The first recognizably modern bicycles were introduced in 1885. Less than 20 years later, in 1903, Geo Lefevre conceived the idea to race them nearly 2,500 kilometers around France. The rest, as they say, is history.
Lefevre was a journalist with L’Auto magazine at the time he came up with his insane idea. Luckily, his editor, Henri Desgrange, believed in his idea and agreed to back Lefevre’s Tour de France. On July 1, 1903, 60 cycling pioneers set out on their bicycles from Montgeron. After tackling six long stages (the Nantes to Paris stage was 471 km!), only 21 “routiers,” led by Maurice Garin, arrived at the end. Provoking a mixture of astonishment and admiration, le Tour soon won the hearts of the French. Each year roadside crowds swelled as they cheered on the racers.
Since its inception, the Tour has been run every year except war years, with 2010 marking the 97th race. The longest interruption was from 1940 to 1946, during World War II. During this time, the German Propaganda Staff wanted the Tour to be run in an attempt to maintain a sense of normalcy, but then-organizer Jacques Goddet (Desgrange’s deputy and successor) refused. In 1944, L’Auto was closed and its belongings, including the Tour, were seized by the state for publishing articles too close to the Germans. Despite undergoing a number of changes in sponsorship and organizers over the years, the Tour returned in 1947 and has continued virtually unchanged until today.
In the early years of the Tour, racers were either individuals or teams aligned with a corporate sponsor. Due to rampant corruption, however, in 1930 the race organizers decided that all teams had to be representatives of their country or region. This was the norm through 1961, but was not without its own controversy as riders had mixed allegiances to the national team and the corporate team for which they normally rode. In 1962, the Tour returned to corporate teams, a situation that has continued, with the exception of a brief “experimental” try at national teams again in 1967 and 1968.
One side effect of the 1930 change from corporate to national teams was the rise of the publicity caravan. As a way to raise money once corporate teams were disallowed, Desgrange permitted advertisers to precede the cyclists along the race route. The caravan became a procession of colorfully decorated cars, trucks and floats that paid race organizers for the right to be in the caravan, and appealed to the crowds by giving out commercial samples and gifts. The publicity caravan has become a bigger draw than the racers for many spectators.
Along with the publicity caravan, one of the most recognizable symbols of the Tour is the yellow jersey. The yellow jersey, awarded to the general classification leader, was first introduced in 1919. The color was chosen because L’Auto was printed on yellow paper. Since then, other award jerseys have been created, each with its own unique color:
• White with red polka dots for the “King of the Mountains”
• Green for the leader in sprint points
• White for the leader in the competition for young riders.
Now over 100 years old, the Tour de France is in no danger of ending soon. Current issues that must be weathered include doping scandals, and the idea of national teams is still raised unsuccessfully every few years. For the time being, however, we can anticipate enjoying the Tour every July for years to come.
For more information on this year’s Tour and its history, visit the official Tour de France website at http://www.letour.fr/us/homepage_horscourseTDF.html.