Show Notes for Episode 394: A Brief History of the Tour de France

Categories: France How To, French History

The Tour de France

Official website of the Tour de France

Part I: The Tour in 2022

This year, the Tour de France will begin, not in France, but in Denmark! Why? Well Denmark, and more specifically Copenhagen, is considered to be the capital of bicycles. More people per capita use a bike there than anywhere else in Europe and so the organizers of the race decided to honor bicycles and give a push to “clean” transportation by beginning there. And so, what is more appropriate than to begin the most famous bicycle race in the world, in Copenhagen.

In the past, even though the race is a French race, there have been small departures or excursions into other countries like Spain, Italy or Belgium. But of course, most of the race always takes place in the different regions of France.

So, what exactly is the Tour de France?

It is a bicycle race, exclusively for men, that covers a minimum of 3500 kilometers in three weeks’ time. It always ends in Paris, where there is a large ceremony after a final sprint by each team. The Champs Elysée is the site of the final arrival, with masses of people lining the streets waiting to see the teams arrive at the finish line.

Here are some statistics about the Tour de France for this year.

Starting on July 4 the Tour goes to Belgium and then on to France

All together there will be 21 different sections: 6 where it is flat, 7 where it is hilly, 6 in high mountains, and two sprints. Four mountain ranges will be covered as well as 29 departments and 8 regions. The highest passes will be at over 8000 feet and include some of the most difficult, turning routes in the Alps and the Pyrenees! While this year, in the Alps, there will be a part of the route in Switzerland, going into Lausanne.

Towns and cities on the route now pay to have the Tour either end a section or begin a section there. These stops attract thousands of people and so bring in good business, as well as making for good publicity for the towns.

The 2022 Edition will end in Paris with, for the first time, a tour at the Defense and a small part of the race indoors at the huge Arena stadium.

This year, July 24th, the day of the Final and end of the race, there also be the beginning of the new Women’s Tour de France, which will leave from Paris.

It is estimated that about 12 million people will come out, along the route or at the starting or ending places, to be witness to the 22 teams of bikers, preceded by the publicity caravans and the motorcycles, as they speed by.

The French Tour de France is the third most watched sports event on television, with an estimated 3,5 billion people watching all or a part of the race! For this reason, the publicity time for ads during the race are among the most expensive in the world.

Part II: The History of the Tour de France

The first Tour de France was held in 1903.

The very first “bicycles” were quite primitive and were invented by a Monsieur Drais in the year 1817. But that bicycle had no pedals! It was like the baby bike today, two wheels locomoted by feet pushing on the ground. Then in 1839 a Scotsman created a bicycle with pedals and a chain. And then, in the 1880’s a Frenchman, a Mister Spoke, invented the spoked wheels that are still part of the bicycle structure today. By the 1880’s bicycles were all the rage, and cycling had become a popular sport activity in France.

But it was actually a political and business conflict that caused the creation of the Tour de France.

In 1900 there was one sports newspaper, published and edited by a man named Pierre Giffard. The newspaper was called “le Vélo” – how original! But Mister Giffard was an outspoken man, with strong political ideas and opinions, and even though the newspaper was supposed to be just about sports events, he published an editorial, in 1900, defending the Captain Dreyfus, a French officer who had been caught up in a spy scandal, but who had been acquitted.

The Dreyfus affair, as it was known, deeply divided French society and there were strong, divergent opinions about it because it touched on national security, loyalty to the country and had strong undertones of antisemitism.

A Count, Jules-Albert de Dion, very rich, very reactionary, and very anti-Dreyfus was so upset that the editor of “le Vélo” had written a political piece, one that defended Dreyfus; that he decided to create a second sports newspaper using his own money, one that would defend what he called the “correct” patriotic ideas. This sports paper was called the ‘L’Auto-Vélo”. But he had a hard time getting people to buy his paper since the “Vélo” was already so popular.

With three investors, including André Michelin, the owner of the tire factory, de Dion came up with what he thought of as a publicity idea: create a bicycle race across part of France that would be sponsored by and written up by his newspaper. And that is how the first Tour de France came to be in the summer of 1903. It went to major cities like Lyon, Marseille, Toulouse, Bordeaux, Nantes and then Paris and the bikers covered 2428 kilometers.

His bet paid off, and it was rather successful in bringing new readers to the newspaper, but more surprisingly, the race was extremely successful and there was a demand to continue it.

From 1903 until the outbreak of WW I, the Tour de France gained in popularity every year. That didn’t mean there weren’t some scandals too. From the beginning there were stories of cheating, or cutting across the routes to make it shorter, to doping up, and other things. There were also apparently some very bad moments when hooligans attacked the cyclists calling them all kinds of names. But in spite of all this the Tour gained in popularity every year.

Having mostly been in hilly country and low mountains, there was a push to make it more dramatic, so 1911 was the first year that the highest passes in the Alps and the Pyrenees were included. The bikers went up as high as a pass at 2642 meters (about 8000 feet). Ever since that year there are sections of the race that go up as high as possible in both the Alps and the Pyrenees and these are the most famous and most watched sections of the Tour.

The leading cyclist wears a yellow jersey, so that everyone can see who he is. The lead is determined by counting the total number of minutes for each racer. This tradition was started in 1919, with the first Tour de France race after WW I, when the owners of the race and the newspaper wanted to remind everyone that it was the newspaper, printed on yellow paper, that was the sponsor.  They also wanted to make it easier for spectators to see who the lead cyclist is as the teams pass. To this day, when talking about the Tour, everyone asks “who is the maillot jaune right now” (who is wearing the yellow jersey).

1930 brought the first of what are called the publicity caravans. Today these are decorated floats with lots of young people on top who spend hours throwing out little souvenirs to the thousands who line the roads and streets waiting for the cyclists to pass. These souvenirs can be tiny pieces of candy, sausage, key chains, hats, all kinds of silly things that people run to pick up as souvenirs. It happens that the idea originated with a chocolate factory, the Meunier Chocolates, a company that is from the north of France. They suggested adding on some trucks as a publicity stunt, to advertise their products, and the owners of the Tour realized that it would be a great way of making money. Now there is a whole parade of these publicity caravans well before the cyclists arrive and most people come extra early to participate in this silly but fun event.

By the 1930’s most people listened to broadcasters’ reports on the race on their radios and radio sponsoring was part of the commercial aspect of the Tour. It was also in 1930 that cities were allowed to pay to have part of the route go through their territory, adding to the prestige of the event.

WW II put a stop to the Tour. From 1939 until 1947 there was no Tour de France. And when it was started again, it was under the direction of three different sports newspapers one of which, L’Equipe, is still part of the direction. It was also after WWII that a real effort was made to include as many regions and parts of France as possible in the race, including the central part of the country, making as complete a circle as possible.

In the late 1960’ everything about the Tour and its public changed, with the advent of television. There was more publicity, more people became aware of it, there was added interest in the geography of the country, and that brought more people out on the roads to witness the Tour in person. It was also because starting in the 1960’s, in a period of affluence in France, more and more people had cars and could go and follow the Tour. But of course, it became even more commercial as big money entered the Tour due to television advertising.

By the end of the 20th century, the Tour de France had become an international event, even though it is really a French event. And since 2013, with the arrival of drones that can follow the event, there is not a stop along the entire route that is not visible to the public on television. Thanks to drones, spectators (of television) can see all of the landscape and get the full picture of where the cyclists are and how difficult it is.

Over the years, the number of teams and the number of racers on each team have changed. And some years the teams were national, sometimes brand sponsored, sometimes just privately sponsored. Right now in 2022, there are 22 teams, all brand sponsored, and each team has 8 cyclists.

There have been, sadly, some real scandals due to doping, particularly in the 1990’s, which seem to be better controlled today, and there are sometimes terrible accidents (often caused by imprudent spectators like last year’s pile-up) but the Tour de France remains one of the most well-liked and popular sports in France and in the world. You can watch it as an on-the-spot spectator, standing on the side of the road waiting to catch a souvenir from a publicity caravan, and patiently hoping to get a glimpse of the racers as they speed by, or sitting comfortably on your couch, enjoying the landscape from up above, seeing the whole group of cyclists whizz by, while you have a cool drink!

Either way, the Tour de France is a lot of fun and it is free to see!

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Categories: France How To, French History