The mountains have long remained a mysterious place where the truth can be as murky as the fog. Before the railways made France accessible, many believed those who lived in the mountains were freakish figures and imagined strange beasts roamed wild. It’s not all false, today you will find bears in the Pyrenees and wolves in the Alps.
Cycling loves its myths and each July sees the race return to the Pyrenees. Like a child visiting a grandfather, the same stories are told every year. There are the broken forks of Eugène Chistophe, the cry of “assassin” from a Octvave Lapize as he passed the organiser on a steep climb and more. Only many of these tales are exaggerations and even fabrications.
It’s often said the Pyrenees were the first mountains of the Tour de France. False. The Tour climbed the Col de Pin Bouchain and the Col de la République in 1903. Then it visited the Vosges, tackling some long passes in 1905 including the Ballon d’Alsace. The Pyrenees didn’t appear until 1910.
In 1910 the Tour organisers sent a reporter called Alphonse Steinès to review the Pyrenees. To cut a long story short he made his way up the Col du Tourmalet to determine whether a race could be held on the roads. But conditions were so bad that he ended up needing rescuing. Yet far from being wary, soon as the hypothermia subsided, he fired a telegram to Paris saying the road was “perfectly passable”. Like many legends of the Tour de France Steinès’s reconnaissance trip has been told so many times over the years that the fog wasn’t just confined to the mountains. Exaggerations have made the tale ever more colourful, with accounts of blizzards, marauding bears and more.
The story goes that Eugène Christophe broke his forks on the descent of the Tourmalet and then made his way downhill to a blacksmith in the village of St Marie de Campan where he repaired the forks. Riders had no mechanical support and the rules stipulated they could not receive outside assistance. Only in the forge the blacksmith’s boy was operating the bellows and a zealous official penalised Christophe and he lost the race.
However, the reality is different. Christophe was docked three minutes for this extra help, a blink of an eyelid in the days when the margin of victory in the Tour was huge; he lost the Tour for other reasons. Instead Christophe was sponsored by a bike manufacturer and having broken his forks, tried to find a small path to descend the Tourmalet where he could hide the mechanical failure from the press pack, in case news of his unreliable bike leaked out. This sneaky detour, to protect a commercial interest, cost him far more than the three minute penalty.
In 1910 the race first visited the Pyrenees and the Aubisque was the first col. It was so hard only three riders managed to ride to the top, the others were forced to push their bikes up on foot. No wonder given the rudimentary bikes without gearing and the gravelly path. But the first rider to the stop was Octave Lapize who reportedly shouted “vous êtes des assassins“, “you are assassins” to race promoter Henri Desgrange at the top of the climb. False.
Desgrange was back in Paris, overseeing the chronicle of the race via the publication of L’Auto newspaper. Instead when Lapize reached the top, he saw Victor Breyer who had the dual role of race reporter and race official. Lapize was unhappy and Breyer asked “well Lapize, what is it” to which Lapize replied “You are like criminels. Tell Desgrange from me that you don’t ask men to make an effort like this. I’m fed up.” Criminals, yes but the tale of “assassins” seems to be an exaggeration added in time.
Stunning countryside, savage slopes and some amazing racing make the Pyrenees a special place. From the early days of the sport a century ago when Christophe said “this is not sport, this is not a race, it is the work of a brute” to post-war tales like Wim Van Est’s fall and Eddy Merckx’s rise on the roads from Pau to Mourenx, these mountains have given the sport plenty to talk about.
But like many accounts from the past, they can be prone to exaggeration, especially given the organisers and media had an interest in promoting the race and a bit of hype was good for business. These tales reappear every year, they’re comforting if you like repeats… but not always accurate.