“I still feel that variable gears are only for people over forty-five. Isn’t it better to triumph by the strength of your muscles than by the artifice of a derailler? We are getting soft… As for me, give me a fixed gear!” — Henri Desgrange – creator of Le Tour.
The Tour is unique. Watching it is not just a lesson in Gabriel Gate recipes and French farmers’ ingenuity with tractors; it is so big that it creates its own gravity and its own history as it unfolds. Let’s peer back into the beginnings.
Le Tour de France started as a media war between two newspapers. Le Vélo was the top sports newspaper of the day in France. Politics was counted as a sport in those days and the paper was on the, “He’s innocent” side of the Dreyfus affair. This lead to the creation of a rival newspaper that took the contrary; “He’s guilty” view: L’Auto-Vélo in 1900. They were forced to drop the Vélo part of the name and so began the eternal car – bike struggle that continues on the road today. L’Auto was printed on yellow paper to distinguish itself from the green paper of Le Vélo.
Desgrange had 12 track cycling world records, including the hour record (35.325 km; 1893). He was also director of the Parc des Princes velodrome (became the French Rugby stadium until 1998) and the Vélodrome d’Hiver. He wrote a training book, “La tête et les jambes” (1894), in which he included the breath-taking advice that, “an ambitious rider has no more need of a woman than an unwashed pair of socks”.
Given this potent mix, they hatched an audaxious plan: Why not play them at their own game. Amazingly. L’Auto would beat Le Vélo by inventing a new type of bike race: the bicycle stage race. In reality, bikes were so much bigger than cars at the time that this was the only way to take then on.
The rest is history. L’Auto flourished and Le Vélo went broke the year after the first Tour (1904). However, L’Auto met a nasty end. Germans had a controlling interest in the paper and insisted it report favourably on the German occupation of France in WWII. On the liberation of Paris its doors were nailed shut and it disappeared. The newspaper L’Equipe sprung from the ashes around this time and continues today:
Pre-race reporting on the first Tour was all noble:
“The men waved their hats, the ladies their umbrellas. One felt they would have liked to touch the steel muscles of the most courageous champions since antiquity. Who will carry off the first prize, entering the pantheon where only supermen may go?”
At the end of the second Tour reality set in and L’Auto announced that it would be the last Tour with the headline: THE END.
Desgrange: “The Tour de France has just finished and its second edition will, I fear, be the last. It will have died of its own success, of the blind passions which have been unleashed, of the abuse and of the suspicions that have come from ignorant and ill-intentioned people.”
Historians: “Desgrange and Lefèvre had a tiger by the tail … It was a strange Tour and no one is sure exactly what happened. Because the stages were so long, the riders were required to ride at night. Even with Desgrange’s men doing what they could to watch the race, cheating was easy. Some were accused of hopping in a car. Others took trains. Moreover, Desgrange’s race had lit fires of passion among racing fans that would almost be the ruin of the race. Opposing fans would pull riders off their bikes and beat them up.”
But it was too late. Multistage cycle racing was out of the bag and the Tour acquired a life of its own and just kept getting bigger.
In 1919 the maillot jaune of the leader was introduced, reflecting the colour of the yellow newsprint of L’Auto. And if you look closely, the H.D. sylized initials of Henri Desgrange are on the sleeve of the maillot jaune to this day.