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View from the front of a peloton of cyclists at the Tour de France

A Brief History of the Tour de France

Newspaper rivalries have caused some entertaining feuds since the dawn of the printing press. But rarely have they produced something as wonderful as the one between Le Vélo and L’Auto in the early 20th century. Their rivalry is what we have to thank for the greatest athletic event in the world — the Tour de France.

The conflict was born during a time when cycling was exploding in popularity and political upheaval was surging across Europe. At the end of the 19th century, Le Vélo was the first and most widely circulated daily sports newspaper in France. But when French Army officer Alfred Dreyfus was convicted of selling military secrets to the Germans — a sentence that was later overturned — a new paper, L’Auto, sprung out of political disagreements over the incident. 

The new paper’s appointed editor was a cycling promoter, former racer and holder of the first World Hour Record, Henri Desgrange. When the new paper struggled to gain traction, he and another writer for the paper, Géo Lefèvre, dreamed up an idea that would soon become cycling’s Holy Grail: a race that would encompass all of France and serve as a massive promotional event for the paper.

The Inaugural Tour de France

On July 1, 1903, a race took place that was unlike any other at that time. History was made as le Tour de France was born. The first Tour was a six-stage contest that stretched over 1,500 miles, circling through Paris, Lyon, Marseilles, Toulouse, Bordeaux and Nantes before returning to the capital city. The stages averaged a brutal 250 miles, with one to three days in between for rest. There were no mountain passes.

Riders in that first Tour had no help — they carried their own supplies and performed their own maintenance. Some of the iconic pictures of those early races show cyclists with spare tires wrapped around their shoulders so they would be equipped to change a flat. The race went on day and night (since no one could ride 250 miles between dawn and dusk) and cyclists had to find their way by moonlight. Even in that very first, historical Tour de France, cheating was common. Under the cover of darkness, some riders used cars for pacing, drafting or even hitching rides. 

Only 21 of the 60 competitors finished the first Tour, which ended 19 days after it began. The first winner of the Tour de France was Maurice Garin. Garin took the victory by nearly three hours over second-place finisher Lucien Pothier, and by more than 64 hours over the last-place rider. The race was a huge success, doubling the circulation of L’Auto.

The Evolution of the Tour

Over its history, the Tour de France has evolved to incorporate different skills challenges such as time trials and mountain climbs. And, to curb cheating and protect riders, it has been adjusted to only take place during daylight hours. (Early Tours were a bit of a Wild West affair, with fans throwing broken glass on the road and attacking cyclists along the route.)

The iconic yellow jersey, which is awarded to the overall leader each day and at the end of the race, was not part of the event in the earliest days. The leading cyclist originally wore a green band, which wasn’t easy to spot on the road. Desgrange decided on the yellow jersey in honor of the famous yellow paper on which L’Auto was printed. The original yellow wool sweater was introduced in 1919 when the Tour resumed after World War I.

Together with the Giro d’Italia and the Vuelta a España, the Tour de France is now the most renowned of the three Grand Tours of cycling. Victory in the Tour has been a goal — often an elusive one — for many legends of cycling). Few of them have claimed the title, and still fewer have done it more than once. 

The history of the Tour de France continues with new stages and challenges. Today, the Tour consists of 21 stages, stretching for nearly 2,200 miles over 23 days in July. Riders get two rest days over the course of the event. The race features between 20 and 22 teams of eight riders each, and teammates work together to get their best cyclists a chance at victory.

There are four primary awards for the modern-day Tour de France. 

  • General classification (yellow jersey) for the overall winner
  • Mountains classification (polka-dot jersey) for the best climber
  • Points classification (green jersey) for the best sprinter
  • Young rider classification (white jersey) for the fastest rider under age 26

There are also awards for each individual stage, including a prize for the most aggressive rider and the team with the best overall time. The winner of the general classification is the rider with the fastest cumulative time across all 21 stages.

Jacques Anquetil, Eddy Merckx, Bernard Hinault and Miguel Indurain currently hold a four-way tie for most general wins in the history of the Tour de France, with five each. Lance Armstrong’s record seven straight wins were disqualified in 2012.

A Continuing Legacy

The Tour de France's history is not without controversy — the long struggles with cheating and doping scandals and the inability to sustain a comparable women’s event are among its worst. But it is widely celebrated as the greatest athletic challenge in the world. The combination of endurance, speed, and strength makes victory in the Tour de France a signature achievement for any professional cyclist.

Since its inception, the Tour has taken place every year except for two hiatuses during the World Wars. The coronavirus pandemic delayed the 2020 Tour from its normal start in July, but it is now set to begin on August 29 and extend to September 20.

Despite its faults, the Tour has endured for more than a century. And even with this year's delays, the Tour de France will likely continue to inspire us for years to come.