Riding Through Time: History of Le Tour Told in 15 Iconic Tour de France Bikes

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reviewed by Rory McAllister
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Fasten your helmets and prepare to embark on a riveting journey that cycles through over a century of pedal-pushing evolution, exploring the transformation and innovation of historic Tour de France bikes.

We’ll explore the nuances of each epoch, focusing on the innovations and adaptations that have transformed the face of professional cycling.

From the early days of fixed gears and wooden rims to the introduction of electronic shifting and carbon frames, we’ll witness how these pioneering machines have triumphed in the face of grueling terrains and punishing long-distance journeys.

Hold onto your handlebars as we set off on this captivating tour through the annals of cycling history!

Tour de France Bikes Through History: Title Image
Credit: Noske, J.D./AnefoCC BY-SA 3.0 NL, via Wikimedia Commons. Edited from the original.

#1. Maurice Garin – La Française (1903)

Maurice Garin at the start of the inaugural Tour de France of 1903, which he would go on to win.

Where better to start than with Maurice Garin’s La Française, the bicycle that claimed victory in the inaugural Tour de France in 1903.

Crafted predominantly from steel, it featured fixed gears, an attribute that required perpetual pedaling to sustain motion and necessitated the rider to apply backward pressure for braking.

La Française was equipped with wooden rims and 32-38mm wide tires, demonstrating its distinct readiness for various terrains – a vital consideration considering the appalling quality of French roads in the era.

Compared to modern road bikes, it would have been incredibly heavy, and the lack of gears or freewheel mechanism combined with the astonishing distances covered in early Tour de France stages mean Garin and his contemporaries faced an unenviable task each day they raced.

It was finalized with a sturdy leather saddle to ensure “comfort”.

#2. Firmin Lambot – La Sportive (1919)

In the aftermath of World War I, with numerous bicycle manufacturers in distress or defunct, surviving brands including Alcyon, Armor, Automoto, Clément, La Française, Gladiator, Griffon, Hurtu, Labor, Liberator, Peugeot, and Thomann rallied together to form La Sportive.

This consortium provided over half the peloton with bicycles and components, ensuring the race could proceed. Firmin Lambot was the first yellow jersey winner.

This period also marked a significant shift in the technical landscape.

Despite initial resistance from organizer Henri Desgrange, riders, and the press who believed that the freewheel would lessen the race’s difficulty and increase the risk of mechanical failures, its introduction became widely accepted due to the hazardous nature of descending.

A key factor in its adoption was the evolution of braking systems, transitioning from rod-operated brakes on the tire or rim to cable-operated caliper brakes acting on the rim, akin to those used in today’s cycling world.

La Sportive disbanded in 1922 as each brand regained its individual stability post-war.

#3. Roger Lapébie – L’Auto (1937)

This bike represents a unique era initiated by L’Auto, the French newspaper responsible for launching the esteemed cycling event in 1903.

Between 1930 and 1939, to elevate the race’s profile, Henri Desgrange required all riders to exhibit the newspaper name on their bike’s downtube.

This innovative marketing strategy was feasible then as cyclists competed on national teams, eliminating any potential commercial conflicts of interest.

Furthermore, the year 1937 brought a crucial change when all riders were required to use a single model of derailleur: the Super Champion, designed by Swiss cyclist and manufacturer Oscar Egg.

The reasoning behind this decision remains speculative, with theories of potential contractual agreements and commission deals between the event organizers and the manufacturer.

This adoption by Roger Lapébie and the rest of the peloton led to a surge in sales for the Super Champion.

The Super Champion dérailleur was revolutionary at the time, offering 3 or 4 gears and the capability to change gears without stopping or removing the wheel, thereby eradicating the need to adjust chain tension.

#4. Hugo Koblet – La Perle (1951)

Gino Bartali, Hugo Koblet, and Fiorenzo Magni sprint for the finish line on Stage 2 of the 1953 Tour de France.
Gino Bartali, Hugo Koblet, and Fiorenzo Magni sprint for the finish line at the Tour de France.
Credit: Noske, J.D./AnefoCC BY-SA 3.0 NL, via Wikimedia Commons. Edited from the original.

Hugo Koblet‘s historic 1951 victory was aided in part by technical innovation.

The Gran Sport model, an early prototype derailleur crafted by Tullio Campagnolo, provided riders with a revolutionary and “modern” method of gear shifting.

Campagnolo’s design improved upon previous models, significantly enhancing their performance, which led to its adoption on Koblet’s La Perle bicycle for the 1951 Tour.

The gear shifters of this model were strategically positioned on the downtube, enabling riders to manipulate both the front and rear derailleurs through a system of cable pulls.

#5. Jacques Anquetil – Gitane (1963)

Jacques Anquetil leads the pack up a climb at the 1960 Giro d'Italia.
Jacques Anquetil leads the pack up a climb.
Credit: Unknown Author (RotoFoto)CC BY-SA 3.0 NL, via Wikimedia Commons. Edited from the original.

The renowned French brand Gitane is closely associated with bicycle racing from the mid-1960s through to the mid-1980s.

This era marked a golden period for the company as it secured all of its nine TDF victories during this time.

Anquetil, alongside fellow French champions Bernard Hinault and Laurent Fignon, and Belgian competitor Lucien Van Impe, helped cement Gitane’s popularity.

#6. Eddy Merckx – Eddy Merckx (1974)

Eddy Merckx, esteemed as the most successful cyclist in history with five Tour de France and five Giro d’Italia victories, is also a household name for his eponymous bike brand.

However, it’s worth noting that his bicycle manufacturing venture only began after he retired in 1980.

During his victorious Tour de France races, Merckx rode bikes built by Masi and Kessels, simply bearing his name on the downtube.

#7. Bernard Thévenet – Peugeot (1977)

Bernard Thévenet races at the 1974 World Cycling Championships in Montreal, Canada, riding a Peugeot PY-10.
Bernard Thévenet races at the 1974 World Cycling Championships in Montreal, Canada, riding a Peugeot PY-10.
Credit: Ken from Worcester, Massachusetts, CC BY 2.0, via Wikimedia Commons. Edited from the original.

The celebrated French automaker Peugeot not only has a rich legacy in the auto industry but also in the realm of bicycles, a journey that began in 1882.

The company is known for its Tour de France victories – first with Louis Trousselier in 1905, and culminating with Bernard Thévenet in 1977.

#8. Greg LeMond – Bottecchia (1989)

LeMond begins the final stage time trial from Versailles at the 1989 Tour de France.
LeMond begins the final stage time trial from Versailles at the 1989 Tour de France.
Credit: Benjamin WernerCC BY 2.0, via Wikimedia Commons. Edited from the original.

In 1989, American cyclist Greg LeMond underscored the vital importance of aerodynamics in cycling. During the individual time trial on the last day of the Tour, LeMond overcame a 50-second deficit to French cyclist Laurent Fignon.

By the end of the 24.5 km trial, he had outpaced Fignon by 8 seconds, beating him by a notable 2.3 seconds per kilometer and cycling at an average speed of 2 km/h faster.

Unlike Fignon, who rode with a traditional handlebar, no helmet, and glasses with high air resistance, LeMond utilized a triathlon handlebar and sported an aerodynamic helmet.

#9. Chris Boardman – Lotus (1994)

In the 1994 edition, Chris Boardman successfully harnessed the power of electronic shifting and advanced aerodynamics with his Lotus TT bicycle.

The Mavic Zap electronic groupset, first introduced in 1993 by Tony Rominger, was also utilized by Boardman, contributing to his standout victory in the Prologue.

Despite this achievement, Boardman’s use of cutting-edge technology didn’t immediately inspire widespread adoption among the rest of the peloton.

#10. Miguel Indurain – Pinarello (1995)

Miguel Indurain secured four consecutive victories from 1992 to 1995 while riding Pinarello bikes (1991 was on a Razesa bike).

In 1994, Indurain achieved his fourth Tour win on a Pinarello, marking the last victory on a steel bike.

His final Tour in 1995 signaled the transition from steel to aluminum, as his Pinarello model was made of the lighter material. This shift to aluminum continued until Lance Armstrong’s first Tour victory on a carbon bike.

While the first carbon bike to win the general classification didn’t occur until 1999, carbon had already been used before. For instance, the iconic Miguel Indurain’s Pinarello Espada was made of carbon when he won the 54 km time trial to Seraing in 1995.

The ’90s marked a notable era of radical designs and aerodynamic focus in cycling. Boardman’s Lotus, alongside Miguel Indurain’s Pinarello Espada, exemplified this period of innovation.

However, this wave of groundbreaking design came to an end in 2000 when the Union Cycliste Internationale (UCI) imposed stringent regulations on bike and equipment specifications.

#11. Marco Pantani – Bianchi (1998)

The harmonious blend of Bianchi’s aluminum frame and Campagnolo groupset, showcased in their iconic Celeste color (often referred to as Bianchi Green), complemented the yellow jersey during Pantani’s victory.

Bianchi, established by Edoardo Bianchi in 1885 and recognized as the oldest bicycle manufacturer today, has contributed to three of Italy’s Tour de France victories.

#12. Lance Armstrong – Trek (1999)

In 1999, Lance Armstrong made history riding a Trek 5500, marking a significant milestone for Trek, a leading bike brand established in 1976. Armstrong’s victory was the first for Trek in the TdF, a dominance he upheld for the following seven years until 2005.

The Trek 5500 that Armstrong rode was the first 100% carbon bike to win the Tour, and it also marked the first victory for Shimano, the bike component manufacturer from Japan.

The construction of the Trek 5500 was revolutionary for its time.

It deviated from the traditional manufacturing method of joining tubes by welding or using lugs and instead utilized a molding process, a method now commonplace for modern carbon bikes.

In terms of equipment, the US Postal Team used Rolf wheelsets in 1999.

#13. Cadel Evans – BMC (2011)

Cadel Evans etched his name in cycling history in 2011 by becoming the first Australian to win the Tour de France.

His triumph was aboard two revolutionary bicycles from the Swiss brand BMC. He alternated between two road bikes, the BMC Team Machine SLR01 and the BMC Impec.

The BMC Team Machine SLR01 was a trailblazer in its application of Nanolight technologies, which enhanced the performance attributes of the carbon fiber frames.

The BMC Impec also played an integral role in this success. Standing out from the conventional carbon fiber framesets created in frame molds, the Impec was entirely machine-built.

BMC’s innovative “Load Specific Weave” technology resulted in impeccably flawless carbon fiber tubes.

Evans’ 2011 victory underscored the effectiveness of Shimano’s Dura-Ace 7970 with its Di2 (Digital Integrated Intelligence) system, introduced in 2009.

#14. Vincenzo Nibali – Specialized (2014)

In 2014, Vincenzo Nibali secured the victory while utilizing mechanical shifting, the first to do so since 2011.

Notably, this achievement took place in an era of electronic groupsets, which were already being embraced by Campagnolo, the brand employed by Nibali’s team.

This Tour likely signaled the end of an era in which Tour winners rode bikes with cable-operated gear shifts, rendering Nibali’s win a unique historical event.

#15. Jonas Vingegaard – Cervélo (2022)

Jonas Vingegaard rides a Cervélo bike around the Arc de Triomphe at the Tour de France.
© A.S.O./Aurélien Vialatte. Edited from the original.

In his victorious 2022 campaign, Jonas Vingegaard rode a Cervélo R5 to glory.

This lightweight racing bike, fitted with a 12-speed Shimano Dura-Ace R9200 electronic shifting groupset and a Shimano C50 wheelset, was lightning-quick in his uphill confrontations.

However, Vingegaard wasn’t hesitant about swapping to the aero-focussed Cervélo S5 for flatter stages and the Cervélo P3 for time trials, depending on the stage profile.

The 2022 race marked a crucial transition in professional cycling, as the majority of teams started to abandon traditional rim brakes in favor of disc brakes, signifying the end of an era for rim-braked bicycles.

We Want To Hear From You!

From the steel-frame days of Maurice Garin’s La Française to the carbon era with Jonas Vingegaard’s Cervélo, we’ve seen how innovation and resilience have driven the sport we love so much.

But what about you?

Do you have a favorite era or bike? Or perhaps there’s a technological development or innovation you believe had the biggest impact on professional cycling? We’re eager to hear your thoughts.

Drop a comment below and let us know!

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Quentin's background in bike racing runs deep. In his youth, he won the prestigious junior Roc d'Azur MTB race before representing Belgium at the U17 European Championships in Graz, Austria. Shifting to road racing, he then competed in some of the biggest races on the junior calendar, including Gent-Wevelgem and the Tour of Flanders, before stepping up to race Liège-Bastogne-Liège and Paris-Roubaix as an U23. With a breakthrough into the cut-throat environment of professional racing just out of reach, Quentin decided to shift his focus to embrace bike racing as a passion rather than a career. Now writing for BikeTips, Quentin's experience provides invaluable insight into performance cycling - though he's always ready to embrace the fun side of the sport he loves too and share his passion with others.

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