[Londres wrote this piece during the 1924 Tour de France. He details the abandonment of the Pelissier brothers, who quit the Tour when organizer DesGranges pursued a vendetta against them. Henri Pelissier had been disqualified in prior stages and years for violating the Tour rules that riders had to finish with everything they started with – he had jettisoned a shirt on one occasion, and on another occasion had left a flat tire by the side of the road after replacing it. (This explains why old pictures of TdF riders *always* show riders with a tire wrapped over their shoulders). Londres piece became famous for the short interview at the end, and for the term, “Prisoners of the Road,” which Londres, a famous prison reform journalist, coined in this essay. The riders reminded him of a chain gang working on the highway, hence the term. Please pardon my sketchy translation of this amazingly interesting essay.]
Prisoners of the Road:
The Abandonment of the Pélissier Brothers
The brothers Pélissier and their comrade Ville give up
Beeckman gains the third stage
Coutances, France, June 27, 1924.
This morning, we went ahead of the peloton.
We were in Granville and the bells rang six hours. Runners suddenly reveled. At once the crowd, sure of its business, shouted:
Henri and Francis, however, were not in the lead group. We waited. The two categories passed, the rear brought up by the dark ones, the last ones. The “dark ones” are the bus drivers of bicycle racing, courageous small urchins, not from the rich house of bicycles with its fat belly; they ride with heart instead.
Neither Henri nor Francis appeared.
The news came: Pélissier gave up. We got into the Renault and, without showing any mercy on the tires, went up to Cherbourg. The Pélissier brothers are well worth a set of tires…
We arrive in Coutances. A company of kids discusses this twist of fate.
“Did you see Pélissier?”
“Even as I touched them,” answers a snot-nosed kid.
“You know where they are?”
“In the café in the Station. Everyone is there.”
Everyone was there! It was necessary to elbow one’s way into the “bar”. This crowd was quiet. Nobody said anything, but all were still, facing the end of the room. Three jerseys were visible in front of three bowls of chocolates. It was Henri [Pelissier], Francis [Pellisier], and the third is Ville, who finished second in Le Havre and Cherbourg.
“A head cold?”
“No,” said Henri. “I am not a dog, that’s all.”
“It was a question of boots rather than a question of shirts! This morning, in Cherbourg, a police chief approaches me and, without anything to say to me, raises my shirt. He made sure that I did not have two shirts. What would you say, if I raised your jacket to see whether you have a white shirt? I do not like these manners.”
“What could have made him think that you have two shirts?”
“I could have fifteen of them, but I do not have the right to leave with two and to arrive with one.”
“It is the rules. Apparently, one should not only ride like a hobo, but also freeze and sweat like one too. That appears to be part of this sport. When I went to find Desgrange, I asked, ‘Can I not throw away my shirt on the road?’ ‘No,’ he said. ‘You cannot throw away houseclothes.’ I told him, ‘It is not houseclothes, it’s my clothing’ and told him that I refused to discuss it further with him in the street. He said that if I didn’t want to talk about it in the street, he was going to go to get some sleep. So I arranged to take off the shirt and pass it in Brest, hand to hand. I would pass it along… and I did pass it along.”
“And your brother?”
“Francis is a true brother, is he not? “
And they are embraced over their chocolate.
Francis made room for me. I joined the group and said: “Come, Francis! Let’s sit and talk.” He said,
“When I fell, it was like fresh butter on a slice of bread, because I hadn’t felt well this morning with a bad stomach, but I was relaxed.”
“And you, City?”
“Me?”, Ville, the rider known as "City" answers, laughing like a good baby, "they found me in distress on the road. I have ‘the knees of the dead’.”
The Pélissier brothers do not have a problem with the legs. They have heads, and in their heads, passed judgment.
Henri said, “You do not have idea of what the Tour de France is like. It is martyrdom. And even the Way of the Cross had only fourteen stations, while we have fifteen stages. We suffer from start to finish. Do you want to see how we walk? Here. Hold this.”
He held out a bag with flasks in it.
“That, it is cocaine for the eyes, that it is chloroform for the gums…”
Emptying his sack, City said “that is pomade, meant to heat my knees. And the pills? Do you want to see the pills? Here. Hold the pills.”
Each one handed me three boxes of pills.
Francis said, “In short, we walk with dynamite.”
Henri began again:
“You did not see us before we bathed upon arrival. When we scrape the mud off, we are white like shrouds, the diarrhea drains us, we shed tears. In the evening, in bed in our rooms, we dance a jig like Saint Guy, instead of sleeping. Look at our laces, they are made of leather. Eh, well. They never hold, they always break, and it is tanned leather that bleeds when wet. Think of what that does to our skin? When we are thrown from the machine, the shock passes through our socks, through our breaches, and nothing protects our bodies.
Francis then said, “the meat falls off our skeletons.”
Henri added, “and as for my nails, I lost six out of ten. They die gradually in each stage.” “But they grow back for the next year,” said Francis.
And, again, the two brothers embraced over the chocolates.
Henri then discoursed.
“Eh well! all that - and you haven’t seen anything yet. Wait for the Pyrenees, it is like ploughing; you couldn’t make a mule do what we do. We are not lazy, but by God, we are annoyed. We accept the torment, but we do not want unnecessary vexations! I am called Pélissier and not Azor!. I ride with a newspaper covering my belly. If I left with it [in the cold] it is necessary that I arrive with [at the end of the stage]. If I throw it, I’m penalized. When we burst with thirst, before filling our can with water from a stream, we must make sure that it is not pumped by somebody else 50 meters up the road before we tighten the lid on our water can. Otherwise: penalty. For drinking, it is necessary to pump one’s own water! One day will come where somebody will mandate lead in our pockets, based on a finding that God made man too light. If the sport continues sliding down this slope, soon there will only be hobos and more artists. This sport is becoming insane at a furious pace.”
“Yes,” said Ville. “Insane, furious!”
A kid approached:
“What do you want, my boy,” asked Henri.
“Mr Pélissier, since you do not want to go any longer, who will win now?”
More on the TdF in that era here.