Today’s historic photo of the day: during the penultimate (14th) stage of the 1921 Tour de France, Léon Scieur, the Belgian rider of La Sportive team carries his own wheel to the finish line. Scieur won the 1921 Tour de France when he was 33-year-old, along with stages 3 and 10.
15th edition of the Tour de France took place June 26 to July 24, 1921 with 138 starters. The total distance was 5484 km. The Belgians dominated the entire race, partly due to the absence of the French Pélissier brothers: the French cyclists Henri and Francis Pélissier had left the 1920 Tour de France after Henri received a penalty from the Tour organisation for throwing away a tire, and they were still fighting. Therefore, the Pélissier brothers did not join the 1921 Tour de France.
The first stage was won by the Belgian Louis Mottiat, nicknamed ‘the iron man’.French rider Romain Bellenger won the second stage but Scieur took the yellow jersey and wore it till the end.
With the Yellow Jersey on his back, Scieur became a determined, driven racer, defending his lead with tenacity and toughness. The press nicknamed him “The Locomotive” as he extended his lead over the others. By the time the Tour reached the Pyrenees before stage 6, Scieur’s lead over fellow Belgian Hector Heusghem was in excess of 29 minutes.
Stage 10, the day leading to the Alpine stage, went from Nice to Grenoble. It was tough going with the 2,247-meter Allos and the 1,248-meter Bayard in the way. Scieur punctured on the Allos climb. Heusghem attacked when Scieur punctured on the col d’Allos, which climbs to 2,240m. Scieur was so angry at the breach of etiquette that riders weren’t attacked when they had mechanical trouble that he set off after Heusghem, lectured him on politeness and tradition, raced off angrily alone and won the stage to Grenoble. The feud that developed between them brought still more reporters from Belgium – this was the first year that foreign reporters could follow the race by car – and made life hard work for everyone. The organizer, Henri Desgrange, wrote a column in L’Auto criticising riders for being too scared of Scieur to challenge him.
Desgrange wasn’t slow to criticise or discipline riders who he thought weren’t riding hard enough. The 12th stage was 371 km from Geneva to Strasbourg. Scieur was leading the race with Heusghem and a French rider, Honoré Barthélemy. Two Belgians, Firmin Lambot and Louis Mottiat, stayed in the main group rather than chase and spoil Scieur’s chances. All five riders were in the same team and were using tactics that today would be considered normal. Desgrange, however, believed riders should compete as individuals and not in teams and he banished Lambot and Mottiat to last place.
The Tour became duller after Heusghem and Scieur settled into a sullen truce but it wasn’t without incident. Scieur broke 11 spokes on the last but one stage, from Metz to Dunkirk and again fell foul of Desgrange’s rules. He managed to get a replacement wheel but new rules for that year’s Tour said he didn’t have the right to use it unless he could show Desgrange’s judges that the original was beyond use. No judge saw the incident and so Scieur carried the broken wheel on his back for 300 km to the finish. The incident left him with a large scar that he proudly show off whenever asked to.
Scieur would start the Tour three more times, but would never win a stage again and never complete the race. During the 1923 Tour de France, in his eighth and final participation, he left the tour at the seventh stage, after being the victim of an attempted arsenic poisoning: in the Pyrenees, a seemingly benevolent fan, who was probably peeved by Belgian domination of the Tour, handed him a cup of coffee. There was some arsenic in the coffee, he abandoned the race and spent eight days in a French hospital. He never fully recovered and retired from racing a year later. He run a garage in Florennes (a Walloon municipality located in Belgium in the province of Namur), and continued to ride his bike into his seventies.