A lot has changed over the centuries since the first bicycles were invented in 1817 by German Baron Karl von Drais. There’s no doubt that the invention of the bicycle has brought about much social change, freedom and fun to the masses, with people able to get from A to B with ease, participate in races, and explore incredible landscapes.
From the early days of heavy wooden velocipedes to the high-wheeled penny-farthing, to today’s modern carbon bikes, the sport has evolved from a mode of transportation to a major competitive sport.
Many of the top cycling races in the world date back for more than a century when bikes were made from steel and no one wore a helmet. Those early days of bicycle racing is where you’ll find some of the most unbelievable stories and a few that will make you question what they were thinking.
1. The 1958 Tour de France Comeback
Back in the days before helmets, carbon cycling shoes, and water bottle holders, Charly Gaul was 15 minutes behind the leader, Raphael Geminiani. Gaul launched a huge attack at the beginning of a mountain stage in the Alps in the pouring rain and bitter cold. For many, this was a suicide attack, but for Luxembourg rider, rain and cold was his element.
Gaul led the shrinking peloton over three climbs and then killed the day’s break away. Gaul crossed the finish line at Aix-les-Bains ten minutes ahead of the second rider. Two days later, he captured the yellow jersey and the title of 1958 Tour de France champion in one of the greatest comebacks in cycling history.
2. Jens Voigt Borrows a Kid’s Bike to Finish the Tour de France
In 2010, German rider and cycling legend, Jens Voigt, totaled his bike after falling during the descent of the first climb in Stage 16 of the Tour de France. After abandoning the 2009 Tour due to injury, Voigt was more determined than ever to finish the 2010 race.
All the support cars had passed Voigt, so he decided to borrow a kids’ bike from the junior’s race that was following the Tour route. He rode that bike for 12 miles until he was able to pick up another bike from his team car. Voigt finished the stage just before the official cutoff time and finished the 2010 Tour de France in 125th place.
3. Smoking was Permitted during Races
Back in the early days of cycling races in the first few decades of the 1900s, smoking was permitted in racing. Smoking was thought to provide a bit of a jumpstart. During those days, riders also wore spare tubes and tires around their bodies as they rode.
Bike frames were made of heavy steel and riders handled all their own repairs. Life was tough for cyclists in the early days. No support cars. No bike mechanics. No feed bags. Thankfully, we have support cars, bike mechanics, and lots of great mid-ride snacks on all our Lizard Head Cycling tours.
4. Fausto Coppi – Perhaps One of the Greatest Cyclists of All Time
Italian cyclist, Fausto Coppi, is perhaps one of the greatest cyclists of all time, but unfortunately, he had to take a seven-year break in his prime racing career due to being held as a prisoner of war in North Africa during WWII.
He won the Giro d’Italia five times between 1940 and 1953, the Tour de France twice in 1949 and 1952 (he only raced it three times), and the World Championships in 1953. He also won 28 one-day road race victories. If Coppi wasn’t forced to take a seven-year break in his cycling break, he total of victories would likely have been ranked up there with Merckx and others.
5. Itching Powder and Car Pulling: Cheating in the Tour de France
Lance Armstrong and hundreds of other racers aren’t the only ones to cheat over the years. In 1904, Hippolyte Aucouturier cheated during one stage of the Tour de France by taking a tow behind a car by attaching a length of string to a cork that he gripped between his teeth. He was caught because the car that pulled him drove just a little too fast behind the race officials.
In the same year, Maurice Garin smoked all the time while cycling. It was said that a cigarette was always seen hanging out of his mouth. Garin was a chimney sweep turned cyclist who ended up winning the Tour de France in 1904. His win was later revoked because he and other riders had taken a train for a part of a stage, put itching powder in their competitor’s shorts, and had some of his supporters attack rival riders with sticks during the race. And you thought doping was a problem?!