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Tour de France, Race for Madmen

We hear from author Chris Sidwells and the history of this iconic cycling race

The Tour de France was immediately popular when it started, and still is today Pic: Obatala-photography / Shutterstock

Chris Sidwells has written 27 books and thousands of articles about cycling. 

“If you go back to the start of road racing, people didn’t have television and radio. The biggest medium was the printed press, and sporting newspapers were particularly popular,” he says. 

At that time, many French people lived hard lives in rural areas, struggling for survival. Transport was difficult. 

So when bicycles came along, people were amazed at how far riders could travel in one day. They could go even further than someone on horseback. 

First races

“The first cycle races were long and hard. Roads were bad and the distances were enormous. Paris to Bordeaux for example, and Paris-Brest-Paris. These races were done in one go. The clock started ticking at the beginning and stopped when riders crossed the finish line. It was up to them how much time they spent sleeping or eating.” 

People appreciated just how hard the races were, and regarded the riders as heroes. 

Newspapers competed to organise the best races, and to publish the most attention-grabbing headlines. 

“In 1903, Henri Desgranges, the editor of the Auto-Vélo newspaper (now called L’Equipe), decided to make money by creating an eye-catching race which would cover the entire hexagon of France. It was too long, however, traversing thousands of kilometres. To solve this, they invented stage racing, with some of the stages up to 462km long. The opening stage of the first race was from Paris to Lyon, for example. It took two to three days before they all got there,” he adds. 

The race caught the public’s imagination, however. 

Young people took up cycling because a bicycle was cheaper than a horse and more exciting. 

Prize money

For the first time, ordinary young men had the chance to win large sums of money. 

“Maurice Garin won the first race and the prize money was the equivalent of seven years’ salary as a miner. He was made for life.” 

The race was a success, and grew from there. 

“The Tour de France has always been a professional race, organised as a media circus in order to make money." 

As it went on, international riders entered the race, and sporting legends were made. 

During the 1920 Tour de France, Honoré Barthélémy had an accident in which he broke his shoulder, dislocated his wrist and lost the sight in one eye. 

He got up and finished the race in third place overall, and entered again the next year wearing a glass eye. 

Henri Desgranges knew how to appeal to people, and in 1905, introduced a stage in the Vosges mountains, overlooking the territory that had been ceded to Germany. 

He subsequently added the Pyrenees to the race. 

Access the inaccessible

“These places were completely inaccessible at that time, but suddenly these heroes could cycle all over them. Their cycles still only had two gears and they had to take the back wheel off to change from one gear to the other.” 

When holidays were introduced in July it made the Tour even more popular. 

“It has always been a massive drama played out against amazing scenery; everyone was desperate for the next chapter. Also, it might come down your street. If your town could pay to host the Tour, it could come through your place. It’s artificial, gaudy, exciting, a soap opera. It’s a media circus. It was designed to be a media circus.” 

Mythical figures

Mythical figures include Jean Robic of France, who won the Tour in 1947 without having won a single stage of the race. 

Possibly even more dramatic in 1989 was the American Greg LeMond beating Frenchman Laurent Fignon to the winning spot by only eight seconds. 

The drama was heightened because 1989 was the 200th anniversary of France becoming a Republic. 

One of the most successful cyclists of all time is Belgian Eddie Merckx, who won in 1969, 1970, 1971, 1972, and 1974,” he concludes. 

Women have wanted to join the race since the first ever Tour de France and after various attempts to set up a women’s race, last year saw the first Tour de France Femmes. 

This year, the second edition will take place from 23-30 July; riders will cover 956km in eight stages, starting at Clermont-Ferrand and finishing in Pau.

 All the details are available at Tour de France, Race for Madmen by Chris Sidwells (HarperCollins) is a great place to learn more.

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