these things in human years.

I don’t have a lot on the obstacles faced by grand tour organizers after the wars, but I do know that those in charge of those races before World Wars I and II took up the effort to re-establish those events as soon as they could.

Being a Post-War Baby Boomer, raised on war-time stories from my older German relatives, I’d always suspected that all aspects of normal life – including bike racing – came to a screeching halt during World War II. That wasn’t necessarily the case for those not directly affected on a daily basis … due in part to a desire to convince people that life was normal, even after their countries had been invaded.

Take the May 10, 1940, German invasion of France and the Benelux countries. The invasion did result in the suspension of the Tour de France from 1940 to 1946. The war also caused the Giro d’Italia to be suspended from 1941 to 1945. The Vuelta was put on hold from 1937 to 1940, due to the Spanish Civil War, but resumed a two-year run in ’41 and ’42 and was suspended again in ’43 and ’44.

The Tour’s first organizer, Henri Desgrange, actually died in 1940, a few months after the German invasion and his race had been cancelled for the year. His job was taken over by his second-in-command, Jacques Goddet, who resisted requests by German propagandists and the Vichy government to hold the race at times during the war. They wanted to present an image that everything in occupied France was pretty much hunky dory, even with those guys in shiny, calf-high black boots marching around the streets.

To his credit, Goddet refused.

Instead, Goddet waited until the war was over and then worked tirelessly to organize the 1947 Tour after he realized that the task would be nearly impossible in 1946.

Richard Depoorter won Liège–Bastogne–Liège in 1943 and 1947.

Photo: ASO

What I find remarkable is not only that the Tour, the Giro, the Vuelta and the major classics came back after the big wars, but how many of them were held during the war years.

I guess it shouldn’t be surprising that some events managed to survive during the war. Italy was, for example, relatively calm in the early years and some races, like Milan-San Remo, were only suspended from 1944 to 1945, following the Allied invasion of Sicily and the gradual march north through the boot of Italy.

But even in places where you’d think normal life would be on hold, bike racing continued with only a few interruptions. In France, there was still a 1941 version of the Criterium International – although some history books correctly refer to it as the Criterium National because of its all-French field. There was still an edition of Paris-Tours that year, too. That same year, the Belgians organized editions of the Ronde vanVlaanderen and Fleche Wallonne. Again, the efforts were supported by the Germans, who wanted to convey the image of normalcy.

Other classics managed to make brief appearances during the war. After a three-year absence, Paris-Roubaix was held in 1943, ’44 and ’45, having skirted the fighting that began with the Normandy invasion and the final Allied push into Germany after the Battle of the Bulge. Try to imagine the 1944 or ’45 editions of Paris-Roubaix next time you hear some millionaire pro bike racer complaining about conditions in the “Hell of the North” these days.

“Boo hoo, the fans splashed beer on me.” Yeah, yeah, HTFU.

The Explainer’s Uncle Max saw L-B-L in ’43, but we doubt he was invited out for Trappist Ale and pomme frites in that outfit.

Photo: Charles Pelkey

The German invasion of France and the low countries obviously curtailed plans for several events, including 1940 edition of Liège-Bastogne-Liège, which was held in mid-May the year before. The race was also cancelled in 1941 and ’42.

Interestingly, though, they managed to hold Liège-Bastogne-Liège in 1943, before suspending it again for 1944 and ‘45. Firmly in the grip of Nazi occupation in 1943, Belgians still tried to regain some semblance of the old life, organizing an edition of La Doyenne under the watchful eye of German troops.

My own interest in the subject in general, and that year’s Liège-Bastogne-Liège in particular, was triggered in part when I ran across 11 volumes of diaries from the brother of my great-grandmother – the long-deceased “Uncle Max” – in my grandmother’s home in Germany.

Max, a captain assigned to Belgium at the time, dutifully kept diaries in that precise-but-largely-indecipherable script known as Sütterlinschrift. I’ve had the things for almost 20 years now and I’ve managed to plod through a page or two per sitting every now-and-then, but I’ve never made a lot of progress and it’s even harder now that I need glasses.

Max’s diaries are a slow read, but there are occasional gems mixed in with the rants.

Photo: Charles Pelkey

Early on in that effort, however, I ran across one entry – in June of 1943 – in which he made reference to having to oversee the large numbers of Flämisch wanting to see a bike race in Liège. A bike race in Liège? … in 1943? Already a bike geek, I was intrigued.

In those pre-Google days, it took me quite some time to find other, more detailed, references to the 1943 race, which was held in late June that year. It was a small field, made up entirely of Belgian riders and the day was won by Richard Depoorter, who went on to win the race again in 1947. (Sadly, Depoorter was killed in the 1948 edition of the Tour of Switzerland, crashing on the descent of the Sustenpas near Bern.)

Uncle Max, a cranky old German nationalist until the day he died at the age of 97, seemed genuinely intrigued by the race, writing that he “felt the excitement of the day” almost to the point that he forgot the circumstances that put him in Belgium in the first place. He was there, in uniform no doubt, and I can only imagine what sort of damper his ? and his soldiers’ ? presence had on the day.

While the grand tours did take some time to regain their footing, by 1947 all three were back on the schedule and attracting crowds who were probably more than happy to take advantage of the diversion.

I guess it’s true when they say Vive le Tour! Vive le vélo!


Charles,
Whatever happened to the story on the R-Sys wheel demolition? Though no physicist, the concept of a spoke and in particular a carbon spoke, that both pushes and pulls seems inherently flawed. Was there a resolution after the investigation?
Thanks,
Jason Armstrong

Hello Jason,
I checked in with the victim – otherwise known as VeloNews editor Ben Delaney – and he’s still following the story closely. Mavic, of course, responded to the issue quickly, but – judging from our letters page and the chatter on our forum – not in way that was satisfactory to the general consumer.

Ben said he expects to do a follow-up on the whole situation. We are happy to report that he’s back on the bike and apparently doing well for a guy who flipped over his handlebars and broke his shoulder.

We’ve received several letters from readers asking what they should do when it comes to using those wheels. Hey, that’s your call, but if I put them on my bike, I’d keep wondering what the root cause of that crash was. I’m still riding my Mavics … although they’re Ksyriums and my all-time favorites, the Heliums.


Email Charles Pelkey


“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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