A Very Brief History of the 1903 Tour de France

I’ve never really been one for competitive cycling. Lycra, time trials and PB’s just aren’t my bag. But one event that I have a little bit of interest in is the Tour De France.

Due to the current coronian times, it almost didn’t happen, but the 2020 tour will go ahead starting Saturday 29th Aug 2020. It’ll probably be a little different this year, but time will tell.

Sure, le tour has all of those things I don’t like about cycling, but it does have one thing a lot of other events don’t have. History.

It was in 1903 that the very first Tour de France took place and it came about because of a simple name change of a newspaper.

L’Auto-Velo was a french newspaper started in 1900 and after three years a Parisian court declared their name was to close to a rival newspaper “Le Velo”. So they decided to drop the velo part and became Le Auto. The editor at the time, Henri Desgrange, a keen competitive cyclist himself, was concerned that this might lose them readers, especially those with an interest in cycling.

The solution? A competitive bicycle race around France, open to professional or semi professional cyclists who could afford it. The initial idea for the race didn’t attract too much interest. A five week race, with a 20 franc entry fee wasn’t much of an incentive! So they shortened the race to 19 days, halved the entry fee and increased the prize money. 75 people signed up in the end, with 60 actually beginning the race.

Just 6 stages back then but they were a lot further than the stages today, averaging 250 miles a day! The stages were as follows

Stage 1: Paris to Lyon

Stage 2: Lyon to Marseilles

Stage 3: Marseilles to Toulouse

Stage 4: Toulouse to Bordeaux

Stage 5: Bordeaux to Nantes

Stage 6: Nantes to Paris

The man who won three of those stages and winner of the whole race was Maurice Garin. A professional racing cyclist, Garin will not only be remembered for winning the first Tour de France but also for cheating to win the 1904 tour and being band for two years and stripped of his title. Some stories say he got on a train in order to beat his competitors. But even after this, he was a big supporter of the tour and even took part in the 50th anniversary celebrations in 1953.

In the end, it all worked out for the newspaper, who’s readership increased immensely. And now we have a cycling event that has been going for 117 years and whilst the modern tour might be more about teams, points and lycra, there’s no denying it’s historical roots and the beautiful scenery of France.

Words by Craig Willis

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