Great Cyclists of the Tour de France: Philippe Thys
Philippe Thys, one of the better Belgian cyclists of all time, is one of the most prolific champions in Tour de France history, with three yellow jerseys to his credit. In fact, Thys is credited by some as being the first rider to wear a yellow jersey, though he wasn’t presented it in an official capacity. Thys was one of the most talented young riders in the history of cycling.
On October 8, 1890, Philippe Thys was born. A talented cyclist already at twenty years old, he was winning competitions in Belgium before winning his first Tour de France three years later, in 1913. Thys won only one stage, Stage 6, but was the leader from Stage 9 through the end of the race as he bested perennial runner-up Gustave Garrigou.
Thys’ win in 1913 would also contain a story that really summed up the era in which he raced. He was the unfortunate recipient of a broken fork on his bicycle, so he got the owner of a bicycle shop to repair it for him. However, the fix also got him a penalty of thirty minutes. Of course, Thys was still able to win, with a finishing lead of around two minutes.
Also, many cycling enthusiasts trace the history of the yellow jersey back to Philippe Thys and the 1913 Tour de France. Thys claimed that he was asked by race officials to don a yellow jersey during the race by organizer Henri Desgrange. Originally, Thys said he declined, as the jersey would be akin to having a target on his back. After Desgrange explained that it was part of a promotion for his newspaper, Thys reportedly relented.
In the 1914 Tour de France, Philippe Thys picked up right where he left off. He won the first stage from Paris to Le Havre, on the same day that Franz Ferdinand was assassinated to mark the beginning of World War I.
Later on, just a week after Thys put the finishing touches on his second straight Tour de France victory, Germany declared war on France. As a result, Thys would not get a chance to win a third straight title. For the next five years, there was no Tour de France, and Thys unfortunately lost a great portion of the prime of his career during that time.
Finally, seven years after his second Tour de France win, Philippe Thys returned to the race with a dominating win in 1920. Thys finished an astonishing 57 minutes and 21 seconds ahead of the second place Hector Heusghem, winning an impressive four stages (out of a possible 15) in the process.
In Thys’ final Tour de France appearance, in 1924, Thys won two stages but did not contend for the overall title. His cycling career would essentially end at that point. Thys lived on to be 80 years old before passing away.
Thys was always known as being an intelligent rider with a great work ethic. As one of the more dominant riders in the early days of the Tour de France, Thys will always occupy a special place in the history of competitive cycling. Fans still marvel at what he accomplished, and wonder even more about what he could have accomplished, had he not missed out on competing during much of the prime of his career.