It may have gained popularity during the exciting and controversial Lance Armstrong era, but the Tour De France has a deep and rich history of drama and athleticism. In the 100 times the race has been held (The History Channel Online, “The Birth of the Tour De France” Christopher Klein June 28, 2013), it has evolved from a death defying dash with mostly French participants (Klein), to a legendary event with riders from all over the world.
In 1903 the inaugural Tour de France was held (Klein). According to Reader’s Digest Online, the race was started by the owner of a failing sports news paper, , L’Auto in an attempt to boost circulation. The pages of the newspaper were yellow and thus the leader at the end of each day wore the yellow jersey (Readers Digest Online). Since that hot July day in 1903, the race has been held 100 times. It has been canceled eleven times during the years of the World Wars (Readers Digest Online).
The race has shifted from a relatively unknown sporting event into a worldwide phenomenon. Athletes train for years to participate in this competition. As the race has evolved, so have the athletes involved as well as the competitive nature of the affair. 2005 saw the fastest average speed of the cyclists at 25.8 MPH (Readers Digest Online). This is a far cry from the more leisurely pace at the 1919 race where the average speed was about 15 MPH (Reader’s Digest Online). Modern fitness was not a big part of the early years of the race. Riders frequently stopped for cigarette breaks and hydrated with wine instead of water or an energy drink (Reader’s Digest Online)
It seems unlikely that smokers and heavy drinkers could compete in such rigorous activity. According to Christopher Klein of the History Channel, the original course was a 1500 mile loop and done in only six stages (one stage per day). That averages out to 250 miles per stage. Although there were often two to three day rests in between stages, today’s race is much different. The modern race doesn’t go over 150 miles per stage (Klein). And consider this: in the early days of the race, no gearing systems were allowed (Readers Digest). One gear for a 1500-mile race no matter the terrain.
Not only were gearing systems not allowed, but the competitors did not wear helmets or other protective gear (Klein). The roads during the early years of the race were not the fancy ones of the modern era. Most roads were not even paved (Klein). According to Reader’s Digest, this was dangerous and proved deadly for three cyclists who died in road crashes over the life of the race. A fourth contestant died, but not on a bike and instead while swimming on a rest day.
The race had humble beginnings, but has come a long way from the cigarette-smoking, wine-drinking contestants with no helmets. When we think of the Tour De France today, we think about toned, lean, uniformed men in alien-looking helmets gliding through France. Who knows what another hundred years of racing will bring us.
Readers Digest: http://www.rdasia.com/24-facts-tour-de-france
The History Channel: http://www.history.com/news/the-birth-of-the-tour-de-france-110-years-ago