Itching powder, henchmen and car tows: Historic Tour de France cheating

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It would be fair to say the Tour de France has had the odd brush with controversy down the years. In the last quarter of a century alone we have had the Festina scandal, Operacion Puerto, Floyd Landis’ not-so-miracle ride on stage 17 of the 2006 Tour, Lance Armstrong’s downfall… The list goes on and on.

What more recent fans of the sport might not realise is that cheating at Le Tour did not start and end with doping. Doping has been ever-present, certainly – from strychnine and cocaine in the early days to EPO and testosterone now – but The Tour has a much more varied and colourful history of cheating than that. It was like the Wild West in the early days.

Maurice Garin, winner of the first Tour back in 1903, made Lance Armstrong look like a choirboy. Although teams were outlawed back then, Garin, a chimney sweep by trade, rode around with a gang called ‘La Francaise’ and use them like henchmen. When one of his fellow riders, Fernand Augereau, said he quite fancied a go at winning that day, Garin had one of his goons knock him off his bike. After Augereau had the audacity to remount and catch back up to the group, Garin had him knocked down again, then got off himself, took hold of Augereau’s bike and jumped up and down on his wheels. The Tour’s organisers, keen to sell newspapers and turn the riders into folk heroes, did not bat an eyelid, despite this happening in front of spectators.

Even they had to act the following year, though. The 1904 edition has got to have been the dirtiest of all time. Not only were riders doping and boozing, there were allegations they incited their supporters to attack rivals with sticks, throw tacks, nails and broken glass on the roads, put itching powder in their rivals’ shorts, and even take tows from motor bikes and motor cars.

And not the modern type of towing either. They were in the habit of trailing a thin piece of wire behind a motor car, with a cork attached to the other end which they would stick in their mouths.  Twelve cyclists in total, including the top four in the general classification, were eventually disqualified that year.