The Tour de France is the world’s most famous multi-stage race for professional cyclists, which is held annually in France in July.
But what is the “Grand Boucle”, as the Tour de France is affectionately known by the French, so special? And how can it be explained that thousands and thousands of fans stand on the streets of France in the summer to cheer for a few seconds of rushing cyclists? To understand this, it is worth taking a look at the history of the tour.
The first Tour de France took place in 1903. Henri Desgrange (* 1865, † 1940) as editor-in-chief of the sports newspaper “L’Auto” and his staff had the idea and the courage to organize a cycling race across France over several days and stages. They struggled with a poor circulation of their newspaper. To increase sales, they decided to organize a bike race across France. On July 1, 1903, sixty daring racing drivers set off for Lyon in front of the “Réveil-Matin” inn in Paris, the first stage of 467 km. This was followed by another five stages with similar distances and intermediate stops in Marseille, Toulouse and Bordeaux and Nantes. The last stage ended again in Paris on July 19th. At the finish at the Prinzenpark, the remaining drivers were enthusiastically welcomed by 20,000 spectators. Only a third made it to Paris. The winner of the first edition was the Frenchman Maurice Garin (* 1871, † 1957), who among other things won three of the six stages. The tour was also successful for the organizers and their newspaper. Nothing stood in the way of a repetition in the following year.
The second edition was to be a great test for the young Tour de France and its organizers. On the almost identical course, last year’s winner Maurice Garin once again proved to be the strongest. However, the race was overshadowed by countless scams and manipulations. Parts of the audience, presumably at the behest of some drivers, threw nails on the road and even got physical to eliminate unpleasant opponents of their own favorites. Other drivers secretly used the train or the car to reduce debris. Maurice Garin received food from officials in an unauthorized manner and obviously influenced the race with his helpers. Because of these incidents, the organizers subsequently disqualified several drivers, including the first four of the overall classification, in December 1904. The fifth-placed Frenchman Henri Cornet (* 1884, † 1941) was declared the official winner of the second edition.
Despite the scandals, daring racing drivers set out on a modified course across France in 1905. Thanks to revised regulations and drivers who fought fairly, the third event went mostly smoothly. The race established itself in the following years and reinvented itself again and again through a wide variety of measures: A larger number of stages, which were on average a little shorter than in the early years. Changing routes along the national border and approaching more and more new regions in France. In 1910, for the first time in the history of the Tour de France, the Pyrenees were included in the program, and a year later the high Alpine passes as well. At that time, the drive through the high mountains was an unimaginable ordeal due to poor road conditions, partly snow-covered paths and the difficult weather conditions. Octave Lapize (* 1887, † 1917), who mastered the first Pyrenees passes fastest in 1910 and later also won the Tour de France, insulted the organizers as a “murderer” (“Vous êtes des assassins. Oui, des assassins!” «).
It was not until the outbreak of World War I that the annual competition for victory on the country roads of France stopped. The time during and immediately after the war years (1914-18 and 1940-1946) were the only times the Tour de France did not take place. Between the two world wars in the 1930s, Henri Desgrange decided, still director of the Tour de France, replacing the teams sponsored by well-known companies with national teams. His goal was to put the individual driver back at the center of the race and not the power play and money of the corporations that bought the best drivers away from each other. He also introduced a mountain prize and a time trial, in which the drivers had to tackle a stage alone against the clock, either individually or together with the team. His strategy worked, the race was livened up and attracted more and more spectators.
After the Second World War, Jacques Goddet (* 1905, † 2000) took over the office of tour director and had to maneuver the tour through the economically and politically difficult post-war years, always looking for the optimal form of organization: the tour started in foreign cities (for the first time 1954 in Amsterdam), return to company teams for economic reasons (1960), introduction of a prologue (a short time trial under 10 km at the start of a Tour de France) and the creation of new stimuli such as sprint ratings, time credits and mountain finishes. Goddet also establishedas the destination of the Tour de France, the Avenue des Champs-Élysées in Paris, where it first ended in 1975. Since then, the winners, as well as all the other drivers who have survived the tour to the end, have been celebrated by the countless spectators on this magnificent boulevard in the heart of Paris.