The origins of the modern Tour

What began as a stunt by a newspaper is now one of the world’s great sporting events.

On the first of July, 1903, journalist and former bike racer Henri Desgrange wrote in a front-page column: “L’Auto, newspaper of ideas and action, will from today send across France those unconscious and hearty sowers of energy, the professional road racers.” 

That morning, 60 riders departed from the Café Au Réveil Matin on the outskirts of Paris and headed into the unknown. Ahead of them lay six stages—from Paris to Lyon, Lyon to Marseille, Marseille to Toulouse, Toulouse to Bordeaux, Bordeaux to Nantes, and Nantes to Paris—with an average distance of over 400 kilometers each. On gravel or cobbled roads with single-speed bikes in the summer heat, they would go further than anyone had ever gone on a bicycle before. There had never been such a race.

No one knew if it was possible.

It was—barely. Just 21 of those first 60 racers made it to the finish in Paris 2,428 kilometers later. By the time they arrived at the Parc des Princes velodrome in Paris, they were national heroes. Desgrange and his colleagues had captured the public’s imagination with stories of their exploits. The journalists’ publicity stunt had paid off. L’Auto’s readership had risen from 25,000 per day to over 130,000 during the Tour. They immediately set about making plans for the next race.

In many ways, that first Tour and the ones that followed were more like today’s adventure races than the ultra-competitive, professional athletic spectacle that is the modern Tour de France. Not only did the Tour’s early racers push the limits of human endurance, they rode into unexplored territory. It is hard to imagine just how vast and unknown France must have seemed to them at the time now we’re so accustomed to autoroutes and high-speed train travel and cheap flights across continents, but in 1903 most people in France never travelled very far from where they were born. Beyond the country’s trundling train network, one could only get from place to place by horse-drawn carriage or foot, or by bike, though bicycles were still a fairly recent and expensive invention. Automobiles would remain the preserve of the very rich for decades to come.

For most Frenchmen, most of France was foreign country.

In the provinces, most people still spoke their regional languages at home—Occitan in Provence and the Languedoc, Breton in Brittany, Basque in the Basque Country, and so forth. France was a patchwork of cultures. The Tour was a thread that knit them closer together and pulled them towards Paris, where l’Auto’s journalists sought ever more publicity for the race and planned even more audacious routes for the racers. 

By 1910, the Tour de France was comprised of 15 stages, covering 4,734 kilometers, including forays over high dirt-tracked cols in the Pyrenees. The Alps were introduced in 1911. The more extreme the challenge, the more popular the race would be, it seemed. In those early years, all outside assistance was banned. Racers most often rode alone or in twos or threes.

Hundreds of thousands of people gathered by the roadside to watch them. Le Tour became a national summer festival—a celebration of vigor for French workers to enjoy during their hard-earned holidays.

After the disruption of the First World War, the race started up again with a 5,560-km route over ravaged roads around the entire circumference of France. That year, the maillot jaune was introduced. Only ten riders finished the race. The Tour was more popular than ever.

By the mid-1920s, Le Tour had grown close to its modern three-week format. The 1926 edition was the longest on record—5745 kilometres over 17 stages—and riders were finally allowed to compete in teams. The race was first broadcast on radio in 1930. It then became a live media spectacle, not just one to read about the next day in the papers. The feats of great racers on roads all over France were beamed immediately into the imaginations of listeners.

The die was cast.

The introduction of national teams, World War II, longer stages, shorter stages, the reintroduction of trade teams, TV broadcasting, new bike technology, a more and more international peloton, a thousand rule changes, live internet streaming, dozens of great champions—through it all, the Tour has stuck to its same basic formula.

It is one of the world’s great athletic competitions, but it remains le Tour de France: an almost 3,500-km bike race through La France Profonde.

No other sporting event has shaped a people’s ideas of themselves and their country more than the Tour.