The Origin Of The Tour de France

ENTERTAINMENT | January 2, 2020

Tour de France 2016. Source: (Photo by Tim de Waele/Corbis via Getty Images)

While there are many bicycle races in the world, none have the prestige or publicity of the Tour de France. The 21-day long, 2,200 miles (3,500 kilometers) race is one of the most grueling contests of sports competition in the world. In its origins, it was a different race than the one we know today.

The cashiering of Alfred Dreyfus. Source: (Wikipedia)

The 1890s ushered in a bicycling craze in France. With a boom in the cycling industry, racing tracks, called velodromes, were developed as well as numerous long-distance road races. As it turns out the race that would become the Tour de France originated from a magazine dispute over the Dreyfus Affair.

The Dreyfus Affair was a scandal in which Alfred Dreyfus, a Jewish captain in the French army, was falsely accused and convicted in 1895 of giving military secrets to the Germans. The entire scandal reeked of antisemitism and even when evidence was discovered of Dreyfus’s innocence, he was not exonerated until 1906. It divided the country.

Henri Desgrange (1865-1940). Source: (Wikipedia)

In 1899, France’s top bicycle magazine Le Vélo ran an article supporting Dreyfus. The bicycle manufacturer Comte Dion objected and pulled its business from the magazine. It then established its own bicycle magazine, L’Auto with the assistance of other manufacturers. Henri Desgrange was the editor, a former bicycling champion. At the suggestion of Geo Lefevre, a staff member whom L’Auto poached from Le Vélo, Desgrange established a road race throughout France. This was to become the Tour de France.

A reenactment of the start of the First Tour de France. Source: (Photo by Universal/Corbis/VCG via Getty Images)

The first race was held in 1903. It was held over a 19 day period in six stages, unlike the 23 days, 21 stage modern race. It started on July 1 at the Café Au Reveil Matin in the Paris suburb of Montgeron. From there, cyclists raced to Lyon then Marseilles, Toulouse, Bordeaux, Nantes, and then a return to the Parisian suburb of Ville d’Avray. This totaled approximately 2,397 kilometers or about 1,500 miles. This race featured sixty cyclists of which only 21 finished. While there were no Alpine stages in this first race, it featured stage distances of about 250 miles apiece. In comparison, modern races feature 150-mile stages. To make it more challenging and dangerous most of the roads were unpaved and the racers bore no helmets. Derailleur gears were not permitted — something that was not allowed until 1937. Modern enthusiasts would also note that there was no Yellow Jersey to indicate the leader — that was only introduced in 1919. 

Maurice Garin. Source: (Wikimedia Commons)

Most of the competitors were French with a smattering of Belgian, German, Swiss and Italian competitors. A Frenchman, Maurice Garin, nicknamed the “Little Chimney Sweep” (he was indeed a chimney sweep) won by over three hours.  The secret of success was apparently his diet of tapioca, oysters, hot chocolate, and coffee mixed with champagne. Garin’s pace was nearly 16 miles per hour. Compare this to the 25 mile per hour typically paced by modern competitors. The Tour de France generated so much interest, that when the cyclists pedaled into Ville d’Avray for the finish, over 100,000 spectators turned out to cheer them on. Throughout the country, more cycling clubs were founded. L’Auto displaced Le Vélo as the top bicycling magazine. Le Vélo folded in 1904 going bankrupt. Desgrange, perhaps in a patronizing gesture, hired Le Vélo’s editor onto his staff.

Photograph of Garin taking a drink before a race. Source: (Photo by: Universal History Archive/Universal Images Group via Getty Images)

The Tour de France aroused such passion the second race in 1904 featured ample skulduggery and cheating. As eighty-eight riders competed, partisans felled trees over roadways or hired goons to waylay riders. Garin, a favorite to win again, was chased by a car and beaten by a mob. It seemed that as the race proceeded through France, local partisans would violently do what they could to support their hometown favorites. Garin proclaimed, "I'll win the Tour de France provided I'm not murdered before we get to Paris." Other riders threw down glass and nails to puncture opponents’ tires. Some riders even received secret tows from motor vehicles or fell behind them into slipstreams. Garin went on to win the second race, but he was along with eight other competitors were disqualified for cheating. It is disputed as to how Garin cheated. 

Colombian Egan Bernal of Team Ineos wearing the yellow jersey pictured in action during the final stage of the 106th edition of the Tour de France cycling race, from Rambouillet to Paris Champs-Elysees (128km), France, Sunday 28 July 2019. Source: (DAVID

The 1904 race was a disaster. Desgrange wrote, “The Tour de France is finished, and its second running will be, I am sure, also its last.” But despite the shenanigans, or maybe because of it, the race was wildly popular and Desgrange was doing well financially because of it. Desgrange changed his mind and led a “grand crusade” to restore the race. Efforts to clean up the race worked though cheating seems to be an occasional Tour de France tradition. From the mentioned mishaps of the early days to the use of weighted bottles in 1947 to speed racers downhill to the Lance Armstrong doping scandals from the late 20th and early 21st centuries it seems that racers will go to any lengths to win.

But in the main, the Tour de France has been an honest, grueling race of endurance whose beginning in the wake of division and scandal, created a new national tradition. It is now the penultimate prize for competitive cyclists.

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Joseph A. Williams


Joseph A. Williams is the author of Seventeen Fathoms Deep: The Saga of the Submarine S-4 Disaster and The Sunken Gold: A Story of World War I, Espionage, and the Greatest Treasure Salvage in History.