482km along the Atlantic coast – Riding the longest Tour de France stage in history

A century ago, the organisers of the Tour de France set riders the longest stage in the history of all grand tour racing: 482km along the Atlantic coast. In homage to those who raced it, we retraced the route. In a single day

It’s hard to find so much as an anecdote about stage 5 of the 1919-1924 Tours de France. The legends of the Tour were written in the mountains and this parcours, vast as it is, could be dubbed ‘the Queen transition stage’.

Perhaps, though, that is less a fault of the route and more of the expectations and attention of those covering the race. While these days any long, flat stage is, for most of the riders, usually a matter of sitting in the bunch, waiting for the break to come back and trying to stay alert enough to avoid causing a mass pile-up, the racing was very different a hundred years ago. The truth of the Tour’s longest ever stage is likely to be much closer to that of Paris-Roubaix, where it’s said that every rider has a story to tell. With no possibility to ask the riders of the time, we set out to discover our own.

The first thing to know is that this stage was not an anomaly. The first ever Tour stage in 1903 was 467km and the 1906 edition included a 480km behemoth from Marseille to Toulouse. But, at 482km, or 299.5 miles, the stage from Les Sables-d’Olonne to Bayonne down the west coast of France was the outright longest in the history of all three Grand Tours.

Further context is also required. The two previous stages were 405 and 412km; the one after ran 326km across the Pyrenees, with nigh-on 7,000metres of climbing. This stage was introduced in 1919, the first Tour after World War One, when many of the roads were still in a terrible state. Known as the ‘Tour of Hunger’ owing to the ongoing rationing of food, it’s no surprise that this was the slowest ever edition of the race. Adding this stage at that time seems cruel, but such was the wont of founding director, Henri Desgrange. 

Replicating that experience is practically impossible and certainly undesirable – how far would you ride in wool shorts with no pad? I’ve wanted to do this ride for some time, but don’t mind admitting that I need all of the advantages of modern equipment and fresh legs. I equip myself therefore, with Wilier’s new aero all-road racer, the Rave SLR, and a set of mighty Zipp 808 wheels. As I roll away from the hotel in Les Sables-d’Olonne, I know I’m as well set up as I could be, but I’m far less sure of what lies ahead of me, or if I’m up to it.

Much as live television times shape race schedules today, so spectator convenience dictated start times in the early Tours, with races planned to finish after people had left work. That always meant starting during the night and for this longest stage it necessitated a roll-out at 10pm. Back then, stages ran on alternating days, but such a start time hardly made it a rest day. Besides, there simply weren’t enough hours in the day to run these stages back-to-back when the last finishers sometimes took more than 24 hours. The longest finishing time on this stage was in 1920, when Henri Ory finished in 29h44m, almost exactly 10 hours behind winner Firmin Lambot. 

Keen to maximise daylight hours, my own départ is just after 5am. The seafront is deserted and the stars are visible in the still obsidian sky, suggesting that the chill air will give way to the pleasant day promised by the forecasts, to which I’d been glued for weeks. I’m excited and, having rested up for this day rather than ridden four huge stages already, my legs are bursting with energy. In these early hours, the new Garmin Edge 1040 on my handlebar that will be my guide for the day, also has an essential role in helping me keep a lid on my exuberance.

Once out of town, the tone is set for the day, with a series of very long straights. Initially, I can see nothing beyond the punchy beam of my light and only the dashed white line passing under my wheels confirms that I’m actually moving and not riding a turbo with the lights off. As the pre-dawn light dilutes the inky sky into more watery shades, so emerges the landscape around me. Now I can see that there’s nothing to see. I’m not sure which is worse.

With 53km ridden, heading east out of the town of Luçon, a deep red sun nudges over the horizon, so huge that it’s almost frightening. For the next few kilometres I have the privilege of watching it rise, then turn south and swap one pleasure for another as what has been a persistent crosswind is now at my back. 

The port town of La Rochelle at 104km reminds me of my school textbooks, from which I recall an industrial fishing hub. The intervening years have been kinder to the town than to my French grammar, and its pretty buildings and marina dazzle in the morning light. The charm of the car-free, cobbled seafront comes crashing down when it rattles loose my computer mount. Separated from the photo/support car, I have to ride for 14km with one hand holding it in place until the car catches up.

The riding has felt easy up to now and as I get going again I’m feeling fresh and keen to make up the time. Somehow, I literally forget the 380km ahead of me and push too fast for a while. By the time 160km comes around, one third distance, it’s starting to pinch so I take a proper break to eat some rice and chicken, stretch, and remove my arm and knee warmers.

By 200km, it’s hurting again, and more than it should do at this point. The road from Saintes isn’t helping. It rolls constantly, it’s busy, the scenery is dull, and it’s straight for 16km to Pons and the same again from there to Mirambeau. Some texts describe this stage as “devoid of difficulties”. It may not be cobbled or mountainous, packed with bergs nor ripped by crosswinds, but I’d argue that this route has plenty of difficulties of its own. Out here, it’s just you and your pain.

I force myself to keep going until half distance, 240km, before taking a second break. This time I’m really concerned about what’s still ahead. I eat as much as I can, take an ibuprofen for an increasingly sore knee, loosen the laces of my shoes, rub my legs with a foam roller, stretch, and have a Coke. If it sounds a bit desperate, it also feels it. But it works. A few minutes after resuming, I feel like a new rider.

At Blaye, the route swings left along the banks of the Gironde estuary. Crosswind becomes tailwind again, the speeds are high and my smile wide. The struggles of an hour earlier are forgotten and I’m simply having a great ride. To my right, the estuary splits into the Gironde and the Dordogne rivers, each to be crossed on spectacular bridges. 

The Pont Gustave Eiffel over the Dordogne is a pretty iron trellis which opened in 1883, four years before work began on the Eiffel Tower; the Pont Jacques Chaban-Delmas over the Gironde, on the edge of Bordeaux, opened in 2013 and is Europe’s highest vertical lift bridge, a technical wonder. Cycling across each is both dizzying and a highlight, yet they contrast like my aero, carbon, electronic-shifting Wilier and the two-speed steel bikes raced on this stage a century ago.

Routing through the centre of Bordeaux on a sunny, spring Saturday afternoon is a bad idea. The cycle paths are full of tourists on rental bikes and e-scooters and are no place to be riding fast, yet the roads are packed with traffic. Unfortunately, the only way around would have been a long and lumpy detour, and the goal was to keep the route as faithful as possible. Once clear of the centre, it takes the photo car 30km to catch up, by which time I’m out of drink and ready for another break. 150km to go.

The next two hours are tough. The roads feel especially dull after the bustle of Bordeaux, the surface is heavy, and the wind has swung around to the west, making it a cross-headwind and, in places, a block headwind that pegs my speed to 26kph. It’s unthinkable to suffer that the whole way, as perhaps happened in 1923 when Robert Jacquinot’s winning time was 90 minutes slower than the record of 18h47m set by Louis Mottiat two years before.

Total time more than riding time is also my focus, so I’m stopping as infrequently as possible, as well as keeping the effort up and trying to hold an aero position – in the drops at a minimum. It isn’t that I’m racing the times of a century ago – there can be no victory in that contest – but rather that giving this ride my all feels like the only appropriate way to pay homage to those warriors and their suffering. Plus, I don’t want to be out here all night.

The pain comes and goes in waves, and with it, inversely, my confidence. Sometimes I feel comfortable, strong, and certain of my ability to get it done. At other times, so much of me hurts that I’m sure I won’t finish and it’s impossible not to ponder how sweet it would feel to climb off, but such thoughts must be banished immediately. I remind myself that I decided to ride to Bayonne today and it’s going to happen if I just keep turning the pedals. 

This is the experience I came in search of, the one I inarguably share with the racers of the 1920s. It isn’t merely discomfort and fatigue, nor the mental challenge to push on when the finish seems so far away and self-doubt permeates even the steeliest of characters. No, it’s the unpredictable swing between these bad sensations and the good and, most of all, that stage 5 offers no respite from them. You’re locked in an empty room with these thoughts and feelings swirling around you and no way to escape or even be distracted from them.

I take my last break at exactly 400km, thinking I have 82 to go, until I swipe a screen on the Edge 1040 and it tells me 94. I’ve had the original stage in mind, not the nearest-possible route I’d spent many hours building, nor the extra few kilometres from the hotel to the seafront that was the likely start point for the race. It means an extra 22 minutes or so and it feels like a kick in the guts at a moment when everything, my guts included, is in pretty bad shape.

I go through the same routine – eat, stretch, massage roller, Coke – hoping for the same result. To my surprise, I get it. Having pulled on arm and knee warmers and a gilet in lieu of warmth from the fast-fading sun, I roll out again and feel pretty decent. The speed picks up and I’m buzzing so much that I don’t care that the route has saved its worst for last. 

For 65km from Labouheyre to Saint-Geours-de-Maremne, I’m on a local road parallel and barely 10m to the side of the busy A63 autoroute. It’s virtually straight except for doglegs around the ends of bridges or services, all of which are identical anyway. It actually feels like riding laps rather than travelling. On top of that, there’s now no wind at all – a ‘float night’ in the TT lexicon – and there’s zero traffic so it’s almost like being on a giant velodrome. Or a hamster wheel if you’re a ‘bidon half-empty’ person.

At this moment, my bidon is half-full so I choose to embrace the opportunity. I place my arms over the Wilier’s integrated handlebar in the banned ‘puppy paws’ position, which strangely feels more comfortable than it has all day, shrug my shoulders and duck my head. What was 32kph in the drops becomes 34, 35, then 36kph. It’s fun and it gives me something to concentrate on, which is much better than doing 30kph on the hoods and staring at the repetitive planted forests.

Caffeine, always a dear friend of mine, is helping considerably. Back when this stage was raced (and for nearly all of the time in between) the riders leant on rather more than that. In 1924, Henri Pellissier quit the race in protest at Desgrange’s strict yet arbitrary rules, which often seemed designed to make the race even more unpleasant for the riders rather than a better contest. Sitting down with journalist Albert Londres, Pellissier spilled the beans. 

‘Do you want to see how we keep going?’ he asked. ‘That’s cocaine to go in our eyes, chloroform for our gums, and do you want to see the pills? We keep going on dynamite. In the evenings we dance around our rooms instead of sleeping.’

Nearing the end of this total slog of a day, I can almost, but not quite, empathise. I want to ride a Rave, not go to one, and the last 30km stint in the dark brings its own kind of euphoria. At the finish, outside the grand Bayonne town hall, joy outweighs tiredness a hundred to one. Soon after, that ratio shifts markedly. The fatigue weighs heavily and lasts for days.

It’s through these bleary eyes that I can best appreciate the achievements of Jean Alavoine, winner of 17 Tour stages, four times on the podium and one of the greatest riders never to win the thing. In 1922, Alavoine won this stage for the second time. He then won the next stage, halfway across the Pyrenees, arguably the hardest stage ever, and then the one after that, across the second half of France’s southern range to Perpignan. While it was oddly common for riders to win back-to-back stages then, he’s the only rider ever to do this triple. It’s a feat beyond comprehensibility. 

The longest and then the hardest. Now there’s an idea.

Winners of this stage

1919, Jean Alavoine, 18h54m

1920, Firmin Lambot, 19h44m (last, Henri Ory, 29h44m)

1921, Louis Mottiat, 18h47m 

1922, Jean Alavoine, 19h27m45s (last, Georges Hautin, 28h39m)

1923, Robert Jacquinot, 20h16m

1924, Omer Huyse, 19h40m

Top 10 longest ever stage-winning times

21h04m 1919, st14, 468km, Firmin Lambot

20h18m 1924, st14, 433km, Romain Bellenger

20h16m 1923, st5, 482km, Robert Jacquinot

19h44m 1920, st5, 482km, Firmin Lambot, 

19h40m 1924, st5, 482km, Omer Huyse

19h28m 1904, st6, 471km, Jean-Baptiste Dortignacq

19h28m 1922, st5, 482km, Jean Alavoine

18h54m 1919, st5, 482km, Jean Alavoine

18h47m 1921, st5, 482km, Louis Mottiat

18h25m 1906, st12, 415km, Georges Passerieu

Wilier Rave SLR

The Rave actually has a lot in common with the bikes of the early Tours; it’s a long distance, all-surface racer. As ultra-modern as it is, nothing other than a museum piece could more closely echo the bikes of a century ago.

The Rave is Wilier’s new dual-purpose machine for both road and gravel. It can take 42mm tyres, yet the frame is claimed to weigh a mere 900g; it has a stability-boosting 71˚ head angle, yet Wilier say it’s more aerodynamic than the Zero SLR and only just behind their Filante aero racer. Build it for tarmac or dirt or, best of all, build it for both with a wide gearing range, clutched rear mech and two sets of wheels.

This €11k top-of-the-range model came built with new Shimano Dura-Ace Di2 and Wilier’s own SLR42KC carbon wheels fitted with 28mm tyres. It weighed 7.4kg out of the box and felt both fast and super smooth. Using their Accu-Fit system, Wilier set it up to my exact riding position, which was greatly appreciated on such a long day. 

I only made three changes to the bike: I swapped the cranks for my preferred 175mm length, added a second layer of bar tape, and fitted Zipp 808 Firecrest wheels in pursuit of extra speed, which they delivered in spades while shrugging off crosswinds. 

If you’re willing to accept a lot of compromise, you can fit any wheels to anything and ride any bike anywhere. But here’s a dual-use road/gravel bike on Zipp 808s and shining. It says a lot for how Wilier have preserved the Rave’s road performance that it felt right, as well as fast, on these wheels. I dig it. I’m a Rave digger.

Garmin Edge 1040

The new Edge 1040 is made for days like this. It’s like having your own sports director on your handlebar everywhere you go. The device has a really high-end look and feel, and its vast array of features means that, more than ever, it can be all things to all cyclists, whether you’re racing or bikepacking, new to the sport or 20 years in.

The Edge 1040 is of particular help when you’re heading into the unknown on new roads and climbs, or new distances and challenges. Navigation uses pre-loaded, intelligent mapping with customisable levels of detail, clear instructions, a smart zoom for junctions and rapid route recalculations. The Stamina feature predicts your energy range at your current pace, just like the fuel range predictor in your car, based on what it knows of your power profile. Further help for your longest rides comes from the smart nutrition alerts, which prompt you to eat and drink at intervals based on how hard you’re riding, your fitness and the temperature, or choose to pre-set a time interval. Power Guide combines the device’s knowledge of your fitness and a course, together with your choice of intensity on a sliding scale, to advise you how to pace every section of a route. 

Familiar features from the 1030 have been further improved, including the course creator, LiveTrack, GroupTrack, incident detection and recovery monitor. The Climb Pro feature detects climbs on your route, tells you when they’re coming up, their length and gradient, and displays a detailed breakdown of the profile, so you can’t get caught out by a steep kick near the top, for example. It combines with Power Guide to give you pacing advice based on your fitness.

The battery life is now an incredible 24 hours minimum, with every function active. After 17.5 hours, I still had 53% battery remaining. You can still add the Garmin Charge battery pack, too. For the ultimate bikepacking set-up, the 1040 S features solar panels in the screen; on a bright day it can recoup 40 minutes of charge per hour, reducing battery consumption by 66%.

Garmin’s Rally power pedals are the perfect partner to the Edge 1040, providing accurate power data, detailed analysis, long battery life and easy swaps between bikes.