The Origins of the Tour de France

- "If I understand you rightly, Géo", someone said, "you are proposing a cycling Tour de France."

- "Well, why not?", replied Lefèvre.

The origins of the Tour de France go back to a humble legal clerk in the 1890's by the name of Henri Desgrange. Desgrange took time out from his day job to compete as racing cyclist, a state of affairs which continued until a client complained after seeing him with bare calves in public. Thus forced to choose between the legal profession and the bicycle, Desgrange chose the latter. Desgrange it was who had persuaded the owner of the Folies Bergères to invest some of the profits in a new velodrome, and it was at this velodrome that, in 1893, Desgrange set the world's first one hour cycling record, with a distance of 35.325km - "to give the others something to aim at," as he put it.

Thereafter Desgrange's cycling career as a racer took a back seat to his other interests: as program director for a number of Paris velodromes, as a populariser of professional (as against amateur) cycling, as a journalist and as an early writer of coaching manuals. His book, "La Tête et les Jambes" ("The Head and the Legs") collected together his thoughts on the sport. The title was well chosen; Desgrange always believed the sport to be as much mental as physical, and many of his later articles were full of vitriol for riders he believed had given up in their heads when the legs were still willing.

By the turn of the century, then, Desgrange was doing well for himself if nothing yet out of the ordinary. At that time, however, France was polarized by the Dreyfus case, in which a Jewish, Alsatian, French Army officer named Alfred Dreyfus was accused of selling military secrets to the Germans - who of course laid claim to the Alsace. Lined up against Dreyfus was the French establishment and most of the press except "Le Petit Journal". On Dreyfus' side were such figures as the novelist Emile Zola, the future General Georges Clemençeau and the the socialist Jean Jaurès.

After a big anti-Dreyfus demonstration in Paris, the writer Pierre Giffard took the opportunity to write a pro-Dreyfus editorial in "Le Petit Journal". Unfortunately for Giffard, whose main job was editor of "Le Vélo", one of the participants at the rally was the industrialist Comte de Dion, who just so happened to be the main backer of "Le Vélo". Already enraged by what were seen as exhorbitant advertising charges, De Dion promptly marched off with a group of other advertisers to found a new magazine, "L'Auto-Vélo", and installed none other than Henri Desgrange as editor. And because magazines were expected not only to report the news but also make it, they installed a velodrome manager, Victor Goddet as the magazine's treasurer, with a brief to organise races. (Goddet, incidentally, was the father of Jacques Goddet, who eventually took over from Desgrange as organiser of the Tour, a position he held from the late 'thirties to the mid 'eighties).

Arcane as this story was, it then took another turn. Though l'Auto-Vélo had been set up to promote all sports - with the subtitle "Automobile - Aeronautique - Cyclisme - Athlétisme - Alpinisme - Boxe - Escrime - Gymnastique - Hippisme - Poids & Haltères - Yachting" - it was first and foremost a cycling magazine. And Pierre Giffard, now running Le Vélo with minimal finacial backing, sued L'Auto-Vélo for breach of copyright. Giffard won his case in January 1903, causing L'Auto-Vélo to become simply "L'Auto". Worried that his cycling clientele might disappear with the title, and with circulation scraping along at no more than 20,000, Desgrange needed to take desparate steps, which in the times meant organising a sensational race.

Credit for devising the actual idea appears to have come from the journal's chief cycling reporter, 26-year old Georges Lefèvre. He suggested to Desgrange, "a several-day race, longer than anything now going on, something more on the order of a track six day race, only this time on the road. All the major towns are begging for cycle races, and they are bound to go along with the idea".

- "If I understand you rightly, Géo", someone said, "you are proposing a cycling Tour de France."
- "Well, why not?", replied Lefèvre.

Thus the idea was born. Desgrange presented it to Goddet, who sanctioned the expense. Lefèvre surveyed the route and made preliminary organisations, and on 19 January 1903, just four days after losing the plagiarism suit to Giffard, Desgrange announced the race on the pages of the newly-christened l'Auto. The race would be "the greatest cycling trial in the entire world. A race more than a month long: Paris to Lyon to Marseille to Toulouse to Bordeaux to Nantes to Paris." Desgrange scheduled five weeks for this epic from May 31 to 5 July, specified "equal terms" (no pacers), an entry fee of twenty francs. The conditions were deemed too hard, such that with a week to go, only fifteen had signed up for the event. Desgrange moved the race to July 1 to July 19, promised a five france per day living allowance to the first fifty riders and upped the prize money to 20,000 francs. 60 riders rose to the challenge; 21 were sponsored, the other 39 a rag-bag of the poor, the unemployed and the plain adventurous. To l'Auto, they were all heroes, dignified with exhuberant nicknames: Emile Pagie was "the prince of the mine"; Lucien Pothier, revelation of the race, "The fierce butcher of Sens". Others remain a cypher to this day, their forenames not even recorded: Bédène, Durandeau, Charrier...

The true hero of the race was Georges Lefèvre. He followed the race as best he could, sometimes riding in the bunch on his bicycle, then catching a train to go ahead to see to the next checkpoint - a one-man, roving commissaire, organiser and reporter. Desgrange, meanwhile, remained in Paris, content to let his young assistant run the event, and hoping not to damage his reputation if it flopped. Which of course it didn't: when Garin rode into Paris as winner, in front of a crowd of 20,000 paying spectators, Desgrange rushed out a special edition of l'Auto, whose sales had rocketed to 130,000. The first running had been a resounding success.

The continuing story of the race is told in the following pages on a year-by-year basis, but two final loose end needs tidying up. Firstly, what about Dreyfus? Eventually he was exhonerated by the State and given a full pardon. And Le Vélo?. By 1904, the magazine was dead, killed by the huge tidal wave of poularity of the Tour which had swept l'Auto to ever increasing sales. And to show there were no hard feelings, who should employ the now unemployed Pierre Giffard as a cycling reporter? None other than l'Auto, edited by Desgrange and financed by de Dion: Giffard's old bêtes noires!