|Roger Lapébie, 1911-1996|
In Henri Desgrange's view, gears comprised the "perfect union of man and machine against the forces of nature" ideal towards which he had always striven to steer the event. Yet even he realised that his riders would need some means of altering ratios if they were going to ride up the mountains and still maintain a reasonable pace on the flat roads, so bikes were permitted to be fitted with a cog on either side of the back wheel, one large and one small, so that the gear could be changed by flipping the wheel over and repositioning it in the drop outs to maintain chain tension. Other systems were in existence - hub gears had been around for some time, there was even one in which pedaling forwards gave a high gear and pedaling backwards a low gear and another which allowed the rider - but had been judged either too heavy or too complex for use in such a demanding event.
Derailleur gears had been in existence in one form or another for some forty years by the time that Desgrange stepped down after a prostate operation left him in agony. They had their champions, too - who had apparently convinced Victor Goddet that such devices were the way forward, because one of the first things he did when he took over the Tour's directorship was change the rules to permit them and it was Roger Lapébie, born in Pessac on this day in 1911, who became the first rider to try them out. Other riders were more reluctant, considering them all very well for recreational cyclists and women but completely unnecessary for iron-hard athletes such as themselves.
Lapébie was perhaps not the most honest, honourable rider in the history of sport - judges warned him time and time again about his habit of being given a handy push through tough sections by fans. He claimed that he asked them to resist, but years later admitted that he'd secretly ask them to keep doing it (and to be fair to him, there were riders who would resort to far dirtier tricks, such as the person unknown - believed by Lapébie and others to have been a Belgian rider - who had booby-trapped his bike by sawing partway through the handlebars so they snapped, forcing him to swap to another pair without a bottlecage so that he got penalised every time he accepted a bottle held out to him from the roadside.
However, he won by more than seven minutes and, even though he might not have done had Sylvère Maes not have left the race and taken his team with him in protest, the derailleur was largely credited for the victory. Next year, every bike on the start line was fitted with one.
Thys also won the inaugural Belgian Cyclo Cross Championship in 1910, then the Circuit Français Peugeot and stage races from Paris to Turin and Paris to Toulouse in 1911 before turning professional in order to enter the Tour - he came 6th overall after his first attempt, then won it in 1913, 1914 and 1920. His 1913 victory came after one of the most remarkable events in Tour history: after his fork broke, he was forced to find a bike shop and have it repaired (this being in the days before mechanical assistance and technical back-up) and for which judges penalised him ten minutes.
However, race leader Eugène Christophe's fork also broke later on, thus beginning the famous incident which saw him finding a forge and repairing the fork himself so as to avoid penalty - but judges later discovered that whilst carrying out the repair, he had allowed a young lad named Corni to pump the bellows for him, which they deemed as being the recipient of outside help and penalised him ten minutes too (it was later reduced to three). This allowed Thys to claw his way back and win the stage. He would later lose his lead, but then Christophe's fork broke for a second time and the Belgian secured his lead, despite being knocked unconscious in a crash on the way to Dunkirk. Gustave Garrigou was 8'37" behind him, whereas 3rd place Marcel Buysse crossed the line with a 3h30'55" disadvantage after his handlebars snapped.
Koldo Gil, a Spanish rider who won a stage at the 2005 Giro'd'Italia, was born on this day in 1978. He won two stages in the 2006 Tour de Suisse and led the General Classification until Jan Ullrich won the final stage time trial, finishing the race in second place as a result. After a disappinting season in 2008 he was unable to secure a contract for 2009 and announced his retirement.
1976 Amateur Road Race and 1983 Professional Road Race Champion of Switzerland Serge Demierre was born today in 1956 in Burlata, Spain. 1983 was his best year - in addition to his National title, he won one stage and the Combativity award at the Tour de France. He retired in 1991 and now runs a bike shop near Geneva airport in Vernier.
Other birthdays: Steven De Neef (Belgium, 1971); Carlos Jaramillo (Columbia, 1961); Raúl Marcelo Vázquez (Cuba, 1948); Mauricio Bolaños (El Salvador, 1939); Rudi van Houts (Netherlands, 1984); Gerald Koel (Netherlands, 1941); Roger Ludwig (Luxembourg, 1933); Radosław Romanik (Poland, 1967).
Tomorrow: The birth of GreenEDGE