The Tour de France was the brainchild of a sports editor with a flair for publicity. By the third running of the race, it weathered its first (of many) cheating scandals. It paused for two world wars and steamed into the new century rife with rumor, innuendo, and fresh new cheating scandals. The history of bicycle racing’s ultimate event is almost as exciting as the race itself.
At 3:16 p.m. on July 1, 1903, sixty intrepid cyclists began the first Tour de France. The whole thing was a publicity stunt, the brainchild of a sports journalist named Geo Lefevre who cooked up the scheme to draw attention to the magazine he owned. Lefevre was aided and abetted by one of his editors, himself an avid cyclist, and together they devised the idea of using the highways and byways of France as one giant racetrack. The first winner, Maurice Garin, powered his way to the finish line in 17 hours, barely nosing out the fastest challenger. The crazy idea went viral in an early 20th-century way, and immediately captured the hearts and imaginations of cyclists and citizens throughout Europe.
The wildly successful first race was followed by a free-for-all, no-holds-barred cheating scandalpalooza in the very next year. The riders hitched rides with cooperative motorists and conquering hero Garin himself was accused of accepting unsanctioned gifts of food in violation of race rules and was eventually disqualified. The bad behavior wasn’t limited to the cyclists, as the onlookers joined whole-heartedly into the mischief. Lefevre broke up a melee when a rowdy crowd attacked Garin during the race. In another town, angry fans protested the disqualification of their hometown hero by strewing broken glass across the streets to slow down unsuspecting competitors. You might think riot, sabotage, and unsanctioned eating would put a damper on the race, but no. It took two world wars to (temporarily) halt the event.
The 12th running of the Tour de France kicked off on July 28, 1014. By this time, the race was hugely popular and the annual event was followed avidly throughout Europe. On the very day that eventual-victor Philippe Thys left the starting line, Archduke Franz Ferdinand was assassinated and World War I began. While Europe battled, the race halted for five years. Among the casualties, three former Tour de France winners died in the war. The “War to End All Wars” proved to be a misnomer, though, when World War II enveloped the continent. The race was again suspended during the war years.
After the mid-century resumption of the Tour de France, its popularity continued. The race drew the attention of the entire world, riveted by the guts and grit of the men who fight to the finish. In 1966, riders protested the introduction of testing for performance enhancing drugs by walking their bikes for part of one stage. In 1967, Brit Tom Simpson died during the race, with officials suspecting that the use of amphetamines contributed. American Lance Armstrong, however, took the art and science of cheating to new levels by winning exciting, performance-enhanced races from 1999 to 2005. He was stripped of his titles and banned from racing as a result of his misdeeds.
Through scandal, war, and rampant cheating, the Tour de France has not only survived but continues as an annual exhibition of courage, stamina, and cunning. Viva la Tour de France!