The Tour de France has been fraught with scandal and has survived it all.

The Tour de France has ended, but the real winner may not be known for months. The apparent winner is under investigation for cheating and could face a two-year suspension if found guilty. A rival of the newspaper that owns the race has called the event, “the greatest sporting joke of the century.”

Another article about the 2006 Tour de France and this Landis mess, right?


Yes, Floyd Landis is under investigation for cheating and could face a two-year suspension from racing (plus another two years of not being allowed to ride for any top-level teams.) And, yes, he would be the first winner of the Tour to lose his title for doping, but he would not be the first man to have his overall victory in France’s Grande Boucle (Big Loop) taken away from him.

That distinction went to the Italian-born Maurice Garin, who’d just won his second straight Tour de France in 1904 – or so he’d thought.

The chain-smoking Garin, who, as an infant, had reportedly been traded by his father for a wheel of cheese, specialized in long-distance races in France and Belgium around the turn of the last century. “The Little Chimney Sweep,” who’d become a French citizen in 1892, entered the first Tour de France in 1903 and had won easily, racking up the event’s largest ever margin of victory: two hours, 49 minutes.

When he showed up at the start of the 1904 Tour, Garin was expected to repeat. Many of the other top riders had chosen to skip the race, figuring there was more money to be made racing on the country’s many velodromes, or banked tracks. The Tour followed the same route as the previous year, covering more than 1,500 miles in six stages, some of which took the racers 18 hours to cover.

Riding on train

During the first Tour de France, the riders had had to stop at “fixed” control points established along the way and sign in. They did, but often after they’d ridden part way on a train or in a car. To discourage this type of cheating, race organizer Henri Desgrange devised a set of “secret,” unannounced control points along the way in hopes of catching the cheats in the act. They wouldn’t work very well, but that would turn out to be the least of Desgrange’s worries.

Early in the race’s first stage, Garin and Lucien Pothier, a member of his La Francaise cycling team, asked L’Auto reporter and race official Geo Lefevre for some bread and chicken, threatening to quit the race if their demands weren’t met. Word of the handout made it back to Charles Revaud, a reporter for the rival newspaper Le Velo, who wasted no time penning a piece critical of the incident.

But Garin and Pothier’s day was about to get worse. Near the end of the stage, a car carrying four men pulled up beside them and demanded that the pair quit the race so a local rider named Faure could win the race. If the riders didn’t do as they were told, said the men, who concealed their identities behind dark goggles, there would be trouble when the race reached Saint-Etienne. After the stage finished in Lyon, Henri Desgrange fined one rider for drafting his team’s car and disqualified another for taking “a series of lifts in a motorcar.”

Angry crowd awaits

The race’s second stage started a week later and the threatening men in the car kept their word. At the control point just before the Col de la Republique, an angry crowd awaited the racers’ arrival. Antoine Faure, who had nothing to do with the plot, was allowed to pass through the mob which then jumped on Maurice Gain and his brother Cesar, as well as an Indian cyclist named Gerbi. Before the organizers could disperse the crowd by firing a revolver into the air, poor Gerbi was beaten so badly that he was unable to continue.

Fearing more trouble, the organizers moved the finish of the second stage from Marseille to nearby Saint Antoine where one rider thought he’d won the stage only to have victory awarded to another. Henri Desgrange disqualified local rider Ferdinand Payan for drafting riders not in the race. Of course Payan’s disqualification would only lead to his supporters threatening more trouble.

Three days later, on the way to Toulouse, the road in Nimes was covered with nails. Another scuffle ensued and more shots were fired. Antoine Faure, fearing for his life, quit the race. The following day Henri Desgrange wrote in L’Auto, that the race would pass through Nimes the following year but without Payan unless “he is able to produce categorical proof of his innocence” concerning the melee.

Ready to pull the plug

In Paris, Maurice Garin had won his second straight Tour de France by three minutes, 28 seconds over his teammate Lucien Pothier. Or so he thought. Because of the race’s many problems, the Union Velocipedique de France, the French Cycling Union, was investigating the race, and Henri Desgrange was ready to pull the plug on the whole operation. “The tour de France has just finished,” he wrote in the July 25 edition of L’Auto, “and its second edition will, I fear, be its last. It will have died of its own success…”

On December 2, the UVF handed down its ruling. The race’s first four finishers had been disqualified for offenses ranging from eating outside of the feeding zone to riding in cars. Thirty four year old Maurice Garin had been suspended for two years. Lucien Pothier was banned from cycling for life.

Fifth becomes first

Henri Cornet, who rode the race’s last 20 miles on a flat tire, ended up fifth overall, nearly three hours back. But, with the disqualification of the race’s top four finishers, he was now the new champion of the second Tour de France.

At 19 years, 11 months and 20 days, Cornet remains the youngest winner of the Tour de France. Interestingly, 15 years before the introduction of the race’s yellow leader’s jersey, Henri Cornet’s riding attire is said to have included a yellow jacket.

Maurice Garin died in 1957 at the age of 85 in Lens, France, where he’d opened a service station. Before his death Garin had reportedly admitted to hopping a train during the 1904 race. “He admitted it,” gravedigger Maurice Vernald told cycling historian Les Woodland. “He was amused about it, certainly not embarrassed, not after all those years. There wasn’t the same significance to the Tour then.”

The Tour de France survived ‘The Last Tour de France’ in 1904. It has survived two world wars, and it survived the “Festina Affair” of 1998. And, the Tour de France, however imperfect it and its riders may be, will, no doubt, survive Operacion Puerto and the “Landis Affair” and return for a 94th edition in 2007.

Maybe it will even learn something from this.

Jim Witherell of Lewiston is a member of the Maine Cycling Club. He is writing a book on the history of the Tour de France titled “When Heroes Were Giants: 93 Tours de France.”

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