It’s been 111 years since the Tour de France took it’s first turn throughout Western Europe, and the fortitude, determination and excitement only continues to grow with each subsequent year. It’s the last week of the race, as the three-week marathon hits the finish line this Sunday. Let’s take a look at the race’s fascinating history, and how a small newspaper promotion evolved into one of the greatest sporting events in the world.
Maurice Garin, the first Tour de France winner, 1903
In the 1800s, publications and sports equipment businesses throughout Europe used racing as a vessel to increase circulation and sales. Newspapers and magazines would sponsor a local race, then generate publicity and interest. Soon, the races began to grow into a much larger scale, such as the 130-kilometer grind Paris-Rouen in 1869, designed and sponsored by Le Vélocipède Illustré. And they only got longer, harder and more intense. Races such as the Bordeaux-France by Le Vélo and the Paris-Brest-Paris organized by Le Petit Journal began to gain widespread attention, and circulation soared as readers were fixated by the process, the competition and the winner’s story of victory. Then, after the turn of the century, a new sports-focused publication emerged, one destined to change the course of cycling competitions moving forward. The magazine, L’Auto (originally named L’Auto-Vélo, but soon dropped the latter) consisted of a pool of former Le Vélo journalists, and had a special emphasis on cycling.
L’Auto named a cycling promoter and former racer its editor, a man named Henri Desgrange, and was ready to put the new publication on the map. However, in success didn’t come so easily in the beginning, and L’Auto fought its fierce competitor Le Vélo for advertiser support and circulation. Things weren’t looking too great for the young sports magazine, until a famous lunch occurred in late 1902 between Desgrange and his cycling staff writer, Géo Lefèvre. While dining in a Parisian restaurant, Lefèvre offered an idea of creating a race of such a grand scale, it would take place on roads all around France. No race of this size or magnitude had been done before.
Historians recount that Desgrange replied, “If I understand you, petit Géo, you’re proposing a Tour de France?” And thus, the rest is history. Only a short time later, Desgrange proposed the idea to L’Auto’s financial backer. He approved.
The route, 1903
Desgrange moved quickly, and in January 1903, L’Auto announced the Tour, detailing it as “the greatest cycling trial in the entire world. A race more than a month long: Paris to Lyon to Marseille to Toulouse to Bordeaux to Nantes to Paris.” The race was eventually shortened to 20 days, and on July 1, 60 riders lined up, ready to compete for 20,000 francs in prize money, and the ride of a lifetime.