In July of every year, over the course of three weeks, the world’s best road cyclists assemble in France to compete in the world’s premier bicycling race: the Tour de France.
The competition is one of the most grueling in all sports and cyclists often have to endure levels of pain and exhaustion which are seldom seen elsewhere.
Since the inception of the race in 1903, it has seen its share of drama and controversy, sometimes due to competition and sometimes due to politics.
Learn more about the Tour de France and its 120-year history, on this episode of Everything Everywhere Daily.
The origins of the Tour de France are not what you might think they are. It wasn’t created by some cycling governing body in France to crown a champion. It was created to sell newspapers.
Actually, the origin of the race is even more convoluted than that.
It actually begins with a late 19th-century French scandal known as the Dreyfuss Affair.
Alfred Dreyfuss was an officer in the French Army who was accused and convicted of selling secrets to the Germans in 1894. This was in the wake of the Franco-Prussian War in which France lost a little more than 20 years earlier.
Dreyfuss was Jewish and the evidence against him was very shady, and the whole affair dramatically split French society into two camps. In one camp were the Dreyfussards who supported Dreyfuss and were pro-republican, and the anti-Dreyfussards who supported the army and the church.
Dreyfuss was eventually exonerated, and the Dreyfuss Affair will be a future episode. For the purposes of this episode, that scandal that split French society made its way into sports and media.
The biggest French sports newspaper at the time was Le Velo. It was a combination of sports and politics that reached about 80,000, and it was a Dryfussard newspaper.
Several anti-Dryfussard businessmen started their own newspaper known as Le Auto-Velo. However, a court found their name to be too similar, so they dropped the Velo, and shortened it to Le Auto in 1903, which was a reflection of the popularity of auto racing at the time.
In 1902, however, Le Auto wasn’t doing that well, so they hatched the idea of launching a bicycle race that would take place all over France. It would be the biggest cycling event that France had ever seen and Le Auto would have the primary coverage. They expected it to increase sales, maybe enough to put Le Velo out of business.
In 1903, Le Auto launched the first Tour de France.
The initial plan was for a race that would be in five stages and would be over a month-long, going from May 21 to July 5.
The initial proposal only attracted 15 competitors.
So they went back to the drawing board and redesigned the race. Now it would be just 19 days long, from July 1 to the 19th with six stages. The route would be a big loop around the country stopping in Lyon, Marseilles, Bordeaux, and Nantes.
The entry fee was cut in half from 20 to 10 Francs.
The first prize was increased to 12,000 Francs, and each day’s winner would get 3,000 Francs. This was at a time when the average annual salary of a Frenchman was about 2,000 Francs per year.
Plus a daily stipend would be given to each rider who maintained a pace of 20 kilometers or 12 miles per hour. The stipend would be the equivalent to what a factory worker would earn, so no one would lose money by competing.
The number of entries exploded from 15 to 60, with another 24 cyclists competing in just single stages.
The entrants were all professional or semi-professional cyclists, however, most were not prepared for this sort of race. Only 24 competitors remained at the end of the fourth stage.
The eventual winner, and the winner of three of the stages, was Maurice Garin.
The goal of the race, increasing newspaper sales for Le Auto, worked. Circulation for the newspaper doubled throughout the course of the race.
The Tour de France became far more popular than anyone ever expected. A three-week-long race throughout the entire country allowed people from all over Frace to witness it in person and gave everyone in the country a reason to follow on a daily basis.
In 1904, in just the second race, the Tour de France became plagued with scandal.
Some competitors were found slipstreaming in a car. Some actually rode in a car for part of the distance, and some actually took a train. In one town, a crowd of 200 people gathered to block other cyclists to help their hometown hero win. Race officials had to fire shots into the air.
Glass and nails were spread along the course.
The race was a mess.
The winner was once again Maurice Garin. However, several months after the race the French cycling governing body, the Union Vélocipédique Française, stepped in and the top four finishers were disqualified as were all of the winners of the individual stages.
The new winner, and the one in the books, was Henri Cornet, who originally placed fifth.
After 1904, the race and the rules changed to avoid the problems it had early on.
For starters, there would be more shorters stages, so cyclists wouldn’t ride in the dark. Many of the problems with cheating occurred because no one was around to witness it. If the stages took place only during daylight hours, more people would come to watch, and it would prevent the sort of cheating that took place.
They also moved to a system of awarding points for stages instead of just using the total time. This was done because if a cyclist had a mechanical problem, which by the rules they had to fix by themselves, it could totally take them out of the race given how much time it would take to fix. This was abandoned in 1912, and overall time is still used today to determine the winner.
The race kept on delivering readers for Le Auto. In 1904, their competitor Le Velo went out of business. By 1908, they had a circulation of a quarter-million. By 1933, they had a circulation of over 850,000.
Over the years, the race evolved slowly. Mountain stages in the Pyrenees were added in 1910. Initially, riders were all considered to be individual competitors and you couldn’t use teammates to help you. In 1925, teams were allowed to pace their teammates.
In 1937, bicycles with multiple gears were finally allowed, and exchanging entire bicycles was allowed in 1923.
There were a host of experiments regarding how the race was organized and structured, but despite the changes, the race remained incredibly popular.
The event was canceled during the First World War, but after the war, a new tradition was established. The current leader of the race was awarded a yellow jersey to wear.
No race was held between 1940 and 1946 due to the Second World War.
In 1944, after the liberation of France, Le Auto was shut down by the French government for publishing sympathetic comments about the Germans during the occupation.
With the closure of Le Auto, ownership of the Tour de France went to the French Government.
The rights were sold to a new newspaper, L’Équipe, which had some of the sports editors from Le Auto.
In 1953 they reintroduced a points system as a secondary competition while retaining overall time as the primary competition. Points are awarded for placing in individual stages and sprints. The leader of the points competition gets to wear a green jersey.
Only four times since 1953 has the points winner been the overall winner.
Prior to 1962, the only teams that were allowed were national teams. The problem was that the number of riders from each country was in no way equal, and moreover, they didn’t compete together the rest of the year.
With bicycle sales falling, they reintroduced teams sponsored by bicycle manufacturers.
A major issue that has always been present in the Tour de France came to a head in 1967 with the death of British cyclist Tom Simpson.
Simpson died during the 13th stage of the race that year climbing Mont Ventoux. In the autopsy, they found traces of amphetamines and alcohol.
This was hardly the first case of this. Drug use had been rampant among cyclists since the event began.
The 1923 winner Henri Pélissier, told journalist Albert Londres after the 1924 tour about the reality of the race. Pelissier coined the phrase The Convicts of the Road.
Londres’s published an interview with Henri, his brother Francis, and their teammate Maurice Ville. In it he reported:
“You have no idea what the Tour de France is”, Henri said. “It’s a Calvary. Worse than that, because the road to the Cross has only 14 stations and ours has 15. We suffer from the start to the end. You want to know how we keep going? Here…” He pulled a phial from his bag. “That’s cocaine, for our eyes. This is chloroform, for our gums.”
“This”, Ville said, emptying his shoulder bag “is liniment to put warmth back into our knees.”
“And pills. Do you want to see pills? Have a look, here are the pills.” Each pulled out three boxes.
“The truth is”, Francis said, “that we keep going on dynamite.”
This was in 1924, almost one hundred years ago. More on the subject of drug use and doping in a bit.
The late 60s and early 70s saw the rise of probably the greatest cyclist in Tour de France history: the Belgian Eddy Merckx. He won the race five times, three of which he also won the points standings. He won the mountain stages twice and won 34 individual stages over his career.
1986 saw the first non-European winner in American Greg LeMond.
In the early 90s, Spaniard Miguel Indurain became the third five-time winner joining Eddie Merckx and Bernard Hinault from France.
One tradition which began in 1954 was that in some years, the tour will start outside of France. Many neighboring countries including Spain, Germany, Switzerland, Monaco, Belgium, the Netherlands the UK, Ireland, and Denmark have all hosted the first stage.
The modern race has 21 stages, with each stage lasting a single day.
The 2022 race has a total prize pool of 2,288,450 Euro, with half a million going to the winner, 200,000 to the runner-up, and 11,000 to each stage winner. There are other prizes to secondary jersey winners and team winners as well.
Millions of people will line the route over the 21 days to watch the race in person, and many of them will camp out for over a week to get the best spots.
I should go back and address the elephant in the room when it comes to the Tour de France. Doping and Lance Armstrong.
American Lance Armstrong won the race a record seven times. However, his wins were eventually vacated when it was found he was using performance-enhancing drugs.
The problem of doping and drug use, as I noted before, has been going on since the very first year of the race. At first, it was alcohol and strychnine. If you remember back to my episode on the 1904 Olympic marathon, they used to think that strychnine was a performance enhancer.
Since then almost every sort of drug imaginable was found to be used including opioids.
In 1969, French cyclist Roger Rivière crashed and became paralyzed because he was so high on painkillers he could work the brake with his hands.
When Lance Armstrong had his wins erased from the record book, unlike every other instance before where the next competitor would then be declared the winner, no one was declared the winner. There is just a seven-year hole in the Tour de France record books.
Why did they do this? Because almost everyone else in the top ten also had positive doping results or suspensions at some point at well.
It didn’t just end with Armstrong. In 2006, American Floyd Landis had his title taken away, as did Spain’s Alberto Contador in 2010….although Contador’s 2009 and 2007 wins were not vacated.
Cycling has cleaned up its act considerably, but through the 90s and 2000s, cycling was probably one of the world’s dirtiest sports. I won’t say every successful cyclist was doping, but it sure seems like the majority of the successful ones did.
I want to end with one particularly interesting set of facts about the tour. The amount of energy expended by cyclists.
Riding a bike in a world-caliber competition for 21 days straight is grueling. The riders expend an enormous amount of energy.
A recreational cyclist can put out 250-300 watts of power for maybe 20 minutes. A professional cyclist can put out 400, and in brief, bursts hit 1000 watts.
Over the course of the 21 stages over 24 days, the cyclists will burn approximately 120,000 calories or a bit under 6,000 calories per stage. On some stages in the mountains, they could burn 8,000 calories in a day.
Given the frequently cited number of 3,500 calories per pound of body fat, that means a cyclist could lose 34.2 pounds or 15.5 kilograms of fat in a bit over 3 weeks.
However, top-tier athletes like these don’t have that much body fat, so they have to eat high-energy foods almost constantly while they are racing.
While there are other cycling road races, the Tour de France is by far the best known and the most prestigious. Despite its history of controversies, it probably will retain its position for many years to come.