Tour de France - the greatest cycling contest on earth

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.

Tour de France photo

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

Year Winner Nationality
1903 Maurice Garin France
1904 Henri Cornet France
1905 Louis Trousselier France
1906 Rene Pottier France
1907 Lucien Petit-Breton France
1908 Lucien Petit-Breton France
1909 Francois Faber Luxembourg
1910 Octave Lapize France
1911 Gustave Garrigou France


Gustave Garrigou

1912 Odile Defraye Belgium
1913 Philippe Thys Belgium
1914 Philippe Thys Belgium
1915-1918 No Tour de France was held between 1915 and 1918 due to World War I
1919 Firmin Lambot Belgium
1920 Philippe Thys Belgium
1921 Leon Scieur Belgium
1922 Firmin Lambot Belgium
1923 Henri Pelissier France


Ottavio Bottecchia

1924 Ottavio Bottecchia Italy
1925 Ottavio Bottecchia Italy
1926 Lucien Buysse Belgium


Lucien Buysse

1927 Nicolas Frantz Luxembourg
1928 Nicolas Frantz Luxembourg
1929 Maurice De Waele Belgium
1930 Andre Leducq France
1931 Antonin Magne France
1932 Andre Leducq France
1933 Georges Speicher France
1934 Antonin Magne France
1935 Romain Maes Belgium
1936 Silvere Maes Belgium
1937 Roger Lapebie France
1938 Gino Bartali Italy
1939 Silvere Maes Belgium
1940-1946 No Tour de France was held between 1940 and 1946 due to World War II
1947 Jean Robic France Ouest
1948 Gino Bartali Italy
1949 Fausto Coppi Italy
1950 Ferdy Kubler Switzerland
1951 Hugo Koblet Switzerland
1952 Fausto Coppi Italy


Fausto Coppi

1953 Louison Bobet France
1954 Louison Bobet France
1955 Louison Bobet France
1956 Roger Walkowiak France
1957 Jacques Anquetil France
1958 Charly Gaul Luxembourg
1959 Federico Bahamontes Spain
1960 Gastone Nencini Italy
1961 Jacques Anquetil France
1962 Jacques Anquetil France
1963 Jacques Anquetil France
1964 Jacques Anquetil France


Jacques Anquetil

1965 Felice Gimondi Italy
1966 Lucien Aimar France
1967 Roger Pingeon France
1968 Jan Janssen Netherlands
1969 Eddy Merckx Belgium
1970 Eddy Merckx Belgium
1971 Eddy Merckx Belgium
1972 Eddy Merckx Belgium
1973 Luis Ocana Spain
1974 Eddy Merckx Belgium


Eddy Merckx (photo by Ken is copyright)

1975 Bernard Thevenet France
1976 Lucien van Impe Belgium
1977 Bernard Thevenet France
1978 Bernard Hinault France
1979 Bernard Hinault France
1980 Joop Zoetemelk Netherlands
1981 Bernard Hinault France
1982 Bernard Hinault France
1983 Laurent Fignon France
1984 Laurent Fignon France
1985 Bernard Hinault France
1986 Greg Lemond U.S.A.

Greg Lemond
Greg Lemond (photo is copyright)

1987 Stephen Roche Ireland
1988 Pedro Delgado Spain
1989 Greg Lemond U.S.A.
1990 Greg Lemond U.S.A.
1991 Miguel Indurain Spain
1992 Miguel Indurain Spain
1993 Miguel Indurain Spain
1994 Miguel Indurain Spain
1995 Miguel Indurain Spain

Marco Pantani
Marco Pantani (photo is copyright)

1996 Bjarne Riis
Denmark
1997 Jan Ullrich Germany
1998 Marco Pantani Italy
2006* Oscar Pereiro Spain
2007 Alberto Contador Spain
2008 Carlos Sastre Spain
2009 Alberto Contador Spain
2010 Alberto Contador Spain
2011 Cadel Evans Australia

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.