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Henri Desgrange

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Henri Desgrange (Paris, January 31, 1865August 16, 1940 in Beauvallon) was a French bicycle racer and sports journalist.

Henri Desgrange on a bicycle
Henri Desgrange on a bicycle

He set twelve world track cycling records, including the hour record of 35.325 kilometers on May 11, 1893.

Desgrange is credited with founding the Tour de France in 1903. Certainly, with the Baron de Dion he had co-founded the daily sports paper L'Auto, which promoted the Tour to boost its poor circulation, but the idea came from one of his journalists, Géo Lefèvre, just 23, who said he blurted out the idea because he felt under pressure to say something at a crisis meeting held to resolve L'Auto's 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. Lefèvre, who reported that race while travelling by bicycle and train, was switched from cycling to other sports.

Desgrange's uncertainty extended to taking the riders into the Pyrenees. That idea came from another colleague, 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.

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. His successor as organiser, Jacques Goddet (son of Victor Goddet), said in his autobiography "L'Équipée Belle": "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 was one of two brothers, twins. Jacques Goddet in "L'Équipée Belle" described Georges Desgrange as having "the air of a defrocked monk" and as "totally devoid of all ambition". Desgrange married and had a daughter. Little is known of either. He spent most of his life with the avant-garde artist Jane Deley but never married her. At her insistence, the couple bought a château near St-Maxime, on the Mediterranean. It was there that he retired after falling ill during the 1936 Tour after having a prostate operation. He died there on August 16, 1940. There is a memorial to him on the col de Télégraphe and his initials appeared for many years on the yellow jersey worn by the leader of the Tour de France.

Preceded by
F. L. Dodds
UCI hour record (35.325 km)
11 May 1893-31 October 1894
Succeeded by
Jules Dubois
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