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No centenary party for 1904 Tour of shame
Francois Thomazeau |
July 06, 2004 16:08 IST
The Tour de France celebrated the 100th anniversary of its birth with flamboyance and nostalgia in 2003, but 2004 marks a centenary organisers would probably rather forget.
The first Tour in 1903 attracted huge crowds, made headlines and boosted sales of L'Auto, the newspaper that invented the race. The second, in 1904, almost ended the event.
"The Tour de France is finished and I'm afraid its second edition has been the last. We have reached the end of the Tour and we are disgusted, frustrated and discouraged," wrote Tour founder Henri Desgrange.
One hundred years on, the Tour remains controversial, tarnished by seemingly endless doping scandals. Some French newspapers have called for it to be scrapped.
The race is also used by protesters and demonstrators as a platform on which to express their concerns or demands.
But some of today's disputes look mild compared to the incidents that marred the 1904 Tour.
Riders were attacked, firearms used and cheating was so widespread that the top four finishers were later disqualified.
On the final day, when 27 riders out of 88 at the start made it to Paris, Maurice Garin was initially declared the winner for the second year running. It had been a rough ride.
Halfway through the race, Garin said: "If I'm not murdered before we reach Paris, I'll win the Tour de France again."
The French rider had reason to be worried. Before the first stage ended in Lyon, he was attacked by four masked men in a car, who tried to knock him and nearest rival Lucien Pothier off their bikes before fleeing.
Between Lyon and St Etienne, while local rider Andre Faure was making a climb, some 200 fans invaded the road to prevent the rest of the peloton from chasing him.
"Kill them!" they shouted while race officials fired shots into the air to disperse the angry crowd.
In the brawl that followed, Garin injured his hand and Paul Gerbi was beaten up and left unconscious on the road.
Tension continued when the Tour reached Nimes, in south-west France. A local rider named Payan had been disqualified a few days earlier but insisted on starting all the same.
When Tour officials refused, more angry fans threw stones at the riders demanding that Payan be reinstated.
Between Bordeaux and Agen, nails were scattered on the road causing punctures. Henri Cornet even rode the last 40 km of the final stage with two flat tyres.
Garin finished first in Paris, followed by Pothier, Hippolyte Aucouturier and Garin's brother Cesar.
Four months later, the French Cycling Union found the four guilty of various rule infractions and they were disqualified to give the fifth-placed, 20-year-old Cornet an unexpected victory.
Pothier, accused of cheating, was given a life suspension while Garin was banned for two years.
A dejected Desgrange was ready to call it quits but he finally decided to carry on with the Tour.
"We must continue the great moral crusade to clean up cycling and it is something only the Tour de France can achieve," he said.
A century later, the organisers face a similar task.