Today in Transportation History – 1879: Birth of a Tour de France Legend

René Pottier, who became a formidable racing cyclist during the early 20th century, was born in the commune of Moret-sur-Loing (now part of the commune Moret-Loing-er-Orvanne) in northern France. Pottier took part in the April 1905 edition of the Paris-Roubaix, a one-day cycle race of about 167 miles, and came in second. He placed second again the following month in the Bordeaux-Paris, which covered approximately 350 miles.

About two months later, Pottier was one of 60 riders competing in the Tour de France. The 1905 edition of this multiple-stage race covered 1,860 miles; in addition, it was the first of the Tours to include mountains as part of the cycling route. This new feature of the Tour de France played to one of Pottier’s strengths, namely cycling uphill. The first major climb of the race was Col du Ballon d’Alsace near France’s northeastern border, and Pottier pedaled his way into cycling history by being the first of that year’s riders to reach the top of this mountain pass.

Despite this record-setting accomplishment, Pottier was not able to maintain his momentum and win that year’s Tour de France. First, he lost his lead after nails punctured one of his tires. While he obtained a spare tire in order to continue to participate in the competition, Pottier subsequently fell off his bicycle and had to abandon the race altogether due to the injuries he incurred.

Pottier fared considerably better in the Tour de France that took place the following year. As one of 76 cyclists competing in the 1906 Tour de France (covering 2,881 miles), Pottier again became the first person to make his way up Col du Ballon d’Alsace. This time, however, Pottier avoided any significant mishaps en route and stayed ahead of the other riders. He became that year’s winner of the Tour de France, completing the race in 189 hours and 34 minutes. That September, Pottier earned another victory when he finished first in the Bol d’Or 24-hour cycle race at the Vélodrome Buffalo track in Paris.

Pottier died early the following year at the age of 27. Soon thereafter, Tour de France organizer Henri Desgrange had a monument to Pottier erected on the summit of Col du Ballon d’Alsace to commemorate his history-making achievement there during the 1905 Tour de France.

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