100 Tours, 100 Tales extract – the 1925 race, Pelissier’s revolt and Bottecchia’s triumph
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Thursday, November 07, 2013

100 Tours, 100 Tales extract – the 1925 race, Pelissier’s revolt and Bottecchia’s triumph

by VeloNation Press at 12:00 PM EST   comments
Categories: Pro Cycling, Tour de France
 
“The day will arrive when someone will put lead in our pockets because we’ve found that God made man too light”

100 Tours 100 TalesDetailing countless anecdotes, nuggets of information and snippets of trivia about the riders and the racing from 100 editions of the world’s biggest bike race, Suze Clemitson adds an additional element to the documentation about the long history of the Tour.

In an extract below from her fascinating 100 Tours, 100 Tales book, she writes about the 1925 Tour de France, the gruelling conditions the riders endured, the marketing of the event as a triumph of heroic will over human weakness, the protest of the Pelissier brothers and the mysterious death of that year’s Tour winner, Ottavio Bottecchia.


1925: THE RACE OF THE ARTISANS – AND A MURDER MYSTERY

On the start line in Paris for the 1925 Tour were: five mechanics, four farmers, three builders (including the defending champion, Bottecchia), two miners, two butchers and two locksmiths.

Professional cycling has long been a route to social mobility in Europe. But it was also seen by some commentators as a means of social control, the new opium for the masses, a way of civilising the muscular and dangerous working classes by turning them into 'ouvriers de la pedale'. The reportage of the early Tour is littered with references to work and labour, to ‘crafty peasants’ and men ‘hard as leather’, to the Tour as a ‘correctional school’ to tame the noble savage, the entire Tour bestiary of men become ‘thoroughbreds’ and ‘carthorses’. Bottecchia, the Italian builder, was the perfect embodiment of its civilising influence, unlike the Pelissiers, who refused to be mastered and whose behaviour – pill popping, discarding race jerseys – was beyond the pale.

Explosive as the doping revelations of the Londres/Pelissier interview had been, the real meat of it was their criticism of the conditions that a cyclist riding the Tour had to endure:

“You haven’t seen the bath at the end of the stage? Oh, it’s worth paying for. Once you wash off the mud, we’re white as the shroud. Diarrhoea wipes us out. You have to check the water. Every night we end up dancing like mad things instead of sleeping. Look at our laces: they’re leather. They don’t last long, they break, and its tanned leather, at least I suppose so. Think what happens to our skin...when we get off the bike, we strip off everything, socks, pants, nothing stays on the body. And your toenails. I’ve lost six out of ten. They fall off one by one each stage. All that and you’ve not seen anything. Wait for the Pyrenees; that’s hard labour. We have to put up with it. Stuff you wouldn’t ask a mule to do, we have to do.

“We’re not slackers, but in the name of God, don’t bother us. We accept the torment, but we don’t want to be humiliated. My name is Pelissier, not Azor. I have a newspaper against my chest to keep warm, I started with it and I’m supposed to finish with it, otherwise I get penalised. When we break down with thirst, before we can fill our bottles with running water we have to make sure that there’s no one within 50 metres of the pump. Otherwise: penalty. The day will arrive when someone will put lead in our pockets because we’ve found that God made man too light. If things carry on like this, there’ll soon only be tramps and not artists. The sport is going mad.”

Pelissier responded to the ‘convicts of the road’ controversy by writing a letter to the Communist daily l'Humanite, expanding on his views: “the riders wish to be treated as men, not as dogs, by well, behaved, impartial and competent officials...we have the right to do with ourselves as we think fit, without having to get Desgrange’s permission.” He claimed his team was more than happy with his decision and “understood perfectly the kind of treatment against which we’ve revolted.”

Pelissier paints a picture not of happy workers civilised by their labour, but of riders treated like slaves, toiling under the harshest conditions, to turn a profit for their boss by performing ever more grandiose feats to sell his newspapers.

On his arrival in the Parc des Princes after taking 4 stages and bookending the race with victories Bottecchia declared “I’m really happy but it’s all over – I will never again ride the Tour de France!” It was a self-fulfilling prophecy. In 1926 he made a point of honour of abandoning the race leaving his teammate Marcel Buysse – the first real domestique in Tour history and Botecchia’s dauphin in 1925 – to claim his crown.

Above all the Italian was a fiercely loyal team leader, not only to Buysse but to his compatriot Piccin, with whom he would duet on a fine rendition of 'O Sole Mio' (perhaps better known to some of us as 'Just One Cornetto').

But Botecchia’s life has been distilled down to one morning in Peonis in 1927 when the Italian was out on a training ride. They found him at the side of the road, his skull and shoulder fractured. Before he slipped into the coma from which he never recovered, he repeated one word: ‘malore'.

The theories multiplied: an angry peasant who killed him for stealing grapes (in June, when no grapes grow), a beating by Mussolini’s blackshirts (he was an avowed anti fascist but hardly a vocal one), an insurance scam, a stalker (Desgrange was so worried he told the Italian he feared for his life), a murder confessed to on a death bed in New York, linked to organised crime.

Two years later his brother was hit by a car and killed in the same spot. Was that the fate that befell the Italian champion – an accident, a hit and run on a lonely stretch of road? The mystery of the unsolved crime is more romantic but sometimes even great champions die an ordinary death – the kind of death that meets thousands of cyclists on the roads every year.

But Bottecchia’s life was about so much more than what did or didn’t happen on that roadside in June 1927. He fought on the Austrian front in World War I as part of a bicycle battalion, earning the bronze medal for military valour. He travelled third class, saved the contents of his musettes for his family. He came from poverty and he was determined his family wouldn’t have to go back there. He was ‘the Builder of Friuli’ who blazed like a comet across the world of cycling in the 1920s, who arrived in France with only a few words of the language: "beaucoup de cafe, pas de bananes, merci".

You can still buy a Botecchia bike, or ride the Granfondo that bears the name of the little mason that became a grand champion.

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Click here to order a copy of the 100 Tours, 100 Tales eBook:

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