85 riders took to the start line on 18th April 1921 in the 16th edition of Paris-Tours. Freezing rain, strong gales, snow and blizzards were order of the day - note that the race is now run in October and conditions such as these were equally unlikely in April, if not more so - but that's the French weather for you. After 1919 the route of Paris-Tours was lengthened to include the hilly run in on the south bank of the Loire to the finish at Tours. Most one-day classics are still considered long in terms of distance and most are still over or around the 250km mark, but the 1921 Paris-Tours was a mind and leg numbing 342km's in length. Renowned for high speeds due to what was often a tail wind, a block head wind present on this date would make it one of the slowest in history. What I'm basically trying to convey to you, is that this was a hard, hard race.
Amongst the riders at the start was Frenchman Francis Pélissier, himself born in Paris he was the younger brother to Tour de France winning Henri Pelissier and older brother to Tour stage winner Charles Pelissier. Francis will be remember as three time French Road Race champion, winner of 2 Tour de France stages and winner of Paris-Roubaix, but more likely as the winner of the 1921 Paris-Tours and for his hard man exploits out on the road that day.
By the time the race had reach Chatres - not even the midway point - the weather had already started to take its toll and half of the peloton climbed from their bikes and abandoned. Francis Pelissier's older brother Henri, known as 'the Iron Man' for his ability to go the distance and withstand whatever conditions mother nature put in front of him, was also riding the race but by the time they got to Chateaudun he too was starting to feel weary. Legend has it the brothers stopped at a near by cafe and Henri passed his younger brother Francis his rain cape, which Francis wore over the top of his own for the remainder of the race. The exchange was said to have taken place over a 'glass of Martinique Rum' and whilst the brothers were taking shelter Eugene Christophe (another rider famed for enduring hard conditions) caught the leaders and then went clear as the brothers scrambled to get back on their bikes and back into the race. During the chase Francis Pelissier had to make three stops to repair his bike, but on each occasion managed to get back on and ride back up to the wheel of Christophe.
Eventually as the Pelton shrank and the leading group became smaller and smaller, Pelissier attacked from the front and managed to gain a couple of minutes on the chasers until he punctured and Christophe went clear once again. It's here where Pelissiers actions go down in history and his hard man tag is sealed - with frozen hands (and borderline frostbite) Pelissier was unable to use his hands to mend his tyre, so instead used his teeth to tear the tyre from its rim (I still struggle to get a tyre off without levers!) and re-mounted his bike, continuing the race riding on his bare rim. The race wad due to head upwards and at that moment Pelissier caught Eugene Christophe once again on the final climb of Azay-le-Rideu before dropping him out the back and riding solo to victory! 85 riders started. Only 8 crossed the finish line.
Remember this remarkable story on Sunday as you sit in the comfort of your front room watching the riders tackle a mere 230 kilometres of relatively flat, nicely laid tarmac. Whoever wins here will be a deserving winner in their own right, but as deserving as Francis Pelissier? Probably not.