The first Tour de France race in 1903 had only six stages but they averaged 405 km in length! That’s just over 250 miles each. Because the goal was to sell papers and because of the Herculean effort the race required, the six stages were stretched out over three weeks. This gave the newspaper time to cover the race in detail and it gave the racers two or three days of rest between stages. You can find all the early statistics of the race on wikipedia.
The Race was conceived as a publicity stunt for the daily periodical, L’Auto-Velo in 1903. The name of the newspaper “L’Auto-Velo” quickly changed to just “L’Auto” when a competing publication (Le Velo) contested the copyright infringement.
The founder of the Tour and editor of L’Auto was Henri Desgranges, world champion cyclist who held the hour track record, established in 1893 (35.325 km). In response to the success of the competing newspaper, Desgranges was driven to create a long distance “stage” race around France. The goal was explicit: to sell newspapers. That it did!
To maximize public exposure the departure of that first race from Paris was scheduled at 3:15 in the afternoon. That meant, though, that most of the 400 plus kilometers from Paris to Lyon were raced at night! The winners arrived in Lyon at about 9:15 a.m. the next morning.
The figure of Desgranges as both founder and “father” of the tour looms large in the history of the Tour de France. Desgranges is quoted as once saying that the “perfect” Tour would be one in which only one rider finishes! A sadist to the core, Desgranges proceeded to design tour routes over the years that went beyond anyone’s imagination for difficulty and challenge to the racers.
The statistics accompanying this narrative show just how difficult The Race was. From six stages in 1903 and 1904 at a length of 2428 km (1509 miles), Desgranges pushed the Tour to almost two and a half times the original length at 5745 km (3570 miles) in 1926 when it reached its longest ever.
Length was but one dimension of the tour, however. The other measure of skill and stamina came when Desgranges and his fellow race organizers began to add mountain stages to the tour design. The first “real” mountain to be included first in 1905 was the “Ballon d’Alsace” at the south end of the Vosges Mountains in Alsace in eastern France. This was just a beginning, however, as the organizers began adding minor Alpine passes over the next few years.
The real mountains came in 1910, though, when the remote mountain roads of the Pyrenees were included in the tour and the famous Col d’Aubisque and Col du Tourmalet were added. These were almost unimaginable mountain passes to drive over in 1910, not to speak of pedaling them. Today’s mountain bikers would have loved those rides – with today’s mountain bikes!
So successful were the mountain stages that in 1911 Desgranges added the Alpine passes of Col du Lauteret, Col du Télégraphe and Col du Galibier.
The Col du Galibier, perhaps the most famous and the most difficult, has been included in 52 of the last 91 Tours de France (this was written in 2010)! For a complete summary of the major climbs in The Race see this web site. This site includes links to altimetric profiles of those climbs.
Desgranges wanted to see his racers suffer. Despite the invention and slow perfection of the derailleur over the years between 1904 and 1933, use of the derailleur was banned in the tour until 1937! Hence, his racers were climbing 2642 meter high mountain passes (Col du Galibier, 8,668 feet) without the benefit of a derailleur. To change gears, racers had to get off their bikes and turn their rear wheel around to engage their climbing gear! (And this despite the fact that Tullio Campagnolo had perfected a fully functional derailleur by 1933!)
Average speed of the race over the years is quite interesting. In 1903 the average speed over the 94.5 hours of the race was about 26 km/hour. This last year, 2003, the average was 41 km/hour. It is striking, though, that the speed increased only 15 km/hour, less than 10 miles per hour! If you consider the changes in technology (lighter bikes, efficient derailleurs, efficient wheels and tires), paved roads, effective nutrition and training and sophisticated team strategies, it is a wonder that speed hasn’t doubled in the last hundred years. This is, indeed, a tribute to the superhuman racers who rose to the challenge of the original Tour route a hundred years ago!
- BBC Sports: History of The Race in English
- In 1945 L’Equipe becomes the successor to L’Auto, original sponsor of Le Tour
- An exhaustive archive of cycling climbs throughout Europe, including altimetric profiles
- Brunell, Philippe. An Intimate Portrait of The Race, Buonpane Publications (1st published in French, 1995).
- Startt, James. Race/Tour de Force, A Visual History of the World’s Greatest Bicycle Race, Chronicle Books, 2000.
The historic photos of The Race on our web site are used with permission from Buonpane Publications, publisher of An Intimate Portrait of The Race by Philippe Brunel (1995). Buonpane Publications also publishes a series of posters of historic photos of The Race and an annual calendar with photos. These publications can be ordered directly from Buonpane Publications at the contact below or through your local bicycle shop or bookstore.
Buonpane Publications,a division of Ceative Associates, LLC
PO Box 40724
Denver, CO 80204