EC Story-time: The Circuit of the Dead Men

One new t-shirt design for 2011 is the Circuit of the Dead Men. We’ve gotten a few inquiries as to the story behind the phrase. So, we thought we’d go back and tell the story of the 1910 Tour de France and the Col du Tourmalet.

The early races of the Tour de France were the pioneering years. Race director Henri Desgranges always looked for new and innovative ways to avoid the pitfalls of complacency. Helped by input from TdF staff members, Desgranges skeptically embraced a new idea put forth by his assistant Alphonse Steines. Steines suggested the inclusion of the monstrous climbs of the Pyrenees Mountains . “Steines, are you crazy?” responded Desgranges. After significant persuasion, Desgranges did agree to investigate the area. He dispatched Steines to the south of France for a look at the Col du Tourmalet.

Alphonse Steines arrived at an inn near the Col du Tourmalet on January 27, 1910 . He asked the innkeeper for directions to pass over the Tourmalet. This being winter, the innkeeper cynically replied “…you can barely cross it in July.” Undaunted in his determination to have the TdF climb through the Pyrenees , Steines hired a car and proceeded up the cart path that was the passage over the mountain. Near the top of the climb, deep snow stopped the car. Stubbornly, even though the late afternoon sun was setting, Steines continued on foot. He walked through the night until 3am when a search party found him dazed and bewildered. Rescuers quickly got him food and a hot bath. The next morning Steines sent the now famous message back to Desgranges in Paris :

Crossed Tourmalet stop

Very Good Road stop

Perfectly Passable stop

Signed Steines

The expedition convinced Desgranges and six months later the race schedule was altered to include an incursion into the high mountains of the Pyrenees . The press wrote of the new stage routes in the wilderness of the Pyrenees as “dangerous” and “bizarre”, referring to the 1910 Tour de France as The Circuit of the Dead Men. These descriptions were much to the delight of race director Desgranges and his newspaper Le Auto.

With the unknown of the Pyrenees Mountains ahead, defending champion Frans Faber (Lux) led the peloton into stage nine. The stage featured the climbs of the Col d’Port, Portet d’Aspet, and Les Ares, and offered climber Octave “le Frise” Lapize a chance to chip away at the overall lead. Lapize won all three climbs and rode solo into Luchon for the stage win. The large framed Faber rode well and finished third on the stage, but his lead was now only 13 points over Lapize. The battle lines were drawn.

From hard to harder, stage ten included four brutal climbs. The first ascents of the Col du Peyresoure, the Col d’Aspin, the Col du Tourmalet, and the Col d’Aubisque were featured on the stage from Luchon to Bayonne . July 27, 1910 was a very hot day in southern France and Octave Lapize was aggressive from the start of the stage. He won the first three climbs and was only followed by Frans Lafourcade on the Col d’Aubisque. Anxious race officials at the top of the Aubisque watched to see if any rider could ride over the Tourmalet and the Aubisque. Lapize walked, ran, and pedaled his way up the climbs. Local rider Lafourcade passed him on the Aubisque and won the last climb. Fifteen minutes after Lafourcade, the second rider, Octave Lapize, appeared in great distress and pushing his bike. Upon reaching the top Lapize angrily shouted “ASSASSINS…” at the race officials as he passed. Across the Aubisque, a furious Lapize charged down the mountain. He made up the 15-minute deficit to catch Lafourcade on the way into Bayonne and won the stage. Francois Faber made a great charge at the end to finish third and retain his overall lead. There were only five stages remaining until the finish in Paris . This classic Tour was not over yet!

The titanic battle of the 1910 Tour was selling newspapers at an excellent rate back in Paris . Not only had the Pyrenees Mountains heightened their interest of cycling but also the battle for the overall championship had TdF fans rushing out for the daily update in Le Auto.

During stages 12 to 14 the battle continued. A combination of Lapize’s aggressive attacking and Faber’s misfortunes gave Lapize a 6 point lead with one stage to go. The final stage was 262km from Caen to Paris , the championship was still up for grabs. True to his champion status, Francois Faber attacked the race leader. He broke away and rode into Paris 15 minutes in front of Lapize. Faber finished in fourth place on the stage but needed Lapize to finish no better than tenth. An inspired Lapize rode into Paris with a sixth place finish. Faber’s great effort fell four points short of the overall victory. Octave Lapize earned a grand victory in the 1910 Tour de France.

Henri Desgranges saw the new and tougher formula become a great success. The climb of the Col du Tourmalet would be used in more Tours than any other climb in Tour history. With the inclusion of the dangerous Pyrenees Mountains and the riders shouting “Assassins…” and “Murderers…” a Tour legend was made in 1910. The press contributed to the legend by naming the hardest day in the Pyrenees “The Circuit of Death” (or circle of dead men). A place where dreams of Tour de France victory go to die.

This was also the year when one additional innovation was added to the Tour – the Tour’s first “Broom-Wagon.” It was put in place to sweep up riders who abandon the race on the route of the day’s stage. It is a tradition that exists in modern day Tours . Even today, no rider ever wants the “Broom-Wagon” to approach him from behind.

The Circuit of the Dead Men will be available later this Spring.