The Tour de France was first organised in 1903 and along with the Giro d’Italia and Vuelta a Espana they make up cycling’s prestigious three week long Grand Tours, with the Tour de France the oldest and widely considered the most prestigious. The modern Tour de France consists of 21 day-long stages, over a 23 day period and covers around 3500 kilometres. The number of teams usually varies between 20 and 22 with 9 riders in each team. All of the stages are timed to the finish with the riders times combined with their previous stage times. The rider with the lowest aggregate time after each stage gets to don the coveted and iconic yellow jersey and the rider with the lowest time after the last stage is the winner. This fight for the yellow jersey is known as the general classification, which gains the most attention, although there are other contests within the tour including; the points classification for the sprinters, mountains classification for the climbers, young rider classification for the under 26 riders and the team classification for the fastest teams.
The Tour as it is now is a completely different beast to what it was back in 1903 and we thought we’d take a look back at what made the Tour de France the greatest cycling race in the world.
The first edition
The newspaper L’Auto-Velo was founded in 1900, with a former cyclist Henri Desgrange as the editor. After being forced to change the name of the newspaper to L’Auto in 1903, Destrange needed something to keep the cycling fans, with a circulation of 20,000 he couldn’t afford to lose them.
Destrange and a young employee Geo Lefevre were returning from the Marseille-Paris cycling race and Lefevre suggested holding a race around France. After Destrange proposed the idea to the financial controller, on the 19th January 1903 the Tour was announced in L’Auto.
Originally it was suppose to be a five-week race, from 1 June to 5 July, with an entry fee of 20 francs. However after only 15 competitors had signed up, Desgrange rescheduled the race from 1 to 19 July, increased the total prize money to 20,000 francs, reduced the entry fee to 10 francs and guaranteed at least 5 francs a day to the first 50 cyclists in the classification. After that, 79 cyclists signed up for the race, of whom 60 actually started the race.
The 1903 Tour de France was run in six stages. Compared to modern stage races, the stages were extraordinarily long, with an average distance of over 400 km, compared to the 171 km average stage length in the 2004 Tour; cyclists had one to three rest days between each stage, and the route was largely flat, with only one stage featuring a significant mountain. The cyclists were not grouped in teams but raced as individuals. Because the stages were so long, all but the first started before dawn: the last stage started at 21:00 the night before.
French rider Maurice Garin won the first stage and after leading the general classification for the duration of the race went on to win in just over 94 hours and 33 mins, almost 3 hours ahead of his nearest rival.
The circulation of L’Auto increased significantly due to this event with normal circulation increasing from 25,000 to 65,000. The big success made sure that the Tour de France was scheduled again for 1904. The cyclists had also become national heroes. Maurice Garin returned for the 1904 Tour de France but his title defence failed when he was disqualified. With the prize money that he won in 1903, which totalled 6,075 francs, (around £23,000 in 2006 values) Garin later bought a gas station, where he worked for the rest of his life.
The Yellow Jersey
Despite being the symbol of the modern day Tour, interestingly the yellow jersey hasn’t always been used for the leader. The winner of the first tour Maurice Garin wore a green armband, not a yellow jersey. There is some uncertainty of when exactly the yellow jersey was first introduced. Belgian rider Phillipe Thys, who won the Tour in 1913, 1914 and 1920, recalled in the Belgian magazine Champions et Vedettes when he was 67 that he was awarded a yellow jersey in 1913 when the organiser, Henri Destrange asked him to wear a coloured jersey. Thys declined, saying making himself more visible in yellow would encourage other riders to ride against him. He also spoke of the following year’s race (1914) and how the yellow jersey was passed between the leading riders after different stages. Despite this, there is no mention of the yellow jersey in the newspapers before the war (the tour didn’t run between 1915-1918) so the formal history is that the first yellow jersey was worn by the french rider Eugene Christophe on July 18th, 1919. The colour was thought to have been chosen as it matches the colour of Destrange’s newspaper L’Auto.
After returning following WW1 the Tour continued to grow. Despite a range of changes and alterations from year to year its popularity increased. Until 1925 Desgrange forbade team members from pacing each other.The 1927 and 1928 Tours, however, consisted mainly of team time-trials, an unsuccessful experiment which sought to avoid a proliferation of sprint finishes on flat stages. Desgrange was a traditionalist with equipment. Until 1930 he demanded that riders mend their bicycles without help and that they use the same bicycle from start to end. Exchanging a damaged bicycle for another was allowed only in 1923. Desgrange stood against the use of multiple gears and for many years insisted riders use wooden rims, fearing the heat of braking while coming down mountains would melt the glue that held the tires on metal rims (they were finally allowed in 1937).
By the end of the 1920s, Desgrange believed he could not beat what he believed were the underhand tactics of bike factories. In 1930 Desgrange attempted to take control of the Tour from teams, insisting competitors enter in national teams rather than trade teams and that competitors ride plain yellow bicycles that he would provide, without a maker’s name. There was no place for individuals in the post-1930s teams and so Desgrange created regional teams, generally from France, to take in riders who would not otherwise have qualified. In 1940 Desgrange passed away and the race was taken over by his deputy, Jacques Goddet. The Tour was again disrupted by WW2 after 1939, and did not return until 1947.
Team dynamics and doping
After the resumption of the tour in 1947, the format of the race settled on between 20-25 stages. Most stages would last one day but the scheduling of ‘split’ stages continued well in to the 1980’s. 1953 saw the introduction of the Green Jersey ‘Points’ competition. National teams contested the Tour until 1961, and although they caught the public’s imagination they had a snag: riders might normally have been in rival trade teams the rest of the season. The loyalty of riders was sometimes questionable, within and between teams. Sponsors were always unhappy about releasing their riders into anonymity for the biggest race of the year, as riders in national teams wore the colours of their country and a small cloth panel on their chest that named the team for which they normally rode. The situation became critical at the start of the 1960’s. Sales of bicycles had fallen and bicycle factories were closing. There was a risk, the trade said, that the industry would die if factories were not allowed the publicity of the Tour de France. The Tour returned to trade teams in 1962 and although it experimented with national teams in 1967 and 1968 the Tour reverted to trade teams in 1969.
There are a number of riders who have gone onto win multiple Tours. Jacques Anquetil who won the Tour in 1957 went on to win 5 in total after winning 4 straight tours from 1961-1964. Eddie Merckx then matched this feat by winning 4 straight from 1969-1973, winning his 5th in 1974. Bernard Thevenet won his first Tour in 1975 and won his fifth in 1985. 1986 saw Greg Lemond become the first non-European to win the tour and he would go on to win 2 more in 1989 and 1990. The 1990’s and 2000’s were marred by a number of high profile doping cases and investigations with widespread doping uncovered. Miguel Indurain won 5 straight tours from 1991-1995 although questions have been asked about the legitimacy of his performances despite always denying doping. From 1996-1998 all 3 winners were implicated in doping scandals and from 1999-2005 there is no winner of the Tour after Lance Armstrong who had won, later admitted doping throughout his career. Oscar Pereiro was awarded the win in 2006 after original winner Floyd Landis failed a test, although Pereiro has himself been implicated in doping investigations. Alberto Contador won the 2007 and 2009 editions although he later had results in 2010-11 voided due to doping (including the 2010 Tour de France title). Carlos Sastre won the 2008 Tour and is widely regarded as one of the very few ‘clean’ riders to have won the Tour de France in modern times.
Since 2011 none of the winners in each of the five years has ever been involved, or implicated in, doping scandals or investigations. Three of the five wins have also come from the UK based Team Sky. Bradley Wiggins became the first British man to win the Tour in 2012, with Chris Froome as runner-up. Froome then went on to win the Tour in 2013 and again in 2015. Outside of the General classification, Mark Cavendish, also won the points classification in 2011 and in total has won 26 stages of the Tour from 2008-2015, putting him third on the all-time list of most stage wins.
From its simple beginnings back in 1903 the Tour de France has grown into the worlds largest annual sporting event. Nearly 200 countries across the world broadcast the race, with over 120 channels and 2000 journalists following the race. The Tour de France is known for its passionate fans with 12 million expected along the route in a typical year, each having travelled an average of 130km to see the stage.
The 2019 Tour de France, its 106th edition, starts on the 6th July.