The Real Reason The Tour De France Began

It's hard to believe that one of cycling's most prominent events began as a publicity stunt, but that's the truth behind the origins of the Tour de France. Henri Desgrange, a French newspaper editor and cycling enthusiast, established this sporting event with his newspaper L'Auto as its sponsor (the publication is now known as L'Equipe) in 1903, according to Britannica. The idea for the Tour de France came from one of Desgrange's journalists, Geo Lefevre, and was meant to increase sales of their floundering sports paper, L'Auto (via History).

Together Desgrange and Lefevre developed the first Tour de France course that covered 1,500 miles, starting in Paris and looping through such cities as Lyon, Toulouse, and Bordeaux, before returning to the French capital. The first Tour de France had six stages, which meant the cyclists had to cover roughly 250 miles a day. When the event began on July 1, 1903, 60 cyclists started their ride for the top cash prize of 3,000 francs (via WBUR).

Maurice Garin wins first Tour de France

The first Tour de France cyclists had no helmets and had to tackle unpaved roads. It was every rider for himself unlike the cycling teams of today (via History). And even this first event had to handle its share of cheating scandals when one rider used a car to help him keep his pace and another rode in the slipstream of a vehicle. At the end, Maurice Garin became the first Tour de France champion. Another 20 riders also made it to the finish. Garin repeated his win the next year, but he was disqualified. Several other riders were disqualified for cheating, too. The top prize actually ended up going to the cyclist who finished fifth (via WBUR).

Still, the Tour de France race proved to be a win for L'Auto, too, boosting its circulation substantially during that first event. It has been held nearly every year since it began with breaks from 1915 to 1918 for World War I and from 1940 to 1946 for World War II. Not even the Covid-19 epidemic could stop the race in 2020, but it was postponed for a time (via Tour de France). The 2020 Tour de France ran from August 29 to September 20 that year. But the following year, the race returned to its usual summer start, starting on June 26 and ending on July 18.