The early days of the Tour de France. On the 1st July 1903, 60 cyclists set off from Paris. After more than 2400 kilometres of cycling, at an average speed of 25.7 kmh, they returned to Paris on the 19th July, in a competition won by Maurice Garin of France. The Tour de France had been born.
See further down this page for the fascinating story of the first ever Tour de France.
The race was threatened in 1904-1914 by an extraordinary amount of cheating, with spectators eagerly trying to ensure that certain contestants failed to finish, and several contestants taking buses and trains instead of cycling (!) but the race struggled on through these difficult years - mountains were introduced to the circuit in 1905.
Apart from the war years of 1915-1918 and 1940-1946 the Tour de France has taken place every year since. By 2000, the number of participants had increased to 200, the distance covered to 3,660 kilometres, and the average speed to 39.6 kmh. There are now 20 stages instead of the six (longer) stages that made up the very first race. But that is in no way to detract from those early racers, when both roads and equipment were much inferior to those found today.
The Tour de France is now watched all around the world, with an audience that includes many non-cyclists, and is perhaps the greatest 'mainstream' endurance event there is.
During the race there are four 'shirts' awarded to the leaders. The 'maillot jaune' goes to the overall leader at that point in the race; the 'maillot vert' to the winner of that days stage; the 'maillot a pois' (they look more like cherries than peas...) to the best climber; and the 'maillot blanc' to the best youth competitor.
The overall winner of the Tour de France is the competitor who takes the lowest overall time. So it is possible to win the competition without ever actually winning a stage in the race. Some entrants are faster on the flatter parts of the course, some are better in the mountains, but it is performing well and consistently in all stages that is ultimately important. See Tour de France winners.
It is important to realise also that many of the entrants have no chance of winning, because the cyclists each form part of a team, and many of the team members are there to support the 'team leader'. So in recent years, for example, while Lance Armstrong was the team leader for Discovery Channel, other members of the same team were responsible for cycling in front of him (to reduce wind resistance on him), or going to the supply cars to get water and food for him. So the team leaders are chosen before the Tour de France starts, and they are much more likely to win than other members of the same team.
There is as much tactical planning and psychology involved as physical fitness, which adds to the excitement. Almost like a game of chess sometimes, the mental battles between the competitors, along with the tactical decisions - when to push ahead, when to hang back etc are vitally important.
An example of a tactical decision - riders in the peloton (the main pack of cyclists) are very protected from wind, and this can save up to 50% of the energy required to cycle. So making a break to move ahead of the group means using far more energy. As a result the main pack usually catches up with these break away groups, that have over-tired themselves.
The cyclists are in constant radio communication with their support vehicles to help them with these decisions. Indeed, far from being a chance to enjoy the French countryside, competitors in the Tour de France have crowds of enthusiasts along much of the route, their support vehicles talking in their headsets, television motorbikes around them and television helicopters overhead. Not to mention the other competitors...so it is far from being a peaceful race.
Above all it is the mountain stages in the Tour de France that are most popular with viewers. To see the superhuman effort required of the cyclists, day after day, to ride up some of the most gruelling roads in Europe is somehow completely gripping. The last few minutes of each days race are usually equally exciting on the flatter stages of the race, as riders make last minute sprints to try and take the lead for that stage. Two of the most famous mountain passes are Alpe d'Huez in the Alps and Col du Tourmalet in the Pyrenees.
So I recommend you take a look at the Tour de France - even better come to France and watch a couple of stages as part of your holiday - and see why so many of us all around the world think it is the highlight of the years sporting calendar.
List of previous Tour de France winners
|1915-1918||No Tour de France was held between 1915 and 1918 due to World War I|
|1929||Maurice De Waele||Belgium|
|1940-1946||No Tour de France was held between 1940 and 1946 due to World War II|
|1947||Jean Robic||France Ouest|
|1976||Lucien van Impe||Belgium|
|*Floyd Landis was initially awarded the Tour de France 2006 but subsequently he was shown to be positive in drug tests and the prize was withdrawn|
1903 - the first Tour de France
On the 20th November 1902 the journalist Geo Lefevre, from the newspaper L'Auto, sat down in a cafe with his editor, Henri Desgrange - he had an idea to boost circulation of the newspaper. The idea was the Tour de France.
The details quickly came together and by January 1903 the race had been announced in the newspaper.
Sixty riders started the first Tour de France, on 1st July 1903. The conditions were hard, with the stages frequently taking place on roads that were in a very poor state.
Outside help was not permitted and cyclists had to maintain and repair their own bikes when problems arose. M Lefevre acted as judge and timekeeper for the race.
Teams did not exist - just individuals who entered the race for themselves, having first paid a small entrance fee. There was no sponsorship, and certainly no publicity caravan preceding the arrival of the riders on the course! The bikes of course were very basic and heavy when compared with those ridden by modern competitors.
Just 21 riders were to finish, after six long and gruelling stages totalling 2,428 kilometres. Individual stages were from 270 to 470 kilometres each, substantially more than in current Tour de France competitions. Competitors frequently had to contine cycling late into the night.
Competitors were allowed to enter a stage even if they had withdrawn from an earlier stage, although they were no longer eligible to win the overall prize. Hence Hippolyte Aucouturier won the 2nd and 3rd stages despite not completing the 1st stage.
The route followed was: Paris - Lyon - Marseille - Toulouse - Bordeaux - Nantes - Paris. Mountain stages were not to be added to the Tour de France until 1905.
The average speed achieved in this first contest was almost 26kmh - an extraordinary feat given the condition of the roads, the basic bikes used, and the rule prohibiting spare bike parts or assistance in making repairs when problems arose.
Despite a fine effort by several other riders the lead was with Maurice Garin from the first stage - he went on to win the 1903 tour with a lead of almost three hours over Lucien Pothier, who was placed second. Garin won 6,075 gold francs for his efforts. (Maurice Garin also came first in the 1904 Tour, but was later disqualified from collecting the prize, along with those who came 2nd, 3rd and 4th.)
For the newspaper (later to become L'Equipe) the Tour de France 1903 was an enormous success, boosting their circulation very substantially and putting their rival, Le Velo, out of business.
Drugs in the Tour de France
Unfortunately no discussion of the Tour de France in recent years is possible without mention of the drugs problem that has blighted the race. Possibly there has not been a 'clean' race or winner for almost two decades, or perhaps Lance Armstrong was a superhuman exception, perhaps we'll never know.
But the fact remains that great numbers of the cyclists have achieved their results only with the help of drugs (often EPO), and it is hard to know who is actually racing 'clean'. This is having serious consequences for the contest, and the organisers are now making some more serious efforts to improve matters. Because of the high stakes involved and the large amounts of money involved, the problem is proving difficult to deal with, despite very widespread blood testing of the riders involved.