It comes as a shock to learn that the world’s most famous bicycle race carried on through mud and ruins less than one year after the end of World War I. Yet soon after the armistice was signed on November 11, 1918, 54-year-old Henry Desgrange, the founder of the Tour de France, decided to proceed with the competition. Desgrange himself had served with the 150th Infantry Regiment. Reviving the race would show the world that France was on the road to recovery.
In his first book, Sprinting Through No Man’s Land: Endurance, Tragedy, and Rebirth in the 1919 Tour de France (Little A), journalist and podcaster Adin Dobkin describes the passion of Desgrange, the enterprising editor of L’Auto, a daily paper that covered cycling, gymnastics, and yachting. Since launching the Tour de France in 1903, Desgrange had controlled every aspect of the month-long event, imposing grueling rules that led even the earliest racers to cheat. In 1914, the race began on the same day that the Archduke Franz Ferdinand was assassinated in Sarajevo, setting in motion events that would lead to war. Since that fateful summer, Desgrange had devoted himself to keeping his paper afloat, sans the excitement of the Tour.
But now, in the early spring light of 1919, Desgrange traveled by car to survey the decimation of France: craters, trenches and deforestation. Village after village had been reduced to rubble where returning refugees tried to put their lives back together. Indeed, the government paid its citizens to restore and rebuild what they could. Inevitably, some towns that had once welcomed the racers with cheers and drink were gone and would not come back. Notwithstanding the destruction, Desgrange mapped the route.
A ROUTE REMINISCENT OF THE WAR
Sixty-seven cyclists started the race from Paris at 3:00 a.m. on June 29, and 11 would finish the entire course, persevering through 15 stages along the perimeter of France. Some of the men were technically still soldiers and were not fully demobilized. Several passed by battlefields that were horrifyingly familiar. Often the overnight accommodations resembled wartime conditions.
“If the cyclists could be pushed, ordered to revisit those areas planted with millions of boot prints, with motorized tracks that chipped away at dirt roads once only used for the occasional market trip,” writes Dobkin — that was Desgrange’s shrewd calculus. If the cyclists would submit to the ravaged terrain, slipping and sliding in the mud-filled holes left by mine explosions where soldiers and horses had drowned, then the show could go on. They did, and it did.
“The land shifted before them,” Dobkin writes of the racers. “It took its cues from ancient times, from humans pressing up against it, making only the smallest indentations.” Now it was stripped, laid bare.
Among the race’s top competitors, most had participated in the Tour de France before the war. The brothers Henri and Francis Pelissier, abstemious and ferocious, incurred Desgrange’s wrath when they dropped out of the race. Along the way, they had treated themselves with strychnine, nitroglycerine, ether, liquid cocaine and chloroform. Both would compete again through the twenties.
Eugène Christophe, who had served in the bicycle infantry during the war, was the favorite of Desgrange and most of the spectators along the route. He would have won had he not been forced to stop to weld together the fork that held his front wheel, which fell apart when he rode over cobblestones near Valenciennes. He lost 2 1/2 hours but ultimately walked away with the largest purse, having received thousands of francs from his many fans on top of his third-place prize. The winner, Firmin Lambot, a 33-year-old Belgian, posed with a wreath and went home.
MORE THAN JUST A RACE
As compelling as the Tour, there are five ancillary stories about race, politics and culture interspersed throughout the book. Most poignant is Dobkin’s depiction of the men riding through the port city of Brest, casting their eyes at Camp Pontanezen, where the 813th Pioneer Infantry Regiment, “a colored unit,” prepares to return to the United States after less than a year of hard labor under the hostile eyes of racist officers.
Sprinting Through No Man’s Land is far more than the story of the 1919 Tour de France. It is a lens that Dobkin uses to explore the history embedded in France’s war-torn borders with Spain, Italy, Switzerland, Germany, and Belgium. As the cyclists pass through Alsace-Lorraine, Dobkin explains that this territory had been controlled by the German Empire since the Franco-Prussian War but now, once again, belonged to France. Farther on, as the men climb the mountains and swoop into the valleys of the Alps, Dobkin conjures the “White War,” a combat along the Alpine Front where thousands of Italian soldiers dug trenches in the frozen ground and perished on the snowy peaks.
The cyclists were great athletes, Dobkin shows, who “witnessed the war concluding around them.”