Of Mule Tracks Atop Mountains

Photo: Antton Miettinen

Photo: Antton Miettinen

Editor's note: What is it about those rock laden paths cut into mountainsides, ascending toward peaks yet seen? This is the first piece in a mini-series from cycling historian and writer Max Leonard that explores this question, a start to our Fall series. Perhaps, we must ask, if gravel is simply in road cycling's DNA.  It's natural to lean toward adventure. It's natural to lean toward something that's not certain. Road racing as we know it doesn't exist without gravel roads. And chasing these ghosts became an inspiration for Max's own riding. But, first we have to look back at the the ghosts of gravel riders past: the early racers of Le Tour de France riding before much of Europe was even paved.  

With that, Max Leonard (photos from Anttonn Miettinen

At 3pm on July 1, 1903, 60 men set off from the Au Reveil Matin cafe in Montgéron south of Paris, for the first stage of the first ever Tour de France. 

It would take them to France’s second city, Lyon, and was 467 kilometres (290 miles) long. Given that Tarmac was not patented until 1901 (and by an Englishman), it is a fair surmise that not one of those kilometres was what we would now recognize as paved. In the first four hours, 20 men got off their bikes and abandoned. The organizers thought that the rest might arrive late in the afternoon the next day, but the lead man beat the reporter to the finish line, arriving at 9:01am. 

Photo: Antton Miettinen

Photo: Antton Miettinen

A few years later, when the Tour went into the mountains, it got even worse. In 1910, just five weeks before the Tour’s first visit to the Pyrenees, not one of the 'roads' through the high mountains that year were part of the national road network. They were barely more than mule tracks, and the now-legendary Col d’Aubisque was considered impassable by cars: it was a logging track with deep ruts scored by oxen dragging timber.  

Racing in those days must have been something. When he was interviewed in 1948 about his experiences racing at the turn of the 20th century, Arsène Millochau, the Tour’s first Lanterne Rouge, said: "Just think: my bike weighed 33 kilos. I had provided for all eventualities and had armed myself with several spare parts."

Arsene Millochea riding Paris-Brest-Paris, age 54 (in 1921)

Arsene Millochea riding Paris-Brest-Paris, age 54 (in 1921)

When asked what he thought of contemporary racers, he was dismissive: "Today’s Tour?" he said. "A walk in the park." And this was 1948! 

Gravel in Europe

For a long time it seemed to me that in the UK or in Europe, we didn’t ‘get’ what has become known in the States as gravel riding. Maybe because we don’t, really, have any gravel as such.  In Tuscany there are the strade bianche made famous by L’Eroica, forest tracks in Germany, greenways in the UK. Pists, paths and bridleways, dirt everywhere, and when it’s wet lots and lots of mud. But gravel roads as they seem to be in the US, not so much. We don’t have enough of the same wide open spaces, perhaps, the wilderness or the pioneer spirit, or something. 

Photo: Antton Miettinen

Photo: Antton Miettinen

But a couple of years ago, for me at least, the idea came alive. It started with an attempt at the Col du Parpaillon, an infamous unpaved pass with a tunnel at the top, which is a holy grail for French randonneurs. That time, we got driven back by snow, but it opened up a new arena of discoveries – tracks that cross the valleys and ranges that feel like they haven’t changed for a hundred years. Old military roads along the French border in Italy, with forts dotted on every ridge, or the old road to the famous Col du Galibier, shorter and steeper than the current one, which is disappearing into the landscape. At Parpaillon I made the connection between exploring off the Tarmac and the history of riding and racing in the Alps. 

Ironically, it was the Tour de France that promoted tourism and led to the development of the paved mountain passes we know and love. But take a modern ‘gravel’ bike and explore a little, and the roads of the past open up to you, and you feel like you could pass the ghosts of racers past around every corner.

Max Leonard is a prolific writer with a passion for cycling and its history. He has authored many books including Bunker Research, Lanterne Rouge: The Last Man in the Tour de France, and Rapha's City Cycling Guides. Besides ghostwriting other major bestsellers, Max has also written for Esquire, The Telegraph, Roleur, and Conde Nast. We here at Stinner are honored to have him riding a Stinner through the mountains of Europe, exploring the roads of history. Stay tuned for writings about his bike packing trip through the Alps, exploring the bunkers of a more dangerous time. 

Photo: Antton Miettinen

Photo: Antton Miettinen