Imagine turning up to the Tour de France to race against the pro teams. Not in a team yourself, but you alone. No soigneurs, team bus, mechanics or DS – just you. At the end of every stage having to find some accommodation and only being begrudgingly allowed to race just to make up the numbers. In the early editions of the race this is what happened.
When Henri Desgrange came up with the concept of le Tour in 1903 he brought along a formula that he had used when organising the 1901 Paris Brest Paris race – that there should be two distinct groups: coureurs de vitesse(racers) and touriste routiers (non-racers). Interestingly the first Tour was won by Maurice Garin who won the P-B-P two years earlier.
Desgrange’s draconian rules and sadistic stages were legendary (derailleurs weren’t allowed until 1937) but he came down even harder on the touriste routiers. Being un-sponsored they were literally expected to fend for themselves. Desgrange said: “There are special prizes for you and you are welcome to come and get them if you have the courage. But apart from being in the race on the road, I do not want to know that you exist.”
In the early days of the race no riders could get outside assistance whilst riding. The famous story is of Eugene Christophe getting a time deduction for getting a small boy to pump some bellows whilst he repaired his forks with a blacksmith’s forge. However off the bike the professional racers had the benefit of a back up team organising accommodation and mechanics to look after the bikes post race. Touriste routiers did not have that luxury and beyond having their bags transported they were on their own.
Savvy routiers booked their accommodation ahead, however many riders who had little money had to use a bit more initiative to get a roof over their head including busking !
The touriste routiers were a mixed bunch many owned bike shops and were attempting to complete the course to raise publicity for their businesses others were enthusiastic amateurs who were using their annual leave to go on the adventure of a lifetime.
By 1928 there were 121 routiers on the start line of the Tour (only 11 finished). This was the peak of the race being a pro-am affair.
In 1930 Desgrange was disappointed that major bike manufacturers were organising coureurs into teams which diluted the individual element of the race. To make it so that no trade team dominated the race, he introduced national teams with only sixty routiers starting that year.
Many routiers gained the opportunity to join these new teams which marked the slow demise of this class of rider. Ironically the only time that a routier wore the yellow jersey was in the 5901 km 1931 race when Max Bulla won stage two, taking advantage that the tourists were allowed to set off ten minutes before the coureurs.
Another consequence of organising national teams was that to combat the fact that trade teams were no longer going to invest in the race due to the lack of brand awareness, he introduced the publicity caravan that still exists today.
The literal translation of touriste routiers is tourist of the road. In the middle ages however the routiers were mercenary warriors. The concept of these early amateur riders being warriors seems a lot more apt than them being mere tourists. Just before the outbreak of World War to the routier category was phased out. Despite his attitude towards this class, the routiers were closest to Desgrange’s original vision of the races competitors – the individual battling the course, weather and fellow riders for the love of the ride.