The Remarkable Tale of Eugene Christophe

“He said, not for the first time during my visit, that he was not a rich man in the monetary sense but had a wealth of happy memories and good health to show from his racing exertions. He still rides a lot, is at most of the touring rallies in the Parisian area, but likes to take it easy. “I have suffered enough on a bicycle,” he said.”

Journalist Jock Wadley on Eugene Christophe, 1935.

Born January 22nd, 1885, in the small town of Malakoff, just outside Paris, France, Eugene Christophe’s parents had no idea that their small, wiry son would go on to be a famous professional cyclist. Christophe himself, when he first got onto a bicycle, could not possibly have imagined that he would become famous for never winning a Tour de France.

And nobody never won a Tour the way Eugene Christophe did…

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Christophe in 1913.

Christophe was a hard man with a willpower that at times seemed other-worldly. In 1910, riding for the Alcyon team, he proved that he was the toughest of them all, in the 289km Milan-San Remo race.

5:50am, 3rd of April, 10 minutes before the start, news came through of a heavy snowfall on the Turchino mountain, prompting some riders to quit the race before it had even begun. As they headed home to the warmth of their hearths, 63 riders set off into the unknown. After three hours of racing only 30 riders remained in the race. On the climb of the Turchino, the riders had to pick up their bikes and carry them up much of  the 11.3km hill, through ever-deepening snow. Christophe by this point was ten minutes down on the leader, in 5th place.

By the 100km point, the freezing conditions were hitting the Frenchman hard. “I had to stop with stomach cramp. Doubled up, one hand on my bike and the other on my stomach,” recounted Christophe. “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 and right to left.

“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.”

At that moment a man appeared and took Christophe to the house, where he changed clothes and did exercises to warm up. Two other riders came in.

“They were so frozen that they put their hands into the flames. Ernest Paul had lost a shoe without noticing,” Christophe said.

When he finally crossed the line in San Remo, Christophe had no idea that he had been in the lead. Of the 63 starters only 4 men finished. It was the slowest edition in history, the winner taking a massive 12 hours and 24 seconds to finish. Christophe was hospitalised for a week due to frostbitten hands, and it took him two full years before he returned to his original health.

Two years later, in 1912, Christophe came second in the Tour de France but in 1913, finally at full strength, he was the outstanding favourite for the overall victory. The race was over 15 stages and 5,287 kilometers. Christophe took the lead on Stage 6, the first mountain stage, and was looking well placed to keep the lead all the way back to Paris. Christophe recounted the events of the day later that evening:

“I plunged full speed towards the valley. According to the commissaire’s calculation, I was then heading the general classification with a lead of 18 minutes. So, I was going full speed…”

Then, disaster struck:

“All of a sudden, about ten kilometres from Saint-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.

And there I was left alone on the road. All the riders I had dropped during the climb soon caught me up. I was weeping with anger.”

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1913, and proper pissed off…

Most people would have given up there and then. But Eugene Christophe was not ‘most people’.

“As I walked down, I was looking for a short cut. I thought maybe one of those pack trails would lead me straight to Saint-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.”

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The smith where Christophe made his own forks

It had taken Christophe two hours to walk to the village, two hours lost to his rivals. The dream of victory was over. Yet still, he was not ready to abandon the race. Lecomte offered to make a new set of forks, but outside assistance of any kind was banned in these early days if the Tour. Riders had to get their own water and food and fix their own bicycles.

Christophe had been accompanied on his trek to the village by several race officials, who dutifully stood by his side at the forge to make sure that no rules were broken.

A locksmith by trade, Christophe had the skills needed to make his own forks and so set about doing just that, with verbal instructions coming from the blacksmith, Lecomte. Imagining the scene now, one can just about feel the sheer frustration and anger that must have been coursing through Christophe’s veins, standing there in his woollen jersey and rough shorts, suffering in the heat by the fire pit, hammering away at molten steel, knowing all the while that the race was lost.

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Artist’s rendition.

At one point, when an official complained that he was hungry, Christophe snapped:

“If you’re hungry, eat charcoal! I am your prisoner and you will remain my wardens till the end”.

It took him three hours to make the forks, and the official added on another ten minutes as a penalty, because Christophe had needed the assistance of a boy, 7 year old named Corni, to pump the bellows for him whilst he worked. Once the forks had cooled and been fitted to his bike, by himself of course, he headed off over the final two mountains, so far behind the leaders now that he had no chance of overall victory.

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Hungry as f**k…

Between 1914 and 1918 the Tour was suspended. Exhausted form the ravages of the First World War which had wrought misery upon northern Europe, all of France was thrilled at the prospect of the first Tour de France since 1913, and no one more so perhaps than Eugene Christophe.

The 1919 Tour would be Christophe’s to win, surely, for he had an almost unassailable lead going into the penultimate day of the 15 stage race. The Alps and the Pyrenees were behind him, and he only had to survive two flat stages to take the win over fellow Frenchman, Firmin Lambot. He had a 28 minute lead overall going into the 14th stage.

Lambot attacked with half the stage to go. Christophe countered. Then… snap! His forks broke, again. He found a forge, despondent at his fate, and repaired the forks himself. History was repeating for the unlucky Frenchman. He lost two and half hours and with that the lead and certain victory to Lambot.

Race director Henri Desgrange later wrote:

“The sky is gloomy and washed out. Huge, grubby clouds extend to the horizon. It is as if nature itself were grieving. In the outskirts of Valenciennes, Eugene Christophe stands on the pavement. He pushes in front of him, the saddle towards the earth, his bicycle: the fork is broken. It seems to me a mighty lyre whose broken strings sing his final misery.”

So touched by his fate, the organisers decided to award Christophe the same prize money as the winner, though in the end hundreds of people donated money for him, the total coming to 13,310 francs ($15,500US today), 8,000 more than Lambot received. The 1919 Tour though, was forever lost.

Could things possibly get any worse for Eugene Christophe? Well, yes… and they did. In 1922, in third place and still in with a chance of overall victory, his forks broke again, on the descent of the Galibier, in the Alps.

Christophe rode 11 Tour de France in total, without a single overall victory.

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The very first Maillot Jaune, awarded to Christophe here after the stage.

If you are ever in France, in the Pyrenees, if you head to the village of Saint-Marie de Campan you will find a plaque on the wall of the village forge, placed there in 1951 and still there today, that reads:

“Here, in 1913, Eugène Christophe, French racing cyclist, first in the general classification of the Tour de France, victim of a mechanical accident on the Tourmalet, repaired the fork of his bicycle at the forge. Having covered numerous kilometres by foot, in the mountains, and having lost numerous hours, Eugène Cristophe didn’t abandon the race that he should have won, showing a sublime example of willpower.”

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If ever a man needed a moustache, it was Eugene – suits him eh!

Author: crankpunk

Cycling coach, race organiser, former professional cyclist.

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