The Tour in the Inter-War Years:
Political Ideology, Athletic Excess and
Industrial Modernity

CHRISTOPHER THOMPSON

INTRODUCTION


Early  in the  1924  Tour  de  France,  the  popular  defending  champion
Henri  Pélissier  dropped  out,  complaining  of  the  race’s  humiliating
rules. Couched in the language of worker rights and magnified by the
Communist  press  in  particular,  his  remarks  sparked  a  national
debate about the race’s abusive nature that lasted through the 1930s.
A  new representation  of  the  Tour  racer  was  born:  the  ‘forçat  de  la
route’  (‘convict  labourer  of  the  road’),  a  sinister  counterpoint  to  the
conventional celebration of racers as ‘giants of the road’ and ‘survivors’
of the most difficult event in all of sport. To ensure that the Tour lived
up  to  its  reputation,  its  organizers—the  sports  daily  L’Auto—had
indeed  created  numerous  rules.  Some  imposed  a  rigorous  self-
sufficiency on Tour racers:  for example,  they had to effect all  repairs
entirely on their own. Responding to bourgeois spectators outraged at
the  racers’  ‘scandalous’  conduct,  the  organizers  had  also  formulated
other  rules,  fining  contestants  for  begging,  stealing,  cursing,  public
urination, and acts of aggression against fans, race officials, and each
other.  Invoking  these  rules  and  building  on  a  widespread
contemporary understanding of long-distance cycling as harsh physical
labour,  L’Auto  portrayed  the  race  as  a  civilizing  process  that
transformed  its  uncouth  contestants  into  honourable,  disciplined
‘ouvriers de la pédale’—‘pedal workers’—worthy of emulation by their
lower-class fans.
The  organizers  were,  however,  caught  in  a  fundamental
contradiction.  On the one hand,  they knew that  the Tour  de France
owed  its  widespread  appeal  to  the  extraordinary  challenge  it
represented.  The mountains,  the weather,  and the distances covered
day after day made it the toughest sporting event in the world, while
the Tour’s many rules only added to its severity.  On the other hand,
the extreme nature of the race,  when combined with the language of
work adopted by both its advocates and opponents, left L’Auto and the