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History

Written by Wicky (2009-03-01 00:00)
Translated by DZI (2009-03-01 00:00:00)

The Tour de France is the biggest cycling spectacle of the year. On top of that, after the Olympic games and the World Championship Soccer, this is the third largest sports event in the world! Every year, in the month of july, millions are drawn to their TV, radio and internet connected computers, in order not to miss a single minute of this cycling circus called Tour de France. During the three weeks, many millions of fans assemble along the route in France as well, just to get a glimpse of “La Grande Boucle” when the cycling elite comes whizzing by.

In the early years of the 20th century, two French newspapers were enormously involved in their mutual struggle to attract new readers. Every extra reader was a profit to each newspaper, so both Le Vélo and L’Auto-Vélo tried new things to attract readers. One of these efforts was to organise sports events. Especially cycling was very popular those days which explains the names these papers had. After a court ruling, L’Auto-Vélo, Henri Desgranges’ newspaper, was obligated to change its name. The word “Vélo” had to be erased from the name, so the paper ended up with just “L’Auto”. Fearing that cycling lovers would start reading the “other” newspaper, cycling journalist Géo Lefèvre came up with an idea; a multiple day race through all of France. First treated as folly - and thus “a bad idea” - Lefèvre manages to persuade Desgranges in the end.

That’s why the first stage of a new cycling event starts off on the first of july 1903. The sixty bold men that dare to take on this hellish job, assemble at 15:16 hrs. that day in front of the café Reveille-Matin in Montgeron, one of Paris’ outskirts. The favourites for that first edition are the big names of those days. Joseph Fischer, Hippolyte Aucouturier and Maurice Garin, all former winners of Paris – Roubaix, are seen as the top favourites. In the end, it appeared to be the little chimney-sweep Maurice Garin who was the strongest rider. He had a huge lead over the number two, Lucien Pothier, when they returned to Paris.

The Tour de France’s immense history has its many highs and, of course, lows. The demise of Tom Simpson on the slopes of the Mont Ventoux, Roger Rivière’s fall, Eugène Christophe’s many dramas or the riders that died during one of the two World Wars.
But also funny anecdotes are known from that period. Before the 1951 Tour, the whole Dutch squad received a watch by a well known watchmaker.

Many can remember the pictures of the tumble Dutchman Wim van Est took that year. He fell into a ravine on the Col d’Aubisque, only to be caught by a large slopeside shrub thirty meters downhill which saved him from certain death. After he was rescued, utilising many cycle tyres tied together to get some sort of a rope going, the watchmaker introduced a new slogan: “His heart may have stopped for a second, but his Pontiac didn’t miss a beat!”

The last fatal accident in de Tour is still quite fresh in many Cyclingfans' minds. The images of a young rider by the name of Fabio Casartelli and his head in a pool of blood after falling on the descent of the Col de Portet d’Aspet are still horrible. May they rest in peace.

Tensive exitement and heroism are the Tour’s main ingredients. La Grande Boucle has its many winners and losers, but of course the winners are remembered most. For a long time, a quartet of riders were considered to have done the impossible by winning the Tour de France five times. Jacques Anquetil in the late fifties and early sixties, Eddy Merckx in the decade afterwards. Bernard Hinault owned the eighties, while Miguel Induraín dominated the early nineties. Induraín was also the first rider to actually win five times in a row.

Since 2004, these four lost their record to an American, Lance Armstrong. Armstrong even managed to get his final win in 2005 too, so he now is the absolute recordholder with seven consecutive wins. But despite Armstrong’s awesome record, many authorities on cycling still consider Merckx to be the greatest cycling champion ever.

What follows ‘El Rey’ in hind-sight, and this word is important in this part of the history of cycling, a dark period for the sport. Abuse of drugs in sport is of all times, but late 20th century and at the start of the 21st the scandals accumulate in the Tour, the team Festina affair represents an all-time low. In the meantime, a whole generation enjoyed cyclists as there are Jan Ullrich, Bjarne Riis en ‘Il Elefantino’ Marco Pantani. These three riders won the Tour in the years prior to Lance Armstrong.

Armstrong, surviving the fight against cancer and collecting a lot of money with his Livestrong organization for this fight, won the Tour de France between 1999-2005 seven times and become record holder. Again at his return in 2009 he made it to the podium in Paris. His strategy, forming a team as strong as his competitors in the mountains and very fast in the team time trials, made him successful in collecting yellow jerseys. Meanwhile the discussion about whether ‘The Boss’ victories should stand in time, will be eternal.

Before the ‘era of SKY’ the cycling fans meet Alberto Contador. His attacks in the Alps and Pyrenees guaranteed true spectacular sport and eventually he managed to bring the yellow jersey three times to Paris. The last one is taken away (the contaminated meat-incident) in favor of Andy Schleck, his everlasting rival.

The following Tour-years will be referred to by some as scientific cycling. With Bradley Wiggins and Chris(topher) Froome as the poster boys Team Sky chooses a calculated way of riding, supported by a significant budget. They put together a team knowing with which speed to attack the mountain stages (copied from Armstrong) and exactly timing when to boost wattages, thus gaining time. One win for Wiggins, one for Geraint Thomas and four times Froome brings team Sky six Tour wins in total. Vincenzo Nibali, the ‘Sicilian Shark’, is the only one to break Sky’s dominance (due to an early crash by Froome in the 2014 Tour) in the second decade of the 21st century.

The Tour de France is well over a century old now. Not only did the cyclists have to endure their “lows”, the organisers also have had their share of difficulties. They overcame those problems and the race prevailed. Since those times this contest has grown to the immensely spectacular circus it is nowadays. Despite the beauty of some other great races, La Grande Boucle remains up there at the summit of the cycling firmament.


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