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History of the Tour de France

The Story Behind the World's Greatest Bike Race



Maurice Garin, winner of the first edition of the Tour de France, 1903.

Roger Violett/Getty Images

The Tour de France -- one of the world's most renowned sporting events -- was first held in 1903 as a way for a French newspaper, L'Auto, to drum up business and separate itself from its rivals. Coverage of sporting events was good business for newspapers in those highly-competitive days, and every French paper (and there were a bunch) were searching for a competitive edge. However, the idea of sponsoring a multi-day stage race such as the management of L'Auto was planning was truly audacious, since no races of that length had ever been held.

This first version ran 19 days in July 1903, and was won by a man named Maurice Garin, who bested approximately 60 contenders for the title. There were only six stages, meaning that riders would often take several days to get from one point to another, including riding at all hours of the day and night. The race -- which was open literally to anyone who wanted to participate -- started in Paris, with stops in Lyon, Marseille, BordeauxNantes and Toulouse before returning to Paris.

In order to help draw participants, organizers provided riders who averaged at least 20 km/h (approx. 12.4 mph) during the race with a daily allowance equal to a typical factory worker's daily wage.  Additionally, each stage winner earned 3,000 francs, and the overall winner received 12,000 francs -- about six times greater than what the normal worker received in a year, so the prizes being awarded were certainly impressive.

The reaction to this first race and interest in it was so strong that the next year's version of the Tour de France, 1904, was nearly its last.  Spectators attacked riders they didn't like at point along the route, and cheating abounded among competitors. As a result, the rules and stages were refined to make the event sustainable and the Tour de France continued more smoothly in subsequent years. Organizers made the race twelve stages beginning the following year, and riding was limited to daylight hours to help judges catch cheaters.

L'Auto's intent of growing circulation of the newspaper through its sponsorship and association with the race proved successful. Though it was only selling 25,000 copies of the paper in 1903, by 1908 that number had increased tenfold. The famous yellow jersey worn by the race's leader is a tie to these historical roots - a reference to the yellow paper that L'Auto used for its printing.

As the race took shape in those early days, organizers struggled with the question of if riders should ride as individuals or be sponsored by businesses (such as bike manufacturers) and participate as part of a larger team. Teams were eventually allowed, not only corporately sponsored but in some years as national teams, and team tactics were allowed to develop as a part of race strategy. Over the years the race has evolved into the format that we know today.

Since that beginning in 1903, the Tour de France has run every year since, with several notable breaks due to the wars that ravaged Europe. Specifically, the race was on hiatus from 1915-1919 because of World War I.  A longer break occurred on account of World War II, when the race went on recess from 1940-1947, though it wasn't until 1960 that a German team returned to the race.

Though the race is known as the Tour de France, the organizers have never really limited the route to just France. By 1906, the race was touring outside France into neighboring Germany. Especially in recent years, it has frequently started in countries outside of France, including Great Britain and Germany. And sometimes during the race itself, on certain stages the route will veer outside of the French borders into neighboring countries.






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