The Tour de France​—100 Years of Cycling’s Supreme Test


BACK in November 1902, Henri Desgrange, director of the sports daily L’Auto, was hunting for an idea to crush the rival paper Le Vélo. “What if we organized a bicycle race around France?” suggested Géo Lefèvre, a young journalist on the staff of L’Auto. The idea seemed unrealistic at first, but it soon took shape. On July 1, 1903, at precisely 3:16 p.m., 60 professional and amateur cyclists set off from Paris on a three-week, 1,509-mile [2,428-km] trip down the roads of the first Tour de France. *

“Slaves of the Road”

The race was an immediate hit with the public. All over France huge crowds came out to see “the slaves of the road,” as French reporter Albert Londres called them, and to cheer them on. Racing conditions during the first few years of the Tour were, to say the least, primitive​—simple equipment, potholed roads, never-ending stages, and nighttime departures.

Barred from receiving any technical help, except at control points, riders who broke down had to repair their 45-pound [20-kilo] bicycle on their own. For example, in 1913 and 1919, the unfortunate Eugène Christophe twice had to mend his broken front forks at a village forge!

 Innovation and Media Coverage

In order to keep up interest in the race, the organizers had to be innovative from year to year. Changes included more numerous and shorter stages, short detours into neighboring countries, national or brand teams, individual and team time trials, and finishing on the Champs-Élysées, in Paris. A milestone was reached in 1919, when the cumulative overall leader for each day was awarded a special jersey in the same color as the yellow pages of L’Auto​—the coveted maillot jaune, or yellow jersey. In 1931, to finance the event, Desgrange created the publicity caravan that precedes the pack by an hour and livens up the route.

Sales of L’Auto​—now called L’Équipe—​took off. In 1903 the 130,000 copies of the special edition​—published seven minutes after the arrival of Maurice Garin, the winner of the first Tour de France—​were snatched off the stands immediately. Nowadays, with images televised in more than 150 countries, the Tour de France is the world’s third most media-covered sports event, behind the Olympic Games and the Soccer World Cup. Illustrating the appeal of the race, in 1987, Spanish parliamentarians interrupted their debate to follow the victory of their compatriot Pedro Delgado in the 21 hairpin bends of the grueling Alpe d’Huez mountain stage!

Attacking the Mountains

In the beginning the Tour took place mainly on flat terrain. Then, in June 1910, Alphonse Steinès, a journalist for L’Auto, sent a telegram from the Pyrenees to Desgrange saying that the mountain-pass roads were entirely practicable. Steinès’ report was not exactly truthful. He had spent the whole night lost in the snow at an altitude of 7,200 feet [2,200 meters]! Nevertheless, the next month the toughest riders took up the gauntlet. Frenchman Gustave Garrigou, although not arriving first, rode up Tourmalet Pass in the Pyrenees without setting a foot down. Other mountain passes in the Alps and Pyrenees have since been added to the Tour’s route.

In the descents, riders reach dizzying speeds of up to 60 miles per hour [100 k.p.h.], and falls are frequent. In 1951 the Dutchman Wim Van Est, wearing the yellow jersey, fell into a 160-foot [50-m]-deep gorge and was hauled out with a makeshift rope of cycle inner tubes. Others have had a more tragic outcome. In 1935 the Spaniard Francisco Cepeda was killed after falling in the Galibier Pass, in the Alps. In 1995 the Italian Fabio Casartelli had a fatal crash on a 17-percent  gradient on the Portet d’Aspet, in the Pyrenees.

Duels at the Top

In 1964 two Frenchmen, Jacques Anquetil and Raymond Poulidor, engaged in a spectacular neck and neck race up the slopes of the Puy-de-Dôme, in the Auvergne mountains. Poulidor, a frequent runner-up, won the duel but missed out on the yellow jersey by just a few seconds.

In 1971 the Belgian Eddy Merckx and the Spaniard Luis Ocaña were jostling for the lead. In the descent of the Mente Pass in the Pyrenees on July 12, Ocaña fell. Wounded, the Spaniard was unable to continue the race. In honor of his opponent, Merckx asked not to wear the yellow jersey for the departure the following day.

Mountain stages have been the scene of other gentlemanly sportsmanship. For example, during the climb of the Izoard in the Alps in 1949, the Italian archrivals Gino Bartali and Fausto Coppi temporarily set aside their animosity to support each other.

A Team Sport

Long solo breakaways are spectacular. One such was the irresistible 85-mile [140-km] break in 1951 by the Swiss Hugo Koblet, in the Brive-Agen stage. But most of the time, victory is the result of teamwork. There are usually 20 professional teams of nine riders each. Team members put themselves entirely at the disposal of their group leader, always ready to support him if he weakens, breaks down, or falls.

The example of 20-year-old French cyclist René Vietto in 1934 well illustrates this team spirit. Even though he had a strong chance of winning the stage, he did not think twice about riding back up the pass he had just come down to give his cycle to Antonin Magne, his team leader, who had broken down.

Hall of Fame

To win the Tour more than once is a remarkable feat. To date, four riders have won five times: Jacques Anquetil (France, 1957, 1961-64), Eddy Merckx (Belgium, 1969-72, 1974), Bernard Hinault (France, 1978-79, 1981-82, 1985), and Miguel Indurain (Spain, 1991-95). But who knows how many times the Belgian Philippe Thys (winner in 1913, 1914, 1920) would have won if the first world war, from which several former champions did not return, had not interrupted the competition?

For many the greatest cyclist ever was Eddy Merckx, nicknamed The Cannibal. With a record 34 stage wins, he excelled in all fields​—time trials, sprints, descents, and flat and mountain stages. “He only leaves us the crumbs,” complained his outclassed opponents. Two-time champion Fausto Coppi is held by others to be the most professional and elegant racer of all time.

 Win at All Costs

Cheating on the Tour has always been a temptation. The first four riders in the 1904 edition were disqualified for, among other things, taking unauthorized shortcuts or traveling by car.

Of all cheating, doping (misuse of drugs) remains the scourge of cycling. In the early years, strange potions were handed out to some in the pack, and in 1920, L’Auto published an article denouncing doping under medical supervision. In 1924 the Pélissier brothers admitted “running on dynamite,” in other words, dangerous substances. Over the decades several suspicious accidents have been attributed to drugs, such as the tragic death of the British cyclist Tom Simpson while climbing Mont Ventoux in 1967.

In 1998 a massive case of doping under medical supervision hit the headlines. Some 400 doses of performance-enhancing drugs, including erythropoietin, were discovered in a team masseur’s car. One team was disqualified, and a second withdrew. Last year scandal tarnished the reputation of the third-place overall finisher. According to the director of the Tour de France, Jean-Marie Leblanc, writing in the preface to the commemorative work 100 ans de Tour de France (100 Years of the Tour de France), published by L’Équipe, “doping, excessive expansion of the race, and money” threaten the continued survival of the Tour.

Despite the problems, the athletes have lost none of their passion and ardor for the race. The Texan Lance Armstrong, four-time winner and uncontested favorite to win the centennial race in 2003, which will basically follow the 1903 circuit, declared: The Tour “has a name, a history, and a style that no other race can match. It will never be, come what may, just another race.” Every professional cyclist’s dream is to win the Tour de France.


^ par. 3 The Tour today typically covers a distance of about 2,235 miles [3,600 km] in 20 day-long stages.

[Diagram/Map on page 23]

(For fully formatted text, see publication)

The route of the centennial race July 5-27, 2003

–– Time Trials

​——​ Transport between stages

• Start location

○ Stop location


-- ​——​

○ Sedan

-- ​——​

○ Saint-Dizier

-- ​——​

○• Nevers


○• Lyons


○ L’Alpe d’Huez


○ Marseilles


• Narbonne


○• Toulouse

-- ​——​

○ Cap’ Découverte

-- ​——​

○ Bayonne

-- ​——​

○• Bordeaux

-- ​——​

○ Nantes


• Ville d’Avray



[Credit Line]

Mountain High Maps® Copyright © 1997 Digital Wisdom, Inc.

[Pictures on page 22]

1903 Maurice Garin, first winner of the Tour de France

1927 Factory workers interrupt their work to watch

[Credit Line]

100 ans de Tour de France, L’Équipe, 2002 © L’Équipe/Presse Sports

[Picture on page 23]

1910 Octave Lapize, with spare inner tubes around his neck, pushing his bicycle in the Pyrenees

[Credit Line]

100 ans de Tour de France, L’Équipe, 2002 © L’Équipe/Presse Sports

[Pictures on page 24]

1951 Italian Fausto Coppi, two-time champion

1964 Anquetil and Poulidor in a gripping duel

[Credit Line]

100 ans de Tour de France, L’Équipe, 2002 © L’Équipe/Presse Sports

[Pictures on page 24, 25]

1991-95 Yellow jersey Miguel Indurain (Spain) won the Tour de France five times

1999 Lance Armstrong in a time trial

[Credit Line]

100 ans de Tour de France, L’Équipe, 2002 © L’Équipe/Presse Sports