re-sized historical tour de france

The most extreme cycle race in the world – the Tour de France

I wonder how many of you are avid followers of the Tour de France? and how many of you know this year’s route? and how many of you know anything about it’s history???

Well, sit back and enjoy. I am going to fill you in on all of it… or a lot of it anyway.

This year the Tour is going to go right passed our back door which is going to be fun. It will be the second time since we’ve lived here that we will be able to watch some of it. Though the last time they passed in such a flash and a blur that I did have to wonder what all the hype was about!

carte du parcours global du Tour de France

That’s the route for this year (2009) and it includes:

  • 10 flat stages,
  • 7 mountain stages,
  • 1 medium mountain stage,
  • 2 individual time-trial stages,
  • 1 team time-trial stage.

It runs from Saturday July 4th to Sunday July 26th 2009. It is the 96th Tour de France and will be made up of 21 stages. It will cover a total distance of 3,500 kilometres.

The starting point is that gem of a principality – Monaco.

So what exactly is it then?

The Tour de France is a world renowned annual bicycle race that covers somewhere between 3,000 to 4,000 kms (1,800 to 2,500 miles) throughout France and a bordering country. This year it is ducking into both Switzerland and Spain. The shortest Tour was in 1904 at 2,420 km, the longest in 1926 at 5,745 km.

The event usually lasts 23 days and attracts cyclists from around the world. The race is broken down into day-long segments, called stages. Individual times to finish each stage are totaled to determine the overall winner for the race. The three weeks usually include two rest days, sometimes used to transport riders between stages.

The race alternates between clockwise and counter-clockwise circuits of France. The rider with the least elapsed time each day wears a yellow jersey. The course changes every year but it has always finished in Paris. Since 1975 the finish has been on the Champs Elysées.

The 2004 Tour rides the Champs Élysées.

The combination of endurance and strength needed led the New York Times in 2006, to say that the “Tour de France is arguably the most physiologically demanding of athletic events.” The effort was compared to “running a marathon several days a week for nearly three weeks”, while the total elevation of the climbs was compared to “climbing three Everests.”

The History:

The first daily sports newspaper in France at the end of the 19th century was Le Vélo. It sold 80,000 copies a day.

At this time in France the country was split over the story of a soldier, Alfred Dreyfus, who had been found guilty of selling secrets to the Germans. Le Vélo stood for Dreyfus’s innocence while some of its biggest advertisers, notably Albert de Dion, owner of the De Dion-Bouton car works, believed him guilty. Angry scenes followed between the advertisers and the editor, Pierre Giffard, and so the advertisers started a rival paper – called L’Auto.

Giffard, of Le Vélo, had organised and promoted the ‘Paris-Brest et Retour’ race, and so L’Auto, in its turn, came up with the idea of the ‘Le Tour de France’ race and promoted that.


The idea for a round-France race actually came from L’Auto’s chief cycling journalist, 26-year-old Géo Lefèvre. He and the editor, Henri Desgrange discussed it after lunch on 20th November 1902. Desgrange was bold enough to believe in the project and threw his backing behind it. Le Tour was finally announced in L’Auto on 19th January 1903. The plan was a five-week race from 31st May to 5th July. However, this proved too be far too daunting and only 15 riders entered.

Not prepared to be defeated in his new project, Desgrange cut the length to 19 days, changed the race dates to 1st July to 19th July, and offered a daily allowance. He attracted 60 entrants, not just professionals but amateurs, some unemployed, some simply adventurous. Only 21 cyclists acompleted this first gruelling race.

Le Tour soon won over the sporting public and the roadside crowds swelled. The French people took to their hearts this unusual event which placed their towns, their countryside and, since 1910, even their mountains, in the spotlight.

What is the story behind the YELLOW jersey and others?

The aim of riders is to win overall but there are three further competitions: points, mountains and for the best young rider. The leaders of the competitions wear a distinctive jersey, awarded after each stage. When a single rider is entitled to more than one jersey, he wears the most prestigious and the second rider in the other classification wears the jersey. The overall and points competitions may be led by the same rider: the fastest on time will wear the yellow jersey and the rider second in the points competition will wear the green jersey.

The first rider to wear the yellow jersey from start to finish was Ottavio Bottecchia of Italy in 1924. The greatest number of riders to wear the yellow jersey in a day is three: Nicolas Frantz, André Leducq and Victor Fontan who shared equal time for one day in 1929 and there was no rule to split them.

The green jersey is awarded for sprint points and the polka-dot jersey (white jersey with red spots) is given for the ‘King of the Mountains’.

The white jersey is awarded to the best best rider under 25 on January 1 that year and the ‘prix de la combativité’ goes to the rider who most animates the day, usually by trying to break clear of the field. The most combative rider wears a number printed white-on-red instead of black-on-white next day.

The Tour as an entertainment sport:

The Tour is important for fans in Europe. Millions line the route, some having camped a week to get the best view. A carnival atmosphere prevails before the riders pass. Any cyclist is free to attempt the course in the morning, after which a cavalcade of advertising vehicles passes, blaring music and tossing hats, souvenirs, sweets and samples. As word passes that the riders are approaching, fans sometimes encroach on the road until they are an arm’s length from riders.

The clever thing about the Tour de France is how it has always modernised itself, moving with the times, and allowing social changes to impact on the race.

Like France as a whole, it benefited from the introduction of paid holidays from 1936; it survived the 2nd World War, and then savoured the “trente glorieuses” period of economic prosperity; it has opened itself up to foreign countries with the onset of globalisation, and now finds itself at the forefront of the debate on the malaise afflicting world sport in general – doping…

Le Tour has had its fair share of doping scandels. As far back as its inception (1903) early riders used alcohol and ether to dull the pain.

Spectators’ banner during the Tour de France 2006.
In 1924, Henri Pélissier and his brother Charles told the journalist Albert Londres they used strychnine, cocaine, chloroform, aspirin, “horse ointment” and other drugs.

In 1967, British cyclist Tom Simpson died climbing Mont Ventoux after taking amphetamine. Mont Ventoux, you might be interested to know, is often claimed to be the hardest in the Tour because of the harsh conditions.

1998 was known as ‘The Tour of Shame’. Willy Voet, an assistant for the Festina team, was arrested with erythropoietin (EPO), growth hormones, testosterone and amphetamine.The team was at the center of the doping scandal which became known as the ‘Festina Affair’. In reaction to this, the cycling team reorganized itself and Festina set up the Fondation d’Entreprise Festina whose mission was to promote the fight against doping. However, chaos reigned during this Tour. There were police raids and the riders went on strike. Eventually after mediation, police limited their tactics and riders continued, but some riders had already abandoned the race and only 96 finished.

The 2002 and 2004 Tours had their fare share of controversy and even Lance Armstrong, that famous winner of 7 jerseys has been accused of using EPO, but he has never been penalised.

In 2008, 5 riders tested positive for various performance enhancing drugs.

There have been 4 fatal accidents to cyclists in the history of the race.

One of the amazing and most enduring things about this great race is the code of conduct that the cyclists adhere to. Rider number 13 is allowed to wear one of his numbers upside down. It is considered unsporting to attack a leading rider delayed by misfortune. Attacking in the feed zone is also seen as unsporting. Not sticking to customs can lead to animosity. Unless the gap between the top two is close, riders generally do not attack on the final stage, leaving the leader to his glory.

It is nice to see that even in the heat of competition, riders temper their competitiveness to this unwritten code of conduct.

However and in despite of everything, over a hundred years after its inception, le Tour continues to gain strength from its experience. It is the supreme endurance race and brings bicycle racing up into the extreme sports catagory. Thank you to Kraftwerk and fascistbaby for this introductory video to Le Tour de France.

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