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It started off as a publicity stunt, something so difficult no one was sure if it was possible to finish. The Tour’s first organizer hoped only one person would finish — one finisher, one winner.
Stages started before dawn and ran nearly 300 miles. Riders stopped in cafés to eat and had to fix their own bikes along the way. In 1913, rider Eugène Christophe welded his own fork back together mid race, filled his pockets with bread, and set off again into the mountains only to be disqualified later for having received assistance from the blacksmith’s son.
The Tour is leaner and faster now, an entirely different kind of race. Team buses and chefs, chartered planes… even teammates are a luxury compared to the old days.
EF Education-NIPPO rider Lachlan Morton is preparing to go back in time.
He’s in search of the Tour of old. The long days and the adventure of the unknown. In keeping with the pioneering spirit that has seen him take on ultra-distance events and Everesting records, he will race the peloton around France this summer, camping by the side of the road, stopping in cafés for food, and carrying his own gear. There are no team cars with water bottles, no planes to help him inch closer to Paris, no mechanics.
His goal? To ride every stage of this year’s Tour — plus the transfers, or distances to stage starts from the previous days’ finishes — and make it to Paris before his teammates race onto the Champs-Élysées.
“I just think that era of cycling was really exciting,” Lachlan says. “At that time, the Tour director basically wanted one finisher, so it was a totally different sport compared to what it is now. The scope and scale of the stages then were really inspiring.”
To make every kilometer he covers count, EF Education First and Rapha are each donating 500 bikes to World Bicycle Relief, a non-profit organization that delivers locally assembled, rugged bicycles to people in need. If you are inspired by Lachlan’s journey, you can donate as well and help provide more young people with the bikes they need to access education.
The standard Tour will cover 3,383 kilometers. The Alt Tour runs 5,510. The standard Tour asks riders to climb 42,200 meters. The Alt Tour demands a staggering 65,500. It’s a formidable undertaking no doubt, but one in keeping with the ethos of the very first Tour in 1903.
When newspaper writers Henri Desgrange and Géo Lefèvre came up with the idea for the original Tour, no one knew if people were capable of such a feat of endurance. A few long-distance one-day races had been established, but a three-week stage race around the circumference of France? That was a venture of reckless imagination.
That the riders would have to race alone, without the assistance of teams only added to the uncertainty. For the racers, it would be a great trial. There were a few great champions on the start list, but most of the riders were everyday athletes—blacksmiths, chimney sweeps, sons of aristocrats—motivated by the race’s adventurous ethos and the prospect of prize money.
For most of them, it would be the first time that they would see much of France. Train tickets were expensive; automobiles were rare, luxurious machines; and bicycles had only just become affordable for the average Frenchman. For a Breton, Provence was almost a foreign country—a faraway place with unfamiliar customs, where most people spoke a different language. The same could be said of relations between most of France’s regions. Over six massive stages, interspersed with rest days, the riders would travel around the entire French Hexagone, exploring their country and the limits of human fortitude.
Once the racing got under way, enormous crowds gathered in every town and village along the route to see the modern-day heroes. All around la France profonde people were amazed that riders could survive such a journey.
“It seemed like it was a group of people who were willing to put themselves out there and really take on distances and terrain that nowadays seem crazy,” Morton said. “And they were doing it in a way where they were largely self-supported, and just kind of surviving on what they found of course and what they could get between stages.”
Lachlan spent a season living outside of Toulouse with the Chipotle development team and has raced a fair bit in France. Just this past month, he raced Tro-Bro Léon, the Mercan’Tour Classic, the Dauphine, Mont Ventoux Challenge, and La Route d’ Occitanie. And yet, he’s seen very little; professional cycling doesn’t allow its competitors much chance to get to know the places where they race.
“It’s now a really high-performance sport,” Lachlan says, “so we’re trying to control everything that could go wrong, eliminating the excitement largely. It’s basically four to five hours that you are in a stage, which are incredibly difficult, but everything outside that is controlled, and you exist in a hotel that is basically the same as the one that you were in before and your routine is the same; you get your legs rubbed, you have a chef cooking you dinner, and there’s limited interaction with the outside world except the hours that you are in the stage.”
The Alt Tour is Lachlan’s chance to truly explore France, to experience its geography and see its citizens. It will be a journey into the unknown.
“I am going to see it all and have an unobstructed view,” he says. “I think the combination of trying to sleep outside and spending all day on the bike is going to give me a much better feeling for the country and the people and the landscapes. I don’t really think I have a relationship with France yet.”
But as he makes his way through its valleys alone, over its peaks with the cheers of those along the road or riding near him for a moment, and sleeps under its stars, it’s certain he’ll leave France with a new perspective and a new appreciation for the world’s great race.