In my opinion, this is the most impressive rider so far on this list. Firmin Lambot occupies a peculiar timeframe in the history of cycling. He started riding before the First World War, with good results. He was one of the few riders (Philippe Thys was another one) that not only survived the war, but also managed to keep being a high-level rider after one of the most barbaric events in the history of the world. Additionally, he achieved the defining victories of his career (two yellow jerseys in the Tour de France) at 33 and 36 years of age. Nowadays this would be impressive. At the time, it was unheard of.
Furthermore, the bad state of France’s infrastructure after the war added another layer of difficulty to Lambot’s achievements.
Firmin Lambot was born in 1886 in the town of Florennes, province of Wallonie, in Belgium. He started as a professional in 1908, but wouldn’t ride his first Tour de France until 1911. The French Grand Tour (GT) was the race that defined his career. He did not compete in many others, and certainly wasn’t as successful anywhere else as he was on the Tour. He participated twice in the Liége-Bastogne-Liége and three times in the Paris Roubaix. His results were unremarkable, though. The best he managed in the Belgian monument was a 5th place. He was even more anonymous in the Hell of the North, with 20th being his best result.
In the Tour though, his performances were drastically different. As mentioned, Lambot’s first participation was in 1911. He immediately placed in an honorable 11th place, in the edition won by Frenchman Gustave Garrigou. The following year he didn’t manage to improve upon the 11th place, but still managed to remain inside of the top-20, in 18th. 1912 was the first year he finished a stage on the podium, placing 3rd on the stage that connected Nice and Marseille behind eventual Tour winner, fellow Belgian, Odiel Defraeye and then Tour champion Gustave Garrigou. Octave Lapize was 4th in that stage.
Nice was a good town for Firmin Lambot – that is where he won his first ever Tour stage, in 1913. The whole 1913 Tour went well for the Belgian, finishing for the first time in the top-10, just outside of the podium, in 4th place. Fellow Belgian legend, Philippe Thys won the French GT that year. Speaking of Thys, he was 2nd in the 6th stage of the 1914 Tour, won by Firmin Lambot. He wouldn’t repeat his place in the top-5, but would stay inside the top-10, in 8th. Philippe Thys, on the other hand, would repeat his triumph of the previous year, and take home another yellow jersey.
After the war, in 1919, Firmin Lambot won the first post-war Tour de France by a margin of 1h42m54s. The organization was not kind to the riders, that, in addition to having to negotiate broken roads, also had to endure the longest Tour up to that point: 5560 km. This remains the second longest Tour de France of all-time.
1919 saw the introduction of the most iconic garment in the history of sports: the yellow jersey. Eugéne Christophe was the first rider to wear the yellow, which was introduced after stage 10, in an attempt to distinguish the race leader from the other riders. In post-war France sporting goods manufacturers weren’t abundant so all riders were wearing very similar outfits. Hence, the yellow jersey was introduced to at least make the race leader easily identifiable.
Christophe led for most of the race but broke his fork on the penultimate stage after second placed Lambot attacked. Per the rules at the time, Christophe had to fix his bike by himself which proved too costly in terms of time to remain in contention for the newly minted yellow jersey. The exact same thing had already cost Eugéne Christophe the victory in 1913, and the same would happen to him for a third time in 1922. Let’s remember this rider before saying someone else is cursed in the world of sports.
Firmin Lambot won the penultimate stage of that year’s Tour after his attack and took the yellow jersey to the final stage between Dunkerque and Paris. No significant differences were made on this stage in terms of the yellow jersey which meant that the Belgian was the first man to take home a literal yellow jersey. Only 11 riders finished one of the toughest editions of the Tour.
In the next two years Lambot stayed close to the top of the French GT’s standings, placing 3rd in 1920 and 9th in 1921, despite his age (34 and 35 years old). He added 3 more stages to his palmarés during these two years.
In 1922 history would be made when Lambot won the Tour at 36 years of age, a record that still stands today. In fact, this record was only broken in 2013 by American Chris Horner, who was 41 years old when he won the Vuelta a España. Another less well-known record is that unlucky Eugéne Christophe also became in this edition of the Tour the oldest rider to ever wear the yellow jersey, at 37 years of age.
The 1922 Tour was certainly a very peculiar edition marked by a lot of bad luck for a lot of people, so let’s analyze it like this:
- The first yellow jersey was Robert Jacquinot who punctured three times during stage 4;
- The second was Eugéne Christophe who lost it after stage 7. In stage 11, while climbing the Galibier, the fork of Christophe’s bike breaks, taking him out of title contention;
- The third yellow jersey was Jean Alavoine who won three stage in this Tour. He punctured six times during stage 12, which cost him the race lead;
- Hector Heusghem fell down during stage 13 and needed a new bicycle. According to the rules he should have fixed his bicycle without help but after checking with race officials he obtained permission to change his bike. Race official later went back on their work and Heughem was handed a 1-hour penalty which took him out of contention for the general classification victory;
Anyway, regardless of what happened Firmin Lambot was right there and put himself in position to win the race, which he did. In doing so, he became the first rider to win the Tour without winning a stage.
He would line up at the start line of the Tour de France in 1923 and 1924 but never again reached Paris.
In an era marked by the tragedy of the First World War, Firmin Lambot was the definition of a champion: skilled, tough, and had that lucky star when he needed it.