Over the course of three weeks, a group of men - most of whom are there only to support their star rider - cover over 2000 miles of France and neighbouring countries (1926 was 3570 miles), from cobblestones to the mountains which have killed several of their predecessors, including Tom Simpson who died on the insane Mont Ventoux in 1967, exhausted and suffering from the effects of amphetamine use, which was state of the art doping for the time and was the only way for a working-class cyclist to win enough to keep his family. His last words: 'Put me back on my bike'
The overall winner is only one of several bitter contests - time trials, points winners, King of the Mountains and even the Lanterne Rouge (last place) are cause for jockeying. They fight, cheat, try to break each other, yet there's also a strong code of honour (which the current Yellow Jersey, Alberto Contador, broke a few days ago when he took advantage of Andy Schleck's broken chain to steal a stage. In the early days, riders would cheat (sometimes taking the train or getting a lift), while fans would beat up their favourites' rivals.
Today's a Col de Tourmalet mountain stage. There are several mountain stages, all graded except for Tourmalet and a select few which are considered so extreme that they're unclassifiable (hors catégorie). Basically, a car struggles to get up them, yet 140 cyclists manage it. Tourmalet's so high that the ski station is only two thirds of the way up - and the Tour is visiting it twice this year.
Discovering an unmade road rendered impassable by snow, Steinès dismissed his driver and continued on foot. He got lost, fell down a ravine and had to be rescued, but the following morning, in a gendarmerie in the hamlet of Barèges on the way down from the 2,115m summit, he cabled his boss: "Tourmalet crossed stop very good road stop perfectly practicable stop Steines."
As Lapize crossed the summit of the next pass, the Col d'Aubisque, he hurled a famous imprecation at the commissaires. "You are all assassins," he shouted with what remained of his strength. "No human being should be put through an ordeal like this. That's enough for me." Nevertheless he carried on, thereby establishing a precedent for an ineluctable combination of cyclists, mountains and suffering.
Some riders, a select few, have made light of the Tourmalet's challenge. The great Spanish climber Federico Bahamontes, forever known as the Eagle of Toledo, led over the summit on four occasions, and in 1954 he even stopped for an ice cream to let the others catch up and accompany him on the descent, a skill at which he was less adept.