History of the Tour de France

  • La Rochelle

    © ATOUT FRANCE/Pierre Torset

    La Rochelle

    © ATOUT FRANCE/Pierre Torset

History of the Tour de France France fr


The Tour de France began to promote the daily sports newspaper L'Auto. The idea for a round-France race came from L'Auto's chief cycling journalist, 26-year-old Géo Lefèvre. He and the editor, Henri Desgrange discussed it after lunch on 20 November 1902. L'Auto announced the race on 19 January 1903. The plan was a five-week race from 31 May to 5 July. This proved too daunting and only 15 riders entered. Desgrange cut the length to 19 days, changed the race dates to 1 July to 19 July, and offered a daily allowance. He attracted 60 entrants, not just professionals but amateurs, some unemployed, some simply adventurous. The demanding nature of the race (the stages averaged 400 km and could run through the night), caught public imagination.

The first Tours were open to whoever wanted to compete. Most riders were in teams who looked after them. The private entrants were called touriste-routiers - tourists of the road - and were allowed to take part provided they make no demands on the organisers. Some of the Tour's most colourful characters have been touriste-routiers. One finished each day's race and then performed acrobatic tricks in the street to raise the price of a hotel.

There was no place for individuals in the post-1930s teams and so Desgrange created regional cycling teams, generally from France, to take in riders who would not otherwise have qualified. The original touriste-routiers mostly disappeared but some were absorbed into regional teams.

The Tour originally ran round the perimeter of France. Cycling was an endurance sport and the organisers realised the sales they would achieve by creating supermen of their competitors. Night riding was dropped after the second Tour in 1904, when there had been persistent cheating when judges couldn't see riders. That reduced the daily and overall distance but the emphasis remained on endurance. Desgrange said his ideal race would be so hard that only one rider would make it to Paris.