The First Tour de France: A Humble Beginning

July 06 [Fri], 2012, 11:05
The Tour de France is undoubtedly one of the most iconic and famous sporting events in history. For over one hundred years, great athletes have traversed vast roads and steep mountain climbs in France for the title of world's greatest cyclist. It's hard to believe, then, that the historic race began as a publicity stunt for a newspaper!

In 1903, the publishers of the French newspaper Luto wanted to outdo the cycling race promoted by a rival newspaper. The paper's cycling journalist, came up with idea to have a race throughout France, separated by stages. He discussed it with editor Henri Desgrange after lunch, and the idea took off. In January, the first ever Tour de France was announced.

However, many details had to be ironed out before the race could even begin. Originally, the race was planned to be an incredible five weeks long. Unfortunately, that proved to be intimidating to most cyclists, as only just over a dozen were willing to take on a race of that magnitude. By cutting the length severely to a total of nineteen days, more entrants were enticed to give it a try. It also didn't hurt that participants were given a daily allowance for their efforts. The changes increased the participation in the inaugural Tour de France by four times the original number of riders, to sixty.

The participants themselves were almost exclusively French, with a handful of riders from other countries, mostly Germany, Sweden, or Italy. The riders included some personalities that captured the imaginations of French cycling fans, such as the 20-year old Lucien Pothier and experienced cyclist Maurice Garin. Many of the riders, attracted by the promise of the daily allowance, were amateur cyclists, or unemployed and simply looking for something to do with themselves. Fans also were intrigued by the sheer scope of the race, and the fact that some of the stages were so long that riders had to keep cycling on into the night.

Maurice Garin took an early lead once the race started, taking the first stage during the ride from Paris to Lyon. He held on to the overall lead, even as Hyppolite Aucouturier won the next two stages. Despite this spirited challenge, Garin won the last six stages, and the first ever Tour de France. Garin was actually quite dominant, finishing over two hours ahead of the afore-mentioned youngster, Lucien Pothier. Fernand Augereau rounded out the top three cyclists in the first race.

There was definitely a disparity in talent in the first race, as the adventurous nature of the race attracted even the most unorthodox of challengers. In fact, Garin finished over 64 hours ahead of the last place finisher, Arsene Millocheau of France. Again, this only endeared the Tour de France to those who were already intrigued by the massive race.

The 1903 installment of the Tour de France served its purpose not only by launching the overwhelmingly successful cycling championship that has lasted over one hundred years, but also by giving L扐uto the publicity and sales bump that its editors so badly wanted. During the race itself, readership of the newspaper almost tripled, as a matter of fact.

The riders themselves would continue on into the next year. Garin, Pothier, and Aucouturier would compete in the 1904 Tour de France, which was a ragtag affair marred by cheating and occasional riots by fans. All three would end up being disqualified, which kept Garin from winning his second straight Tour de France.

From such humble beginnings, an annual spectacle known the world over has resulted. Throughout the last one hundred and five years, heroes as well as villains have emerged to succeed the likes of Garin and Pothier. Almost as amazing as the athletes that compete in the Tour de France is the fact that the race itself came from such a humble and unassuming beginning, as a race organized to promote a simple French newspaper.
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