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A Brief History of the Tour de France

An Introduction to the Tour de France

Many would argue that the Tour de France is the greatest bicycle race for professional men cyclists. It is held in France and is probably the best known Grand Tour. The race consists of 21 stages that are each a day long, held over the course of a gruelling, action packed 23 days. The competition is usually held in July, although in 2020 it was delayed and held in August due to the Covid-19 pandemic. Organised by the Amaury Sport Organisation, commonly known as the ASO, the Tour de France is raced around different routes in France, and alternates between clockwise and counter clockwise circuits. Each year is unique in that the routes may change, with some routes even starting outside of France, which makes it incredibly difficult to complete.

In the current edition of the Tour de France, there are 20 to 22 teams comprising 8 riders, who compete for the title. The winners of the race not only climb up the Union Cycliste Internationale or UCI, World rankings, but they can also win the famed winner’s yellow jersey.

Tour de France History

The Tour de France has quite a tumultuous history. It was established in 1903 because of a newspaper rivalry between Le Velo and L'Auto over the Dreyfus Affair. The Dreyfus Affair was a huge scandal in the 1890s over whether French army officer Alfred Dreyfus was guilty or not of selling military secrets to the Germans. The two sports papers had different views on the political matter, and became rivalling papers. L'Auto was not selling as many papers as Le Velo, who were reportedly selling 80,000 copies a day. In 1902 they held a crisis meeting to determine how they could promote their newspaper and outsell Le Velo. The youngest journalist, a 26 year old named Geo Lefevre suggested that they hold a long distance bicycle race to help raise awareness of the paper.

Whilst holding these races were not uncommon for newspapers, the distance that Lefevre suggested was completely unheard of at the time, and the editor Henri Desgrange was doubtful about whether the plan would work. Victor Goddet, the financial director of L'Auto was excited by the prospect and he encouraged Desgrange, giving him a blank check and telling him to take as much as he needed to make the event happen. The race was announced in L'Auto in 1903.

The inaugural race was a six stage race that lasted from the 1st of July to the 19th, starting in Paris and making a round trip through Lyon, Marseille, Toulouse, Bordeaux and Nantes before it came back to Paris. The riders had a brutal schedule where they had to race through nights and received little time to rest. To make sure more cyclists entered the competition, Desgrange lowered the entry fee from 20 francs to 10, and offered daily allowances for riders who averaged at least 20 kilometres an hour on all stages. He set the first prize at 12,000 francs and the prize for each day's winner at 3,000 francs. The scheme paid off as 60 cyclists entered the race.

Only 21 riders managed to finish the race, and the inaugural race was won by Maurice Garin with a time of 94h 33' 14" and a margin of 2h 59' 21" from the second finisher Lucien Pothier. In third place was another Frenchman, Fernand Augereau. The difference between the first and last rider to finish was a whopping 64h 57' 08", although it has to be remembered that this was the first edition of the tour and riders did not know what to expect. The distance was a massive 2,428 km.

The tour became so popular that it was held again the following year and since then, it has been held continuously with the exception of during the two World Wars. In 1905, the tour scrapped the night time rides because judges could not see all of the riders and it was suspected that some of them cheated by using early automobiles or using other means to get ahead.

Desgrange was so happy with the success of the tour, which helped bring L'Auto into the public eye, that he wanted to try to make the race even more difficult. In 1906 the race was extended to 4,637 km, a little under twice the original length only 3 years prior.

The length of the tours increased in the following years, with Desgrange wanting to push to make them even more difficult. He was reported as saying that his ideal race is where only one rider is able to make it all the way back to Paris.

In these first tours, there was a mix of individuals who independently entered the race, and there were some who cycled in teams that were sponsored by bike manufacturing companies. The teams proved effective as they were able to protect themselves from assaults from local fans around the country.

By the 1930s, there were no more individual riders and all entries were by teams of cyclists. The structure of the race changed to bicycle stage racing. The accumulated time over each stage was added together to get the general classification, which was the overall time for each rider. Desgrange constantly experimented with the race format to avoid exploitation by the bike manufacturing companies and to avoid any scandals with the locals. He introduced team time-trials in the 1927 and 1928 editions to avoid excessive sprinting on flat circuits. Desgrange insisted against having bicycles with multiple gears, and also that all cyclists should use the same bicycle from start to finish. He also demanded that cyclists should mend their own bikes but all of these rules were eventually discarded because they were not feasible.

With a strong stance against the manufacturers, Desgrange tried to organise the races so that competitors entered national teams rather than trade teams and that all marks of the manufacturers be taken off the bicycles. The change to the bicycles was ruled out, but the teams were changed to be national teams in 1931.

After the Second World War, L'Auto was closed and never opened again. Jacques Goddet, the son of Victor Goddet who was the financial director of L'Auto, published L'Equipe, the successor to L'Auto. L'Equipe ran the Tour with another paper called Le Parisien Libere, but the sports papers had stiff combinations from Sports and Miroir Sprint who ran a rival tour called La Ronde de France. Though financial support from the state was minimal, L'Equipe had a better organised race and in 1947 they were given the rights to run the Tour de France 1947 edition. Goddet was joined by Emilion Amaury, who would later establish the Amaury Sport Organisation, the current organisers of the Tour de France.

In 1962, the format with national teams was dropped. This was because in other competitions there were teams that were sponsored by companies, and the national teams differed in size. Some even called out the loyalties of the individual riders, as some riders from the same national team were rivals in all other competitions.

What also affected the decision to bring back trade teams was that sales of bicycles had fallen and bicycle factories were closing. There were warnings that the industry could die out if they were not allowed the publicity of the Tour de France.

The 1970s through to 1990s saw the gradual reduction of the overall racing distance. While there were some races back in the 20s and 30s that were run over a distance of over 5,000 kilometres, the overall length of the Tour was slowly reduced to between 3,200 km and 4,000 km.

In the 1998 Tour de France, officials discovered that there was systematic doping in the sport. When the teams and individuals were exposed, they were thrown out of the race. The 1999 edition of the Tour aimed to clean up the reputation of the great race, but unfortunately it was only the start of a bigger scandal.

Lance Armstrong captured the attention of the public when he beat an aggressive cancer in his mid-20s and then went on to win the Tour de France in 7 consecutive years. There were a lot of rumours at the time about the American cyclist, but it was not until 2010 when the truth came out. In a bold move, the ASO decided not only to annul Armstrong's titles in 1999 to 2005, but to completely discount the races.

Nowadays the Tour is completely doping free and has none of the scandals and problems that it used to have. It has finally fulfilled Desgranges’ vision, in which it is a pure competition between competitors with huge levels of stamina and mental strength who partake in one of the most physically demanding and gruelling competitions imaginable.

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