Le Tour de France – a look back in time
This week sees the 104th edition of the Tour de France. A staple of the cycle racing calendar, it is an institution that has been held almost every year since its inauguration in 1903. As a cycle tourer, I’m not particularly a racing fan. Pelotons and breakaways don’t mean much to me. But in researching my book Pedal Power, I came across many extraordinary cyclists who dominated the Grand Tours, and in learning the ins and outs of cycle racing I discovered a new respect and love for the various multi-stage races that take place on the continent. Most interesting is their history. Here follows the introduction to my chapter ‘Grand Tour Masters’, opening with Maurice Garin, the winner of the first ever Tour De France.
With the broad and powerful swing of the hand which Zola in ‘The Earth’ gave to his ploughman, L’Auto, journal of ideas and action, is going to fling across France today those reckless and uncouth sowers of energy who are the great professional riders of the world.
~ Henri Desgrange
Henri Desgrange was looking for a way to boost business. His newspaper, L’Auto, was struggling. A keen cyclist and velodrome owner, he had seen how rival broadsheet Le Vélo had benefitted from its sponsorship of the Bordeaux–Paris and Paris–Roubaix, both long, gruelling feats of the type popular at the time. Desgrange decided to create the ultimate test of endurance: an event similar to the gruesome challenge of the six-day race, but on roads rather than in a stadium, taking place over several weeks around the perimeter of France. He advertised a five-stage race lasting 36 days. Only 15 people entered. Desgrange cut the length to 2,500 km over 19 days and offered substantial prizes. On 1 July 1903, 60 cyclists gathered for the start of the inaugural Tour de France. Among their number was Maurice Garin.
Garin was a popular racing cyclist, nicknamed le petit ramoneur (the little chimney sweep), which he was by trade, or le fou (the madman) because of the speed with which he pedalled around the town. Since his first 24-hour race in Paris in 1893, where he was one of only two people to cross the finish line, he had raced Paris–Roubaix three times, and won both Paris–Brest–Paris and Bordeaux–Paris. Of gruelling length, on unforgiving roads, through inclement weather and through the night, such races drew huge crowds; the riders, who would suffer fatigue, pain and discomfort to reach the end were elevated to the status of supermen. To take part in the toughest race ever conceived was irresistible to Garin. Desgrange had said his ideal Tour would be one in which ‘only one rider survived the ordeal’.
On the afternoon of 1 July, the cyclists set off from the Café Reveil-Matin in a village just outside Paris. Riding through the night, the riders pitted their wits and their strength against each other. Times would be recorded for the completion of each stage; the rider with the lowest aggregate time at the end would be announced the winner. Garin won the first stage and the second. Such were the physical demands of the race that by the end of the fourth stage, only 24 riders remained. After three weeks of riding, Garin won the final two stages to cross the finish line more than 64 hours ahead of the man who would come in last. ‘The 2,500 km that I’ve just ridden seem a long line, grey and monotonous, where nothing stood out from anything else,’ he said. ‘I suffered on the road; I was hungry, I was thirsty, I was sleepy, I suffered, I cried.’
The brutal test of strength that Desgrange had envisaged had proved a huge success. Sales of L’Auto soared. Desgrange announced entries for the following year’s race.
Garin once more took up the mantle, and once again, he won. But the race was marred by reports of cheating; riders were suspected of clinging on to cars and Garin was accused of taking the train. Spectators would conspire to help their favourites and hold back rivals. After being beaten up by a mob, Garin declared, ‘I’ll win the Tour de France provided I’m not murdered before we get to Paris.’ Crossing the finish line in first place, unable to prove his innocence from cheating, Garin was stripped of his title. He never won a race again.
And that was nearly that; Desgrange announced that the Tour would run no more. But by the following year he’d changed his mind, announcing shorter stages, with daytime-only racing to ensure that all entrants would abide by the rules. Apart from during the war years, the Tour de France has run every year since.
Desgrange’s race set a precedent for the Giro d’Italia and Vuelta a España, the two other races that now make up the Grand Tours. The Giro was launched in 1909 to boost sales of La Gazzetta dello Sport, while the Vuelta was instigated in 1935 by Spanish magazine Informaciones. The races are governed by the Union Cycliste International (UCI – set up in 1900 to replace the ICA) and teams race, as they initially did, for a sponsor (though they briefly raced for national teams).
The Tour de France is still the most eminent of all the Grand Tours, and the coveted yellow jersey – the colour of L’Auto’s pages – introduced in 1919 to be worn by the race leader is a recognised symbol all over the world. Over time, the stages have become shorter and no longer run in a continuous loop. The race always follows a different route, consisting variously of mountain stages, flat stages and time trials, and since 1975 has always ended at the Champs-Élysées in Paris.
Fame and fortune still await those who can finish, and win, the most prestigious bicycle race in the world.
‘Pedal Power: inspirational stories from the world of cycling’ is available now