Tour de France primer: the first Tour

Read about the origins of cycling's greatest race

July 20, 2023

On the first of July, 1903, Henri Desgrange wrote, “L’Auto, newspaper of ideas and action, will from today send across France those insouciant and hearty sowers of energy, the professional road racers,” and splashed it across his paper’s front page.

That day, one of the most popular sporting events in the world was born. Today, the Tour de France is watched by over a billion people every July. In France, it is a national summer festival that travels from region to region across the country for most of a month. Crowds wait in every town, city, and village that the Tour passes through to see the peloton and enjoy leisurely picnics with family and friends. They throng to the high mountain passes in the Pyrénées and Alps where the race is often decided, climbing them on foot or on bike, or camping for days ahead of time, to see their favorite cyclists race up France’s great cols. They cheer until the last rider passes them.

It all started with a crazy idea conceived in a Parisian restaurant. A reporter named Géo Lefevre convinced his editor Desgrange to put on the race over a long lunch. The Tour should be six stages, like the track races that were so popular in those days, but with rest days in between, he said, since the riders would be riding incredible distances. They would invite the most famous road racers of the time and anyone brave enough to take on the first Tour de France.

Sixty riders took to the start at the Café au Reveil Matin on the outskirts of Paris that first morning. Standing there in the early-dawn cool, they had only an idea in front of them — an idea of a nation and race that would take them around it, a race that no one yet knew if anyone could finish.

At the time, most people in France rarely traveled beyond their own department. Most spoke their own regional dialect. None of the racers could have imagined the work ahead of him, the strain the countryside would inflict on his body, the exhaustion he’d sink into, as he struggled over the land on a heavy steel, single speed bike.

Only 21 of those first 60 starters reached the finish 2,428 kilometers later, after circumnavigating France from Paris to Lyon to Marseille to Toulouse to Bordeaux to Nantes and back to Paris in stages that ranged from 270 to 470 kilometers.

For each of those finishers, France became real during the Tour. They saw its fields with their own eyes, felt its heat rise up from the road, encountered its people in every village and city they passed through, a people who were still just beginning to think of themselves as French.

Every day, Desgrange’s reporters sent dispatches from the race back to the capital, which were published in the next morning’s paper. L’Auto’s readership jumped from 25,000 per day to more than 130,000, encouraging the paper to invest in a second edition of the Tour the following summer, which began a cycle that continued for the next century and onwards, interrupted only by the two world wars.

During that long century, Desgrange and Lefevere’s race became a national institution, an indispensable feature of the French summer vacation.

Now, July means Le Tour for the rest of the world as well.

Share this story

Related Stories