Christopher Warner on sporting figures in conflict
On 28 June 1914, the 12th annual Tour de France began in Paris with the blast of a starter’s pistol. The same day, another gun killed Archduke Franz Ferdinand in Sarajevo, setting in motion World War I.
The Tour that fateful year featured two of the sport’s biggest stars, François Faber and Octave Lapize, whose contrasting specialisms had fuelled an ongoing rivalry, pitting the climber (Lapize) against the sprinter (Faber) in cycling’s premier event. It would be their last race.
Louis Octave Lapize was born partially deaf on 24 October 1887 in the Parisian suburb of Montrouge. Nicknamed Frise (‘Curly’) for his wavy mop, he left school at the age of 14 to work with his father at a local brewery. But the boy daydreamed of loftier pursuits in the popular sport of cycling.
After showing early promise in regional competitions on both the road and track, Lapize qualified to compete for France at the 1908 Olympic Games in London.
Despite his disability and diminutive size, the 1.6m-tall rider won a bronze medal in the 100km track race.
Turning professional shortly after with the Biguet-Dunlop team, the Frenchman continued his progression in 1909 by winning the prestigious Paris–Roubaix – a one-day race held in April known as ‘The Hell of the North’.
Having defeated a strong field of seasoned pros that included Faber, Lapize was poised to tackle his first Tour de France.
At first glance, François Faber appeared better suited to the rugby pitch than the saddle of a bicycle. The 1.82m-tall, 92kg Luxembourger developed his muscular frame while labouring as a furniture mover and working on the docks.
However, he learnt to transfer his strength into a power-based style of racing that earned him the nickname ‘The Giant of Colombes’.
Faber’s crowning achievement happened during the 1909 Tour de France, at which he competed for the team Alcyon.
Battling earth, wind, and fire, he came second in the first stage, then took the next five stages in a row – a record that still stands.
By the halfway point, 50 riders, including Lapize, had dropped out. But not Faber. Blown off his mount twice and even hitting a horse, he was begged to slow down by the Tour sponsor, L’Auto (a sports newspaper), to create more excitement.
But it was too late. The overall race went to the Giant of Colombes, becoming the first non-Frenchman to capture the title.
The following year, Henri Desgrange, the Tour’s organiser and editor of L’Auto, sought to sell more newspapers by generating additional public interest.
He dispatched a reporter, Alphonse Steinès, to determine whether a race could take place on the steep roads in the snow-capped Pyrenees. But the ill-equipped ink slinger got lost and nearly froze to death.
The story does not end there. In the spirit of P.T. Barnum and William Randolph Hearst, the area was declared ‘perfectly passable’, and two new mountain stages and several major climbs resulted.
For Lapize, now competing for Faber’s Alcyon, his best chance of beating his new teammate required attacking in the Pyrenees – a brutal trek that journalists were now calling the ‘circle of death’.
As expected, Faber bolted out to an early lead. But another collision with an animal (this time a dog) allowed Lapize to narrow the gap.
As the competition headed into the mountains, the towering 2,115m Col du Tourmalet loomed, the highest peak of the course.
Lapize arrived at the summit first, despite briefly dismounting while negotiating the sharp gradient. He had distanced the peloton, but suddenly a local cyclist named François Lafourcade zoomed past to take the lead from him.
Meanwhile, the far more famous François struggled to keep pace, creating a dramatic turn of events.
Race officials stationed atop the next climb, Col d’Aubisque, were perplexed to see the unheralded Lafourcade in front, with no Alcyon riders in sight. Naturally, they feared the worst.
Rumours of wild-bear attacks did not help matters. Finally, after 15 minutes, a muddied and bloodied Lapize stumbled to the crest and angrily spat one word: ‘Assassins!’
The curly-haired grimpeur quickly channelled his rage back to racing, eventually catching Lafourcade to win the stage. Days later, he finally overtook Faber on Stage 13.
The pride of Luxembourg still had a chance at victory, but a series of punctures sealed Faber’s fate. The champagne belonged, instead, to the Frenchman.
Faber and Lapize continued to battle in top-level events leading up to the fateful 1914 season. That year both men won stages at the Tour, but neither were on the podium, with Belgian Philippe Thys defending his title.
It is worth noting that these athletes competed in an era without helmets, gears, or reliable brakes. They succeeded on guts and adrenaline alone – not even a drug-fuelled Lance Armstrong could match their achievements.
Three weeks after wheeling down the Champs-Élysées, Faber joined the French Foreign Legion. Serving with the 2 Marching Regiment of the 1 Foreign Regiment, his baptism of fire was at the Battle of the Marne.
The regiment then joined the Moroccan Division, part of French General Philippe Pétain’s 33 Corps, as the Allies engaged German forces at the Second Battle of Artois on 9 May 1915.
Faber and fellow legionnaires spearheaded a successful assault on the German-held trenches of Ouvrages Blancs (‘White Works’), near Vimy Ridge. Gains from the attack, however, would be short-lived, as reserves stayed too far back to capitalise on the breakthrough.
In the ensuing chaos, French artillery started shelling its newly gained positions. The Germans capitalised on the confusion and launched a counterattack, resulting in the kind of slaughter that typified trench warfare in the Pas-de-Calais.
Having recently received a telegram informing him that his wife had given birth to their first child, Faber was shot and killed. His body remained forever entombed in no-man’s land, along with more than half of his regiment.
For his actions, Corporal François Faber received a posthumous Médaille Militaire and Croix de Guerre.
Yearning for glory
Like his former rival, Lapize wasted little time in contributing to the war effort. He initially enlisted in the automobile division of the Army Service Corps, serving as a personal driver for General Foch.
Yearning for action on the Western Front, he transferred to the Aeronautique Militaire and trained to become an aerial gunner and then a pilot.
His first taste of flight, however, had occurred years previously, during the 1910 Tour de France, accompanying French aviation pioneer Léon Morane for a brief spin in a new Blériot aeroplane.
By spring 1917, Sergeant Lapize was serving with N90 escadrille at an airbase near Toul. The squadron sported a singing cockerel on their Nieuport XXIII biplanes. Lapize customised his with a large number four – the bib number he had worn in his triumphant Tour win.
It brought him little luck. He downed his first plane on 28 June 1917, but it was not credited as an official kill because the German aircraft drifted too far back into enemy territory.
Lapize would soon get another opportunity, near Flirey, Meurtheet-Moselle, but crashed 8km from the front-line after a fierce dogfight. Medics rushed his severely injured body to a military hospital in Toul, but to no avail. He died there on Bastille Day 1917.
Today, a statue sits atop the Col du Tourmalet, commemorating Lapize’s legendary climb. The enormous metal sculpture is a fitting tribute to a man who soared not only in the air but also on terra firma.
This article was published in the April 2020 issue of Military History Matters. To find out more about subscribing to the magazine, click here.