A Retrospective Look at Cycling and the Tour de France in particular

With the 102nd Tour de France currently underway, this epic three-week-long event is emblematic of man’s tenacity and perseverance. The unremitting odyssey encompasses tortuous mountain climbs, harrowing hairpin bends and breakneck speeds through hamlets and villages along the 3360km route from Utrecht in Holland to Paris in France.

The agonies and the ecstasies will be closely followed by hundreds of millions every day. What attracts these viewers is not merely the regurgitation of facts about each participant but more importantly the verdant fields, the Alpine vistas and the quaint forgotten hamlets through which the race traverses.

Main picture: The finish of the first Tour. At the right: the first winner, Maurice Garin. At the left: probably Leon Georget (not sure). Tour de France 1903.

How did it all start?

Of all of sports legendary events, the origin of the Tour de France must surely rank as the most strange. Its origin is inextricably linked to the Dreyfuss Affair as it came to be called. This related to the conviction in 1894 of a French Artillery officer by the name of Captain Alfred Dreyfuss for high treason. Two factors gave this case special prominence. Firstly Dreyfuss was of Jewish descent. In an age of overt anti-semitism in many quarters, it created a cleavage of twin peaks proportions. To this volatile admixture was added years later when it was proven that Dreyfuss was indeed innocent of the crimes. The match which finally ignited the fire was the evidence that the French military authorities had attempted to suppress the truth.

 

Tour de France 1903, Marcel Kerff.

Tour de France 1903, Marcel Kerff.

Such were the far-reaching ramifications that even L’Velo, France’s most popular cycling magazine became embroiled in the controversy. Even more internecine was the antagonism between the pro and anti Dryfuss factions that the magazine ultimately split into two. The anti-Dreyfuss faction created a magazine L’Auto-Velo. In an effort to boost their waning popularity, and win back their cycling fans, L’Auto- as it was renamed – set up the Tour de France in 1903. It was a hugely successful campaign which caused their sales to increase 6-fold during and after the race and, eventually, propelled L’Velo into bankruptcy.

Tour de France 1903. Advertising of the first cycle racing.

Tour de France 1903. Advertising of the first cycle racing.

The inaugural event was held in 1903.

 

Tour de France 1903. After a victory at the first stage of cycle racing - Maurice Garin

Tour de France 1903. After a victory at the first stage of cycle racing – Maurice Garin

Fortunately the original course was relatively benign in comparison with the mountainous 21 stage modern equivalent and comprised only six fairly flat stages. Where it was arduous was in the length of these stages: they were an extraordinary 400km long each.

Tour de France 1903. The first kilometre in the history of cycle racing Tour de France

Tour de France 1903. The first kilometre in the history of cycle racing Tour de France

Tour de France 1903. Winner Garin

Tour de France 1903. Winner Garin

 

A Short sociological history of cycling

Members of the Italian cavalry cycling corps climb with their folding bikes strapped to their backs. Bicycles were popular in many armies during the 1900s.

Members of the Italian cavalry cycling corps climb with their folding bikes strapped to their backs. Bicycles were popular in many armies during the 1900s.

With spare tubes wrapped around their bodies, cyclists from a 1920s Tour de France light up along the way. In the early 1900s, a smoke was thought to provide a jumpstart to a race.

With spare tubes wrapped around their bodies, cyclists from a 1920s Tour de France light up along the way. In the early 1900s, a smoke was thought to provide a jumpstart to a race.

Two men proudly pose with their bicycles—zi xing che in Mandarin—during the 1930s in China. Inexpensive and convenient, bikes are an important form of Chinese transportation.

Two men proudly pose with their bicycles—zi xing che in Mandarin—during the 1930s in China. Inexpensive and convenient, bikes are an important form of Chinese transportation.

 

Bicycle riding was the key to the 19th-century push for womens rights in America.

Bicycle riding was the key to the 19th-century push for womens rights in America.

A family in rural France goes for a Sunday ride in a photograph from a 1951 issue of National Geographic. The term bicycle first appeared in an 1868 article

A family in rural France goes for a Sunday ride in a photograph from a 1951 issue of National Geographic. The term bicycle first appeared in an 1868 article

 

Parked bicycles crowd a downtown boulevard in Saigon, South Vietnam, in a photo from a 1965 issue of National Geographic. In the mid-1900s, the city’s bicycle population was estimated at 1,500,000.

Parked bicycles crowd a downtown boulevard in Saigon, South Vietnam, in a photo from a 1965 issue of National Geographic. In the mid-1900s, the city’s bicycle population was estimated at 1,500,000.

 

The Bonneville Salt Flats in Utah are an annual venue for car races, but a deluge brings things to a standstill. Trucks extricate race cars from the muck, but a cyclist has no problem

The Bonneville Salt Flats in Utah are an annual venue for car races, but a deluge brings things to a standstill. Trucks extricate race cars from the muck, but a cyclist has no problem

 

A couple ferries their mountain bikes above the Kennicott River in a hand tram in Wrangell-St. Elias National Park, Alaska. A footbridge now allows explorers on foot or wheels to venture across

A couple ferries their mountain bikes above the Kennicott River in a hand tram in Wrangell-St. Elias National Park, Alaska. A footbridge now allows explorers on foot or wheels to venture across

A cyclist hauls a massive load uphill near Bujumbura, Burundi. Bikes are traditionally used to haul goods into the city.

A cyclist hauls a massive load uphill near Bujumbura, Burundi. Bikes are traditionally used to haul goods into the city.

A rusted bicycle in a cemetery creates a bleak scenario in the Atacama Desert in Chile.

A rusted bicycle in a cemetery creates a bleak scenario in the Atacama Desert in Chile.

 

A man in period dress in Indiana rides a Penny-Farthing, a two-wheeler popular in the late 1800s

A man in period dress in Indiana rides a Penny-Farthing, a two-wheeler popular in the late 1800s

 

A woman cycles in Amsterdam, one of the most bicycle-friendly cities in the world. In Amsterdam, many streets are restricted to bikes

A woman cycles in Amsterdam, one of the most bicycle-friendly cities in the world. In Amsterdam, many streets are restricted to bikes

A young man balances logs from the forests around Nyiragongo on a bike-like chassis in war-torn Virunga National Park in the Democratic Republic of the Congo

A young man balances logs from the forests around Nyiragongo on a bike-like chassis in war-torn Virunga National Park in the Democratic Republic of the Congo

Mud and a bicycle add up to a playful combination in Timbuktu, Mali. Cycling is a global symbol of childhood

Mud and a bicycle add up to a playful combination in Timbuktu, Mali. Cycling is a global symbol of childhood

The Swiss were the last military corps to have a bicycle squad, which was disbanded in 2003, though bikes are still used for training and transport on base

The Swiss were the last military corps to have a bicycle squad, which was disbanded in 2003, though bikes are still used for training and transport on base

 

National Geographic article on cycling

 


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