A statue of Octave Lapize, winner of the 1910 Tour de France, awaits all who reach the summit of the Col du Tourmalet.

Hors Course stage 17: Octave Lapize and the Tour’s first visit to the Pyrenees

Stage 17 sees the peloton tackle four climbs in the Pyrenees, a mountain range with an enchanting history at the Tour de France.

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As heard on the Tour Daily podcast, José Been is taking us off the race route for some local historical and cultural context for each stage, from Denmark all the way to Paris.

On this short stage of only 129.7 kilometres the riders face four climbs. The first is the Col d’Aspin which is a regular feature on the race route, used for the first time in 1910.

It was the first time the Tour de France went into the high mountains since the first edition in 1903. The assistant to race director Henri Desgrange, Alphonse Steinès, travelled to the Pyrenees in January to see if the roads were rideable, and the locals laughed at him when he rented a car and drove up the Col du Tourmalet. He got stuck, continued on foot in four-metre high snow and had to be rescued off the mountain in the middle of the night. Yet he sent a telegram to Desgrange in Paris that read: Crossed Tourmalet. Very Good Road. Perfectly Passable. Signed Steinès.

So, in 1910 the Tour de France went to the Pyrenees and up the Col d’Aspin, Peyresourde, Tourmalet, Soulor, Col de Tortes and the Aubisque. In one day.

Octave Lapize was new to cycling but already made a name for himself in his first pro season with a win at Paris-Roubaix, a race he would win three years in a row. The 1910 season was only his second year as a professional, but he was already considered a serious rival to Francois Faber, the Luxembourg rider who won the Tour in 1909. The two were teammates at the Alcyon team and 1910 would become a great battle between the French and Luxembourg riders. 

In the first ever Pyrenees mountain stage, Faber wore the yellow jersey but Octave Lapize flew up the Aspin and kept going until the final climb of the day. On the mighty Col d’Aubisque, which features in Thursday’s stage this year, Lapize was overtaken by a local rider who took 15 minutes on him, but Lapize made up that time after a super-fast descent – bear in mind there was no tarmac, although the roads had improved since Steinès’ mid-winter expedition. 

Riders take on the Col d’Aubisque in the Pyrenees as Tour de France creator Henri Desgrange watches on with a notebook in hand.

After a stage of 326 kilometres he beat Pierino Albini in a sprint. Lapize took ten minutes on Francois Faber, his direct rival for the general classification. Francois Faber had run into a stray dog a few days before the stage in the Pyrenees and was struggling from the injuries caused by that crash. Crashing into animals was a common thing apparently because earlier that Tour de France in a stage around Roubaix, Lapize had run into a cow on the road. Lapize came away unscathed. There was no news on the cow’s wellbeing!

A few days after his heroic win in the Pyrenees but still in second place in the overall classification, Lapize managed to take another 11 minutes back on Faber in a 391 kilometres stage to Brest. Lapize took over the yellow jersey which he brought to Paris that year.

It would be the only Tour de France Lapize would win. In the First World War he volunteered for the French military and joined the air force. At the beginning of the war, planes were used for reconnaissance, but one Roland Garros, yes that one, figured out how to mount a machine gun on a plane without shooting your own propellors to bits. After years of training Lapize wanted to go to the front. He knew the dangers and had already drafted his last will and testament for his wife and young daughter Yvonne. 

On 14 July 1917, Bastille Day, his plane was shot down by four German planes. He was rushed to hospital but succumbed to his injuries a few days later, just 29 years old.

Francois Faber also died in the First World War. He was part of the French Foreign Legion and was shot in 1915 while trying to bring a wounded comrade to safety.

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