Sprinting Through No Man’s Land: Endurance, Tragedy, and Rebirth in the 1919 Tour de France tells the story of the first Tour de France bicycle race after World War One. Founded in 1903 by journalist Henri Desgrange, the Tour has been an important cultural event in Europe for more than 100 years, taking breaks from 1914 through 1918 for World War One and 1940 through 1946 for World War Two. In his new book, journalist Adin Dobkin profiles the riders, race organizers, journalists, and observers involved in the 1919 race, which began in Paris and covered 3,455 miles around France’s borders—passing near battlefields in Somme, Verdun, and Dunkirk, among others—before ending back in Paris. I spoke with Dobkin about the 1919 race, its cultural meaning in France, and his research process. Our conversation has been condensed and lightly edited for clarity.
How did this project begin?
Actually, I was working on a novel about the aftermath of the First World War. My interest was the juxtaposition of post-war devastation with cultural growth, along with labor relations and other big issues, all of which affected the whole of France. I found that some parts of the country were devastated, where people were trying to get the bare minimum of shelter, food, and work. In other places, the War's effects were not represented in the landscape, but people were wondering what the next France would look like and along comes this unique race that seemingly crossed all boundaries and wove together many different issues. The Tour de France touched the ideas that interested me, and so I followed that story.
What was most remarkable about the 1919 Tour de France?
That Henri Desgrange didn’t allow the War to intrude on the race. The War had been over for months, but occupation was ongoing, so this race was about stubbornness and steadfastness despite all impacts. I mean, soldiers got leave to do this race; the country was still picking up the pieces, so to speak. People didn’t know what the world would look like, but they were still optimistic about getting back to the Tour. Additionally, there was a great deal of independence in the 1919 Tour, which was important to Desgrange, who is credited as the first organizer of the Tour de France. He wanted a race in spite of the ruin and the race was structured more or less as it would have been any other year, except the cyclists had to contend with so many other factors. They competed on teams but repaired their own bikes and did their own maintenance. I think 67 cyclists started that race and only 11 finished. Today, something like 184 cyclists began the Tour de France, competing in teams of eight. Still, it’s undeniable the War affected every aspect of the cyclists’ existence during that 1919 race. The condition of the roads was certainly affected, as cyclists traveled straight through the Western Front along roads damaged by bombs and heavy vehicle travel, roads in no condition to support a bicycle race. On top of that, there was a nationwide rubber shortage, which made it hard to change a flat tire and keep the competitors moving. So, it was remarkable that Desgrange sought to have as intense a race as ever, given the conditions.
You mention soldiers taking leave. I learned some competitors—those who fought—had to request permission from their superiors to join the Tour in 1919, is that right?
Sure. Demobilization hadn’t occurred for many of the French cyclists’ comrades, and so some of the French cyclists were on leave. Demobilization occurred from 1919 through 1920, I believe. I imagine commanding officers would have understood a cyclist’s desire to race in the Tour, as lives had been on hold for years and service was compulsory for many or most of the force.
Eugene Christophe is one example of an interesting soldier profiled in the book. He’s famous for being the first cyclist to wear the yellow jersey.
That’s right. Christophe was the first to wear the yellow jersey, though he didn’t win the race. In fact, Christophe never won the race, but he served in the first cyclist group during World War One. Interestingly, bicycles were used during the War as a means of transport and Eugene was a bicycle maintainer and cyclo-cross champion, and this posting allowed him to stay on his bike. There’s a story from early in the War where a track Olympian was posted to the same unit and they would do physical training together, keeping fit while serving their country. The Tour had an interesting mix of professionalism and amateurism, which it no longer has. Many of the racers were people who had jobs during the off months, but Eugene was a professional.
You mention the Tour providing France a “cultural exit” from the War. Did the Tour help France in this way?
The race did not end the War but did offer a temporary respite. The interwar years were difficult on just about every level of society, and France was not able to quickly turn the page from the Great War. The race did offer a single moment of recognition of what had been done to France and what could still be achieved, but it’s hard to know how much this race helped France rebuild.
The Tour exists on a few different levels. The Tour exists in the desire of administrators, for one, but the Tour also exists in the minds of people who watch it and that’s related to economic interests but more. The Tour is about tradition and continuity; it winds up tracing the new borders of the country. It’s easy to look at the Tour today and see the industrial-sized effort—for 34 cyclists you might see 50 maintainers and more assistance personnel—because it has become an institution and less about the individual. The support personnel and infrastructure, the growth of the spectacle that overshadows individual competitors of the race. Back then, the Tour was an event of endurance and adventure, with all the trappings of an ultramarathon plus requiring the competitor be a mechanic and maintainer. Then there was the closeness of racers and spectators. Over the course of a race, people came to know each other. After the race was over, I recount in the book how Christophe received donations and gifts from people who had come to know him (at least in their minds). The tour administrators liked the folksiness and helped this along, I’m talking about l’Auto (newspaper) and Desgrange.
You have hosted a podcast called “War Stories.” Why are war stories important?
I’m not the first person to say that warfare concentrates the peaks and troughs of human experience. As a writer, I’m interested in exploring how humans act under pressure and what the human experience looks like in all its dimensions. War does this; it forces one to explore the good and the bad, the high and low of humanity. How under certain conditions, humans can do evil and good.
John Waters is a writer based in Nebraska.