The second Tour de France… was a complete mess.
With a route similar to the inaugural 1903 edition, the first winner Maurice Garin (comfortably repeated his win, albeit by a small margin over Lucien Pothier, while the spectacularly-named Hippolyte Aucouturier (our second favourite cyclist ever, after 80’s Uzbeki sprinter Djamalidine Abdoujaparov) won four of the six stages.
But the joy didn’t last long for Garin. Twelve riders, including the first four on the final GC were disqualified by the Union Vélocipédique Française (UVF) after the event. Henri Cornet, originally the fifth-place finisher, was awarded the victory four months after the race.
So, how did that all happen?
The first Tour had been a big success, and a second running was a given. The route was identical, with the same six stages. The favourites for the victory were Garin, Pothier and Aucouturier, all of whom had performed well in 1903. The Tour was unusual, because it guaranteed all finishers prize money – at least 5 francs a day, which was a reasonable sum in the day. As ever, money quite possibly contributed to the desperate measures we will see some took.
Drugs were already playing a role in these early Tours – caffeine, strychnine, cocaine, alcohol; riding 600km in one go, six stages in a row called fro desperate measures, just to survive. But none of that was illegal, yet. This Tour’s troubles were all around deception and deceit.
Just 100 km in the race (remember the stages were 600-km-plus monsters), Lucien Pothier lost ten minutes because of a broken bicycle. In Cosne, at 174 km, Pothier rejoined the leading group, after (possibly) a hard chase. Aucouturier had lost more than an hour by this point, and just before the next control, he fell on his face, to continued the race covered in blood. In the finale, Maurice Garin and Lucien Pothier rode away from the others… only to be attacked by four masked men in a car! They still finished as the first two, with Garin beating Pothier to the line. With numerous punctures (possibly through sabotage) and crashes, Aucouturier lost several hours on the stage.
Already, the feds got involved in sanctioning riders…after the stage, Aucouturier and Samson received hefty fines , Aucouturier for having a non-Tour cyclist following him, Samson for slipstreaming of a car. Chevallier, who had finished third, was disqualified for resting in a car for 45 minutes. During the stage, Ferdinand Payan had been disqualified, either for receiving help from a car or non-Tour riders (history has got a it murky on that one). Not even Garin escaped unscathed – he had asked a race official for food, which was illegal.
During the second stage, a group of some 200 fans held up the main field by blocking the road, only allowing local favourite Antoine Fauré through. Garin hurt his hand during the incident, and Giovanni Gerbi was knocked unconscious, forced to abandon with broken fingers.The situation was only resolved after the race director fired shots in the air from his car. Further on, nails and broken glass had been spread along the road, which caused many punctures. Unsurprisingly, Fauré was the first on top of the Col de la République, but was passed by the favourites later. Aucouturier won the sprint. When the riders reached Marseille, they complained that there had been too many incidents in this stage, and the stage results should be cancelled. In the last part, they had been stopped by another large group of cyclists. Maurice Garin had been attacked, and his arm had been injured: he finished the stage steering with only one hand.
The third stage went to Nimes, the home town of Payan, whose fans were angry because of his disqualification. They threw rocks at the riders, and barricaded the road. Several riders were injured, and César Garin’s bicycle was broken by attackers; he had to find a new bicycle, which took him 15 minutes. Further on, nails and broken glass were spread along the road, again. Aucouturier won again, beating Cornet in the sprint.
The fourth stage was run without the incident. Pothier, Maurice and César Garin and Beaugendre reached Bordeaux together, where the stage was to be decided by a one-kilometre in the velodrome (those early Tours were bizarre, and mostly made-up on the fly…|), but the velodrome was closed when they got there, so the director made a plan B on the open road. Pothier won.
Stage five: more nails, more punctures. As mechanical assistance was not allowed, Cornet was forced to ride the last 40km with two flat tyres. Aucouturier won the stage, his third one, but was far behind in the general classification, which Garin now led by just 28 seconds ove Pothier.
The sixth stage, also incident-free, saw another Aucouturier win, after he, Garin and Dortignac escaped in the final kilometres. Maurice Garin finished second, which made him the overall winner of the dirtiest Tour ever… for a while.
During the course of the Tour, nine riders were excluded because of, among other things, illegal use of cars and trains. The Tour organisers were initially happy with the final results, but the Union Vélocipédique Française (UVF) started an investigation after complaints from other cyclists. In December 1904, it disqualified all the stage winners and the first four finishers (Maurice Garin, Pothier, César Garin, and Aucouturier). Ten of those disqualified were banned for one year, Maurice Garin for two years and the remaining two for life.In total, 29 riders were punished. The reasons for the disqualification were never made public.
Fifth-placed Henri Cornet, aged 19, then became the youngest ever winner of the Tour. Cornet had also been warned after he had received a lift by a car. Only 15 of the original 27 finishers avoided disqualification. Until the end of his life, Garin always said that he was the rightful winner of the 1904 Tour de France, but according to acclaimed author, Les Woodland, Garin later confessed to a friend that he had cheated.
Because of the scandals associated with this Tour, founder Henri Desgrange vowed to stop the race. Thankfully, he changed his mind, and the rules were changed to prevent cyclists from cheating: the 1905 Tour de France would be decided with a points system. Tour de France 1904 winner Cornet would enter the Tour de France for seven more times, but would never again play an important role.