Autumn 1955. A group of forty cyclists travels the roads of Normandy at full tilt. Elbows, attacks, sideways glances. At stake is nothing less than victory in the Tour de France. Yes – in the first Tour de France. It’s just that in this Tour all the participants are women.
This is the story, the forgotten story, of the Tour de France féminin. A race of which one solitary edition was held before a wait of thirty years for the next. An almost unknown epic ridden by almost unknown pioneers.
A somewhat controversial father
The founder of the race was the versatile Jean Leulliot, a French journalist who became a bicycle race organiser. A bon vivant with an easy smile and gentle manners better suited to parties thrown by artists and tycoons than to newsrooms. A man forever shrugging off his latest blunder . . . only to go on to greater failures.
Because if there was one thing that characterized the life of Jean Leulliot it was, without doubt, his adaptability. A reporter for L’Auto, directly protected by Henri Desgrange, collaborator in the creation of one of the best-known cycling films of all time (Pour le maillot jaune, premiered in 1940 and directed by Jean Stelli), Leulliot, like all his compatriots, suffered due to the tragedy of the second world war. Not that he had a bad war. He remained in occupied Paris as director of the sports section of a newspaper called La France socialiste. Fairly friendly with the Nazis, if you know what I mean. It was there that his career as a race organiser began. And it did so with an icon: the Ciclocross de Montmartre, no less . . .
The problem is that all this took place during the German occupation. And Leulliot had a good relationship with the Nazis. Indeed, there were many who, after the armistice, accused him of being a collaborator, though he always claimed he was just doing his job. Perhaps with an excess of enthusiasm – such as when he sent a Gestapo commando to persuade Émile Idée, French national champion, to participate in a stage race called Circuit de France that replaced the Tour during the war years. A trifle.
The Circuit de France was, of course, an abject social and sporting failure, with a quarter of its participants abandoning on the first stage and the public demonstratively turning its back on the whole monstrosity, which they considered an insult to their memory of the Tour – of happy times, the decades of smiles . . .
At any rate, at his post-liberation trial Jean Leulliot was acquitted of all charges, despite the direct accusations of, for example, Jacques Goddet, who went so far as to say that Leulliot had committed “high treason, and deserved your destiny.”
And it was immediately after the war that, as founder and editor of the specialist cycling magazine Route et piste, he created a number of races at different levels of the sport. Some, such as Paris-Nice, still exist today. Others, such as Monde Six, Paris-London, Étoile des Espoirs, Tour d’Europe and the Route de France have passed into oblivion.
It was in this context that Leulliot set out to organize a women’s race which, over several stages, would encompass all of France. Well, the north of France at least, because the race never left Normandy. But back then, when there was not yet even a women’s World Championship, it seemed the idea just might work. Yes, the Tour would be the way for the women to measure themselves against their peers. Let’s try it.
He quickly found sponsors. Everyone was keen to see such a spectacle. Just imagine, a peloton of women racing on French roads. Worth seeing. The race was underway.
Two Brits Up Front
In the event the first Tour de France Féminin would take place between September 28th and October 2nd 1955. Five stages, the last divided into two parts. The first, between Rambouillet and Verneuil-sur-Avre, a beautiful Normandy village, was the longest at 82 kilometres. Out of a total of 373 km there would be 25 km of time trialling in the historic town of Gisors (site of a castle of the Templars, believed by some to be the location of the mythical Templar treasure). More or less the same amount of time trialling as in the Tours of the last five years.
A total of 48 women signed up for the challenge, though only 41 made it as far as the start line. They came from Holland, Switzerland, Luxembourg, Great Britain. And of course from France, divided up according to their region of origin. Teams from Paris, from Clermont-Ferrand, from Marseille, from Riom, from Rouen, Louviers, Bordeaux or Lorient, also from Nantes, Dijon or Crusnes. Only four riders abandoned. The French rider Jeannine Lemaire climbed off on the second stage to Bernay. Daisy Franks, an Englishwoman, followed suit the next day as the peloton was entering Vimoutiers. And finally, Evelina Guerin and Colette Schnekonig, both French, failed to start on the final day, the double stage. A very low drop-out rate.
Care for some British pride? The island girls ruled this first women’s Tour with an iron fist. Yes, Rule Britannia, Britannia rules the waves. Millie Robinson and June Thackeray filled the first two places, with Silvie Whybrow and Beryl French also in the top ten. Three of the first seven and four of the first nine were British. An unprecedented success.
But one which did not surprise anyone much. The British had been racing in France all summer, on one long parade of victories and podium places. So, Millie Robinson herself had won the so-called Circuit Lyonnais-Auvergne, a three-day stage race held in July. She took all three stage wins as well as the overall victory. June Thackeray was second, as she was in the Tour, with two other English riders among the first nine. It seems clear that the girls from the other side of the Channel were vastly superior to their continental counterparts.
(Incidentally, the prize money for these races was donated, in its entirety, to an international foundation for the promotion of women’s rights. In other words, the riders were amateur – very amateur.)
Let’s begin with Millie Robinson, who drove a van for a living when she wasn’t on her bike. Born in Douglas, on the Isle of Man, Robinson always excelled in the individual time trial, winning the British title three times – including the first one in 1955, always a nice thing to have on your palmarès. She repeated the feat in the following year, finishing a minute clear of Valerie Garrett in second place, and completed the treble in 1957. A dominant force with an easy smile and shy gestures, always friendly with the media, but unsparing with her competitors.
But let’s get back to France. The first to raise her arms was the French rider Lily Herse, who took the first stage ahead of the omnipresent Millie. This put her in the yellow jersey – which in fact was white. It seems Leulliot wanted to avoid problems with the organisers of the Tour de France and decided on this colour (in those days also worn by the leader of Paris-Nice) to avoid controversy. Yellow, the golden shade, would be strictly for the men.
Among the leaders was also Elsy Jacobs, who three years later would become the first women’s world champion, and who also held the hour record for a time. A Luxembourger, born in a small village called Garnich, Jacobs had to race in France because the Grand Duchy prohibited women’s bicycle races. Much later, when her successes made her world-famous, she was recognized by her country’s authorities. But always grudgingly. The pioneers have it hard.
Oh yes, the race. That little thing. Thackeray wins the sprint for the second stage and the French Marie-Jeanne Donabedian does the same in the third. Donabedian, incidentally, was licensed not by the French Cycling Federation but by the Sport and Gymnastics Federation of Labour, an organisation with communist roots born during the French Popular Front and dedicated to the promotion of sport for the workers of l’Hexagone, as well as the strengthening of ties to the athletes of the Soviet Bloc. How many stories there are in our Tours . . .
The decisive stage was the fourth, finishing in Gournay-en-Bray, when Millie Robinson attacked alone, arriving thirteen seconds ahead of the peloton and taking the overall lead. The next day, as expected, she easily won the individual time trial at an average speed of 38 kmh and beating Thackeray by half a minute. Third-placed Gilberte Rocaboy was a minute in arrears.
The final classification illustrated the difference between athletes who had trained and prepared and adventurers who wanted a new experience but lacked the strength and technique to take on a race of this kind. The British riders easily dominated the race, leaving the rider finishing tenth, Simone Demory, seven minutes behind them. By 32nd place the difference was over an hour. The female lanterne rouge, Marguerite Laval, lost two hours and forty-seven minutes over the 373 km of the race.
But none of that mattered very much. The women’s Tour de France had been a success, followed closely by press and public alike. There was no doubt it was a contest that was here to stay, which would define the future of women’s racing, to become a benchmark, just like the men’s event. The dream of every little girl who one day starts pedalling a bike and closes her eyes, letting her imagination run free . . .
It would be thirty more years before the race was held again.
A misunderstood race – even by its own creator
The women’s Tour had certainly been a success, but perhaps not for the right reasons, and this may be why it ‘rested’ for three decades. The overwhelming majority of the public came to see the race as a curiosity and not the sporting contest it was. Shouts of encouragement were reserved for the men in July, while Robinson, Thackeray and the others were received with whistles, compliments and macho comments about their physical appearance or average speed. Not a few came to the roadside simply to see women wearing clothes of what, for the times, was rather an extreme cut.
Not even the creator of the race, Jean Leulliot, seemed to take it very seriously. Yes, in his writings he spoke of the courage of these girls, their endurance, the wonderful enthusiasm they showed every time they went out for a spin. But he focused mainly on the defects, in his eyes. They don’t know how to ride as a team, they don’t know how to set up a bicycle to fit them, they can’t make sudden changes of pace, there are hardly any attacks. “I will never organise this race again,” he went on, “because women are different from men. They talk too much in the peloton and that is not normal. In addition, once the racing is over, they do not rest as they should but fatigue their legs by going shopping.” There, you see – the enemy at home.
It was a common evil. Some journalists openly mocked the riders, calling them useless or fairground attractions. “They’re from Europe 1 , they have no respect,” said Leulliot, sensitive to the criticism of others but with gunpowder in his own.
Photographers always tried to get pictures that were more about fashion or beauty than the sporting event. There were even rumours that reporters had broken into the rooms of the riders in an attempt to get more ‘intimate’ pictures. No less a publication than L’Équipe, factotum of the Tour de France, would write a couple of years later that women “should settle for cyclo-tourism, more appropriate to their muscular abilities,” and that denying them the opportunity to race meant that “common sense has triumphed.”
One thing that was certainly true was that women were ever-present at the Tour de France – but always, it seemed, far from the sporting action. No, their place was to admire, to encourage and to kiss and pamper the race winner. Women adorned the roads and cities of France but their contribution never went beyond the aesthetic. What is more, the idea of a woman riding a bike was taken as a joke by the mainstream media, which quickly came to represent such a figure with a boyish appearance, insinuating in undisguised fashion that such an activity was unfeminine and associated with girls of ‘controversial sexuality’.
Quite apart from these issues, women’s cycling in France was simply insufficiently developed to support an event comparable to the Tour. It must be remembered that there were hardly any other races that might have served to help the riders prepare, that female teams were non-existent, and that it was extremely rare for a racing licence to be issued to a woman (in 1960 there were only 34 in the entire country). Thus, without financial support, with more ridicule than sincere admiration and with the opposition of the majority of ‘right-thinking’ French society, the ideal of a Tour de France féminin became nothing but a dream – and one which, for many people, should forever remain as such.
When, three decades later, Felix Lévitan suggested creating a Tour de France for women (always without reference to the pioneering efforts of Leulliot), the terms had changed – but not by much. Levitán argued that “my wife and I” thought that women did not occupy the place in society that they deserved. The reference to his wife is, to say the very least, suspicious. Not only that, but the idea was regarded by some as scandalous. The sports editor of Méridional, one M. Vivaldi, regarded women’s bicycle races as posing insuperable aesthetic problems: a woman who runs might be a handsome sight, but one who pedals is less attractive. “With this image, the feminine ideal is consigned to Hell.”
That was in 1984. You can draw your own conclusions.
This feature first appeared in Conquista 23.