The peloton left Belgium today and headed south into the Champagne region of France. Along the way they traversed many rivers like the Aisne, the Vesle and the Marne. These rivers are connected by an extensive canal network that ultimately stretches all the way to the Rhine at Strasbourg. Almost all of these canals are at least 5.2 meters wide because of an aggressive public works minister of the Third Republic, Charles de Freycinet.Freycinet was the child of noted explorers Louis and Rose de Freycinet, who had circumnavigated the world on the Uranie. He was given the best technical education around at the École polytechnique and entered the Corps des Mines, a prestigious technical branch of the French civil service. By 1877, he was the Minister for Public Works, and it was here that he and his Republican colleagues devised a plan to revolutionize the infrastructure of France. They intended to spend around 4.5 billion francs on railways, canals and ports throughout the country.
The canal improvements focused on standardizing the waterways to what came to be called the Freycinet gauge. Canals would be widened to 5.2 meters, and all locks had to be 39 meters long. These dimensions fit a 300 ton Belgian barge called the péniche, and they still form Class I of the EU’s Classification of Inland Waterways.
The Freycinet Plan was not popular in all quarters. Emile Marché, speaking before the Société des ingénieurs civils de France in 1883, worried that the engineers had “impoverished the country by wanting to enrich it, by building in our ports magnificent basins where ships do not enter, canals without boats, railroads without travellers…” and lamented the ballooning costs of the project. The waterway improvements eventually fizzled out as costs spiked, and it became increasingly clear that canals, especially the relatively small Freycinet gauge ones, were not competitive with railroads.