Tales from the Tour

A few select moments from the Tour, which first appeared in Bicycle Club Taiwan magazine. 


The History of the Tour de France

It’s the world’s most famous bicycle race, the idea of a man some said was crazy, a publicity stunt to sell newspapers, a grand tour that is incredibly demanding one its participants, taking them past vineyards and along coastline, up the Alps and the Pyrenees, through villages and industrial towns and finishes in one of the world’s greatest cities, certainly the most romantic. It is uniquely French and it unites the nation every year for three beautiful, chaotic weeks. Let’s take a look at some of the more obscure tales and facts from the Tour de France.

The Idea

The first ever Tour de France was held in 1903 and was entirely the result of a circulation battle between two rival newspapers, the successful Le Velo and its failing competitor, L’Auto. The editor of L’Auto was Henri Desgrange, and he and the newspaper owners were desperate to do something to increase sales and hopefully overtake Le Velo as France’s most successful sports newspaper.

When journalist Geo Lefevre suggested a 6 day bicycle race around France, Desgrange and financial director Victor Goddet agreed. The first ever Tour de France began on the 1st of July 1903, and finished in Paris on the 19th. Le Velo did not cover a single stage, whereas L’Auto did of course, and saw their sales more than double each day. The first Tour was a much greater success than Desgrange expected.

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Henri Desgrange.


The First Tour, 1903

Though there were a few professional riders amongst the 60 riders who took part in the first ever Tour, the vast majority were amateurs, many of them farm and factory workers, reflecting the fact that cycling in these days was very much a blue collar sport. Desgrange offered each rider a daily allowance if they could finish the total of six stages at an average one 20km/hr of higher: this allowance would give each rider the same money he would have made in the factory. The participants rode over 400km each day on the 6 stages, a gruelling challenge that meant that after Stage 4 only 24 riders were still in the race. By the end of stage 6, only 21 men survived, with Maurice Garin dominant in first place, having taken 94 hours and 33 minutes to finish the 6 stages. Last place man was Arsene Millocheau, almost 65 hours behind Garin.

Garin averaged over 25km/hr over the 2428km , which is incredible when you consider the bicycle technology of the time, and won 3,000 French Francs, equivalent in today’s money to around $15,000US.

However, Garin was also the instigator of the first record of cheating at the Tour. Garin nearly came to blows with rival Fernand Augereau, after Garin told his friends to knock Augereau off his bike – twice. When Augereau recovered, Garin leapt from his bicycle and stomped on Augereau’s bike himself until the wheels were mangled and inoperative. Other riders would throw glass and nails on the road, especially at night, to slow down their rivals. In 1904, Garin was caught catching a train during one stage, to get ahead of his competitors, and though he won the overall race he was finally disqualified.

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Fernand Augerau

However, Garin was lucky to leave the 1904 Tour alive, for as he and another rider approached the town of Saint-Etienne in the lead, an angry mob blocked their way, to slow then down to help the hometown favoriite, Antoine Faure. The mob began beating and kicking the pair, and only escaped after journalist Victor Goddet arrived and fired a pistol into the air.

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Maurice Garin, chipper and dodgy as hell, right, some poor non-cheating wreck, left. 

Gallery: Photos from the very first Tour, 1903:


The Yellow Jersey

The famous Maillot Jaune was not yellow until 1919. In fact, there was no jersey at all for the race leader until then. Previously, a simple green headband had been awarder to designate the leader. However after journalists complained that it was almost impossible to identify him during the race, the organisers then fell upon the idea of a jersey. But why yellow and not green, or any other colour? The reason was that the newspaper that organised the race, Henri Desgrange’s L’Auto, was printed on distinctive yellow paper.

The first rider to wear the Yellow Jersey, Eugene Christophe, was not impressed. He claimed that spectators laughed and called him ‘The Canary’, which led to him being given his nickname Cri-Cri, a French colloquialism for bird. Henri Desgrange died in 1940, and it was decided that his initials, HD, would appear on every Yellow Jersey – a detail that can still be found today on the rear right-hand waistline.

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Cancellara, quite strong for a canary.

The Legend of the 5-Time Winners

Winning the Tour de France even once means that your name goes into the record books and into cycling history. Winning this most famous of races take not only strength and power, but a mastery of the bike over varying terrain, a strong team, high intelligence and a will as strong as iron. However, there are 4 men who have achieved something almost impossible: 5 Tour de France victories.

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No idea who these three are, answers on a post card please…

The five are: Jacques Anquetil (France), Eddy Merckx (Belgium), Bernard Hinault (France) and Miguel Indurain (Spain). Of these 5, it is the Belgian. Merckx, considered the greatest cyclist of all time, who truly stands out. Merckx was almost utterly dominant in his 5 wins, and set his legend in stone at the race. Intriguingly Merckx may have had a 6th Tour win in 1975 had he not been punched in the stomach by Frenchman Nello Breton, who stepped out from the crowds that traditionally gather by the sides of the road and punched Merckx straight in the stomach. Merckx had to take medicine that made his form weaken, and he would lose the race in Paris. It was the last time he wore Yellow.


The 8-Second Tour

The 1989 Tour de France provided the most dramatic final day every. Normally the last day of the Tour de France finishes with a mass start race that finishes on the Champs d’Elysee in Paris. For the race leader, this is nothing more than a procession to the final podium where he will be crowned as the winner.

In 1989 though, the organisers decided that the final day would feature a 24.5km time trial, an individual race against the clock. Laurent Fignon of France led the race by 58 seconds over the American Greg Lemond. Lemond did not think that he could truly beat Fignon by the 51 seconds needed to win the race, as it was too short a distance, and Fignon was incredibly strong and experienced. However, Fignon had saddle sores that were so painful that he could not sleep the night before the race, nor sit on the saddle properly. Also, Lemond opted for the new aerodyneamic technology of the era, wearing a special helmet and using aero handlebars, allowing him to cut through the air faster. Fignon did not.

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Fignon in glasses, top, Lemond in Yellow and Delgado in Reynolds kit. 

Lemond started just before Fignon. By half way of the 24.5km, Lemond has taken a massive 21 seconds from the Frenchman’s 50 second lead. He needed to take another 30 seconds over just 12.25km. Fignon’s confidence was shot to pieces, and though he rode his fastest ever time trial, at 52.66km/hr, he was an incredible 8 seconds slower than Lemond, who managed 54.545km/hr. Fignon ended up in his team car in tears. Lemond was screaming and jumping for joy. A special test done years later at an aerodynamics test centre claimed that Lemond’s helmet and handlebars handed him a one minute advantage over Fignon.

Years later Fignon recollected that day:

“I’ve lost. By eight seconds. Eight seconds in Hell. The American has taken fifty-eight seconds out of me in 24.5km. In the chaos, someone finally admits: “You’ve lost Laurent.” I can’t get a grip on what he is saying. I don’t believe it. More precisely, I can’t manage to believe it. I hadn’t believed it could happen.”

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Lemond on his way to his incredible ’89 victory in Paris.

Author: Lee Rodgers

Cycling coach, race organiser, former professional cyclist and the original CrankPunk.

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