Taking the Long View of The Tour de France

This year’s Tour de France is the 99th edition of a bicycle race that is rich in meaning and symbolism for the French nation. Christopher S. Thompson is professor of history at Ball State University in Muncie, Indiana and author of a widely acclaimed cultural history of the Tour de France. He discusses how the race came about in an era of rising nationalism and how the route itself was loaded with political meaning. Professor Thompson argues the race projected carefully constructed role models and entrenched traditional gender archetypes. More recently, controversies over doping in cycle sport can be linked to concerns about recreational drug use in wider society.

Over the col du Tourmalet, 1879 style

This is an extract from an account of a summer touring trip to the Pyrenees, published in the London Bicycle Club Gazette (1879). The group of London cycle tourists rode their machines, or more likely pushed them, up all the major cols including the Aubisque, Tourmalet, Aspin & Peyresourde. They were almost certainly riding high wheelers on solid tyres as the safety bicycle and the pneumatic tyre had yet to be brought to market. According to historian (and cyclist) Graham Robb, cycle touring across the Pyrenees was quite common in the late nineteenth century, and there are accounts of both men and women riding over the highest mountain passes.

More than thirty years would pass before riders competing in the Tour de France would follow in the tyre tracks of these hardy London cycle tourists by pushing their far more technically advanced bicycles up the Tourmalet.

19 September 1879: Luz, over the Col du Tourmalet, to St. Marie de Campan.

Whilst waiting at the smith’s yesterday I was immensely amused watching pigs being washed in the stream which runs close to his house. The method appeared to be to rush the “cochons” in, and, after throwing bowls of water over them, to prevent their exit by summarily assaulting them with a long wooden spoon. My catapult also contributed to their uneasiness, I’m afraid. Before leaving Luz we inspected the curious old fortified church, said to have been built by the Templars in the twelfth century. Soon after eight the party rode out, hut, a kilo or two gone, they were forced to walk for the rest of the way, rising 1674 feet up to Barèges, the road, though a good wide one, being steep and extremely muddy from the heavy rain during the night. We found that town approached by such steep, short zigzags as we have nowhere else seen, quite a labour, in fact, to get the machines up them.

Barèges being 4084 feet above the sea, and the highest of the Pyrenean watering-places, consists of one long, steep street, situate in a narrow desolate valley, which is continually swept by fearful avalanches. The waters being very renowned for healing wounds, etc., the place was consequently full of soldiers, who crowded up the hospital windows on hearing my bugle. Only stopping at this dreary-looking place to purchase provisions, we pushed on up a narrow road which rose gradually at first round the sides of the mountains, and then in steep zigzags right away up to the top of the pass. Near Barèges we tasted some avalanche recently fallen into the Gave, and soon after enjoyed something a little more substantial, icy cold milk. The trudge up for 6 3/4 miles more, rising during that time 2878 feet, proved a great grind, especially towards the top, as the road, a carriage one, being composed of small shale, was naturally very sticky from frequent moisture. It was a dreary walk, mostly bare rock and shale around, and as we were in the clouds nearly all the time we saw very little of surrounding peaks and no views to speak of. Some distance up we lunched on rolls, chocolate and ice cream, the best obtainable to eat.

Arrived soon after two at the top of the Col du Tourmalet, in a small cutting at a height of 6962 feet above sea-level, with a cold drizzle falling, the London Bicycle Club call having been duly sounded, songs sung, and pipes with difficulty lit, the descent was commenced. Soon after we had a fine view of the rugged Pic du Midi de Bigorre, close by, and passed old patches of dirty snow. Although still sticky and pretty steep, Hutchings managed with his strap brake to ride nearly all down to Gripp, and of course arrived long before the rest. The others walked for 9 kilo nearly all down zigzags to the two beautiful little waterfalls, the Chutes d’Artigues, at the top of the little valley of Tremesaïgues. A little higher up we enjoyed a fine way of this narrow valley, which, together with this side of the mountain, far more. green, wooded, and picturesque than the other side of the pass. My brake being hinged all to the top of the fork sent streams of mud down into the bearings when the road was wet, and consequently prevented me from riding this part as I should otherwise have done. The others found their brakes not powerful enough I think.

Beyond the waterfalls we found the road less curly and steep, so rode the rest down to Gripp (3,464 feet) 7 3/4 miles from top of Col, where we had a scratch meal at an auberge called the “Hotel des Voyageurs,” a chicken being at once caught and roasted, and potatoes dug up. Our wants supplied, we ran over a good road farther down the valley to St. Marie de Campan (2 3/4 miles), getting drenched by a sudden shower on the way. At this place the nice hotel we expected to find proved to be a mere auberge, where we had some queer experiences. Our dinner, a poor one, we ate in the best bedroom, tenanted by Jennings and Buckler, and after the small soup tureen was done with it was placed in my bedroom for me to wash in. Jennings and Buckler had a pie dish, between them to wash in. The lot for fifth bed fell on Williams, who at roosting time had to betake himself to a bed in the comer of the kitchen, and draw down the blinds. My bed seemed pretty clean, though rough, but I think someone complained of pouces being about. It rained hard all night.

Distance to-day 21 3/4 miles.

Here’s Octave Lapize, leading the Tour de France over the Tourmalet in 1910:

To Coventry: Birthplace of the Bicycle

Coventry has a very good claim to be the birthplace of the modern bicycle, the “Rover Safety” invented in the 1880s by John Kemp Starley, one of the city’s many bicycle makers. Someone very happy to make that claim is Steve Bagley, Head of Collections at the Coventry Transport Museum. We go for a ride around the city and a trip back in time. The museum has an excellent programme of cycling-related talks and exhibitions this summer. Music buffs will know that Coventry’s great contribution was the “2 Tone” ska revival scene of the late 1970s, led by The Specials and The Selecter.

And do make a date for Velonotte, a night time architectural themed night time bicycle tour of the City of London and the East End, on the night of Saturday 23rd June through to the early hours of Sunday morning. More information at the London Festival of Architecture.

A Century of Italian Cycle Sport

At the start of the second week of this year’s Giro d’Italia, we take the long view of cycle sport in Italy with John Foot, professor of modern Italian history at University College London. His book Pedalare! Pedalare! tells the fascinating story of how Italy fell in love with the bicycle and how cycle sport took a central role in national life.

Burrows on the Bicycle (part two – laid back)

In the concluding half of an extended interview with engineer and bicycle inventor Mike Burrows, we talk about Mike’s biggest passion: laid back bicycles. He explains how these human powered vehicles came about and where he hopes they’re going. You can see the world’s fastest human powered vehicles racing at the world championships this June at the Fowlmead country park near Deal in Kent.

Plus bike blogger and endurance athlete Simon Nurse discusses the possibility of a cycling equivalent of the London Marathon. The closest we could find is the Vätternrundan in Sweden: 300km, 23,000 participants.

In the year 1949…

The People’s Republic of China is officially proclaimed, following the victory of the Communist Party forces in the civil war.

Winston Churchill makes a landmark speech in support of the idea of a European Union.

George Orwell’s ‘1984’ is published.

Albert II, a rhesus monkey, becomes the first primate to enter space, on a US V-2 rocket, but is killed on impact on his return journey.

Policemen in Liverpool protest about the reduction of the cycle allowance they get for riding their own bicycles on the beat from 5 shillings a week to 2 shillings a week.

Swiss cyclist Armin Von Büren wins the Swiss national track championships as his wheel collapses as he crosses the finishing line in a high speed sprint. The miraculous photograph above freezes forever the split second when Von Büren’s front wheel has collapsed and shed its tyre but he has yet to hit the deck.

1949 is also the last year in which the British people travelled more miles by bicycle than they travelled by motor car. In that year, on average, people in Britain travelled 305 miles a year by bicycle and 261 miles per year by car. The statistics are from the Department of Transport.

1949 was the beginning of the period of the Great Extinction of cycling in the British Isles. The motor car and the fuel required to move it became steadily more available and affordable. Politicians and planners decided that personal mobility was unequivocally a good thing and that British roads were for cars, not bicycles.

Cycling v motoring in Britain, 1949-2010

The same figures, but with miles cycled plotted on a separate axis, to aid comprehension:

Cycling v motoring in Britain, 1949-2010

In 2010, the average distance British people travel by bicycle annually is 50 miles and the average distance they travel by motor car is 3,966 miles.

If, as some suggest, Britain is experiencing a bicycle boom, there is a long way yet to go.

Burrows on the Bicycle (part one)

Mike Burrows is probably best known for his design of the Lotus 108 pursuit bike that Chris Boardman rode in the Barcelona Olympics, winning the first gold medal for a British cyclist in over 70 years. But Mike has made a huge contribution to pedal powered machines more widely. His compact road frame first developed for Giant is now a design standard and his designs have moved the world of laid back or recumbent bicycles on from the early, pioneering days in 1970s California. Burrows remains inventive, opinionated and passionate about bicycles.

This is the first of a two part extended interview. Mike will be giving a talk on 19 June at the National Transport Museum in Coventry.