The history of the Tour de France


The Tour de France is not only one of the biggest events in cycling, but on the global sporting calendar. What started as a first-of-its-kind, split-stage cross-country bike race over a century ago has now become one of the most anticipated events of each year. As the annual race gears up for its 109th season, we’re taking a look back over the history of the Tour de France.

How the Tour de France was born

In the early 20th century, competition was high in the world of the French printed press, especially for two sports papers, L’Auto and Le Vélo. L’Auto’s editor, Henri Desgrange, was looking for ways to boost the paper’s popularity and drawn sales away from their biggest competitor. Desgrange and a L’Auto reporter, Géo Lefèvre, conceived the idea of a new cycling race that could bring exclusive attention and publicity to their paper, and thus the Tour de France was born.

The Tour de France’s inaugural race took place in 1903. The cyclists would cover 2428km over six stages, beginning in Paris and passing through Lyon, Marseille, Toulouse, Bordeaux, and Nantes before returning to the capital. A cycling race of this scale had never been seen before, with each stage averaging 405km. Competitors would have to ride day and night to cover the ground. The cyclists would also have to make sure their bikes were prepared for the strenuous race and the various types of terrain they would encounter – and they would have to take responsibility for any repairs needed.

Early favourites in the first Tour de France

The prize on offer for winning the first Tour de France was 20,000 francs. 60 men signed up for the race, most of them French but some Belgian, Swiss, German, and Italian. Over a third of the men abandoned the race in its first stage, including a favourite for the winning spot, Hippolyte Aucouturier, who developed stomach pains after drinking red wine (thought at the time to be a performance enhancer).

One man, Maurice Garin, took an early lead to win the first stage in just 17 hours – a win he only secured by one minute. But by the end of the fifth stage, Garin had a two-hour advantage on his fellow competitors. In the sixth and final stage, Garin wore a green armband to signify his leading position – a precursor to the famed yellow jersey which wouldn’t be introduced for another 16 years. A crowd of 20,000 gathered at the Parc des Princes velodrome in Paris to witness Garin win with nearly a three-hour lead – still the largest winning margin in the history of the Tour de France.

The Tour de France: early successes and controversies

As Desgrange had hoped, the Tour de France boosted L’Auto into the public eye, with sales increasing six-fold following the first race. This success ensured a second race went ahead the year after. However, the 1904 Tour did not run as smoothly as Desgrange would have liked. 

While cheating had been present in the first race (with riders using cars to pace themselves and also using cars’ slipstreams to gain an advantage), things became much worse in the Tour’s second year. As the returning champion, Maurice Garin, and a fellow rider passed through St. Etienne, fans of a local rider formed a blockade and began beating the riders until Géo Lefèvre arrived and fired a pistol to break up the crowd. At another spot along the course of the race, fans of a rider who had been disqualified placed tacks and broken glass along the ground to sabotage the remaining contenders. On top of this, there were riders catching trains and hitching rides to gain ground. Garin, who had won the Tour for a second time, was even accused of illegally obtaining food. Four months after the race’s conclusion, he was disqualified along with three others, ultimately losing his title.

The evolution of the Tour de France

Despite these early controversies, the Tour de France continued to be a success, returning for its third year with more concrete rules in place. By the time its ninth year came around, the race had almost doubled in length and the number of stages included. The race has taken place every year since 1903, with the exception of the years during WWI and WWII. The yellow jersey worn by the Tour’s leader was first introduced by Desgrange after WWI, a call to the yellow paper that L’Auto was printed on. The first man to don the yellow jersey was Eugene Christoph in 1919, who had been a race leader up until its final two stages.

The Tour de France continued to expand both in size and popularity. A mountain stage was first introduced to the Tour in 1910 in the Pyrenees. The longest race in the history of the Tour de France took place in 1926, coming in at 5745km. A year later, the Tour became more focussed on professional teams over individual riders, known at the time as touriste-routiers (tourists of the road), with the introduction of team trials. The 1930s saw L’Auto open the race up to other advertisers, and commentary on the race began to be broadcasted on various radio stations. By the end of the decade, derailleurs (a bicycle gearing system) were allowed into the race. 

Trouble came for L’Auto during WWII. After Henri Desgrange’s death in 1940, the paper was passed onto a consortium of Germans and began publishing comments favouring the occupying Nazis. In 1944, as with all papers that had favoured the Germans, the French government sequestered L’Auto and nailed its doors shut. All of its assets became the property of the government, including the Tour de France. L’Auto was no more, but a successor paper L’Équipe was later published under new editor Jacques Goddet.

When the Tour de France returned post-war, it became standard to include between 20 and 25 stages in the race. In the 1950s, two of the toughest climbs were introduced to the Tour de France, Mont Ventoux and L’Alpes d’Huez. The race became even bigger on the international stage over the years, branching out of Europe and inviting cyclists from across the world to compete.

The Tour de France today

The Tour de France continues to be the most anticipated event in the world of cycling. While the essence of the Tour de France today remains the same as it ever did, the event has come a long way since 1903. Whereas contestants originally rode as individual competitors, the race now typically sees 20 professional cycling teams made up of nine riders competing for both team and rider wins. The Tour de France is held each July over the course of three weeks and covers approximately 3,600km split into 20 day-long stages. While the race still mainly takes place in France, it has also visited other European countries throughout Its history for selected stages, including Belgium, Italy, Germany, Spain, and the UK.

The yellow jersey is now worn by the rider with the lowest accumulative time at the end of each day. Three further jerseys have been introduced to the race based on a points system, with points given for high finishes in different terrain stages, time trials and sprints:

The green jersey: worn by the rider who has accumulated the most points at the end of each day
The polka dot jersey: worn by the rider who has accumulated the most points in the climbing stages at the end of each day – this rider is known as the ‘King of the Mountains’
The white jersey: worn by the junior rider (aged 25 or under) with the most points at then end of each day

Cyclists in the modern Tour de France usually have three types of bikes: one for time trials; one for flat road stages; and a very lightweight bike for mountain stages. All bikes must meet the standards of the International Cycling Union. For the road stages of the Tour de France, only standard-design bikes are allowed, however special engineering is allowed for time trial stages.

 Recent Tour de France scandals

The scandals of 1904 are not the only ones to have plagued the history of the Tour de France, and the race has been hit by controversies surrounding drug and performance enhancer use in recent years. Probably the most well-known of these was the 2012 doping scandal, which uncovered years’ worth of performance enhancer use within the sport. 

Infamously, seven-time Tour de France winner Lance Armstrong was found in an investigation to have used drugs throughout his career and was subsequently stripped of all his Tour win titles. Armstrong was once the most successful racer in the history of the Tour de France, but following the loss of his titles, four riders are now tied for that position having won five Tours each:

Jacques Anquetil from France, winning in 1957 and between 1961 to 1964
Eddy Merckx from Belgium, winning between 1969 and 1972 and again in 1974
Bernard Hinault, another Frenchman who won four races between 1978 and 1982 and then again in 1985
Miguel Induráin, a Spaniard who won between 1991 and 1995 and is one of the Tour de France’s most famous competitors

Tour de France 2022

The Tour de France 2022 will take place between Friday 1st July and Sunday 24th July. The race will begin outside of France, beginning in Copenhagen and running further through Denmark. The Tour will also pass-through Belgium and Switzerland before transferring to France. The Arivée Finale (the final arrival) will take place in Paris as is tradition, with the Tour culminating at the Champs-Elysées. 

This year’s race will see the most countries visited since 2017, and Denmark will be the tenth country in the history of the Tour de France to host the Grand Départ – the race’s starting point. Cobbled stages will return in 2022 after a four-year absence, with 19.4km of cobbles appearing throughout the fifth stage. The total prize fund for the riders and teams this year is €2.3 million, including €500,000 to be awarded to the final winner of the overall race.

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Extend your stay with Emerald Cruises on selected itineraries for up to three nights in Paris, where you’ll be able to explore the birthplace of the Tour de France. Enjoy a guided tour of the city, with plenty of free time to explore at your own pace – and don’t worry, transfers between your Star-Ship, hotel and airport are all taken care of. 

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