A Giant Of His Times: François Faber

By John Wilcockson | From Issue 105

Heading out the door? Read this article on the new Outside+ app available now on iOS devices for members! Download the app.

To understand the impact François Faber would make on France (where he was born and raised), Luxembourg (his father’s country) and the sport of cycling, we first need to see what life was like when he was growing up in the 1890s. France had suffered a series of economic, political and military setbacks in the previous decades and was hoping for a brighter future. The so-called Golden Age of Cycling was in full progress, and the first gas-powered automobiles were appearing on the streets of Paris alongside bicycles and the ubiquitous horse-drawn vehicles. Longer-distance travel was via steam-powered trains and ships. Telephone service was in its infancy, radio broadcasts and film entertainment were still decades away, and the only way that people knew what was going on in the world was through newspapers, magazines and word-of-mouth.

Faber was 4 years old when he, his two older half-brothers (Jules Schlepp and Ernest Paul) and parents (Pierre Faber and Marie Paul) moved from the countryside to a small row house next to the Seine River in Colombes, a working-class suburb 10 kilometers northwest of the Eiffel Tower. The father was a day laborer and Faber’s half-brothers would soon be working in the Courbevoie docks where imported goods were unloaded from river barges. Their young brother knew that this would likely be his employment too, and at grade school Faber was better known for skipping classes than attending them.

French newspapers in the late 1890s were filled with stories of the upcoming Exposition Universelle, to be held in central Paris in 1900 as a celebration of the century that was just ending. It was said to be the biggest world’s fair in history. With 40 countries taking part and all of them building pavilions of varying degrees of grandiosity, most of the building materials and such would be transported up the Seine over several years. So there was a high demand for dockers like Faber’s two half-brothers.

As part of the Exposition Universelle, France agreed to host the second running of the modern Olympic Games. That proved to be a haphazard undertaking, with no opening or closing ceremonies while 80 percent of the competitors would come from France and Great Britain. A score of mostly odd-ball sports were included, including croquet and tug-of-war; but bike racing, as the then most popular sport in France, was given pride of place. Even so, only three of the 15 cycling events held at the Vélodrome Municipale in Vincennes met the conditions set for Olympic status. (The bronze medalist in the 20-kilometer points race was a 19-year-old Paris amateur, Louis Trousselier, who would go on to win the third Tour de France in 1905.)

With Vincennes on the opposite side of Paris, it’s unlikely that Faber saw the Olympic track cycling; more likely that he watched the rowing, water polo and swimming events on the Seine (yes, the swim competition was in the river, not a pool!). After the 1900 Exposition Universelle—which was attended by 48 million visitors over seven months—Faber didn’t return to school. Instead, at 13, he knew he had to help his cash-strapped mother. He took parttime jobs, including a porter, an apprentice waiter and a hired hand at a naval construction yard.

faber in 1908
Faber in 1908. Image: Maurice Branger/Roger Viollet via Getty Images.

signing in at the 1908 tour de france
Signing in at the 1908 Tour de France. Image: Branger/Roger Viollet via Getty Images.

Already boasting a muscular build, Faber next worked at the Colombes water-pumping factory, whose steam engines consumed 100 tons of coal a day; and then, at 17, he joined his half-brothers as a docker. Working bare-chested in the hot summers and coping with freezing conditions, rain and snow in the winters, he would lift and carry heavy loads of merchandise. Faber was popular with his co-workers, often the life of the party at restaurants or downing drinks in the Café de l’Usine at the end of his street.

The friends’ conversations would likely turn to sports. While football, rugby and basketball were in their infancy, the only well-established sports in France were horse racing and cycling. Point-to-point road classics such as Bordeaux–Paris and Paris–Roubaix had been contested since the 1890s and the papers were filled with details of the first Tour de France in 1903. The nation was fascinated by the new event, which was greeted by tens of thousands of spectators in every town along the route. The winners were treated as larger-than-life heroes and celebrated in the national press.

One of Faber’s friends suggested that he should try his luck at bike racing and offered him a clunker to see how he liked it. His co-workers knew that Faber was particularly strong and muscular, weighing around 90 kilos (almost 200 pounds). And when the average Frenchman was around 5-foot-6, Faber was 7 inches taller. No wonder they’d later call him the Giant of Colombes! Perhaps this strapping young docker could be as successful as 1903 Tour winner Maurice Grain, a former chimney sweep; the runner-up Lucien Pothier, a butcher’s apprentice; or 1904 Tour winner Henri Cornet, a former mechanic.

Faber discovered he enjoyed cycling and was soon paying closer attention to the Tour de France; when fellow Parisian Trousselier won the race in 1905, Faber told his mates that he would ride the Tour himself the following year. That was possible back then, when anyone could enter the race—as long as they had the cash for the entry fee, could take a month away from their job and had a suitable bike. So, at age 19, a few months before the start of the 1906 Tour, Faber went to a bike shop and bought his first racing machine on credit. It was a Labor, a bike with a long wheelbase, deep, curving forks, wide tires and, of course, a single, fixed gear. He’d be ready to negotiate the cobblestone streets and gravel roads of France.

To prepare for the Tour, Faber trained in the suburbs after each day’s work; and likely took longer trips at the weekend into the countryside west of the city—maybe the 100 kilometers each way to his place of birth, the village of Aulnay-sur-Iton, near Evreux. On registering for the Tour, Faber was placed in a new category of indépendant riders. Except for tires and tubes, these riders would not be allowed to change bikes or equipment. Their bikes, which would be examined at the start and finish of every stage, were stamped with distinctive markings on the bottom bracket, at the top of the forks and on both wheel hubs, along with their race number. Faber was No. 70 of the 96 starters.

So, before dawn on July 4, François Faber pedaled his Labor bike the 5 kilometers from his home in Colombes to Neuilly and lined up outside the Buffalo Velodrome at 5 a.m. for his very first bike race: stage 1 of the 1906 Tour de France, 275 kilometers from Paris to Lille. This fourth edition was the longest Tour yet: 4,637 kilometers, more than 50 percent longer than the 1905 Tour. Having never raced a bike in his life, the teen-age Faber knew that he would have to rely on his dock worker’s strength to survive even one of the 13 stages.

Remarkably, Faber managed to cling to the leading group for more than half the opening stage to place 11th in Lille, 51 minutes behind stage winner Émile Georget…but ahead of such seasoned professionals as Italy’s Giovanni Gerbi (who won the previous year’s Tour of Lombardy) and French star Hippolyte Aucouturier (twice winner of Paris–Roubaix). After a day’s rest, the much-reduced peloton started stage 2 from Douai to Nancy over 400 kilometers—such enormous stage distances were not uncommon in the Tour’s first three decades. Faber again stuck with the leaders for several hours. He avoided the carpet tacks scattered by vandals that caused many to puncture, but he then lost time after his firstever crash—hitting a curb as he tried to bunny-hop onto a sidewalk. Even so, he then stuck with two experienced riders to place 13th in Nancy, an hour behind first-place René Pottier, the eventual Tour winner.

That would be as good as it would get for Faber. Stage 3 was also longer than 400 kilometers and would take race leader Pottier more than 15 hours to complete. Pottier started his winning breakaway on the Ballon d’Alsace in the Vosges mountains. Faber, who’d never seen such a climb, let alone ridden one, struggled with the steep grades. Already more than two hours behind at the foot of the climb, the hefty Faber walked much of the rain-slick climb and eventually finished in Dijon more than 11 hours behind Pottier in 25th place. Even so, he was a long way from giving up, and after placing 21st on the next stage, he began stage 5 in Grenoble as one of only 25 riders remaining in the race. Such was Faber’s grit that he survived the 345-kilometer trek through the Alps to Nice, placing 16th, alongside three pros, just over two hours behind Pottier, who took his third stage in a row.

While the leaders were able to recuperate on the rest days that followed every stage, back-markers such as Faber had to cope with far fewer hours of sleep. On the 308-kilometer stage 6 from Nice along the Mediterranean coast to Marseille, Faber found himself off the back with two other indépendants, Maxime Morel and Georges Sérès. They were so tired and so far behind when night fell that July 14 that they slept by the side of the road and arrived in Marseille at 9 a.m. the next morning, seven hours after the race control closed. They were officially out of the Tour, but the rules allowed them to continue to contest individual stages.

Even though the leaders had already had a night’s sleep in Marseille, Faber and his two new buddies used their daily stipend of 5 francs (half of what an average worker would earn) to find somewhere to stay, take a bath, wash their clothes, grab a meal and get a few hours of sleep before riding to the start of the next stage at midnight—stage 7 to Toulouse was an enormous 480 kilometers! They’d ridden only about 50 of those kilometers in the dark before Faber’s two companions, both hungry and tired, called it quits—and he wasn’t eager to continue alone. He decided it was time to take the train back to Paris.

faber winning the stage in lyon despite breaking his chain
Faber winning the stage in Lyon despite breaking his chain. Tour de France 1909. Image: Photo 12/Universal Images Group via Getty Images.

the giant of colombes
The Giant of Colombes before starting the 1,200-kilometer Paris–Brest–Paris in 1911. Image: Branger/Roger Viollet via Getty Images.

Faber knew that by riding half the Tour de France he could feel proud of what he’d accomplished in his first attempt at bike racing. Speaking of his debut at a later date, he said, “We already see ourselves as the champion taking his place alongside the Giants of the Road in the next day’s newspapers, but on waking up we realize with sadness that we remain in the shadows.” But Faber was confident that he could be a success; two months after the Tour he rode two one-day classics, finishing ninth in Paris–Tourcoing and 13th in Paris–Tours. The news reporters were starting to write about this determined young man, bringing him to the attention of the professional teams sponsored by the major bike manufacturers.

That winter, Faber connected with a man who would take him up to the “champion” level and transform his life. Alphonse Baugé, 33, was a former French national motorpaced track champion who’d worked as a reporter on the first Tour de France, was writing a book on training, and had just been hired by the Labor team to seek new riders. His first choice was Faber, a very rough diamond that Baugé could polish using his knowledge of physical preparation, good nutrition and disciplined training. The dapper Baugé, who often wore three-piece suits, bow ties and fashionable tweed caps, would also show Faber a different style of living.

Six riders were on the 1907 Labor-Dunlop team that included such experienced men as 1903 Tour runner-up Pothier and Augustin Ringeval. Their first major race was the 592-kilometer Bordeaux–Paris classic, in which the competitors had teams of other riders to pace them. After two of the four Labor riders abandoned during the rain-affected early going, Ringeval and Faber were still riding strongly. As the senior team member, Ringeval received the better pacing team and he went on to place second, while Faber finished an honorable sixth, earning his first-ever prize:100 francs. Two weeks later he also placed sixth in the first edition of the 400-kilometer Paris–Brussels classic. He was ready for his second Tour—and no longer fending for himself.

The 1907 Tour was tougher than ever, with 14 stages over four weeks, while the organizers also took the race into the Alps for the first time. Given his 6-foot-1, 200-pound build, Faber wasn’t expected to perform well on the longer climbs, especially after his experience on the Ballon d’Alsace in 1906. But this was a different Faber, riding on a team coached by someone who knew how to regulate the 20-year-old’s efforts. On the first stage to Roubaix, Faber placed 15th alongside teammates Pothier and Ringeval, 42 minutes back of stage winner Trousselier. (Time differences were not a factor in the Tours contested in those years because the GC was decided on points; one point for winning a stage…15 points for 15th place…and the rider with the lowest points total took the overall victory.) On the 398-kilometer stage 2 to Metz, Faber suffered three punctures but still came in ninth, 20 minutes ahead of teammates Ringeval and Pothier.

Next up was the stage over the Ballon d’Alsace. On the early slopes, in the sixth hour of racing, Faber was one of six riders that moved clear from a 12-strong lead group. He faltered midway up the climb but, amazingly, the big man forced his way back and was third across the summit behind the Peugeot team’s Georget (who’d win the stage and take the overall lead) and Henri Lignon from the Alcyon team. They finished the stage in that same order. Faber was caught by Georget’s teammate Gustave Garrigou on the descent, but he still took third place, less than four minutes back. His first podium!

Faber had to overcome knee pain on the next, rolling stage to Lyon, but still managed to take sixth on the day and move to sixth overall. Labor team manager Baugé, who got hold of a physio to treat Faber’s knee, was constantly upbeat, keeping his riders in high spirits. Writing about the “new” Faber in the pages of L’Auto (the organizing newspaper that today is called L’Équipe), a columnist said: “We have to recognize that this strong, healthy young fellow has real talent…and if he listens to Baugé’s advice he has a bright future ahead of him.”

Immediately ahead of him was the much-feared stage 5 from Lyon to Grenoble, passing through Geneva and Annecy before tackling the highest mountain pass yet seen at the Tour, the 4,350-foot Col de Porte. France was experiencing a heat wave, making the many climbs even harder than expected—especially when you remember they were riding single gears (derailleurs were still three decades away). As on the Ballon, Faber struggled on the Porte’s early slopes.

Describing the climb, L’Auto’s Charles Ravaud wrote: “A combat of giants was engaged on the Col de Porte. One by one, Georget got rid of all his rivals. He had the race won if he reached the summit alone, but Faber, courageous as a lion, fought back to him, while Garrigou, dead tired, slumped in a ditch. And the battle rekindled, Homeric, between Georget and Faber. Neither one nor the other wanted to concede.”

In an adjacent column, race director Henri Desgrange wrote: “The sun falls heavily on the shoulders of our heroes; the temperature is torrid; will the end of the climb ever come?”

Ravaud continued: “Exhausted, taking pity on each other, Georget and Faber agreed to get off their bikes about 500 meters from the summit to drink ice-cold water from a spring: then, walking as much as riding, they finally completed the horrible ascent that they began 21 kilometers from there.” As for the steep 17 kilometers down to the finish in Grenoble: “Georget was equipped with a free wheel and dropped Faber who didn’t have one. He arrived first, three minutes before Baugé’s crack, whose reputation is now firmly established.” Baugé was thrilled with the performance of his protégé, telling the Labor team boss: “It’s almost a victory. And it’s even more marvelous that our good colossus is still remarkably fresh. What a stud!”

faber won paris roubaix in 1913
Faber won Paris-Roubaix in 1913. Image: Branger/Roger Viollet via Getty Images.

However, over the remaining nine stages of the 1907 Tour, Faber struggled with a saddle sore and survived a series of crashes—including collisions with a chicken and an automobile. He had only three more top 10s in that Tour but was hailed everywhere by the French public, who admired his courage (and his good looks). Faber ended the race in seventh overall, won 600 francs and returned home to celebrate with his buddies at the Café de l’Usine. His success (and the money he was earning) influenced his half-brother Ernest Paul to also take up the sport. And it was likely cash that persuaded Faber to change teams that off-season, leaving Labor (and his coach Baugé) and joining La Française to start 1908.

Switching teams looked like a good move—initially. In April, Faber raced fearlessly through rain, hail and snow at Paris–Roubaix. He rode away from the main favorites with 65 kilometers left and was five minutes ahead of the man chasing him, Belgium’s Cyrille Van Hauwaert, when he hit the wall of hunger knock. Just 500 meters from the Roubaix velodrome Faber fell heavily. His face covered in blood, his body in mud, Faber was passed by Van Hauwaert. Then, on the six finishing laps of the track, he fell again from exhaustion and was passed by another rider. Third place was a disappointment, but Faber was pleased to “show what I can do,” while L’Auto said that his performance “definitively showed a man of class.”

That observation changed through the spring. Faber had a disastrous Bordeaux–Paris, suffering multiple crashes and mechanicals before quitting. He also abandoned the next classic, Paris–Brussels, while his half-brother Paul surprised everyone by taking his first good result, seventh. People began doubting Faber’s prospects without coach Baugé. So Faber switched teams again when he was recruited for the Tour de France by Peugeot, the sport’s strongest team, boasting defending Tour champion Lucien Petit-Breton along with such riders as Aucouturier, Cornet, Georget (winner of six stages the previous year) and Georges Passerieu (who’d won two stages in each of the past two Tours).

tour de france 1909
Tour de France 1909. Image: M. Rol /ullstein bild via Getty Images.

The Peugeot riders would dominate the race after the teams of Alcyon and Labor (still managed by Baugé) withdrew their French riders following crashes and infringements of the Tour’s ultrastrict rules. Team leader Petit-Breton would repeat his overall victory. Faber again had bad luck early on; crashes caused him to lose two hours on stage 2. It looked like he’d remain in the shadows when, on stage 3’s Ballon d’Alsace, he was one of the first to be dropped when Garrigou, Petit-Breton and Van Hauwaert went clear.

L’Auto described what happened next: “Here we are in the clouds. It’s as cold as Siberia when we reach the summit in a torrential downpour. There are more than 50 automobiles and a number of cyclists. Garrigou is warmly applauded; so is Petit-Breton, who follows far behind. Now we await Van Hauwaert, but, to everyone’s astonishment, it’s François Faber, the first one to be dropped, who appears—and he seems fresh.” Through the clouds, on mud-wrecked roads, Faber descended superbly. He caught the two leaders and outsprinted them in Belfort to take the win, the first of his career. “Finally, it’s my turn!” he said.

With that breakthrough, Faber put behind him the bad moments he’d experienced in his three seasons of racing. The very next stage, from Belfort to Lyon, he won again, this time out-sprinting Garrigou, Petit-Breton and Cornet, 12 minutes ahead of the next group. He didn’t win in Grenoble after the Col de Porte, but he was second to teammate Passerieu. Faber took two more stage wins, winning an eight-man sprint in Toulouse and a five-man gallop in Brest. He finished the Tour by breaking away with Petit-Breton on the final stage; they finished together on the Parc des Princes velodrome, greeted by tens of thousands of fans. Faber appeared to let his Peugeot team leader take the sprint to crown his second consecutive overall victory.

Afterward, Petit-Breton announced he was taking a break from the sport and, pointing at Faber, said, “I am convinced that this man here will be unbeatable next year.” By finishing second overall at the 1908 Tour, winning four stages and pocketing more than 8,000 francs in prizes, Faber was now a true champion. He ended the year with third place at Paris–Tours and victory at Italy’s Tour of Lombardy—racing through rain and hail to finish 15 minutes ahead of the top Italians.

Over the winter, Faber, still only 22 years old, made two big decisions. First, he again changed teams, this time moving to Alcyon and its sports director Baugé, his longtime mentor. The other was to officially take citizenship from his father’s country, Luxembourg, which some critics said was to avoid serving two years in the French army. That may have been true, but his two decisions led Faber toward his best season yet. Under Baugé’s guidance, he finished fifth in Paris–Roubaix, placed fourth in Bordeaux–Paris and then, two weeks before the Tour de France, won Paris–Brussels (in a breakaway with teammate Garrigou).

That year’s Tour was one of the wettest on record, following the heat wave of 1908. Although he was the pre-race favorite, Faber said that he feared crashing on stage 1 to Roubaix. “I was afraid, very afraid,” he told L’Auto. “I was in a cold sweat, and I had to make a big effort to not be dropped by Van Hauwaert and Garrigou, who were setting the pace.” The stage ended in six-man sprint won by Van Hauwaert from a fully recovered Faber.

That was just a preliminary to what remains the most dominant winning streak in Tour de France history. On the 398-kilometer stage 2, raced on a day of torrential rain, Faber attacked viciously from a small front group to solo to the finish in Metz 33 minutes ahead of the runner-up. Writing a postcard to a girlfriend the next day, he modestly summed up: “First place, all alone. Had rain all the way through. And it still falls today. What a storm. Health is good.”

His health was so good that his first attack on stage 3, well before the Ballon d’Alsace climb, was successful. Faber seemed oblivious to the freezing weather, charging over the snow-lined Ballon to win again by half an hour. The rain fell throughout stage 4 and though one rider (former Labor teammate Constant Ménager) managed to follow his wheel until they signed on at the last control point, Faber was on his own entering Lyon. “It was going too well,” he reported. “Suddenly, a shock! My chain, blocked by the mud, went to seventh heaven!” Faber ran with his bike for 2 kilometers through the rain to win again.

Next up was the infamous alpine stage to Grenoble. Faber accelerated at the foot of the Col de Porte. Three men followed…but they all skidded or fell on the muddy road. Faber also had to stop three times but crested the climb alone and cautiously descended to win his fourth stage. He later reflected: “Could I make it five?” Indeed he could. Resisting the efforts of the best climbers on the 311-kilometer trek to Nice, he made a late attack to finish alone on the Promenade des Anglais.

Five stages, five victories. No other rider in history has achieved that feat. Summing it up, race director Desgrange wrote this about Faber: “He’s the best on the flat. He is the strongest in difficult terrain. He is the fastest. He is the best in the rain. He is the strongest when the sun is on the pack.” Faber took a sixth stage a week later and comfortably won his greatest Tour de France. That September, he added to his collection of classics by winning Paris–Tours.

By now the most popular sportsman in France (even if he’d opted for Luxembourg citizenship), Faber remained a humble man. He still lived with his family in the Colombes row house and when the Seine overflowed its banks after a storm in January 1910, he and his half-brothers didn’t think twice about pitching in, protecting houses with sandbags and using a boat to rescue stranded residents. Faber won another three stages of the Tour that year, led the race from stage 2 to stage 13 and only bad luck lost him the race to teammate Octave Lapize. And then, in 1911, Faber took apart the field at the Bordeaux–Paris classic, winning by 22 minutes from Garrigou.

After three years with Baugé’s Alcyon team, Faber had a blank 1912 season but got back with Baugé in 1913 on the Peugeot team. This resulted in Faber taking one of his best classics victories, when he out-sprinted five others to win Paris–Roubaix on the velodrome. He won two more Tour stages that season and another two in 1914 to bring his total to 19—a total that only six men have exceeded in the past 115 years.

A week after the 1914 Tour ended, Germany declared war on France; and two weeks after that, on August 22, Faber, as a Luxembourg citizen, volunteered to join the Foreign Legion of France. He left his wife Eugénie at their new home in Colombes (they’d been married only 10 months); and after military training, he was posted to the front lines in the spring of 1915. In the trenches not far from the route of Paris–Roubaix, Faber was regarded as a leader by his colleagues; and they celebrated when news came of Eugenie giving birth to a daughter, Raymonde, on May 5. At dawn four days later, Faber’s battalion was ordered to advance toward the enemy in the Battle of Artois—which would result in the Allies retaking the town of Carency from the Germans on May 12. But Faber didn’t make it. As he went to rescue an injured colleague under heavy fire on May 9, the Tour de France champion was killed. He was 28.


Giro di Lombardia (1908)

Tour de France (1909)

Bordeaux–Paris (1911)

Paris–Roubaix (1913)

Paris–Tours (1909, 1910)

19 stage victories at the Tour de France from 1908 to 1914

overall winner of the 1909 tour de france
Overall winner of the 1909 Tour de France. Image: Photo 12/Universal Images Group via Getty Images.
From issue 105

An American in France

What’s it like to be an American cyclist living in France? Watch to get professional road cyclist Joe Dombrowski’s view.