The Tour De France is arguably the most prestigious cycling event in the world. It’s an arduous, 3-week-long race over 2,000 miles that only the best athletes can even finish. Competitors from all over the world flock to France to compete, and winners are remembered in history. What most people don’t know about this race, which is over a century old, is that it originated with a political spat and a newspaper’s effort to improve its marketing.
How did the Tour De France get started?
In 1902, the sports newspaper L’Auto was facing failure against its massive competitor, Le Velo. The newspaper only came into existence because of political differences between the editor of Le Velo and a local car manufacturer, Jules-Albert de Dion. It turns out, it’s not so easy for a fledgling newspaper to compete with an already popular, well-circulated publication that covers the same topic. The L’Auto primaries decided that the best way to increase exposure and circulation is to host an event – a stage race for bicyclists.
Why did L’Auto choose a bicycling race?
Henri Desgrange stepped in as L’Auto‘s first editor. Desgrange was an accomplished cyclist, and came to the paper with an insider’s look at the sports world. Naturally, he gravitated toward his own sport whenever possible. When L’Auto needed a brilliant idea to capture its market share, Desgrange’s plan for a bicycle race came out on top.
Why did such people as Jules-Albert de Dion get involved with L’Auto?
Disagreements over the guilt or innocence of Alfred Dreyfus, a man accused of selling state secrets to Germany in what became known as the Dreyfus Affair. The editor of Le Velo frequently allowed political opinions to come out in that newspaper, including the assertion that Dreyfus was innocent. In the report of a spat involving Comte de Dion, Le Velo brought this opinion to the forefront in what De Dion felt was a very unflattering light. That was enough to join forces with the anti-Dreyfus L’Auto, and the rest is history.
What did the original Tour de France races look like?
Each stage in the original Tour de France race averaged an impressive 250 miles, well above the modern stage length as of 2014. Unlike the modern race, though, stages were on relatively flat and not particularly challenging sections of landscape, and competitors had a couple of days to rest between each stage. It was, essentially, a race that would be won by speed and stamina. Contrast this to the modern race, which moves through mountain ranges and over the most challenging terrain that France and its neighbors has to offer. Today’s race must be won by not only speed and stamina, but an extraordinary amount of strength and determination, coupled with the absolute best in bicycle technology.
What happened to turn the Tour de France into the prestigious race it is today?
The first Tour de France race kicked off in 1903 with only six stages and just over 1,500 miles. It initially had only 15 competitors, but some last-minute compensation changes attracted about 50-60 more. There were so many problems with this first race that L’Auto‘s editor, Henri Desgrange, decided that the second tour in 1904 would be the last. Instead, the race was re-worked and lengthened, with extra safeguards against cheating. Financial backers realized the potential in the race, so the winning purse subsequently increased.
Over 100 years after its inception, the Tour de France now boasts 21 stages and ever-increasing difficulty. It attracts the very best from all over the world, and is prominent throughout the media for both sports and “celebrity life.” For a race that seemed doomed out of the gate, the Tour de France now stands poised for another successful 100 years.