It’s the day before the start of the 1954 Tour de France and Amsterdam is in party mode. The Tour circus is in town. Funfairs have sprung up all over the city and thousands of people are on the streets. Squares are full of market stalls and organ music. Cars displaying the exotic names of French newspapers, television and radio stations are on the roads. The city’s youth are crowded around the advertising trucks of large French companies.
In the words of the Dutch daily Het Vrije Volk, today Amsterdam has ‘a somewhat Latin atmosphere’. Tonight the shops and bars and cafes will do a roaring trade as they stay open until the small hours.
‘We haven’t seen Amsterdam like this since the coronation days of 1948,’ the newspaper will report. ‘Even at midnight it wasn’t possible to get a seat on the cafe terraces of Leidseplein, Rembrandtplein and Damrak.’
Outside of Amsterdam’s Olympic Stadium a large crowd has gathered. It is from here that tomorrow the Tour’s peloton will be sent on its way. Riders are arriving to complete the pre-race formalities and locals want to catch sight of cycling’s biggest stars off the bike. They line the road outside the stadium, five or six deep, waiting to see who they can glimpse.
First to arrive is Louison Bobet, the man who won the race last year and who will go on to win it again a little over three weeks from now. Then a sports car pulls up and out steps the Dutch rider Wout Wagtmans. Wagtmans is 24 years old and is a popular and talented rider – he already has two stage wins at both the Tour and the Giro to his name and has finished on the Paris-Roubaix and Liège-Bastogne-Liège podiums. Here he cuts a relaxed figure, with a large silk scarf tied around his neck and a cigar held between his smiling lips.
As the crowds watch, he presses the flesh before making his way into the stadium for his medical. Wagtmans doesn’t know it yet but tomorrow he will enjoy the finest day of his career to date.
Before it arrived in Amsterdam in 1954, the Tour had never before held a Grand Départ on foreign soil. Indeed, in the 40 editions held between its inaugural race in 1903 and 1953, it had only ever started outside of the Paris area on four occasions: Évian (1926), Metz (1951), Brest (1952) and Strasbourg (1953). With three-quarters of those in the preceding three years, the principle of starting the race outside of the nation’s capital city had at last been established. The next step was to broaden the race’s horizons further still.
It was the performance of the Netherlands’ team in the 1953 Tour that helped pave the way to Amsterdam. The race had been celebrating its 50th anniversary that year and the strong display of the ten-man Dutch squad (five stage wins and four riders in the top 20) had secured them the team prize and commemorative ‘Desgrange’ medals minted in celebration of the Tour founder.
The day after the 1953 race finished, the Dutch team was presented with bouquets and they posed for celebratory photographs at Amsterdam’s Olympic Stadium. Little did they know that less than 12 months later they would be rolling out for the start of the 1954 race from the very same venue.
The Tour had been crossing France’s borders mid-race into countries such as Germany, Switzerland and Belgium for many years but it had never ventured as far as the Netherlands – at a time when the norm was for stages to start where the preceding leg had finished, it was logistically too difficult to take the race too far away from France’s borders without spending multiple days beyond the host country’s boundaries. However, the strong showing of the Dutch team in 1953 led to louder calls for the race to visit the country.
The Dutch formed an organising committee of interested parties, and discussions started. The only way the organisers could make it work was if the race started in the Netherlands and made its way to France through Belgium over the opening couple of stages. The question was whether Amsterdam could pull together the finances, hotel beds and logistical support necessary for a Grand Départ.
On 30th November 1953 it was reported that an Amsterdam Grand Départ for 1954 had been secured in principle, provided the Dutch authorities endorsed the proposal and that the necessary funding – some 80,000 francs – could be secured. A mix of private and public money was found and in late December Amsterdam’s city council unanimously agreed to support the initiative.
There were still some hurdles to jump – the Dutch cycling federation stated as late as January 1954 that all talk of Amsterdam hosting the start was premature because they hadn’t been asked to issue the requisite licence for the event – but ultimately the contracts would be signed and the permits would be issued. The Tour’s first foreign Grand Départ was on.
And so, on 8th July 1954 at 11:30 am, the mayor of Amsterdam, Arnold Jan d’Ailly, cut the ceremonial start ribbon and 110 riders rolled out of the Olympic Stadium. The thousands that had been on the streets the night before were back out in force and the riders paraded through the streets of Amsterdam in front of huge crowds. Some 216km later Wagtmans, minus scarf and cigar, rode powerfully onto the finishing circuit in Brasschaat, near Antwerp, before leading a small bunch of 17 riders over the line.
Wagtmans’ winning sprint and the resultant yellow jersey crowned a proud day for the Dutch, with the race’s first foreign Grand Départ hailed a huge success. ‘All of Holland seemed to have come together on the roads of the towns and villages that the Tour passed through,’ L’Equipe reported.
‘Tens and tens of thousands of spectators squeezed together in tight rows, for miles and miles, brandishing little blue, white and red flags, applauding, cheering everything related to the Tour. They were greeting the Tour which, for the first time ever, was paying them a visit and, from the first stage, they made it a triumph.’
• This article originally appeared in issue 138 of Cyclist magazine. Click here to subscribe
Tags: Tour de France