During the 1913 Tour de France, riders could have no outside help repairing their bicycles. The race leader at one point had his front fork break, so he trekked 10 km to a blacksmith where he repaired them himself. He was penalized 3 minutes for allowing a child to work the bellows.
One year on from the First World War, the Tour de France had the faded hue of ancient undergarments. Dye was in short supply, so the trade teams wore grey jerseys. Alphonse Bauge, the team director whose riders had won the previous six Tours, suggested dressing the race leader in a colourful shirt, to make him more visible to his riders. The yellow jersey was born.
In front of the Cafe de l’Ascenseur in Grenoble, the first yellow jersey was presented to Frenchman Eugene Christophe (although he complained the spectators laughed at him: they said he looked like a canary). He had led the race for seven stages already and there were only five to go. The Tour was almost his.
Christophe had already been denied one Tour de France victory in cruel and unusual circumstances. After coming second in the 1912 Tour, he had gone into the 1913 event the outstanding favourite. When, halfway up the 4,100ft Tourmalet, the reigning champion and race leader, Belgium’s Odile Defraye, abandoned the race in exhaustion, Christophe, who had broken away with another Belgian, Philippe Thys, was well positioned to seize an unassailable lead.
Then a careless driver clipped him with a race vehicle, throwing Christophe across the road. He was unhurt, but his front fork had been snapped in two. As Christophe stood over his ruined machine, Thys sped away alone towards the stage win and overall victory.
Another man would have given up there and then. Not Christophe. He wept, but as he did so he picked up the pieces and set off on foot. Eight-and-a-half miles away, at Sainte-Marie-de-Campan, he found a forge. The race rules forbade outside assistance, but Christophe was a skilled mechanic and forged a new fork from 22mm steel. As Christophe gripped the frame in one hand and a hammer in the other, he allowed a seven-year-old boy to work the bellows that supplied air to the fire. For this assistance, the race marshal who policed the operation imposed a 10-minute time penalty. Then Christophe filled his pockets with bread and set off over two more mountains for the stage finish. He arrived three hours and 50 minutes after Thys. Remarkably little, all things considered, but the Tour had gone.
So in 1919 there could have been no worthier winner than this resolute adventurer. Since taking the lead at the end of stage four, he had showed no weakness. Confidently he pounded through the town of Valenciennes, near the Belgian border, two thirds of the way through the penultimate stage of the race. Then, on the only cobbled section of the stage, Christophe’s fork snapped once more.
The forbidding race director, Henri Desgrange, described the scene in the newspaper L’Auto: ‘The sky is gloomy and washed out. Huge, grubby clouds extend to the horizon. It is as if nature itself were grieving. In the outskirts of Valenciennes, Eugene Christophe stands on the pavement. He pushes in front of him, the saddle towards the earth, his bicycle: the fork is broken. It seems to me a mighty lyre whose broken strings sing his final misery.’
This time, there was a forge within half a mile, but the repairs cost him two hours, all the same. Again, a Belgian profited from Christophe’s misfortune. The new leader, Firmin Lambot, sportingly refused to accept the jersey at the start of the following stage, but Christophe insisted. Despite his bad luck, Christophe finished the 1919 Tour third.
While this was the second time that Christophe had lost the Tour de France with a broken fork, it wouldn’t be the last. A cycling Sisyphus, he appeared condemned not to roll rocks up mountains but to carry broken bikes down them. In 1922, he was in the top three, contending for overall victory, when, on the descent from the Galibier in the Alps, his fork broke yet again. He never did win the Tour.
Matt Rendell’s The Death of Marco Pantani (Weidenfeld and Nicolson) was shortlisted for the 2006 William Hill Sports Book of the Year