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  The slaves of the roads

A legend born in the Cotentin Peninsula, when the Pélissier Brothers met the well know journalist Albert Londres in the Café de la Gare at Coutances

Albert Londres, a committed reporter, became interested in the Tour de France by denouncing the ruthless physical demands imposed on cyclists at the time, in what he called the “Tour of agony”. He also denounced the rules that sometimes seemed surreal (The Road Convicts and Tour de France, Tour of agony”. He was the instigator of one of the most vivid legends on the Tour de France: the “Road Convicts” originated in the Café de la Gare at Coutances.

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27 June 1924: The talent of Maurice Ville, and of Henri and Francis Pélissier is unanimously acknowledged – Henri had won the previous year Tour (1923). The cyclists are also known for their frequent massive protests particularly against the organisers. Now at the beginning of this 1924 Tour, the racers recognize the fact that Ottavio Bottechia, a young prodigy, is going to overshadow them. Convinced that they will never make the “générale”, they throw in the towel during the Cherbourg-Brest stage under the pretence of some rule they consider improper. Then they stop at the Café de la Gare in Coutances.

 

Albert Londres is a journalist with “Petit Parisien”, the newspaper rivalling “L’Auto” that happens to be the organiser of the event. He “senses that he might be on to something”. He turns around in Granville and joins the racers sitting at a table at the Café de la Gare. There is quite a crowd around. Albert Londres will later write in his book The Road Convicts: “You needed to force your way into the café. The crowd was very subdued. No one said anything. All just stared, jaws dropping, towards the back of the room. Three jerseys were sitting in front of three bowls of hot chocolate”.

 

The Pélissier brothers pour out their hearts to the journalist and empty their bags as well, showing the cocaine they sniff and pills they pop in order to “make it”.

 

  • Is this a sudden impulse?
  • No, says Henri. We’re no dogs… Why did they throw in the towel? Because a race marshal demanded to check the number of jerseys Henri had when he started the race, since racers must have the same number on arrival.
  • Why?
  • Because it’s the rule. Not only must we race like madmen, but we must also freeze or suffocate. […] You have no idea what the Tour de France is really like, says Henri, such torture. And Jesus’s ‘Way of the Cross’ only had fourteen Stations – ours has fifteen. […] You haven’t seen us at the bathhouse when we finish. Do come: it’s well worth it! Once the mud is washed away, we are as pale as shrouds, emptied out from diarrhea and we faint in the water. At night in our roomr, we dance away like Saint Vitus instead of sleeping. […] When we get off our bike, we fall right through our socks and our trousers; nothing sticks to our body.
  • And our flesh, says Francis, doesn’t stick to our bones anymore.
  • And our toenails, says Henri, I lose six out of ten. They die a little more at each Stage. […] What we wouldn’t do to mules, we do to ourselves. We are no lazy bones so, in God’s Name, stop pestering us. We are ready to accept suffering, but don’t humiliate us! […] I placed a newspaper on my abdomen, I left with it and so I have to cross the finish line with it. If I throw it away, I’ll be given a penalty. If we are dying of thirst, before we stick our bidon under running water, we must make sure that it isn’t somebody who, fifty meters upstream, is pumping it. Otherwise: a penalty. You want to drink; well then you do the pumping yourself. One day they’ll stick lead in our pockets because they will have decided that God didn’t make men heavy enough. So if things kept getting worse, there will soon only be “hoboes” left and no more artists. Sports have gone raving mad!

 

The Tour Director, Henri Desgranges, answered in the rival newspaper: “Who are these convicts? Two ill-prepared cyclists who feel defeated.” And so the legend of the “Road Convicts” was born on that Friday in June 1924 in Coutances, at the Café de la Gare, a legend that even outlived the Café itself.

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