The Tour de France is the most widely recognised cycling event in the world and winning it is seen as the ultimate achievement in road cycling. Although not quite the oldest race, it has been going since 1903 with only a few years off during the two World Wars. Although the most watched cycling event in the world, very few people actually know it's true origins…
Tour de France Inception
So how did the Tour de France come to life? In 1903, L’Auto newspaper, owned by Henri Desgrange was losing readers to its competitor Le Velo, which had a winning mix of news and political commentary alongside sports news and events. Le Velo also used sporting events as promotional tools, such as the Paris-Roubaix race that was first held in 1986. Desgrange needed a way to boost readership and decided the best way to do this would be to mimic Le Velo and create a sponsored cycling race - but instead of a 1 day event he decided to hold a stage race around France.
The original race was planned over five weeks from June to July but it didn’t attract enough competitors. After only 15 signed up, the race was delayed by a month, the race time shortened, and prize money increased with a small prize for the first 50 cyclists. With these new conditions, a total of 79 riders signed up, of which 60 started the race.
The 2,428km six stage race followed a clockwise loop around France. Each stage was remarkably long, with an average length of 250 miles (405km). Stages were usually started before dawn and the final stage that ended in Paris was started at 21:00 the day before. Unlike today, the first Tour did not cross any mountain passes. At the time it was normal for racers to use pacers but Desgrange banned this on all but the final stage to make the Tour a real challenge.
The Tour Begins
With an average speed of 25.7km/h, the favourite before the race, Maurice Garin, went on to win. He finished three hours ahead of his nearest rival Lucien Pothier. This remains the largest victory margin in the history of the Tour de France and his win was witnessed by 20k spectators in Paris.
At the end of the race Garin gave a note to Desgrange to simplify the interview process for the newspaper. The note said:
“The 2,500 km that I've just ridden seem a long line, grey and monotonous, where nothing stood out from anything else. But I suffered on the road; I was hungry, I was thirsty, I was sleepy, I suffered, I cried between Lyon and Marseille”
Garin won 3,000 francs for finishing in first place but also collected a total of 6,125 francs (approx €24,000 today) for other bonuses. Later in his career Garin bought a petrol station, where he worked for the rest of his life.
Evolution of the Tour de France
The race was a huge success and the participants became national heroes. Desgrange’s goal was also achieved as he saw readership of L’Auto rise from 25,000 to 65,000, which forced Le Velo to close down.
It was a foregone conclusion that the Tour would return in 1904. Excited fans had at times been so eager to see their favourite take the win that they beat up the other cyclists. Henri Cornet was eventually made the winner after whole of the top four were found guilty of using cars and trains. Consequently, Desgrange announced that the Tour would never take place again. Despite this announcement, there was indeed a Tour in 1905, but this time all the stages were held in daylight so that marshalls could keep a better eye on the participants who had previously used the cover of darkness to take shortcuts.
In 1910 the first mountain stages through the Pyrenees were introduced, including an ascent of Col du Tourmalet, which was at the time the highest paved mountain pass in the French Pyrenees. Gustave Garrigou managed the ascent without dismounting and was awarded a 100-franc prize for doing so. Not bad considering he was riding a single speed bike (The derailleur wasn’t introduced into the Tour until 1937). Garrigou went on to win the tour in 1911. Today the mountain stages of the Alps and the Pyrenees have become a key battleground for the competitors, a favorite of the spectators, and some would say the pinnacle of the grand tour calendars.
The Tour Becomes Big Business
For many years, riders raced in national teams. This was always very unpopular with sponsors and bicycle companies who would have preferred members of their cycling teams to be riding for them (and promoting their brand) rather than their nations. There were also regular doubts about the true loyalties of certain riders who were supposed to be racing against their teammates. By the 1960’s, sales of bicycles had dropped and factories were closing. As a result, in 1962 the Tour de France was returned to trade teams and privateers in order to promote bicycle sales. Since then, national teams were experimented with again in 1967 and 1968 but they have not been seen since. The 60s were dominated by Jacques Anquetil and Saint-Raphaël team who inspired the now famous road cycling apparel company Rapha.
During the 70’s the Tour de France was further commercialised. Sponsors were brought in to fund the Tour or provide prize money. This decade also saw the dominance of Eddy Merckx and the Molteni team, who still holds the record for most stages won (34) and completing the most stages wearing the yellow jersey (96). During this time, efforts were made to internationalise the Tour and riders from around the globe were encouraged to take part. The first winner from outside of Europe was Greg LeMond of the USA who also holds the record for winning the Tour with the smallest margin of just 8 seconds.
How Does the Tour de France Work? - The Modern Tour
Everything about the Tour de France has steadily got bigger over the years. More participants, more spectators and viewers, as well as the average speed of the cyclists.
Prize money has also dramatically increased over time, with current winners getting around €500,0000 (That works out to be around €500/km) and another €2 million being distributed for winning stages or other prizes.
The 2018 Tour de France was the 105th tour. 176 riders from 30 different countries on 22 teams took part. There were 21 stages with a total distance of 2,083 miles (3,351 km). Geraint Thomas of Team Sky took the win with a time of 83 hours, 17 minutes and 13 seconds. This latest Tour was watched on TV by an estimated 3-4 billion viewers, reflecting the increased interest that cycling has seen in recent years.
This latest Team Sky win reflects their dominance in recent years, having also won in 2012, 2013, 2015, 2016, and 2017. Chris Froome was the winner of four of those victories making him the 5th most successful Tour de France rider ever in terms of number of wins.
The Tour de France has been incredibly popular since it began, even with people who are otherwise not interested in cycling. An ability to adapt to changing demands is almost certainly the key to the ongoing success of the Tour. It started out as a way to promote a sports newspaper which later lost readers as radios came into use. The Tour adapted and found a way to profit from radio and later television coverage. Originally it was bicycle and tyre companies sponsoring the Tour, but this changed in the 50s when companies from outside of cycling got on board. Finally, with the inclusion of more and more international riders, the Tour found itself with viewers from around the world. The Tour de France remains the most iconic and prestigious race in the world of professional road cycling.
To celebrate the colourful history of the world's greatest bike race we've created a range of products that explore different facets of the race. The History Wheel poster and Tour de France Jersey History poster shows the name and jersey of the winner from every year that the Tour has taken place. If you look closely, you can even see how the jerseys changed to reflect cyclists racing for national or trade teams. They make a perfect addition to any home with a cycling enthusiast who wants to be inspired by the great history of the Tour de France and have a visual history of it hanging on their wall. The poster can even be personalised should you wish to give one as a present.