Paul Lamarra charts the thrills, spills and scandals over 110 years
At just after 3pm on 1 July 1903, 60 cyclists lined up in Montgeron to the south-east of Paris to embark on the first Tour de France.
The cyclists rode through the night for 467 kilometres to complete the epic first stage to Lyon. When Maurice Garin and Émile Pagie crossed the line the next morning after 18 hours of cycling, only one minute separated them. This exciting climax to the first-ever stage would ensure the Tour’s lasting popularity – this was a race that was also an adventure.
Garin won two more of the six stages and took the Tour title by the still unsurpassed margin of almost three hours. Despite the start being delayed by two weeks due to a lack of interest among cyclists, 20,000 fans turned out to cheer Garin into the Paris Vélodrome on 18 July. Only 20 other riders completed the race.
For L’Auto, the magazine that had organised and promoted the race, and its editor Henri Desgrange, the race had been a huge success and would help to reverse its falling circulation. By 1933 sales had increased 40 fold to top 800,000. A year later Desgrange’s instinct was to call the whole thing off. The Tour had become a monster. Such was the devotion of fans to their chosen riders that cheating was rife. Cyclists were known to get into cars and take trains. Rival riders were often ambushed and beaten up.
In the early days the thinking had been that the Tour should as far as possible follow the outline of France, which meant conquering the Alps and the Pyrénées. So in a move that could have put an end to the Tour, Desgrange gambled in 1910 on organising a stage in the Pyrénées from Bagnères-de-Luchon to Bayonne that would include the Col du Tourmalet (2,115 metres).
Desgrange was acting on the advice of Alphonse Steinès, the Tour’s route planner, who had almost died the previous January trying to prove that the Col du Tourmalet was passable. Despite having to abandon his car and becoming lost, he did not hesitate to telegram Desgrange that the road was “perfectly feasible”.
Octave Lapize, riding a gearless bike, was first over the Col du Tourmalet, despite having to get off and push at one point, and he went on to win the stage and the Tour. Since then it has been included 79 times. The massive Col du Galibier in the Alps (2,645 metres) followed a year later.
In 1909 François Faber from Luxembourg became the first non-French champion, but from 1912 to 1929 the host country produced just one winner. It was during the 1919 Tour, the first after four years of war, that the yellow jersey for the leader in the general classification was awarded for the first time.
Gradually the race became more professional and individual riders known as touristes-routiers were replaced by trade-sponsored teams. However, the latter were banned in 1930 because of fears that technological advances were giving them an unfair advantage, so riders had to compete in national teams. The ban remained until 1962.
During the slaughter of World War I there had been no question of holding the Tour. In World War II the occupying Germans were keen that things continued as normal, but L’Auto refused requests to hold the Tour. In 1942 a French newspaper with Nazi sympathies organised the Circuit de France, but the race was a badly organised failure.
The Tour returned in 1947 after a seven-year absence, but L’Auto lost the rights to run it because France’s first post-war leader, General Charles de Gaulle, believed the magazine had collaborated with the Germans. Rights were eventually granted to the Amaury Sport Organisation, which still runs the event.
The Tour continues to grow in importance and has become a worldwide phenomenon. The race is now covered by 2,000 journalists and is televised in 190 countries, of which 60 transmit live coverage. Inevitably such a high profile attracts those with a point to make.
Striking firemen and steel workers, protesting farmers and Basque separatists have all sought to disrupt the race, but with little success. Riders themselves have, however, brought the race to a halt. As early as 1925 they thwarted Desgrange’s plan for all racers to eat the same amount of food; in 1978 they staged a go-slow in protest at having to complete more than one stage in a day; and in 1998 a whole stage was lost in response to what riders saw as a heavy-handed approach to drug taking by the Festina team.
It is perhaps because of the difficulties rather than despite them that the Tour survives. As well as being a feat of human endurance that is peerless in modern sport, it has huge cultural importance and frequently descends into political melodrama. It is a unique combination that grips audiences worldwide.
Tour de France timeline
1903 – The first Tour de France gets under way at 3.15pm on 1 July
1905 – The Ballon d’Alsace becomes the first mountain stage
1910 – The Col du Tourmalet in the Pyrénées is included for the first time
1911 – The Col de Galibier is included for the first time
1915 – 1918 – The Tour is suspended for the duration of World War I
1919 – The yellow jersey is introduced for the race leader
1924 – Journalist Albert Londres writes about Les Forçats de la Route (convicts of the road) which reveals drug taking among Tour cyclists
1925 – Riders threaten their first strike over organiser Henri Desgrange’s attempts to make them eat the same amount of food
1930 – 1961 Trade-sponsored teams are banned and riders must compete on a national basis
1933 – The king of the mountains title is awarded for the first time
1940 – 1946 The official Tour is suspended during the Nazi occupation and immediate post-liberation period
1947 – The Tour resumes but L’Auto is stripped of the rights, which are given eventually to the Amaury Sport Organisation
1953 – The green jersey points classification title is introduced
1962 – The ban on trade-sponsored teams is lifted
1967 – British rider Tom Simpson dies climbing Mont Ventoux
1975 – The Tour’s climax is moved to the Champs-Élysees in Paris which becomes the accepted finish for subsequent races
1978 – Riders stage a go-slow about competing in two stages a day
1989 – American Greg LeMond beats French rider Laurent Fignon by eight seconds
1998 – One stage is abandoned after riders protest about the Festina team’s treatment over drug taking in what becomes known as the ‘Tour of shame’
2007 – Astana and Cofidis teams withdraw over doping
2012 – Lance Armstrong is stripped of his seven titles
2012 – Bradley Wiggins becomes the first British winner of the Tour
2013 – The Tour de France celebrates its 100 edition and visits Corsica for the first time