1930: The Tour revolutionizes (3/10)
At the turn of each decade, the Tour de France has gone through organisational changes and backstage struggles that have variously turned out to be decisive or utterly inconsequential. The journey back in time proposed by letour.fr continues in 1930, the year of a major revolution when, Tour boss and editor-in-chief of L’Auto, Henri Desgrange decided riders would compete in national teams and no longer for bicycle manufacturers. To pay for this costly reform, the newspaper also found a new source of income with the creation of the advertising caravan.
Tensions between the bicycle brands and the organisers were a common thread that followed and forged the history of the nascent Tour de France and then the interwar period. Henri Desgrange, who was a purist and uncompromising in his conception of sporting competition, despised and fought against any form of agreement likely to contaminate the simple athletic confrontation between the heroes of the Grande Boucle. Since the resumption in 1919, following the First World War, the Tour de France boss introduced regulations to reduce the influence of the most powerful manufacturers in the industry, which had a tendency to dictate race scenarios. The situation even began to disgust Desgrange following the 1929 Tour, won by Maurice De Waele, a Belgian champion who was certainly solid and exemplary, but in the end wasn’t challenged nearly enough by the competition on his victorious ride to Paris.
For the 1930 edition, Desgrange decided to radically change the format. Teams were no longer formed by bicycle manufacturers, but were made up of national selections whose composition was also decided by L’Auto. In order to be in complete control, he committed to supplying the bikes to the Tour riders, at least those entered in the Aces category, even if it meant making the “tourists-routiers” wait a few years. The great project quickly developed in the mind of Desgrange, who announced precisely his plans and objectives in L’Auto on 25 September 1929: „The major change is the suppression of commercial rivalries that have been significantly shattering the success of the race every year since 1903. With only one brand available for the Aces, we can say that there is no longer a commercial battle, and that the race will be able to take place in a sporting manner. From now on, nothing will prevent the best from winning“.
The change to national teams must not be considered as a declaration of war, as the brands retain their riders in all other competitions throughout the year and could, for example, require them to boycott the Tour.
The transformation wanted by the organizing newspaper implied major constraints since the bicycles, accommodations and provisions were fully taken care of. The financial expenditures to be made were significant and had to be paid for by some income if the reform was to be feasible. This is where a genius idea was born to balance the accounts. Desgrange was assisted by an advertising director, Robert Desmarets, who had noticed that for several years, brands had taken advantage of the exceptional crowds around the peloton to set up commercial ventures. Vehicles in the colours of Menier chocolates, for example, were already handing out thousands of bars to the public in 1929. “Grand Bob”, as he was nicknamed, decided to officially accept them at the opening of the race, in return for a fee covering most of the extra expenses for the year. Menier, Fromagerie Bell (Vache Qui Rit), Biscottes Delft and Montres Noveltex formed the Tour’s first publicity caravan.
The power struggle between Desgrange and the bicycle manufacturers can, however, be put into perspective, as the co-dependent relationship remained very real. The move to the national teams should not have been seen as a declaration of war, as the brands retained their riders all year round on all other the competitions, on the roads of France as well as on the velodromes, and could for example require them to boycott the Tour. This context of more or less harmonious cohabitation partially explained the tone adopted by Desgrange in his opening article on the day of the race’s start: „It will be the honour of the bicycle manufacturers to have accepted this experience, which may seem to deprive this or that of a profitable advertisement, but which must benefit the entire bicycle industry. (…) They did not accept this experience passively; they followed it and will follow it, for a month, with great interest. (…) Yes, we owe André Leducq and Delannoy to Alcyon, Marcel Bidot to La Française, Demuysère to Génial-Lucifer, Bonduel to Dilecta, and the Magne Brothers to the Société Française de Cycles. Our great brands have lent them to us, or better said… they gave them to us without any restrictions. What a guarantee of success that such a gift, and what recognition for such a gesture do we not owe to our major cycle manufacturers?”. The recognition was also that of a businessman, well aware that these firms were also huge advertisers who contributed to the financial health of the newspaper throughout the year.
In any case, in the Aces category there were five national teams of eight riders at the start. Belgium’s black jerseys, Italy’s green, Spain’s red, Germany’s yellow and France’s blue-white-red were about to spark phenomenal enthusiasm among the public… and among the readers. Desgrange naturally found that the patriotic fibre was working to full effect with the French Tennis Musketeers, who were taking the entire country by storm in their matches with the Australians and Americans in the Davis Cup. He found his Musketeers on wheels with André Leducq, Antonin Magne and Charles Pélissier. As if by magic, while the French were generally outclassed during the 1920s by the Belgians, Luxembourgers and Italians, the collective force of the French squad was impressive. Pélissier won a total of eight stages, a record that still stands, while „Dédé gueule d’amour“ won the general classification after a hard-fought battle with Alfredo Binda and Learco Guerra among others. The success of the French clan was also a tremendous victory for Henri Desgrange, who concluded the Tour with these words: „This is now, indisputably, the National Bicycle Holiday. From now on, we will celebrate it every year under the same conditions, to the greatest glory of this divine machine and to the glory of our great cycling industry. (…) Thus the Tour de France will henceforth be a great international and peaceful competition where cycling nations will come every year to measure the value of their champions“.