As detailed by Christopher Klein in his “The Birth of the Tour de France,” Le Tour de France began July 1, 1903, with 60 men chomping at the bit to pursue victory some 1,500 miles away. So arduous was that first six-stage course that only twenty-one men finished. Conceived in a moment of clueless inspiration by journalist Geo Defevre, the race was an attempt to grow the readership of newly created French sports newspaper, L’Auto. Unbeknownst to Defevre and his colleague, L’Auto director and editor Henri Desgrange, this was to be the beginning of one of the greatest sporting events of all time.
Unfortunately for L’Auto, cheating was rampant during the early years of the Tour. Although thirty-two-year-old ex-chimney sweep Maurice Garin was the first victor, his win in the second Tour was stripped from him due to suspicions that he had caught a ride on a train. Desgranges was so disgusted with the cheating from riders as well as spectators (over-zealous fans would sometimes attempt to sabotage enemies with nails in the road or impromptu road-blocks) that he announced his intentions to do away with the race. That threat was short-lived, and the next year, the third Tour de France began on schedule.
During the two World Wars, the Tour went on hiatus, leaving eleven years total untouched by the race’s history. The spark of WWI was ignited on the first day of the 1914 Tour when Austro-Hungarian Archduke Franz Ferdinand was assassinated in Sarajevo, an attack which is detailed on the website FirstWorldWar.com. War was declared on August 3, just a week after the conclusion of the competition that year, which wasn’t resumed until 1919. Rising unrest between Germany and France just prior to WWII and France’s subsequent invasion by German troops can be researched on the history site World-War-2.info. This was the catalyst that prevented all Tours from 1940 until Desgranges revved things back up in 1947, just days after the war ended.
In 2014, history will play an even more significant part. To memorialize the 100th anniversary of the first battle of WWI, which was fought in Ypres, this year’s Tour will have stage five hosted in that city. Some associations to the First World War, however, are more deeply personal than many realize. Some of the victors from the early years of the Tour were tragically killed in the bloody battles that ensued, including Francois Faber, Lucien Petit-Breton, and Octave Lapize.
Wars, though, have come and gone. Historical events have morphed the ever-changing face of the Tour. Unsportsmanlike conduct has never fully ceased. But this tale, the great chance at glory, the unification of the entire world under breathtaking French vistas and the suspense that follows such dangerous paths, is too great a legacy to be quenched so easily. The renowned Tour de France has thrived and grown beyond any proportion that the originators could have expected. It has arguably become the most popular sporting event in the world, with no intentions of giving up that title any time soon. One should hope that it never does.