Tuesday, December 6, 2011

Eugene Christophe

Eugene Christophe

Eugene Christophe (January 22, 1885 - February 1, 1970) was a French road bicycle racer and pioneer of cyclo-cross. He is famous for being the first rider to wear the yellow jersey in the Tour de France, not winning the Tour de France due to broken forks and being a cyclo-cross champion. Through out his career Christophe raced with great determination.

In 1906 Christophe rode his first Tour de France, finishing in ninth place.  

The 1912 Tour de France was the last edition that was decided by points instead of total time. Eugene Christophe was clearly the strongest rider in that year's Tour. The only way he could win a stage was to get away by himself and solo to the finish. The Belgian riders were working together to amass points by winning sprints. Christophe won three consecutive stages by solo break-aways to the stage finish. One of those solo breaks was 196 miles (315 km) in length. If the race had been scored on time he would have been leading going into the last stage. During the last stage Christophe, totally disgusted, sat up and let a group ride away. The race organizer changed the scoring system back to time based for the 1913 race, due to the way things turned out under the points based system used during the 1912 Tour de France.

The 1913 Tour de France - broken forks:
Unfortunately Eugene Christophe is most famous for not winning the 1913 Tour de France because of a mechanical failure, than he is for his great cycling skills. He was placed 2nd in the general classification the night before the Tour reached the first mountain stage. At the foot of the Tourmalet, the highest pass in the Pyrenees Mountains, Christophe dropped all the field except Belgain, Philippe Thys. Thys was no danger, however, because he had lost too much time earlier. The two were five minutes ahead of the field when they reach the summit of the Tourmalet. 
   In those days riders rode fixed gear bikes with a different size cog on either side of the rear hub. To change gears they had to stop, remove the rear wheel, turn it around and reinstall it with the chain on the other cog. Christophe stopped at the top of the mountain and turned his wheel around to put his bike in it's highest gear to go faster on the descent of the Tourmalet. 
   Christophe said:          
"I plunged full speed towards the valley. According to Henri Desgrange's calculation, I was then heading the general classification with a lead of 18 minutes. So, I was going full speed. All of a sudden, about ten kilometres from Ste-Marie-de-Campan down in the valley, I feel that something is wrong with my handlebars. I cannot steer my bike any more. I pull on my brakes and I stop. I see my forks are broken. Well, I tell you now that my forks were broken but I wouldn't say it at the time because it was bad publicity for my sponsor.
And there I was left alone on the road. When I say the road, I should say the path. All the riders I had dropped during the climb soon caught me up. I was weeping with anger. I remember I heard my friend Petit-Breton shouting as he saw me, 'Ah, Cri-Cri, poor old lad. I was getting angry. As I walked down, I was looking for a short cut. I thought maybe one of those pack trails would lead me straight to Ste-Marie-de-Campan. But I was weeping so badly that I couldn't see anything. With my bike on my shoulder, I walked for more than ten kilometres. On arriving in the village at Ste-Marie-de-Campan, I met a young girl who led me to the blacksmith on the other side of the village. His name was Monsieur Lecomte."
Eugene Christophe repairing his fork.
By the time he had reached the blacksmith's forge, Christophe, had lost two hours. The blacksmith offered to weld the broken fork back together, but a race official and managers of rival teams would not allow it. The rules were, that a rider was responsible for his own repairs, and outside assistance was prohibited. Christophe did the repairs while the blacksmith told him what to do. It took three hours to make the repair and the race judge penalised him 10 additional minutes - reduced later to three minutes - because he had allowed a seven year old boy to pump the bellows for him. 
     Christophe filled his pockets with bread and set off over two more mountains and eventually finished the Tour in seventh place.
     The forks which cost Christophe the race were taken away by Peugeot. (his sponsor) He didn't see them again until a dying man bequeathed them to him more than 30 years later. Some reports say that Christophe broke his forks because he ran into a car on the descent. The historian and author, Bill McGaun, says:

"I have found no mention of a car in Christophe's own retelling of the story. Broken forks were not unusual. I am sure that the poor state of 1913 metallurgy and bad mountain roads caused the disaster. My own theory, based on little information, is that the car story is probably a piece of Peugeot disinformation. It must have been awful for Peugeot to have their famous rider celebrated for having broken a fork. A car crash makes this all easy to explain. The final nail in the coffin of the story is that Christophe said 'I wouldn't have told you then because it was bad publicity for my firm.' If it had been a car crash, there would have been no bad publicity because no one expects a bike to withstand a car crash."

Eugene Christophe

Christophe served in a cycling battalion when the French entered into World War I in 1914.
During the 1919 Tour de France Eugene Christophe became the first racer to ever wear the yellow jersey as the race leader. At the conclusion of the race, once again, he wouldn't be the overall winner. Christope was riding with a grey jersey made by La Sportive when, while leading, Desgrange gave him the first Maillot Juane (yellow leader's jersey). Christophe said:

"So soon after the war, the cycle industry was not yet in action again, and the only marque supplying material was La Sportive and there was little difference between any of the jerseys they supplied. One day - it was on the 482km stage from Les Sables d'Olonne to Bayonne - Monsieur Baugé, an official, remarked to Henri Desgrange that it was difficult enough for him to pick out the various riders and the public must find it impossible. Couldn't the race leader wear a special jersey?"

Christophe was not at first pleased to wear the yellow jersey as he complained that  a spectator laughed and told him he looked like a canary.
     At the start of the stage from Metz to Dunkirk he was leading the tour by 30 minutes. His fork broke again, this time on the cobbles of Valenciennes. He lost over two and a half hours while he made the repairs.  Even though the closest blacksmith's forge was within a kilometer of where he broke his fork. On the last stage he had a whole series of flat tires and dropped from second to third place in the final general classification. His story captured the imagination of the public and he was awarded the same money as the winner, Firm Lambot, received as prize money. The money, 13,310 francs, came from subscriptions opened for the paper which organized the race and donations. Donations ranged from 3 francs to 500 francs (given by Henri deRothschild).
     Christophe kept these repaired forks in the basement of his home.
    Unbelievably Christophe had another fork break while racing the 1922 Tour de France. This third fork broke on the descent of the Galiber while he was in the top three places and had a chance of overall victory. Once again Christophe was forced to walk out of the mountains. 
      Eugene Christophe last race of the Tour de France was in 1925 at the age of 40. He finished in 18th place.

Eugene Christophe sprinting.
      Christophe's greatest suffering wasn't his three broken forks in the Tour de France, but the extreme conditions he endured will racing the 1910 edition of Milan - San Remo at the age of 25. There were 71 racers on the starting line. Only three would reach the finish line in San Remo. Christophe described his race experience as:
"The weather had been good at the start of the week but it turned really bad and Alphonse Baugé [the manager] told us that we'd be going over the Turchino even though the road was bad and covered with snow. François Faber and Louis Trousselier cheered us up by saying 'What does it matter if we've got Lapize and Christophe the two cyclo-cross champions with us?'
The roads were muddy and frozen and we had to bounce along in the ruts, riding on the verges between the posts that were spaced every 20 metres as far as Pavia. We rode the first 32km in 56 minutes, the 53km from Milan to Voghera in 1h 50. There were attacks after attack and it was more like a course des primes than a long-distance race...
We go to the notorious col de Turchino. The clouds were low, the countryside was unattractive and we started to feel the cold more and more. We started to shiver and every turn of the pedals was heavier. The half-melted snow made the race very hard and we were struggling too with a glacial wind. I dropped my friend Ernest Paul to get up to Ganna, whom I could see on the hairpins. I got up and past him without too much trouble because he didn't seem to be standing the cold any better than I was. Not far from the summit I had to get off my bike because I started feeling bad. My fingers were rigid, my feet numb, my legs stiff and I was shaking continuously. I began walking and running to get my circulation back, looking at the countryside. It was bleak and the wind made a low moaning noise. I'd have felt scared if I hadn't been used to bad weather in cyclo-crosses.
Well, I got back on my bike and I got to the top of the col. There's a tunnel at the top and I asked a soigneur how far down I was on the leader. He told me six minutes. I found van Hauwaert at the exit of the tunnel with his bike in his hand and a cloak on his back. He told me he was packing it in. I was beyond feeling happy about it and I just got on with going down through the snow that lay on the road on that side of the mountain.
The view was totally different now. The snow made the countryside beautiful. The sky was really clear. But now it was my turn to have trouble. It was hard to keep going. In places there were 20cm of snow and sometimes more. Each time I was obliged to get off and push. It was cyclo-cross - off, on, riding, walking. I could keep going but it was slowing me right down. Then I had to stop with stomach cramp. Doubled up, one hand on my bike and the other on my stomach, I collapsed on to a rock on the left side of the road. I was bitter with cold. All I could do was move my head a little from left to right
I saw a little house not far away but I couldn't get there. I didn't realise just what danger I was in. I just had one thought: to get to San Remo first and I attached no importance to the pain I felt… I thought too of my contract with the bike factory. I'd get double my wages if I won as well as primes and there'd be my 300 francs for first place. Happily in my misfortune a man chanced to pass by.
Signor, signor…'"
Christophe looked at the man and said casa [house]. He took him into the house, undressed him and wrapped him in a blanket. Christophe did physical exercises to get his blood restarted. Then van Hauwaert and Paul came in. "They were so frozen that they put their hands into the flames. Ernest Paul had lost a shoe without noticing," Christophe said.
"I was there for about 25 minutes. I saw four riders go by, or at least four piles of mud. I decided to press on. Ernest Paul said 'You're crazy.' And the innkeeper didn't want to let me go. I had to trick him by saying I could meet someone who would get me to San Remo by train. I set off and caught Cocchi and Pavesi and I got to the control just behind Ganna, who was setting off as I stopped. I set off again after Baugé told me I could win and I passed Ganna at the edge of the town. And I caught Albini a few kilometers later.
At the control at Savona (90km) everybody was astonished to see me alone. I didn't stop long and took Trousellier's spare bike, because I knew he and Garrigou had abandoned before Ovada. I was sure of my victory and with only 100km to go I felt a new strength. The idea of crossing the line alone brought back all my energy. I got to San Remo well behind the scheduled time. It was 6pm when I stopped underneath the blowing banner that showed the end of my Calvary."
It took a month in the hospital for Christophe to recover from frost bite to his hands and the damage the cold had done to his body. It was another two years before he got back to his original health.
Christophe was a pioneer of Cyclo-Cross and national champion from 1909 to 1914, then again in 1921.

Eugene Christope lived his whole life in Malakoff, France (near Paris). He was a member of the L'Etoile Sportive de Malakoff cycling club from his first races till his death in 1970.
Eugene Christophe

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