Although this is part of an ongoing series of articles, I’ve structured each so that they may be read independently.
At this point, I’m exploring some of the background material which should help clarify why I feel it is so difficult, if not impossible, to make comparisons between riders of cycling’s two main eras – The Heroic (pre 1938) and Modern (1938 – present). This is all part of a larger project, and series of articles, which will culminate with the the Top 25 Cyclists of the Modern Era.
The Heroic Era and the Tour de France
Comparing Tour de France champions from the Heroic Era to those of the Modern Era is very problematic, as the Tour was once such a very different race. From the mid 1920s to the late ‘30s the event eventually evolved into what most of us would now consider its modern incarnation, but those transition years, and especially the very early editions, were definitely a world apart.
From 1905-1912 the winner wasn’t even determined by lowest accumulated time, but rather by a point system. Germany’s Erik Zabel (points competition winner from 1996-2001, photo left) could very well have been the first six-time consecutive Tour champion had such a system been in place during his prime.
The length of the stages in the early editions of the Tour was brutal. Through the mid 1920’s, the total race length was around 3,300 miles (5,500 km) spread over roughly 15 stages. This meant the average stage was often a marathon day in the saddle featuring 220+ leg breaking miles (366 km) on bikes weighing well over 30 lbs (13.6 kg). Keep in mind, the longest of the Classics, Milan-San Remo, is “only” 180 miles (298 km) long. These extreme distances often pushed the total elapsed time for the Tour winner past 200 hours, more than double that of recent champions. It was during this earlier era that reporter Albert Londres coined the famous term “convicts of the road” after an interview with Henri Pellisier (Tour winner 1923, photo right) who lamented “we are treated like beasts in a circus.”
The Tour’s founder, Henri Desgrange (photo left), also enforced draconian rules which required riders to make all repairs without assistance, and until 1928, spare parts weren’t even allowed. Good fortune often played as large a part in victory as did a rider’s skill and endurance. Additionally, the cyclists were also required to carry everything with them, from the start of the stage until the finish, including all their clothing and spare tires; nothing could be discarded. This was no small order, as the clothing of the era was made out of bulky wool, which could not be easily stored once removed.
The early Tour winners seemed to have been cut from a different cloth than their post war counterparts; they were as at home on the cobbles of Paris-Roubaix as on the mountain roads of the Alps and Pyrenees. In fact, 15 of the 21 different Tour victors from the Heroic Era would also make their way to the podium in the Queen of the Classics. In contrast, during the Modern Era (post 1938), only 7 of the 24 different Tour winners also wound up placing in Paris-Roubaix. One conclusion is that perhaps Tour champions may have been a bit more robustly built than their modern counterparts. It would also stand to reason these types of riders tended to excel in the longer stages, and harsher road conditions, imposed by the pre war Tour.
All told, the Tour de France was a far different animal from what it became, and it is difficult to say how early pioneers would have fared in recent times. Conversely, would a slender mountain specialist, like Belgium’s Lucien van Impe (Tour winner 1976, photo right), have ever been a factor in the rough and tumble early years, racing over jarring dirt tracks, war torn roads, and unpaved alpine passes?
To be continued in Comparing Cycling’s Great Eras, Part 3