Humble Beginnings: Le Tour de France

Humble Beginnings: Le Tour de France

While probably not the darling of the cycling intelligentsia, the Tour de France is certainly the race most widely known and revered by the public at large. Much like Wimbledon, the Superbowl or the FIFA World Cup, the Tour de France puts a global spotlight on cycling, garnering attention from all over the world from people who would, otherwise, not take as much of an interest in our beautiful two-wheeled sport. For now, though, all eyes are upon it, as it makes global headlines. Coincidentally, due to the spectacularly large scope of the race, it also holds the honour of being the largest live spectator sporting event in the world – a title worthy of an event so iconic.

For a little perspective, I’d like to take a look back to the beginnings of the race and, to do so, we have to take a step back in time to 1899, where the first iteration of the race took place. The idea sprang, of all things, from a rivalry between two French newspapers (Le Vélo and L’Auto), who had embodied divided opinion in the public over the “Dreyfuss Affair,” in which a French military officer was convicted, and then exonerated, of selling state secrets to the Germans. L’Auto was established by businessmen and journalists looking to give the other side of the story.

The paper, however, was not the roaring success that its backers might have imagined or hoped for. By 1902, sales were disappointing, and the paper found itself in trouble. A meeting was called with the most senior members of the editing team, in an attempt to boost sales. It was the youngest and most junior person at that meeting, a cycling journalist in his mid-twenties, named Géo Lefévre, who proposed the best solution – a six day cycling race, much like the ones to take place on track. This time, however, it would take place all over France. L’Auto’s financial director was hugely enthusiastic about the idea, giving Lefévre the go-ahead and telling him to “take whatever you need” from the company safe.

The first race took place in 1903. When first announced, the race was set to run for five weeks, with stages running through the night and into the next afternoon before a rest. Only fifteen people signed on, as the race seemed too daunting a task for most. The paper’s editor, former cyclist Henri Desgrange, was never enthusiastic about the idea and considered dropping it altogether. The race was cut to nineteen days and the prize money significantly increased – each day’s winner would receive 3,000 francs and the winner of the entire thing would receive a further 12,000 (six times the annual wage of your average factory worker). That did the trick. Race day arrived and the entrant number had risen from fifteen to upwards of sixty. Some were professional riders, and some were just enthusiasts looking for adventure. With Desgrange still unconvinced, the race did not appear on the cover of that day’s edition of L’Auto, but it went ahead, nonetheless.

Many riders dropped out after the initial few stages, as the task proved too great to conquer. Only twenty-four riders remained by the end of stage four. After a gruelling nineteen days, Maurice Garin emerged victorious. He dominated, winning the first and last two stages, taking home, including the winner’s purse, a serious sum of money. The race was a success, with distribution of L’Auto doubling over the course of it’s runtime. Desgrange was thrilled, and the race has happened every year since (barring the years of the First and Second world wars). L’Auto went on to become L’Équipe, one of the biggest sports newspapers in France. Mission accomplished.