Henri Desgrange was born into a comfortably prosperous middle-class family living in Paris. His twin brother, Georges Desgrange, was later described as having "the air of a defrocked monk" and as "totally devoid of all ambition".
Desgrange worked as a clerk at the Depeux-Dumesnil law office near the Place de Clichy in Paris and may have qualified as a lawyer. Legend says he was fired from there either for cycling to work or for exposing the outline of his calves in tight socks as he did so. Preferring a life in sport to a career in law, he began a dedication to sport that lasted the rest of his life. Desgrange saw his first bicycle race in 1891 when he went to the finish of Bordeaux–Paris. He began racing on the track but suffered by lacking a powerful acceleration. Endurance riding suited him better, and he set the first recognised "hour record" when on 11 May 1893 he rode 35.325 km on the Buffalo velodrome in Paris. He also established records at 50 and 100 km and 100 miles and became a tricycle champion in 1893.
He wrote a training book in 1894, La tête et les jambes, in which he conducted a conversation with an unnamed younger rider thought to be his younger self. The book included the advice that an ambitious rider has no more need of a woman than an unwashed pair of socks. In 1894 he wrote another book, Alphonse Marcaux.
In 1897 he became director of the Parc des Princes velodrome and then in December 1903 of France's first permanent indoor track, the Vélodrome d'Hiver, near the Eiffel Tower.
France at the end of the 19th century was split over the guilt or innocence of a soldier, Alfred Dreyfus, who had been convicted of selling secrets to the Germans. The leading sports paper, Le Vélo - it sold 80,000 copies a day - mixed sports reporting with news and political comment and stood for Dreyfus's acquittal. Some of the paper's largest advertisers, notably Jules-Albert de Dion and Adolphe Clément the owners of the De Dion-Bouton car factory and the Clément tyre and bicycle works, believed Dreyfus to be guilty. A row between them and the editor, Pierre Giffard, led to the advertisers withdrawing their custom and planning a paper of their own. An alternative version has it that Giffard banished the advertisers.
Albert de Dion and Adolphe Clément found other supporters in those who found Le Vélo's advertising rates too high or those, like Desgrange, who had had his advertising rejected and little interest taken in his track editorially. The same went for the man who became Desgrange's business partner, Victor Goddet, another velodrome director. Desgrange's enthusiasm, his sporting ability, his writing and the press work he had done for Clément persuaded the group to appoint him as editor.
The writer Geoffrey Nicholson said of Desgrange:
"He was outwardly flamboyant, privately cautious and well-connected in the cycle industry. But he was clearly no political die-hard, for as a writer he modelled himself on Émile Zola, who had been the most reviled of all defenders of Dreyfus".
Beyond that, and bringing in Goddet to look after the books and perhaps extend the potential for running cycle races, the industrialists knew nothing about newspapers and asked nothing except that they drive Giffard out of business. Desgrange gave the impression - correctly - that he wasn't a man to welcome consultation, let alone questioning. What Desgrange wanted, went. Only years later did he confess that he and Goddet had sat on a bench outside De Dion's luxurious house in the avénue de la Grande Armée and got themselves into such a state over whether to join his venture that they had to put the decision off to the next day.
The first issue of L'Auto-Vélo appeared on 16 October 1900. It was printed on yellow paper to distinguish itself from the green of Le Vélo but a court case brought by the original paper agreed in January 1902 that the name was too similar and the consortium was ordered to drop "vélo" from the title.
The title was chosen to reflect the enthusiasm at the time for car racing as the sport of the future.
Geoffrey Nicholson pointed out the way in which Desgrange modelled his writing on Zola. In launching the Tour de France (see below), for instance, he wrote:
"With the broad and powerful swing of the hand which Zola in The Earth
gave to his ploughman, L'Auto
, journal of ideas and action, is going to fling across France today those reckless and uncouth sowers of energy who are the great professional riders of the world... From Paris to the blue waves of the Mediterranean, from Marseille to Bordeaux, passing along the roseate and dreaming roads sleeping under the sun, across the calm of the fields of the Vendée, following the Loire, which flows on still and silent, our men are going to race madly, unflaggingly".
Of riders in Paris–Brest–Paris (see reference to Audax Français below), he wrote:
"There are four of them. Their legs, like giant levers, will power onwards for sixty hours, their muscles will grind up the kilometres, their broad chests will heave with the effort of the struggle, their hands will cling on to their handlebars; with their eyes they will observe each other ferociously; their backs will bend forward in unison for barbaric breakaways; their stomachs will fight against hunger, their brains against sleep. And at night a peasant waiting for them by a deserted road will see four demons passing by, and the noise of their desperate panting will freeze his heart and fill it with terror".
Desgrange wrote in the first issue of L'Auto that there would be "not a word" about politics, even though politics - the Dreyfus affair - had led to the paper's creation. On the eve of the first world war (see "Desgrange and war" below), however, he wrote:
"My dear boys [mes p'tits gars chéris
]! My dear French boys! Listen to me! In the 14 years that L'Auto
has appeared every day, it has never given you bad advice, has it? Well! Listen to me! The Prussians are bastards (salauds
]. I don't use the word to be vulgar but because it is exactly what I mean... When your rifle is aimed at their chests, they will beg for mercy. Don't give it to them. Shoot them down without mercy!"
Desgrange is credited with founding the Tour de France in 1903 but the idea came from one of his journalists, Géo Lefèvre, who said he blurted out the idea because he felt under pressure to say something at a crisis meeting held at the newspaper's headquarters at 10 rue faubourg Montmartre to resolve its poor circulation. Desgrange looked at the third man present, Georges Prade, and then back to his young journalist. "If I understand you right, petit Géo, what you are proposing is a Tour de France", he said. The words had been used for other sporting events but never for cycling.
Desgrange was cautious and suggested that he and Lefèvre lunch at the Taverne Zimmer in the boulevard de Montmartre. The subject wasn't mentioned until coffee, Lefèvre recalled, and the most Desgrange would say is that he would discuss it with Victor Goddet, the L'Auto financial manager. Lefèvre said he was sure Desgrange was passing the buck.
Instead, Goddet was delighted and was said to have pointed at the safe and invited Desgrange to take all he needed. L'Auto announced the race on January 19, 1903.
Although Desgrange liked to be called "the father of the Tour", the idea was not only not his but he was so unsure of it that he stayed away from the first event in 1903 until it turned out, against his expectations, to be a success. He wasn't even at the start, when the riders were waved away from outside the Reveil Matin in Montgeron outside Paris. His uncertainty extended to taking the riders into the Pyrenees. That idea came from another colleague, Adolphe Steinès, who proposed it so persistently that Desgrange finally exploded and told him to do whatever he wished. He regretted the decision when riders began protesting they would be eaten by bears even assuming they reached the summits alive. Desgrange feigned illness and stayed away, leaving the race to his deputy, Victor Breyer.
Promotion of the Tour de France proved a great success for the newspaper. Circulation leapt from 25,000 before the Tour to 65,000 after it. In 1908, the race boosted circulation past a quarter of a million, and during the 1923 Tour, it was selling 500,000 copies a day. The record circulation claimed by Desgrange was 854,000, achieved during the 1933 Tour.
Lefèvre, whose idea it had been and who had reported the first race while travelling by bicycle and train, was switched from cycling to other sports.
The sport of cycle racing grew faster than the national and international associations established to administer it. Henri Desgrange saw his race, and himself, as more than capable of standing up to the Union Vélocipédique Française (UVF), the French authority. The UVF disqualified the first four riders in the 1904 Tour de France, imposing penalties which went beyond those Desgrange had already imposed and which he thought excessive. The winner, Maurice Garin, for example, had already been fined 500 francs for taking food where taking food was not allowed.
What annoyed Desgrange more was that the UVF had waited until the following 30 November before acting, to avoid igniting public passion. And that it hadn't explained the detail. He wrote in L'Auto:
"It is extremely difficult to establish whether the heavy punishments handed out by the UVF to the principle riders were motivated by serious reasons, when we are given only the results of these decisions while at the same time the documents which they used are withheld from us. It is no exaggeration to say that public opinion will demand from the Union Vélocipédique some explanation, which will no doubt be forthcoming.
A suggestion of how Desgrange already perceived his race came in the paragraph that followed:
"We are convinced that the sporting commission has judged with its soul and with its conscience and that this conscience is entirely clear. I believe, however... I believe that it has made a big mistake by sanctioning in this way, a race of the magnitude of the Tour de France".
The "magnitude of the Tour de France", by then only in its second year, came close to be ended there and then. Desgrange wrote in L'Auto:
"The Tour de France is finished and the second edition will, I fear, also be the last. It has died of its success, of the blind passions that it unleashed, the abuse and the dirty suspicions... We will therefore leave it to others to take the chance of taking on an adventure on the scale of the Tour de France".
Desgrange soon thought otherwise and ran his Tour de France for another three decades. It was "his" Tour de France with rules that he drew up, rules that he imposed strictly - the French favourite Henri Pélissier stalked off in 1920 after Desgrange penalised him two minutes for leaving a flat tyre by the roadside. In 1924 he and two other riders walked out of the race in Coutances after a row about whether riders were allowed to take off clothing as the day grew hotter.
Desgrange dismissed Pélissier as "a pigheaded, arrogant champion".
Marcel Bidot, another rider and later manager of the French team in the Tour de France, called Desgrange
"a driven man and a boss who tolerated no disagreement".
There are many examples of Desgrange's self-belief but few as entertaining as the way he fell out with a provincial bike-maker called Mercier. André Leducq, one of France's top riders, had left the Alcyon team to join Émile Mercier. Edmond Gentil, the head of Alcyon, asked Desgrange to leave Leducq out of the French team for the Tour de France, a team which as organiser Desgrange chose personally. That was Gentil's revenge and Mercier was annoyed. Desgrange, though, had taken a decision that, like all Desgrange's decisions, was correct, final and indisputable.
Mercier wrote complaint after complaint, then engaged lawyers. Desgrange ordered his staff never to mention Mercier's name again. Mercier, though, was a sponsor and bike-maker and sometimes had to have his complaints published. So L'Auto compromised by never spelling his name correctly. That drove Mercier into a deeper fury and more lawyers were engaged. L'Auto would again print corrections, only to get the name wrong once more. "Monsieur Gercier has let us known that his name is Monsieur Mervier", and then, "Monsieur Mervier asks us to say that, in reality, he is called Monsieur Cermier". When Mercier wrote once more, L'Auto printed: "Monsieur Cermier insists that in fact he is known as Monsieur Merdier" (Merde is French for "excrement").
Desgrange created a committee for physical education at the start of the first world war and trained several thousand soldiers to prepare them for the Front. Despite his age - he was already more than 50 - Desgrange then enrolled as a soldier himself. He presented himself at an assembly centre at Autan, distinctive for his grey hair and the Légion d'honneur pinned to his chest, and went to war as a poilu, an ordinary soldier. He won the Croix de guerre in combat and continued to write for L'Auto but under the name "Desgrenier". Desgrenier is a play on words. Desgrange translates loosely as Barnes in English; the slight change turned his name into Lofts.
Desgrange was made an officer in May 1919 and that summer returned to L'Auto to edit the paper and to restore the Tour de France in a nation of death, ruin and shortage.
It is because of Desgrange and the Tour de France that the people of France first recognised the shape of their country, say two academics who have studied the role of the race in French social history.
The French had little idea of their geography at the start of the 20th century, say Jean-Luc Boeuf and Yves Léonard. The popular 1877 children's schoolbook Le Tour de France par deux enfants (the title referred to a didactic journey by two children and not the race) had sold six million copies before the publishers thought it necessary, in 1905, to include a map of the country they were describing.
"Those who conceived the Tour de France printed in L'Auto
general maps which traced the route of the race and therefore showed the hexagon shape of France, because of the way the race followed the country's frontiers... By the cartography of France that it helped make known, the Tour acted as a teacher in showing a map printed with the contours of the country - which was rare at least until the Great War - and as avant-gardiste in very quickly popularising the notion of France as more or less hexagonal, a France amputated from 1903 not only of its "lost provinces" but also of possessions overseas and of Corsica, (which the race has) never visited in a century nor figured on maps of the race. When, with the decolonialisation of the Fifties and Sixties, the national area contracted to essentially the contours of a hexagon... the Tour had largely - and for some decades - sensibilised opinion to the contraction of European and continental France into this hexagon".
While Desgrange is known outside cycling for his Tour de France, he made a further name inside it and within other sports by creating the Audax movement in 1904. Enthused by the way he saw long-distance cyclists challenging themselves to ride long distances in a set time, he created Audax Français to encourage and regulate such events in France.
"Desgrange, Géo Lefèvre and Charles Stourm founded Audax Français. Regularly, in 1903, L'Auto
reported the activities of Audax riders in Italy. And their project, a ride from Turin to Paris planned for the summer of 1904. Géo Lefèvre, who was involved, suggested that French cyclists could go to meet them, under the administration of the newspaper. And that created the idea of a French organisation of the same sort. So much so that on 7 January 1904, Desgrange could announce the creation of Audax Français".
That in turn led to long-distance rides across France. The first 200 km ride under Audax rules was on 3 April 1904, followed by a 100 km walking event on 26 June. The cycling distances extended to 300, 400 and 600 km and ultimately to Paris–Brest–Paris (1200 km) which was originally a race but became an international Audax ride.
The Audax movement extends to swimming, with Audax brevets created over 6 km on 27 June 1913, then to rowing over 80 km and finally, in 1985, to skiing. The Union des Audax Parisien was created on 14 July 1921 to administer brevets across the world. It became the Union des Audax Français on 1 January 1956.
Throughout his life, Desgrange was passionate about improving the health of the nation. He was concerned that so many Frenchmen had been rejected by the army because of their poor health that France had not been able to protect itself adequately in the Franco-Prussian war. He set a personal example by running for a couple of hours a day all through his life. Jacques Goddet (son of Victor Goddet) said:
"Henri Desgrange... imposed on himself a life of submitting himself to daily physical exercises. They had to demand, according to his draconian theories, a violent effort, prolonged, repeated, sometimes going as far as pain, demanding tenacity and even a certain stoicism. He took on a crusade against Original Inertia, against the softening of the body in the face of a society keen to suppress physical effort. He appointed himself the apostle of the fight to safeguard character. Suffer and sweat! And that meant a permanent individual culture of cross-country, at least three times a week, in the parc de St-Cloud. Nor did he hold back: he ran for at least an hour, never missing out Jardies hill, the fierce slope in the centre of the park used by hardened runners".
Desgrange used L'Auto to help his campaign, going as far as listing riders he had seen his Parc des Princes cycle track without having a shower. The column's title was Dirty Feet.
For Desgrange, the Tour de France was not simply a long-distance and multi-day cycle race - an idea invented by Lefèvre - but close to what would now be called social engineering. He sought not just the best cyclist but a supreme athlete. To him, he said several times, the perfect Tour would have a perfect winner only if one man survived.
Desgrange had a wife - they divorced - and a daughter. Little is known of either. He spent most of his life with the avant-garde artist Jeanne (Jane) Deley but never married her.
Deley was born on 28 July 1878, in Creusot, Saône-et-Loire. She is listed in Le dictionnaire biographique des artistes contemporains by Edouard Joseph. She and Desgrange met some time after the 1914-1918 war. They were a contrast, Desgrange rather formal and preoccupied by publishing and physical activity, Deley a party-giver who liked to entertain at the home she shared with Desgrange. Among her guests were the former racing star Charles Pélissier, a favourite of Desgrange's and who Jacques Goddet hints in his biography may have been romantically involved with Deley; Henry Decoin, a theatre director; Robert Perrier, a writer at L'Auto, Jeff Dickson, an American who promoted spectaculars at the Vélodrome d'Hiver; and a Serbian artist called Millovi Uzelac.
Jeanne Deley signed her work "Jane Deley" and showed it at the Salon des Indépendants as early as 1924, and at other salons later. At her insistence, the couple bought a château near St-Maxime, on the Mediterranean. Deley died on 13 July 1949.
In 1936 Henri Desgrange had a prostate operation. At the time, two operations were needed; the Tour de France was due to fall between them. Desgrange's dominant character persuaded his surgeon to give him permission to follow the race despite warnings that he should not. Desgrange ordered his car to be heavily packed with cushions. A doctor would ride beside him. Desgrange let his deputy and chief cycling writer, Jacques Goddet, into the secret but demanded he say nothing of his suffering. Goddet in fact told Desgrange's deputy on the Tour, Louis Cazalis.
It became clear on the first stage that things were not going to go well. Desgrange was in agony from the jolting and the repeated acceleration and slowing of his car. The second day proved too much and, in a fever at Charleville, he left the race and retired to his château at Beauvallon. His daily column, considered of great importance, was taken over by the writer Charles Faurous.
Desgrange died at home on the Mediterranean coast on 16 August 1940.
L'Auto wrote, under the headline Le Patron:
"Those who called Henri Desgrange by that title will now painfully find the true value of that title. We are mourning a father. A father who presided over the birth, then the formation, then the development, then the health of his child. He loved all those who loved L'Auto
. His joy was to mix with the youngest of his collaborators. We'll no longer find him in the sports hall where he was as vigorous at 75 as he was in his fifties, which is as vigorous as others are in their forties. He will no longer be... But, then, what are we saying? His memory, his example and his lesson will still be here, there, everywhere, in our beloved [publishing] house, still and for ever full of his dynamism [pas rapide
] and his visionary and precise decisions".
A monument to his memory, paid for by subscription, stands at the Col du Galibier. A prize is offered in his name to the first rider over the col in each Tour de France.
L'Auto continued without Desgrange during the war but with a controlling interest in its shares held by a group of German businessmen. Jacques Goddet, who was not responsible for the sale of the shares, said the paper had tried to improve its sales by adding general news coverage, which opened a way for the German owners to insist that that coverage favoured the Occupiers. The outcome was that L'Auto was closed down by the government when Paris was liberated and the doors were nailed shut. The company's possessions were sequestrated.
Jacques Goddet led a successful bid to open L'Équipe, although others planning rival papers judged his name an unfair advantage because he was too well known through his association with L'Auto'. Goddet was therefore not allowed to have his name in the paper nor to attend the paper's office".
Ownership of the Tour de France had also been sequestrated by the government and was opened to offers. L'Équipe ran a demonstration race and a rival bidder ran another. L'Équipe was granted the right and Goddet returned to the organising role that he had inherited from Desgrange.
He wasn't, however, allowed to print his new publication on yellow paper. That was seen as being too reminiscent of the shamed L'Auto and was specifically banned.
Henri Desgrange was one of the few people in the world to have invented a sport: bicycle stage racing. Before him there had been cycle races that lasted more than one day but never a race composed of individual races adding up to a total. His achievement is not only to have created the Tour de France but that that achievement has been copied across the world in a multitude of other stage races from a weekend to a month long.
Desgrange grew up in an era when France had suffered humiliation in the Franco-Prussian War and when he believed the French were "tired, without muscle, without character and without willpower". Desgrange believed that sport and exercise would improve the nation physically and morally. It was a belief that he lived out in his own life, timing himself to walk across his bedroom even days before he died.
He believed the Tour de France had to be gruelling, to the extent that the perfect race for him would be one that only one rider could finish, because he needed it to inspire, to extend the limits of human achievement. Many of his rules, which now seem arcane, were to that end. He forbade riders to cooperate with each other, banning tactics now taken for granted, such as sharing the pacemaking. He insisted competitors mend their own bicycles and accept no outside help because independence and self-sufficiency were everything to him. For the same reason, he stood out against variable gears long after they had become common elsewhere.
Desgrange was close to tyrannical in his behaviour, according to the historian and writer Pierre Chany. He brooked no interference in his race, from officialdom let alone individual riders, and imposed penalties arbitrarily. His penalties were at one time so erratic that the entire Belgian team went home in disgust. It is impossible to say whether the Tour and the sport of bicycle stage racing would have been different had they been invented by someone else or had Desgrange handed over control while he was a younger and fitter man. The only thing that is certain is that Desgrange, for all his faults, created not just one of the biggest sporting events in the world but the very version of the sport that made it possible.
It is his unique personality and imprint on the race that has led the leader's yellow jersey to carry his initials, H.D., in the style in which he wrote them.