Great Cyclists of the Tour de France: Lucien Petit-Breton

Great Cyclists of the Tour de France: Lucien Petit-Breton

Lucien Petit-Breton was not only one of the first dominant riders in the history of the Tour de France, but also a great symbol of the eccentric and sometimes tragic time that he lived. A two time champion of the Tour de France, Petit-Breton may have won more Tours had he not joined the French Army and died in World War I.

Lucien Petit-Breton was actually born Lucien Georges Mazan in 1882. He was born in France and lived there until age six, but took on Argentinian nationality when he moved with his parents to Buenos Aires. He would later adopt the new identity of Lucien Petit-Breton because he wanted to take up cycling, but his father wanted him to do something else instead. He couldn’t simply be Lucien Breton, because there was already one who was also a cyclist.

Petit-Breton may not have ever gotten into cycling if he hadn’t won his first bicycle in a lottery. He would use the free bicycle to help him get started, and as a young cyclist had some success in Argentina. He was the track cycling champion there, although he would end up moving back to France after being drafted by the French Army.

In 1904, he continued his track cycling success before breaking the world hour record in Paris, cycling over 41 kilometers. This was in 1905, around the time when Petit-Breton began participating in road races, rather than just in track cycling events. 1905 was also Petit-Breton’s first time participating in the Tour de France. The race was a quirky one, with changes being made to try to limit the rampant cheating and tampering from previous races, and many riders having their tires punctured early on when spectators spread nails along the road. Petit-Breton finished fifth among the chaos.

Petit-Breton improved his finish the next year, finishing fourth in another zany race. More tires were punctured by spectator antics, and some riders even attempted to ride the train to get an edge on their competitors (they were disqualified).

Finally, in the 1907 Tour de France, Petit-Breton reached the level he had aspired to get to, winning the prestigious race. Without the previous year’s winner in the field, Petit-Breton was able to stay near the front and take advantage when Émile Georget was caught borrowing a bicycle and received a penalty. Petit-Breton won two of the later stages and held off Gustave Garrigou to win the race.

The next year, Petit-Breton repeated the feat by winning 5 stages (out of a possible 14), and proved those who considered him to be the race favorite right by easily besting the field. In doing so, Petit-Breton became the first cyclist to win the Tour de France two years in a row.

Unfortunately, Petit-Breton would only compete in the Tour de France once more, in 1911. The race itself was one of the most brutal in Tour de France history, and Petit-Breton was one of many to drop out early on in the proceedings.

Petit-Breton’s cycling career came to an end with the onset of World War I. He would tragically die in 1917, bringing his life to an early end as well. However, Petit-Breton would live on in cycling history as the first of the Tour de France’s truly great champions.