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The Origin Story of the Tour de France

By Jiri Kaloc

The first Tour de France took place over 100 years ago, back in 1903. Do you know why the race was held and who had the idea for cyclists to go around the whole of France?

The story begins at the turn of the 20th century with two French newspapers competing for readers. The editor-in-chief of the cycling newspaper Le Vélo, Pierre Giffard, held different political views from one of the newspaper’s major patrons, Jules-Albert Dion. They stood on opposing sides of the Dreyfus case. Alfred Dreyfus was an Alsatian Jew who was framed with manufactured evidence and given a life sentence for supposedly passing secrets to the Germans. This issue divided France, the conservative part wanted him sentenced, while progressives wanted him exonerated. Jules-Albert Dion decided to halt his support of Le Vélo and establish a new newspaper called L’Auto-Vélo to drive Pierre Giffard’s Le Vélo out of business.

Henri Desgrange was chosen as the editor for the new L’Auto-Vélo newspaper. Henri Desgrange was a man of many talents, he was a lawyer, cycling promoter, and former competitor himself. He set the first World Hour Record with 35,325 kilometres in 1893. He wrote a successful book about racing, Head and Legs. And he also managed a velodrome that got little mention from Giffard, which was further motivation for him to succeed with L’Auto-Vélo.

Henri Desgrange
Henri Desgrange with Gin Bartali in 1930s. © Profimedia

In 1900, the first issue of L’Auto-Vélo came out printed on yellow paper to differentiate itself from the green paper of Le Vélo. Le Vélo was quick to sue the new magazine for plagiarism, claiming that they chose a name that was too similar. Le Vélo won the lawsuit and L’Auto-Vélo was forced to rename to L’Auto, the first blow to the new newspaper. As time went on, L’Auto kept losing the battle for sports readership with the more established Le Vélo. They needed something big to attract cycling fans.

In November of 1902, Desgrange called his core staff for an emergency lunch to brainstorm ideas that could reinvigorate the newspaper and give it an edge. Géorges Lefèvre, a writer who was covering cycling and rugby, came prepared.

Géorges Lefèvre: “Let’s organize a race that lasts several days longer than anything else. Like the six-day ones on the track, but on the road. Our big towns will welcome the riders.”

Henri Desgrange: “If I understand you correctly, petit Géo, you’re proposing a Tour de France?”

Géorges Lefèvre: “Yes, why not?”

Henri Desgrange: “I will ask Victor.”

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, despite the massive costs that would come with it. He understood the promotional value of this epic proposal.

The loss of the plagiarism suit and declining readership gave L’Auto reasons to proceed with speed with the race in order to promote the magazine to cycling fans. The other sports magazines had their own races, but Lefèvre’s idea would completely leapfrog these other races in scope and appeal.

They moved fast and on the 19th of January 1903 L’Auto announced the biggest cycling race that would span 2,428 km over 6 stages from 31st May to 5th July. No assistance, no pacers, no coaches, no masseuses so that all riders have the same conditions.

There were only 15 signups for this monstrous race about a week before the start. Henri acted quick. He moved the start date to the 19th of July and promised 5 francs per day for the top 50 riders and increased the prize pool to 20,000 francs. Soon, he has a peloton of 60 competitors ready to put on a show, 49 French, 4 Belgian, 4 Swiss, 2 German, and 1 Italian cyclist. Only 21 of these are professional cyclists and many of them aren’t even full-time competitors. Most of the participants are simply adventurers or unemployed.

Henri Desgrange remains sceptical of this whole risky endeavour and stays hidden in the newspaper office on the first day of the race. Géo Lefèvre is the true hero of L’Auto. He follows the whole race, sometimes on a bike himself, other times in a car or catching trains so he doesn’t miss a single checkpoint. He becomes the race director, commissaire, and reporter in one.

The race turns into a sensation. Hundreds of thousands of fans come to the streets to cheer the riders on their gruelling route and over 20,000 are waiting at the velodrome in Paris at the finish line. L’Auto rides the success and nearly triples its readership during the race.

It only takes another year for L’Auto to completely dominate the cycling world with Tour de France’s success and bankrupt its competitor Le Vélo. Pierre Giffard loses the battle of cycling newspapers and his job along with it. It doesn’t take long and Henri Desgrange offers him a position as a cycling reporter in his growing magazine L’Auto.