Launched as a newspaper publicity stunt in 1903, the Tour de France instantly proved itself an epic test of endurance, with competitors in the first race pedaling through the night on grueling stages that lasted upwards of 24 hours. Cheating was also endemic from the very start. As the Tour de France embarks on its 100th edition—world wars canceled 11 races—take a look back at the birth of the world’s most famous cycling race.
On July 1, 1903, 60 men mounted their bicycles outside the Café au Reveil Matin in the Parisian suburb of Montgeron. The five-dozen riders were mostly French, with just a sprinkle of Belgians, Swiss, Germans and Italians. A third were professionals sponsored by bicycle manufacturers, the others simply devotees of the sport. All 60 wheelmen, however, were united by the challenge of embarking on an unprecedented test of endurance—not to mention the 20,000 francs in prize money—in the inaugural Tour de France.
At 3:16 p.m., the cyclists turned the pedals of their bicycles and raced into the unknown.
Nothing like the Tour de France had ever been attempted before. Journalist Geo Lefevre had dreamt up the fanciful race as a stunt to boost the circulation of his struggling daily sports newspaper, L’Auto. Henri Desgrange, the director-editor of L’Auto and a former champion cyclist himself, loved the idea of turning France into one giant velodrome. They developed a 1,500-mile clockwise loop of the country running from Paris to Lyon, Marseille, Toulouse, Bordeaux and Nantes before returning to the French capital. There were no Alpine climbs and only six stages—as opposed to the 21 stages in the 2013 Tour— but the distances covered in each of them were monstrous, an average of 250 miles. (No single stage in the 2013 Tour tops 150 miles.) Between one and three rest days were scheduled between stages for recovery.
The first stage of the epic race was particularly dastardly. The route from Paris to Lyon stretched nearly 300 miles. No doubt several of the riders who wheeled away from Paris worried not about winning the race—but surviving it.
Unlike today’s riders, the cyclists in 1903 rode over unpaved roads without helmets. They rode as individuals, not team members. Riders could receive no help. They could not glide in the slipstream of fellow riders or vehicles of any kind. They rode without support cars. Cyclists were responsible for making their own repairs. They even rode with spare tires and tubes wrapped around their torsos in case they developed flats.
And unlike modern-day riders, the cyclists in the 1903 Tour de France, forced to cover enormous swathes of land, spent much of the race riding through the night with moonlight the only guide and stars the only spectators. During the early morning hours of the first stage, race officials came across many competitors “riding like sleepwalkers.”
Hour after hour through the night, riders abandoned the race. One of the favorites, Hippolyte Aucouturier, quit after developing stomach cramps, perhaps from the swigs of red wine he took as an early 1900s version of a performance enhancer.
Twenty-three riders abandoned the first stage of the race, but the one man who barreled through the night faster than anyone else was another pre-race favorite, 32-year-old professional Maurice Garin. The mustachioed French national worked as a chimney sweep as a teenager before becoming one of France’s leading cyclists. Caked in mud, the diminutive Garin crossed the finish line in Lyon a little more than 17 hours after the start outside Paris. In spite of the race’s length, he won by only one minute.
“The Little Chimney Sweep” built his lead as the race progressed. By the fifth stage, Garin had a two-hour advantage. When his nearest competitor suffered two flat tires and fell asleep while resting on the side of the road, Garin captured the stage and the Tour was all but won.
The sixth and final stage, the race’s longest, began in Nantes at 9 p.m. on July 18, so that spectators could watch the riders arrive in Paris late the following afternoon. Garin strapped on a green armband to signify his position as race leader. (The famed yellow jersey worn by the race leader was not introduced until 1919.) A crowd of 20,000 in the Parc des Princes velodrome cheered as Garin won the stage and the first Tour de France. He bested butcher trainee Lucien Pothier by nearly three hours in what remains the greatest winning margin in the Tour’s history. Garin had spent more than 95 hours in the saddle and averaged 15 miles per hour. In all, 21 of the 60 riders completed the Tour, with the last-place rider more than 64 hours behind Garin.
For Desgrange, the race was an unqualified success. Newspaper circulation soared six-fold during the race. However, a chronic problem that would perpetually plague the Tour de France was already present in the inaugural race—cheating. The rule breaking started in the very first stage when Jean Fischer illegally used a car to pace him. Another rider was disqualified in a subsequent stage for riding in a car’s slipstream.
That paled in comparison, however, to the nefarious activity the following year in the 1904 Tour de France. As Garin and a fellow rider pedaled through St. Etienne, fans of hometown rider Antoine Faure formed a human blockade and beat the men until Lefevre arrived and fired a pistol to break up the melee. Later in the race, fans protesting the disqualification of a local rider placed tacks and broken glass on the course. Riders acted little better. They hitched rides in cars during the dark and illegally took help from outsiders. Garin himself was accused of illegally obtaining food during a portion of one stage. The race was so plagued by scandal that four months later Desgrange disqualified Garin and the three other top finishers. It, of course, wouldn’t be the last time a Tour winner was stripped of his title.