The Tour de France is the Super Bowl of cycling, with as much dazzle, commercialism and history as the Super Bowl. Here is the least you need to know about the history of this most prestigious of cycling races.
It Started Off as a Magazine Promotion
The year was 1903. The French magazine L’Auto needed to figure out a way to get a spike in new subscribers. They decided to sponsor a race across France where the winner would receive a handsome purse of 6075 francs. Why did a car magazine sponsor a bike race? The Tour de France for Dummies (Weiley; 2011) explains that L’Auto’s fiercest competition was from Le Petit Journal, then famous for sponsoring a – you guessed it – a bike race.
The First Race
The first race lasted a mere six days. This was a summer picnic compared to later years where there were 20 or more stages. The winner was Italian Maurice Garin. He was one of only 21 racers to finish out of 60 starters. Right off the bat, the Tour de France was proving to be an exceptionally hard race to win. Like climbing Mt. Everest, it became the coveted mountaintop to be conquered because it was there.
All of the Stages Aren’t in France
Although cycling has fallen in popularity in the United States, it is still very popular in Europe, especially England. Since the turn of the millennium, cities from all over Europe bid to host the first stages, similar to cities bidding to host the Olympics. In 2007 the Tour started in the UK. This year, the Tour starts in Yorkshire and meanders to Leeds and Cambridge before the racers and their support crew take a plane to France. The race has also held stages in Corsica, Italy and the Netherlands.
The cyclist that other cyclists most want to be is Frenchman Bernard Hinault. He is also the last Frenchman to have won. In 1978, he gained his first title at the age of 17 when the race leader was disqualified due to a failed drug test. He won in 1979, 1981, 1982 and 1985. He did not get into trouble off the track, did not fail a drug test and competed despite injuries.
Best Ever Quote from the Tour
The most colorful legitimate winner of the Tour de France was another five-time winner Jacques Anquetil. Hollywood handsome and a fierce competitor, he was best known for his tremendous appetite for tobacco and liquor while competing in the Tour. He defended himself with a one-liner that’s etched on every cyclist’s heart, “You can’t win the Tour on mineral water.”