Summary: The Tour de France is considered to be the greatest cycling race in the world. It got its start in the early 1900s and it didn't take long before it became fiercely competitive. It attracted thousands of viewers right from the start. Its long legacy of riders going to crazy lengths to win started in 1904 with the first reports of cheating.
The Greatest Cycling Race in the World Gets its Start
The Tour de France is hands down the greatest cycling race in the world today. The Tour de France was founded by Henri Desgrange. The first Tour de France was in 1903, taking 19 days at six stages and covering 2828 kilometers. Cyclists were expected to pedal through the night. There were no actual breaks for sleep. Bike changes weren’t allowed. No outside assistance was allowed for repairs and punctures. It was all entirely up to the cyclists.
The race started as a publicity stunt for a French sports newspaper called L’Auto. This was a phenomenal success; it destroyed its competitor, Le Velo. Sixty of the bravest, gutsiest, toughest cyclists of the day started the race.
Maurice Garin dominated the race from the beginning. Garin was nickname the "Chimney Sweep." He still holds a record today for the win with the greatest margin– a remarkable 2 hours and 49 minutes! More than 20,000 people watched Garin cross the finish line in Paris.
Crazy Lengths to Win
It didn’t take long before Tour de France cyclists became fiercely competitive and this competitiveness thrives today, fed with doping scandals in the recent past. By the next race in 1904, riders would go to crazy lengths to win. Maurice Garin won for the second time but it didn’t take long before reports of cheating came in. Riders were accused of taking trains and cars and even dropping spikes on the roads to flatten their competitors’ tires. In the end, the first four cyclists were disqualified and a little known cyclist, Henri Cornet won. Following this disastrous race, more rigid rules were implemented.
The Ballon d’Alsace
In 1905, the Ballon d’Alsace, was introduced. This became the first major climb of the race. René Pottier was the first rider to get to the top but his success apparently was not enough. He won in 1906 but later hanged himself before the 1907 race. In 1906, the "flamme rouge" was introduced. It signaled the last kilometer. The first double winner was Lucien Petit-Breton in 1907 and 1908. In 1909, it snowed in July, during the race! By 1910, the tour goes through the Pyrenees for the first time. The following year it goes through the Alps. By 1911, there are accusations of rival teams poisoning riders!
A Temporary Break
The first World War limited the Tour. The Tour was not held between 1915 and 1918. Two former winners, Octave Lapize and Francois Faber, died in the war.
The Coveted Maillot Jeune
By 1919, the Tour covered 5560 kilometers and the famous yellow journey or "maillot jaune," was introduced. Yellow was chosen because it was the same color as the newspaper, L’Auto, that sponsored the race. The lead cyclist would wear the journey to signify his race position. Before that, it was impossible to know who was winning. Eugene Christophe wore the yellow jersey for the first time. Bad luck followed Christophe. Tire punctures and broken spokes caused him to finish in third place. Firmin Lambot from Belgium won.
Tour Winners in the First Races
Tour winners from 1903-1914 include:
1903 Maurice Garin (Fra)
1904 Henri Cornet (Fra)
1905 Louis Trousselier (Fra)
1906 René Pottier (Fra)
1907 Lucien Petit-Breton (Fra)
1908 Lucien Petit-Breton (Fra)
1909 Francois Faber (Lux)
1910 Octave Lapize (Fra)
1911 Gustave Garrigou (Fra)
1912 Odile Defraye (Bel)
1913 Philippe Thys (Bel)
1914 Philippe Thys (Bel)