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.
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.
The inaugural event was held in 1903.
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.
A Short sociological history of cycling