The Tour de France is the most iconic bike race in the world. This race, along with the Giro d’Italia and the Vuelta a Espana, make up the three-week-long “Grand Tours,” which is cycling’s most prestigious tour. Cyclists, as well as sponsors, media, and fans, gather from every corner of the world for this race. Despite all of Le Tour de France’s notoriety, very few know its origins and the hateful history that gave the race its start. The Tour de France’s roots trace all the way back as early as 1902.
The Dreyfus Affair
During this time frame a social issue, The Dreyfus Affair, divided much of France. This division would be similar to the conservative/liberal divide we see in the present day United States. Alfred Dreyfus was a French military officer of Jewish heritage. He was convicted of selling military secrets to German officers (many years later he was exonerated) and as you can imagine this sparked a huge political fiasco in France. Dividing lines where drawn between French citizens who believed Dreyfus innocent and those who thought he was guilty. This was certainly the case for employees working for L’Velo, the first and largest sports newspaper in France. The editor of the newspaper, a very prominent man by the name of Pierre Giffard, believed that Dreyfus was innocent. This infuriated Jules-Albert de Dion, a very wealthy and outspoken opponent of Dreyfus. His anger at Giffard was such that he started a rival newspaper with the sole intention of driving Giffard and L’Velo out of business.
L’Velo vs. L’Auto
De Dion named the newspaper L’Auto and appointed Henri Desgrange, a prominent cyclist, as editor. It was not long before L’Auto started stuggling and losing money, its backers were growing more and more disappointed with each passing day. This crisis lead to an emergency meeting in November of 1902, which would give rise to the idea that would ultimately become Le Tour de France. Geo Lefevre, the youngest journalist at the meeting had the idea of holding a six daylong bike race. Bike races at this time were a popular means of selling newspapers; however, a bike race of this distance had never been attempted before. The backers of the newspaper decided that desperate times called for desperate measures and decided to go through with the race. The urgency of the newspapers predicament can easily be seen in one of the more famous quotes from the meeting when the financial director handed Desgrange the keys to the company safe and said, “take whatever you need”. L’Auto announced the race and the first Tour de France was held the next year in 1903.