Tour de France: The First 50 Years

1903 - Finish Line at the First Tour

Some of you (and by the looks of the cycling blogs out there, darn near all of you) are aware that cycling’s great annual event, the Tour de France, has been underway for a week.  There’s still almost two weeks to go, including several trips through the mountains of the Pyrenees and the Alps.  When the race is finished, riders will have traveled over 2,100 miles, or about 300 miles further than I have cycled all year.  That’s a depressing thought, so I’d rather focus on the Tour’s interesting history.

The Tour started in 1903 as the publicity stunt of a failing cycling magazine with the ironic name,  L’Auto.  The race’s original June 1 start date was delayed until July because so few riders had signed up.  After cutting the course from 35 to 19 days and halving the entry fee, 78 riders were registered and everything was set.

It’s hard to imagine how these cyclists managed.  The derailleur had yet to be invented, so this would be a “fixed-gear” race out of necessity.  Free wheels and drop bars did not exist.  There were no such things as cycling clothes.  Teams didn’t exist and cyclists were expected to manage all aspects of the tour by themselves, or risk disqualification.  The first stage was 290 miles long (Paris to Lyon).  43 riders quit on this first leg.  Eleven of the quitters were allowed to resume the Tour in Lyon, but they could only compete for stage wins, not the overall “General Classification.”  Fueled by the free publicity of L’Auto, hundreds of thousands of Frenchmen turned out to watch the event, which was deemed a huge success.

The rest, as they say, was history.  Here are some of my personal favorites of that history:

1904:  Cheating is so rampant that the Tour is almost abandoned.  The Tour’s first champion, Maurice Garin, had his title stripped as a review of check point logs clearly showed he had received a lift via auto or train.  Other riders were caught drafting team cars.  Fans ambushed competing riders and beat them with sticks.

1905:  Throwing nails onto the course becomes popular.  In Stage 1, every rider punctures at least once.  Keep in mind that riders carried their own spare inner tubes  with them and riders were required to complete any patching without assistance.

1909:  Francois Faber almost freezes to death in a snow storm storm while climbing Ballon d’Alsace.  Gale force winds blew him off his bike twice.  And he was attacked by a horse.  Mud at the bottom of the course was eight inches thick.  That’s a tough ride.

More Snow: Goustave Garrigou walks past six foot snow drifts in 1910

1913:  Marcel Buysse is hit by a car and his bike is seriously damaged.  When informed that Buysse lacked the skills to forge a new fork at the village blacksmith, Race Director Henri Desgrange says, “As a professional rider, you should know how to repair your bike.”

1925:  Teams are permitted to participate and riders are allowed to exchange and supply each other with food, small parts, and “light assistance.”   Teammates are permitted to stay with a stranded rider and work together to return to the peloton.

1930:  Destraught over the increasing influence of commercial sponsors which detracted from national teams, Desgrange forces riders to compete on generic yellow bikes.  The entire race is funded by the now-famous publicity caravan.  The first sponsor?  Menier Chocolates.

You have to start somewhere: 1930 Publicity Caravan

1935:  Francisco Cepeda falls on the descent from the Col du Galibier and dies five days later, the first rider to die on the Tour.  Later in the same tour, Julien Moineau employs a clever strategy by having fans line the road with beer bottles.  While all other riders agree to take a break to enjoy the unexpected surprise, Moineau pedaled onward for a 15 minute stage victory.  This Tour also marked the first use of derailleurs, 30 years after they were invented.

1948:  Gino Bartelli wins the Tour, ten years after winning it for the first time.  This remains the largest gap between victories in Tour history.

1952:  Fausto Coppi wins the first-ever race up Alpe d’Huez.  This spectacular mountain climb has been used 17 times since, but this is the first and only time riders were forced up it in an individual time trial. (thanks, Gerry!)

Fausto Coppi climbs Alpe d'Huez

Clearly, there are a lot more stories, but these are some of my favorites.  I could go into some detail on the 98-year history of performance-enhancing drugs, but I’ve decided to keep things relatively positive this time!


8 thoughts on “Tour de France: The First 50 Years

  1. Great article Steve. I honestly don’t know how they managed in those days. The stage distances alone were completely insane. How could anyone have thought that was reasonable? Makes today’s version of the race seem almost “light” in comparison, and yet it continues to justifiably hold the title of the World’s Toughest Race (with the exception of RAAM).

  2. Excellent little history, Steve. There are enough stories and myths surrounding The Tour to keep me ordering from Amazon for a lifetime, so thanks for supplementing my habit while I’m too poor to buy books!

    One little correction though, if I may. Alpe d’Huez saw an ITT in 2004, when a certain Lance Armstrong destroyed the field. His average speed was an incredible 23 kph.

    • Oops! My reference was Matt Rendell’s “Blazing Saddles: The Cruel and Unusual History of The Tour de France.” It appears Mr. Randell could have used a better fact checker!

      I thought you might like the photo of Coppi. Do you recognize that stretch of road?

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