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Chairman Bill's History of the Tour de France:
Origins and Early Years

How a Newspaper Promotion Became the Greatest Sporting Event in the World

Here is the first chapter of our book, the Story of the Tour de France, Volume 1, 1903 - 1964. We hope you enjoy it and if you like it, you can purchase it from Amazon.com by clicking on the Amazon icon.

Acknowledgements: I could not have done this without the help of Owen Mulholland. His knowledge of cycling history is astounding and is exceeded only by his kindness to others. Les Woodland's The Yellow Jersey Companion to the Tour de France is a magnificent and well-written compendium of Tour de France data that makes fact checking possible and fun. I recommend anything these two superb cycling writers have written. I guarantee you will enjoy their work. I have depended upon both men in ways too many to individually mention. Any errors are my own.

Index: origins | 1910s | 1920s | 1930s | 1940s | 1950s | 1960s | 1970s | 1980s | 1990s | 2000s

Introduction

The Tour de France started as nothing more than a publicity stunt to sell some newspapers. At its heart, the Tour remains just that, a vehicle to sell tires, shoes, bikes, telephones and countless other items that the eager sponsors of the teams and the race want to promote. To this day, it is a combination of the tawdry, the magnificent, the base, the noble, the crassly commercial and the spectacular. Others have noted that its roots are in the lowest and the highest motivations of human endeavor. That is why it is so fascinating.

Over the passing years, the Tour has grown into something much more than a sales tool. It is, simply, the greatest athletic test in the world. A three-week bike race, called a "Grand Tour", is much like a Bach Concerto. It is dense, complex and difficult for a newcomer to really understand. It is also impossible for a newcomer to the sport to win. Even so-called "phenoms" in cycling have been racing and preparing for many years before their eventual breakout victory. In 2004, Damiano Cunego was only 22 years old when he won the Italian equivalent of the Tour de France, the Giro d'Italia. He was no newcomer to racing. He had been racing for over 7 years when he won the Giro.

Some sports, such as basketball, are straightforward enough that a man right out of high school, if he has enough talent, can perform at the highest professional level. You will not see that happen in the Tour de France. It's impossible. And the athletic challenge is greater than requiring a long, difficult preparation in order to toughen the body and sharpen the mind. The window of time in which a racer can effectively compete for victory in the Tour is cruelly short. In the last 50 years only 4 men over 32 years old have been able to win. Only one of the 5 men who have won the Tour 5 times have been able to win upon reaching their 32nd birthday. The ever-so-slightly-older body cannot recuperate from the daily blows the Tour delivers to the system. For just a brief, beautiful time, when the body is at its glorious best and after a lifetime of work, an unusually talented man can try for the greatest palmare in cycling. And then it's over.

In America, we watch the Tour and marvel at the tenacity, strength and endurance of the competitors. To us it is a fascinating but purely athletic event. Europeans see the great bike races such as the Tour in a slightly different light. They often view the confrontations of the athletes in metaphorical terms. Their sports writing is laced with terms such as "redemption", "confirmation", and "torment". To an American, Jan Ullrich is a racer who couldn't quite measure up to Lance Armstrong. In Europe he can be a Hector, who, knowing he will lose, still dons his armor and goes out to battle. A French friend once told me that one cannot understand France without understanding the Middle Ages. Almost all Medieval French literature is simile and metaphor. That tradition carries on in cycling literature. When you come across European press reports of a bike race or a translation of a French book on cycling, the verbiage may seem overblown and Wagnerian. It's the difference in cultures and history. Beholding an athletic event such as the Tour as a confrontation symbolizing higher themes gives greater interest and depth to the sport. Owen Mulholland, America's finest Tour historian, tells the following story:

"Just read the columns written by Henri Desgrange, Jacques Goddet, and Pierre Chany and you will soon be swept into analyses of mere mortal cyclists struggling against the infinite and measuring those struggles in terms of European religious and historical metaphors.

"L'Equipe was kind enough to give me a perfect example one day. Throughout the 1997 Tour the French hero, Richard Virenque, had thrown himself against the German 'übermensch', Jan Ullrich. It was obvious Virenque was not going to bring down his adversary, but all France loved how he never gave up trying. One day, L'Equipe's headline blared, "Richard Virenque, le coureur sans peur et sans raproche!" (Richard Virenque, the racer without fear and beyond reproach.). Although unexplained in the article, it was just assumed every reader would recognize the reference to France's most famous medieval knight, the Chevalier Bayard.

"There is no end of Bayard stories about his heroism, loyalty, generosity, and indefatigable capabilities when once engaged on the field of battle. My favorite tells of his death while fighting in the rear guard as the French army retreated. He received a mortal wound, was lifted from his horse, and set against a tree. The king, seeing his favorite knight in distress, rushed to Bayard's side and inquired as to what he could do. Bayard's reply was, "Fear not for me, my lord. I die with my face toward the enemy" (unlike the king, who was retreating).

"Now look at the attitude of Virenque through the spectacles of Bayard. How Virenque's actions are elevated and filled with insight and deeper appreciation!"

Origins of the Tour de France

Almost from the dawn of the invention of the bicycle, newspapers used bicycle road racing to increase their circulation. They would sponsor a race, drumming up publicity for the paper. They ended up creating their own news for which they were the only suppliers in the age before television and radio. Very early on, brutally long races of epic difficulty became the norm. In 1869, Le Vélocipède Illustré, seeking to promote itself and the bicycle, sponsored the 130-kilometer long Paris-Rouen. That doesn't seem so far today, but this was before paved roads and the modern safety (chain drive to the rear wheel) bicycle. It took the winner, James Moore, over 10 hours to cover the distance. The races got longer. Le Vélo ran Bordeaux-Paris and Le Petit Journal organized Paris-Brest-Paris, races that were stupefyingly hard. The newspapers thrived on them as people all along the route bought papers to learn about the progress and the final victors of the race. Bicycle manufacturers helped sponsor professional riders who promoted the bikes with their superhuman efforts.

At the turn of the Twentieth Century, the French magazine Le Vélo had upset its advertisers with its high rates. To make matters worse, one rich industrialist was very unhappy that its editor, Pierre Giffard, was on the wrong side of the Dreyfus affair. Alfred Dreyfus was an Alsatian Jew who was railroaded with manufactured evidence into a life sentence on Devil's Island for supposedly passing secrets to the Germans. After three trials he was pardoned and eventually exonerated. France split along conservative and progressive fault lines with a fury that is hard to understand today. The greatest writers and thinkers of the time, including Émile Zola and Anatole France, lined up against the government in favor of Dreyfus.

An aside: there is a lesson for us today. The Dreyfus affair was a terrible case of ethnic profiling in which an innocent man, fitting an ignorant set of prejudices, was wrongly convicted of a crime. The government, the military and the church, trying to protect themselves, their neatly preconceived notions and institutions, were willing to let Dreyfus rot on Devil's Island. Today, as we let a fearful and aggressive government set aside our precious and cherished constitutional rights, let us remember Alfred Dreyfus and that nothing is more important than justice. If we don't, our children will view us with the same contempt as we view Dreyfus' jailers.

The two sides, Pro-Dreyfus and Anti-Dreyfus, were more interested in the cultural war he symbolized than in Dreyfus himself. For this reason, the affair consumed France almost as powerfully as the French revolution a century before. Today, the effects of this affair still resonate in France. It is a more secular and civilian country because of the reforms enacted in it's aftermath. The Tour de France is just one unexpected consequence.

To continue:

The Compte Dion was an engine manufacturer who had recently been jailed for participating in a violent anti-Dreyfus demonstration. Dion, who was a substantial advertiser in the green pages of Le Vélo, received a visit from Giffard while he was in jail. Nothing is terribly clear about what happened during that jailhouse meeting, accounts differ. But the result was a complete breach between them. Giffard, not worrying about the financial consequences, wrote a passionate pro-Dreyfus editorial.

Angered by both high advertising prices and Giffard's politics, a group of Le Vélo advertisers led by Dion and manufacturers Michelin and Clément, defected. They formed a new magazine, L'Auto-Vélo, with the express intention of driving Le Vélo out of business. Devoted to sports in general with an emphasis on cycling, it was to be printed on its now legendary yellow paper to contrast with the green of Le Vélo. They made Henri Desgrange, a cycling promoter and former racer, its editor. The founders were familiar with Desgrange because he had worked for Clément doing public relations work. A man of many hats, Desgrange had written a successful book about racing, Head and Legs. Over the years the importance of racing with the head as well as the legs (la tête et les jambes) would become a Desgrange mantra. He had also managed a velodrome that got little mention from Giffard, another sore point.

Desgrange had already earned cycling immortality by setting the first World Hour Record of 35.325 kilometers in 1893. His record wasn't even close to the limits of human endurance. A little over a year later Jules Dubois added almost 3 kilometers to the record. But Desgrange was there first. His sense of promotion was clearly evident.

Henri Desgrange, the most important man in the history of cycling. This portrait was probably taken in the 1930's

Le Vélo sued the upstart magazine for plagiarism, claiming that the new magazine's name infringed upon Le Vélo's name. Le Vélo won the lawsuit in January, 1903. The new magazine was forced to change its name to L'Auto. To make the sporting emphasis clear, they added the subheading, Motoring, Cycling, Athletics, Yachting, Aero-navigation, Skating, Weightlifting, Horse-racing, Alpinism. L'Auto was hardly the right name for a magazine wanting to attract cycling fans.

From the beginning, the two magazines fought a ferocious war for circulation. L'Auto was in trouble. Its backers were restless over the lack of success. What to do? Or as Desgrange put it, speaking about Giffard, "What we need is something to nail his beak shut."

In November of 1902, there was a now-famous lunch in a Parisian restaurant called Zimmer (the same location has now become a TGI Fridays restaurant). Géo Lefèvre, a writer hired from Le Vélo to cover cycling, proposed the idea of a race on roads all around France to Desgrange.

Les Woodland, in The Yellow Jersey Companion to the Tour de France, recounts the following conversation between Lefèvre and Desgrange:

"Géo Lefèvre said, 'Let's organize a race that lasts several days longer than anything else. Like the six-days on the track, but on the road. The big towns will welcome the riders.'

"Desgrange replied: 'If I understand you, petit Géo, you're proposing a Tour de France?' "

As will happen repeatedly with Desgrange, he was initially cold to the idea. But as he and Lefèvre discussed it, Desgrange understood the genius of the idea. He seized it and made it his own. It would entail 6 days of racing with rest days in between each stage. Desgrange apparently took credit for the idea when he proposed the race to the financial controller of L'Auto, Victor Goddet. Goddet, to the surprise of Desgrange, approved the idea, understanding the huge promotional value of the epic proposal.

The loss of the plagiarism suit gave L'Auto fresh reason to proceed with all due speed with the race in order to promote the magazine to cycling fans. L'Auto had already been losing the circulation war before the name change and they needed to act. The other sports magazines had their own races, but Lefèvre's idea would completely leapfrog these other races in scope and appeal.

L'Auto announces the route of the first Tour de France

1903. The Story of the 1903 Tour de France has been moved to the 1903 Tour results page.

1904. The Story of the 1904 Tour de France has been moved to the 1904 Tour results page.

1905. The Story of the 1905 Tour de France has been moved to the 1905 Tour results page.

1906. The Story of the 1906 Tour de France has been moved to the 1906 Tour results page.

1907. The Story of the 1907 Tour de France has been moved to the 1907 Tour results page.

1908. The Story of the 1908 Tour de France has been moved to the 1908 Tour results page.

1909. The Story of the 1909 Tour de France has been moved to the 1909 Tour results page.