Who was Henri Desgrange?

The founder of the Tour de France was a fitness buff. He was a stern and stubborn egomaniac. He was patriotic, despotic, sadistic, narcissistic and borderline psychotic. But deep down he cared for his race and he cared for his people

In 1924, one of the best riders in the Tour de France abandoned the race because he broke the rules. He didn’t catch a train, as many riders attempted to do back in those early days (they often succeeded). He didn’t cheat with performance enhancing drugs; there were no drug tests and every rider appeared to be taking some kind of stimulant to get through the gargantuan stages of 300km or more across poorly surfaced roads.  

Henri Pélissier, one of the most talented riders of the 1920s, abandoned the Tour because he wasn’t allowed to take off a sweater. The specific rule from the bizarre and sadistic rulebook mandated riders to begin and end each stage with precisely the same equipment and clothing, regardless of the conditions. 

Those rules were down to one man: the Tour’s founder and director, Henri Desgrange. Pélissier and the boss had history. In 1920 Pélissier had quit the Tour in protest over a two-minute penalty handed to him for leaving a punctured inner tube by the side of the road. Desgrange, who also owned L’Auto newspaper that had sole reporting rights on the race, took to the pages of his publication to lambast Pélissier. “Henri Pélissier is saturated with class but he does not know how to suffer,” he wrote. 

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This time Pélissier took to the press. The interview he gave to journalist Albert Londres helped coin the phrase ‘les forçats de la route’ – convicts of the road – to describe the riders of those early Tours. 

Henri Desgrange, it seems, was not an easy man to like. The surly Parisian had a rather gruesome ambition for the Tour when he founded it in 1903: there should only be one finisher. 

Photo: Harlingue/Roger Viollet via Getty Images

Everything about the Tour under Desgrange was designed to get riders to give up. Besides the extreme route, Desgrange banned outside assistance, spare equipment (unless riders carried it from the start), drinking more than an allotted amount and the putting on or taking off of clothes (unless riders carried them for the whole stage). Fitting a rear derailleur was, in his view, akin to motor-doping. If riders or teams found ways to contravene his rules to tackle the race in a way that he didn’t totally endorse, he would just make up some more. 

In 1930 he introduced national teams to the Tour in order to try to crack the dominance of the Alcyon trade team but, having removed any commercial incentive for bike companies to sponsor the athletes, he had to provide bikes and find a way to pay for them. So he began charging a fee for towns to host the race and created the commercial publicity caravan, both practices that continue to this day. 

His philosophy was not about demonstrating what was humanly possible, but about demonstrating what wasn’t. When Octave Lapize staggered over the Col du Tourmalet for the first time in the race’s history, in 1910, and yelled ‘you are assassins!’ at a car belonging to the organisation, Desgrange was probably delighted. Well, he would have been if he had been there. Desgrange had a knack for personal reputation management and departed the Tour on the eve of that infamous mountain stage to divert the flak he saw coming his way onto somebody else. 

Glory through Suffering 

Desgrange was the Tour’s founder, its director and its organiser from its first race in 1903 through to his death in 1940. 

He was owner of L’Auto, later to become L’Equipe (which shares the same parent organisation as the Tour to this day). He would pen race reports lavishing praise on his ‘crack’ riders and conduct he deemed befitting of his creation, or launch scathing editorials slamming feeble actions of his despicable also-rans. Given the absence of TV or radio, what Desgrange published was what happened, whether it had actually taken place or not. “Founder” and “boss” don’t do Desgrange’s role justice. The Tour was his and he was the Tour. 

His own story in cycling began in the 1890s as a handy rider himself. Desgrange, then a middle-class law clerk, caught the biking bug, set the first official hour record in 1893 (35.325km) and became director of the Parc des Princes and Vélodrome d’Hiver in his native Paris. 

Disgruntled with the lack of coverage afford events at Le Parc and the Vél d’Hiv by the predominant sports paper of the time, Le Vélo (not to mention its stance on the divisive political scandal known as the Dreyfus Affair), Desgrange broadened his business portfolio with the establishment of his own publication, L’Auto-Vélo, in 1900. It soon became known as just L’Auto and within three years was on the verge of going broke. Desgrange needed an idea. 

Related – Eraser Men: Censoring the roads of the Tour de France

Although Desgrange is often credited as the conceiver of the Tour de France, it was in fact his young journalist Géo Lefèvre who came up with the idea to run a ‘tour of France’, a combination of the long-distance road races (like Paris-Roubaix, then 12 years old) and the tremendously popular Six Day races on the track. Desgrange wasn’t enamoured with the idea during the first edition but the public were. Sales shot through the roof. The Tour de France was unique amongst bike races and L’Auto had a monopoly on it. 

What began as a publicity race designed to boost the flagging sales of a newspaper quickly morphed into a socio-cultural phenomenon of which Desgrange became the enthusiastic chief. 

A young Henri Desgrange, photographed in 1903. Photo: AFP via Getty Images

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Besides the fabulous exploits of man and machine, ordinary citizens of France could, for the first time, pick up a warm copy of L’Auto and see the outline of their country printed in front of their eyes. From its earliest days the Tour helped forge a sense of national awareness and cartographical enlightenment like nothing before it. Even to condense the modern Tour to a pure sporting competition is to ignore its place in the wider French consciousness. The Tour is swaying sunflowers and rippling wheat fields. The Tour is proud châteaux and prouder citizens congregating in their town square. The Tour is summer. The Tour is France at its best. 

At its helm was Desgrange, the worst PE teacher one could imagine. He was a fitness buff. He was a stern and stubborn egomaniac. He was patriotic, despotic, sadistic, narcissistic and borderline psychotic. But deep down he cared for his race and he cared for his people. 

He lauded hard men, not emotional softies. Historians have claimed this was inspired by his own training philosophy and asceticism, not to mention by a legacy of profound national humiliation brought about by France’s defeat in the Franco-Prussian war during Desgrange’s childhood. The essence of the Tour was that it embraced suffering and fetishized mental and physical toughness, just like he did. 

Henri Desgrange was a Victorian relic who was ahead of his time. He evidently understood the power of heroics to inspire and improve the general public. He understood the power of the extreme, and the power of the media to harness it (and make money). He would probably baulk at today’s race radios, power meters, extreme weather protocols and team tactics. He would probably see more of his original Tour in the exploits of Lachlan Morton than he would in Tadej Pogačar. 

But he would recognise the DNA of his race in the modern day Tour, which presents itself in stages like the double ascent of Mont Ventoux and the Souvenir Henri Desgrange, the prize awarded to the first rider over the highest point of the year’s race. And he would look upon the yellow jersey of the race leader and notice that it still bore the letters HD: his initials, in his own hand-writing, a permanent recognition of the man who nurtured the Tour and set it on its course to the present day. 

Desgrange's HD initials, at the bottom of the Tour de France yellow jersey. Photo: ASO

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