By Rupert Guinness
A great injustice has occurred on the Tour de France and not a soul has stood up to make a point of it. By doing so now, I’ll probably find out why lips have remained tight.
Basically, Tour history has stiffed the person who should be credited with founding the Tour. And it took today’s stage 8 from Sallanches to L’Alpe d’Huez to highlight that omission.
As the stage passed the 2654-meter summit of the Galibier after 157km and we began the long descent, looking to the right we saw the massive stone monument dedicated to Henri Desgrange.
Known as H.D (pronounced “ash-day” in French) to his friends and close colleagues, Desgrange is the man who is being championed during the Tour centennial as the event’s founder and father.
That a 50-foot tall monument in his name rests grotesquely atop the famed and (for riders) feared Galibier summit signifies the reverence with which Desgrange is remembered. That has been confirmed by the Tour organization’s decision to put back the “H.D” initials on the shoulders of the overall leader’s and winner’s yellow jersey.
But truth is, credit should go to Géo Lefèvre — the guy who came up with the idea in the first place. Had he not thought up the Tour de France, not only would there be no monument in Desgrange’s name, but I wouldn’t be sitting here in L’Alpe d’Huez writing these words, you wouldn’t be reading them on the Internet, nor would any riders, media, fans or sponsors being following the great race.
That the Tour organization seemingly dumbs down Lefèvre’s role in the race is like saying we owe our mothers and fathers’ nothing for conceiving us. To be fair, it was proposed that the team time trial on stage 4 would finish at Lefèvre’s hometown of Vitry-le-François in honor of his brainwave to have a bike race around France in 1903.
And it wasn’t the fault of the current organizers that local elections in the town and a subsequent change of mayor saw the new powers-that-be reject the idea.
But surely, Lefèvre deserves more than the cursory footnote that he has so far been given. Surely, his name and forward thinking to come up with the concept counts for something.
From the outside looking in it appears that Géo has been — in old cycling vernacular — flicked, and horribly so. Even worse, he has been flicked by Desgrange, history and even today’s organizers.
I feel for Géo. As we spoke of him on the Galibier summit I learned that he died only a few months before I was born; he left this world in late 1961 aged 84, I arrived a few months later in March 1962.
Maybe, I am Géo Lefèvre reincarnated, I joked. He died. I was born. We are both sports reporters who love and wrote about cycling, then moved (voluntarily or not) to cover rugby union. And yes, I can testify — as I am sure many can — that I have been flicked in my time. Only recently, come to think of it….
Géo worked on the French paper L’Auto when he thought up the blueprint for a Tour of France. A club racer, he came up with the idea when asked by his bosses in late 1902 for ways to promote the paper when sales were starting to slip.
Lefèvre’s idea was laughed at, at first, and then accepted. But then Desgrange clicked, thought and abruptly took his ‘petit Géo’ out for lunch at the Zimmer tavern — now named TGI Friday’s — in Montmartre, Paris. Desgrange liked the plan, even though it took some convincing of L’Auto’s financier Victor Goddet (father of the future race boss Jacques Goddet).
The green light was finally given although Géo had to almost run the race by himself. He followed it on bike and train, and studied the train timetables and scheduled stages according, so he could make it to the finish in time. His job brief was as L’Auto’s reporter, timekeeper, statistician, judge and jury, and was often teased by riders. But after the race kicked off in 1903, it was Desgrange who came down heavily on the forward-thinking scribe when reports of skullduggery, corruption, cheating and the like filtered in. It should not be forgotten that it was Desgrange who also wanted to scrap it.
But Lefèvre hung in, albeit to suffer his own demise when the Tour suddenly became the popular event it is today in the eyes of Desgrange, rather than the curse he first saw it as.
Many people can probably relate with falling victim to what Desgrange then did (I can). Maybe some can be honest enough to relate with being the executor of what Desgrange did. That was to take over control of the Tour, accept the applause and make sure any risk of it going to the one who deserves it is eliminated — metaphorically speaking, that is.
Poor old Géo. He was dispatched to cover rugby union and boxing. He couldn’t have been further away from the sport he loved and the event he created. It was a bit like being sent to the Gulag for being ahead of your time with ideas. And it is also a measure of Lefèvre’s strength of character that his response when once asked what he thought of Desgrange as a person was that he “was a hard man, in the good sense of the word.”
I hate to say it; but having heard Géo’s story, I wish I could say the same.