As strange as it may sound, the world’s most famous bicycle race began as a promotional stunt to increase sales of a new sports newspaper, L’Auto, in 1903.
As many as 80 riders competed in the inaugural race, which began in the village of Montgeron, 23km (14 miles) south of Paris. From the Tour’s earliest days, cheating scandals reared their ugly head. The winner of the very first Tour de France, Maurice Garin, was stripped of his title the following year for cheating. That year, competitors were attacked and beaten by rival riders’ supporters, and there was serious talk of scrapping the race forever.
But the Tour survived its rocky early years, with Frenchmen winning 8 of the first 9 first races before Belgians won 7 straight titles. But that streak was interrupted by a period from 1915 through 1918 when there were no Tour de France races due to World War I. The race grew in length and popularity in the following decades, with a major change coming in 1930 when teams represented their countries instead of corporate sponsors.
With the outbreak of World War II, the Tour de France was suspended from 1940 through 1946. After the war, a brief period of Italian dominance was broken by Louison Bobet winning three straight Tours from 1953-1955.
Frenchman Jacques Anquetil dominated the early 1960s, winning four of his five Tours in consecutive years from 1961-1964. The 1960s also saw the return of corporate, or trade, teams as well as the rise of doping as a major concern in the race, and the overall sport of cycling. In 1967, Briton Tom Simpson died while climbing Mont Ventoux after taking amphetamines. Cycling officials took notice and began enforcing doping rules.
From 1969 through 1972, Belgian Eddie Merckx won four straight Tour de France races before winning a fifth title in 1974. Later in the decade, Frenchman Bernard Hinault would begin his own run of five Tour titles (1978, 1979, 1981, 1982, 1985) before an American, Greg LeMond, won three of the next five races.
The early 1990s belonged to Spaniard Miguel Indurain, who won the Tour five times in a row– the first and only rider in good standing to have ever done so. Then came Lance Armstrong, who won a record seven straight races before being stripped of his titles for doping. Doping scandals greatly tarnished the reputation of both the Tour de France and the entire sport of cycling in the 2000s.
Over the years, the Tour de France grew into an international event attracting the world’s best cyclists competing for ever-growing prize money. While Maurice Garin won 20,000 francs for winning the very first Tour, by 1988 the victor, Pedro Delgado, won a car, a studio apartment and 500,000 francs. In 2014, a total of €2.2 million will be awarded to riders and teams.