Tour de France History: A Brief Introduction

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The most prestigious and iconic race in the cycling calendar, the Tour de France has changed immeasurably from its formative years.

The Tour de France is an annual multi-stage cycling race held (mostly) in France. Beginning well over a century ago, the Tour de France history is one of the longest and most fascinating of any sporting event.

However, the Tour at its inception is almost completely unrecognizable from what it is today. The Tour de France has been shaped by an eventful journey, producing some of the most iconic moments in the history of cycling, both great and infamous. To this day, Le Tour is the pinnacle of road cycling, with the winners forever immortalized.

But what year did the Tour de France start? Why do the leaders wear a yellow jersey? And what generated the prestige of the Tour de France?

We’ve got you covered! To answer all your burning Tour de France history questions, we’ll be covering:

  • How Did The Tour De France Start?
  • The Very First Tour De France
  • The Introduction of the Yellow Jersey
  • The Most Brutal Climbs in Tour de France History
  • Doping In The Tour de France
  • The Tour’s Most Successful Riders

Ready for an introduction to Tour de France history?

Let’s get going!

Tour de France History: Title Image

Tour de France History: How Did The Tour de France Start?

The first Tour de France was held in the year 1903. The inception of the race was largely motivated by an increase in sales for a French newspaper, stemming from the rivalry between two prevalent French newspapers at the time, Le Vélo and L’Auto.

Le Vélo was, at the time, the most popular sporting newspaper in France. Unsurprisingly given its name translates as “The Bike”, Le Vélo largely focused on the world of cycling, which was a fairly new sport at the time. In the pursuit of attention from the cycling world, Le Vélo‘s editors had founded the now-legendary Paris-Roubaix one-day race.

An internal political dispute at Le Vélo had resulted in a split. A rival newspaper, L’Auto (today’s L’Equipe) born from the fracture within Le Vélo‘s ranks, was formed in 1900 by Henri Desgrange, a prominent road cyclist at the time.

In a bid to boost the sales of L’Auto, Henri Desgrange created the first-ever Tour de France in 1903.

Maurice Garin, winner of the first Tour de France, pictured in 1903.
Maurice Garin, winner of the first Tour de France, pictured in 1903.

The Very First Tour De France

The format of the first Tour de France differed vastly from the modern Tour.

It was a six-stage race with a total distance of 2428 km, and the entrants were not exclusively professional cyclists but included a number of amateur cyclists. The riders competed for a cash prize of 12,000 francs for the top spot (six times the average yearly salary in France at the time).

These differences were exemplified in the first stage of the 1903 Tour de France. Departing from Montgeron, Paris, the racers embarked on a marathon 467 km journey to the city of Lyon. The fastest rider took 17h 45m to complete the stage – a far cry from today’s typical 3-5 hour stages.

This seems like an extraordinarily long time to be in the saddle, with the riders slogging on all the way through the afternoon and finishing the following morning, and some riding for over 24 hours straight. This bears a much closer resemblance to a modern ultra-endurance race than a Tour de France stage.

When you look a little deeper, 17h 45m is an incredibly impressive time. The equipment available to the riders was archaic: heavy, unsophisticated bikes with fixed gears, no bar tape, and rudimentary wheels. Oh, and the riders had to pedal backward to brake. An average speed of over 26 km/h doesn’t seem so bad now!

The winner of this first stage was Maurice Garin, who went on to win the inaugural 1903 Tour de France.

The Introduction Of The Yellow Jersey

Fast forward to 1919, and the landscape of cycling was vastly different.

The First World War was still fresh in the memory, with the Tour having taken a five-year break during the conflict. Determined to restore the success generated in the eleven editions prior to the war, Henri Desgrange was in search of some new marketing tactics.

Upon the Tour’s return, Desgrange immediately introduced the maillot jaune (“yellow jersey”).

The race’s current leader at the start of a stage would don the yellow jersey, apparently with the purpose of being easily spotted by roadside spectators. The jersey’s color was another marketing ploy by Desgrange, chosen to match the yellow pages of L’Auto‘s print.

Eugene Christophe was the first man to wear the yellow jersey after a strong opening performance in 1919. Unfortunately for Christophe, he suffered two crashes in the penultimate stage, costing him 70 minutes and the Tour victory.

The yellow jersey was snatched in the penultimate stage by Belgian rider Firmin Lambot, who finished the 5560 km Tour in just over 231 hours. This Tour was so brutal that of the 67 riders who started the race, only 10 finished.

The Col du Tourmalet, photographed from close to the summit.
The Col du Tourmalet, photographed from close to the summit.

The Most Brutal Climbs in Tour de France History

After the introduction of the derailleur in 1937, the riders had greater access to gears, and so now possessed the mechanical advantage to tackle some of the brutal climbs the Tour is known for today.

However, that didn’t stop unsympathetic organizers early in Tour de France history from sending riders up brutal climbs long before they had bikes appropriate for the job. The first major climbs were added as early as the Tour’s third edition in 1905 when the race headed to the Vosges mountain range for the first time.

Arguably the most iconic and storied climb in cycling – the Col du Tourmalet – followed soon after with its controversial inclusion at the 1910 Tour de France. The decision would prompt the race’s eventual champion Octave Lapize to brand Tour organizers as “assassins”.

It wasn’t until the early 1950s, however, that the other two most legendary climbs in Tour de France history were introduced. Mont Ventoux and Alpe D’Huez were first summited at the Tour in 1951 and 1952 respectively, and – like the Tourmalet – their place in Tour de France mythology has been secure ever since.

Lance Armstrong at the Tour de France wearing the US Postal Service jersey.
Credit: de:Benutzer:HaseCC BY-SA 3.0, via Wikimedia Commons.

Doping In The Tour De France

Alongside the prestige and legendary sporting battles, Tour de France history has a darker side: doping.

For many, the Tour is synonymous with one man above all. Lance Armstrong was the sport’s poster boy for over a decade, winning an unparalleled seven consecutive Tours between 1999 and 2005 following a scarcely-believable recovery from testicular cancer to become arguably the most recognisable athlete on the planet.

Throughout his career, however, whisperings of wrongdoing were intensifying. Early allegations of EPO abuse (a performance-enhancing drug intended for people living with anemia) were swept away due to procedural errors, while muttered allegations from icons such as Greg LeMond were swiftly shut down.

However, seven years after Armstrong’s final Tour victory, in 2012 a USADA investigation concluded that Armstrong had been involved in the most extensive organized doping program in history, and the UCI stripped him of all seven Tour de France victories.

Furthermore, six of the seven runners-up from 1999-2005 were also later found to have doped, and it’s likely that vast numbers of riders in the peloton of the era were also playing dirty. Professional cycling found its reputation dragged through the dirt, with public faith in the sport’s integrity shattered.

It was far from the first time in Tour de France history that the sport found itself mired in doping controversy.

Starting in 1903 with the consumption of alcohol to alleviate pain from endurance riding, doping was a common and accepted practice in the Tour for over 60 years. The form of doping certainly developed, however, with many riders taking amphetamines among other substances by the 1960s. This was incredibly detrimental to the riders’ long-term health and led to the criminalization of doping in 1965.

However, this did not bring an end to doping – far from it.

Instead, it pushed riders to more dangerous alternatives which were harder to uncover in doping tests. Throughout the 1970s, steroids became the drug of choice for the pro peloton, leading to faster recovery and the ability to train more aggressively with less rest. From the ’90s onwards, it was primarily EPO that was used to enhance performance, which remained a common practice.

Cycling journalist Hans Halter wrote in 1998:

“For as long as the Tour has existed, since 1903, its participants have been doping themselves. For 60 years doping was allowed. For the past 30 years it has been officially prohibited. Yet the fact remains; great cyclists have been doping themselves, then and now.”

Hans Halter

Due to the fallout from the Lance Armstrong affair, as well as advancements in medical testing, doping is now much more difficult to get away with, with modern testing becoming extremely difficult to deceive.

The Tour’s Most Successful Riders

The Tour de France is the ultimate stage for the world’s best riders to showcase their abilities. Some riders became prolific winners, challenging to cement their places in history most successful cyclists of all time.

The highest number of Tour de France overall victories is five. Four riders share this record: Jacques Anquetil, Miguel Indurain, Bernard Hinault, and Eddy Merckx.

Merckx is widely regarded as the greatest rider of all time. His accomplishments include the greatest number of professional victories in cycling (525), he shares the record for most Giro D’Italia wins (five), hold the record for the most Classics wins (28), and is the only rider to win the yellow, polka-dot, and green jerseys at the same Tour de France.

Merckx also shares the record for individual stage wins at the Tour de France, with a total of 34. The rider he shares this record with is British sprinter Mark Cavendish – the “Manx Missile” – who took four stages at the 2021 Tour to draw level with the legendary Belgian.

One of the most greatest talents in the modern-day Tour de France is Tadej Pogačar, the second youngest Tour de France winner of all time, who took his first victory in 2020 and backed it up with another in 2021. If the 2022 edition is anything to go by, his rivalry with Danish rider Jonas Vingegaard could dominate the sport for a decade.

The summit of Mont Ventoux.
The summit of Mont Ventoux.

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Jack is an experienced cycling writer based in San Diego, California. Though he loves group rides on a road bike, his true passion is backcountry bikepacking trips. His greatest adventure so far has been cycling the length of the Carretera Austral in Chilean Patagonia, and the next bucket-list trip is already in the works. Jack has a collection of vintage steel racing bikes that he rides and painstakingly restores. The jewel in the crown is his Colnago Master X-Light.

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