How the Tour de France Came to Be
Known as part of the Grand Tours, a trilogy of three intense European stage races that includes the Giro d’Italia and the Vuelta a España, the Tour de France is probably the most renowned bicycle race in the world. It is also one of the most grueling as it tackles some serious terrain, especially as it winds its way through both the Alps and the Pyrenees over the course of roughly 23 days. Held annually since 1903, (with two postponements due to the First and Second World Wars) the Tour has spread in popularity and drawn in competitors from around the world, including such famous riders and multiple tour winners as Lucien Petit-Breton, Jacques Anquetil, Eddy Merckx, Greg LeMond and Miguel Indurain.
The Dreyfus Affair
While we tend to think of the Tour de France as a cycling competition, the roots of the race have an origin based in politics. The Dreyfus Affair was a major scandal in France towards the end of the nineteenth century. Alfred Dreyfus was a French soldier who was sentenced to life in 1894 (his conviction would later be overturned) for selling military information to the German Embassy in Paris. Dreyfus was sent to the notorious Devil’s
Island penal colony for approximately five years. It was later revealed that another soldier, major Ferdinand Esterhazy was behind the scandal, of which the French army suppressed all new evidence, therefore making Dreyfus the scapegoat. There were major demonstrations after the scandal broke, with many French split as to whether Dreyfus was innocent or guilty. Much of the controversy involved anti-Semitism, as Dreyfus was Jewish, but in the end he would be exonerated on all charges by a military commission in 1906.
With tensions already high over the Dreyfus affair, an incident occurred during a horse race in Auteuil in 1899, when Marquis Jules Félix Philippe Albert de Dion, the owner of the De Dion-Bouton automobile company who insisted that Dreyfus was guilty, was arrested for assaulting the president of France, Émile Loubet (who felt the Dreyfus case should be re-examined), with his cane. De Dion’s assault of the president was reported in the news, including the largest sports publication in France, Le Vélo, whose editor Pierre Giffard, supported Dreyfus. De Dion was so incensed by Giffard’s negative criticism of him that he created a publication called L’Auto in 1900 that he hoped would rival Le Vélo.
Promoting the First Tour de France
With L’Auto in its embryonic stage, de Dion hired Henri Desgrange a celebrated bicyclist and sports journalist who had set 12 world track cycling records, to serve as L’Auto’s editor. Initially, the paper did not meet its expectations in rivaling Le Vélo, and was in danger of shutting down. During a staff meeting, one of the paper’s journalists, Géo Lefèvre (a former writer for Le Vélo), suggested that the paper hold a six-day race throughout all of France in order to promote the paper, increase its circulation and put Le Vélo out of business. On January 19, 1903 L’Auto announced what would be the first Tour de France.
The 1903 Course
The first Tour de France was run in six extremely long stages making up a total of 1, 509 miles; it was held from July 1st through the 19th of 1903. There were 60 professional cyclists competing, all of whom came from Europe, primarily France. Competitors were given a three-day rest period between each stage (some of which lasted for over 200 miles). The first stage was from Paris to Lyon (290 miles); stage two went from Lyon to Marseille (232 miles); stage three was a 263 mile trek from Marseille to Toulouse; stage four was 167 miles from Toulouse to Bordeaux; the fifth stage travelled from Bordeaux to Nantes for 264 miles and the sixth and final from Nantes to Paris for 293 miles.
There were only two mountains to pass during the second stage, the Col des Echarmeaux (a 2,400 foot peak) and the Col de la République (close to 4,000 feet), during this first Tour, with most of the course being on flat roads, but, the majority of these roads were not paved, nor did the cyclists wear helmets. Cyclists were organized into teams, but were allowed to compete individually; they had the option to race a single stage for a fee of five francs or a fee of ten francs in order to complete the full course. Monitors were hired and posted throughout the course to ensure that every cyclist rode the full course fairly. The leader of the race was given a yellow armband to wear as L’Auto was printed on yellow paper (the Yellow Jersey worn by all leaders of subsequent Tours would be introduced in 1919.)
Maurice Garin of France would win the first, fifth and sixth stages, with his fellow countryman Hippolyte Aucouturier winning the second and third, while Charles Laeser of Switzerland would win the fourth. Garin would eventually win the first Tour de France to a screaming crowd of 20,000 spectators in the Velodrome in Paris, with a margin of 2 hours 59 minutes and 31 seconds, which remains to this day the greatest margin in the Tour’s history.
The 1903 Tour de France proved to be an enormous success. Since that very first race it has drawn millions of tourists to France every year, all of which line the course to get a glimpse of the riders. The Tour is also extensively covered world wide by television cameras, with a record 44 million viewers tuning in to watch the 20th stage of the 2009 race.
The first Tour de France was not only a success for the riders involved, but it was also a success for L’Auto, which saw its readership increase dramatically. In 1944 L’Auto would eventually transform into L’Équipe (printed on white, instead of yellow paper), one of today’s leading sports papers in France, while Le Vélo would inevitably fold and cease to exist in 1904.