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The Tour de France is an annual cycling spectacle held primarily in France. But how did it start? Why does the leader wear a yellow jersey? Here is a brief history of the race from the Cicerone guidebook to Cycle Touring in France.
The first Tour de France – the world’s greatest bicycle race – took place in 1903. Created by Henri Desgrange, the editor of L’Auto, and George Lefèvre, the rugby and cycling reporter, to help publicise and improve circulation of this sports newspaper, the first event was a six-stage race covering 2428km. The riders left Paris for Lyon, then cycled on to Marseille, Toulouse, Bordeaux, Nantes, and finally back to Paris. The average stage distance was 405km, which meant the competitors had to cycle nights as well as days! They also had to carry out their own repairs if necessary.
Maurice Garin won that first Tour in front of 20,000 Parisiens, and L’Auto’s circulation quadrupled, heralding the birth of something very special. Yet the following year’s Tour was almost the last, with many riders cheating by catching trains on occasion and even sabotaging each other’s bicycles. Fortunately the organisers decided to stage the race again in 1905 with more concrete rules and they introduced the first mountain stage, the Ballon d’Alsace. Desgrange added a stage through the Pyrénées in 1910, and one in the Alps a year later. By now the Tour had more than doubled in overall distance and number of stages, but the average stage distance was still frighteningly long at 356km.
Immediately after World War I Desgrange introduced the yellow jersey (maillot jaune). He chose this colour for two reasons: the roadside spectators could pick out the race leader easily and, perhaps more significantly, L’Auto was printed on yellow paper. Eugene Christophe was the first man to don the yellow jersey on 18 July 1919. The first Italian to win the Tour – previously dominated by the French and Belgians – was Ottavio Bottecchia in 1924. He notched up another victory the following year.
The longest-ever race in Tour history took place in 1926, covering a total distance of 5745km. Such monstrous rides had become a thing of the past by the early 1930s when the Tour was opened to other advertisers, coverage was broadcasted live on the radio, and French riders won the race six years in a row. In 1937 the first derailleurs were allowed in the Tour de France. A year later the Italian cyclist Gino Bartali won the Tour, then won it again 10 years later in 1948 at the age of 34.
Bartali was physically assaulted on the Col d’Aspin in the Tour of 1950, but went on to win the stage before he and his Italian team-mates (including Fausto Coppi, the 1949 victor) withdrew in protest.
Two of the toughest climbs of the Tour de France were introduced in the early 1950s: Mont Ventoux in 1951 and l’Alpe d’Huez in 1952. Coppi won the first historic stage of l’Alpe d’Huez, and then went on to win the Tour that year. French riders, including Louison Bobet and Jacques Anquetil, dominated the next five Tours, and the great Spanish climber Federico Bahamontes won the 1959 event. Anquetil went on to win four consecutive Tours between 1961 and 1964, becoming the first of only five riders to notch up more than three victories to date. The Tour’s most recent tragic fatality occurred in 1995, when Fabio Casartelli crashed at 88 km/h (55 mph) while descending the Col de Portet d’Aspet, while previously in 1967 Tom Simpson collapsed near the summit of Mont Ventoux, and Francesco Capeda died on the Galibier in 1935.
The Belgian Eddy Merckx became the second man to win five Tours (1969, 1970, 1971, 1972 and 1974), subsequently matched by Bernard Hinault (1978, 1979, 1981, 1982 and 1985). Laurent Fignon, winner of two Tours, and Greg Lemond, the first American to win a Tour in 1986, battled against each other for victory in Paris in 1989. It came down to the final time-trial in the capital, which Lemond famously won by the slimmest of margins in the history of the Tour de France: 8 seconds! The 2017 Tour has set most of the General Classification contenders within seconds of each other for much of the three week race.
The early 1990s belonged to one man in particular, Miguel Indurain. He won five Tours in a row from 1991 and 1995 and, like Lemond, was strong in all disciplines.
During Indurain’s reign another American was emerging; Lance Armstrong won a stage in the 1993 and 1995 Tours. Diagnosed with testicular cancer in 1996, Armstrong was given a slim chance of living, since it had also spread to various parts of his body and brain. Following an operation and painful chemotherapy, he fought back with a vengeance and won the 1999 Tour de France. He never looked back, joined the élite club of Anquetil, Merckx, Hinault and Indurain by winning five Tours… and then went two better. However, he had these winnings stripped after a lengthy doping investigation.
Despite, ahem, a slow start, Britain has, in recent years, become a major player in the Tour. Brits have dominated since Bradley Wiggins of team Sky became the first British rider to win in 2012. After “Wiggo” broke the lengthy losing streak Chris Froome has won the Tour four times, in 2013, 2015, 2016 and again in 2017.
Sprinter Mark Cavendish, known as ‘the Manx Missile’ from the Isle of Man, holds the record for the most mass finish stage wins with 30 as of stage 14 in 2016.