On July 1, 1903, sixty cyclists pedaled into history when they started the bicycle race which was to become the most celebrated annual event in world cycling. It was sponsored and organized by L'Auto, a French newspaper which was just three years into publishing and was facing a decrease in circulation. Initially, the race did not generate the interest it was expected to. Due to the small number of registered participants, the race had to be postponed for a month from June to July. However, in the end 79 cyclists registered for the whole race, with some more registering for individual stages.
It is ironical that the most famous cycling event in the world was born as an indirect result of the most infamous political crisis faced by the French Third Republic before the First World War. The Dreyfus Affair involved a Captain in the French Army, who was framed as a German spy. On top of it, this officer happened to be a Jew. This affair completely exposed the divisions, prejudices and injustices present in the supposedly liberal French society.
Pierre Giffard was a pioneer in modern political reporting and was a prolific sports organizer. He had organized several unique events including the Paris-Brest-Paris cycle race. In 1896, he became the editor of Le Vélo, a leading sports daily which also included political commentaries. He was a ‘Dreyfusard’ or a supporter of Dreyfus, while some of the sponsors of the paper were right-wing ‘anti-Dreyfusards.’ This division led the advertisers to move away and start their own newspaper, L'Auto-Velo, with Henri Desgrange as the editor.
There was direct ‘circulation warfare’ between the two papers. Le Vélo won a vital victory when it successfully challenged the similar name used by its rival. As a result L'Auto-Velo changed its name to L'Auto in early 1903. With a circulation of just a few thousand, it needed a huge circulation booster to survive, let alone win the circulation war with its rival.
At a crisis meeting, Geo Lefevre, who had joined the L'Auto from its rival Le Vélo, suggested organizing a six day tour covering all of France. The idea attracted the interest of the editor and the sponsors and in January 1903, the ‘Tour de France’ was announced. It was to be a six stage race, each stage much longer than today’s stages. Even though cycle races were common in France, this was much longer and more demanding. Only 15 cyclists had registered to participate in the race a week before the scheduled day, June 1. Therefore, the race was postponed by a month and the prize money increased. This attracted many more cyclists and at the end 79 competitors registered.
The First Tour de France in 1903. Wikimedia Commons.
The first stage from Paris to Lyon was won by Maurice Garin, who was able to maintain the lead with both skill and luck. He was lucky that his main rival Hippolyte Aucouturier could not complete the first stage due to health issues. Meanwhile, Emile Paige, who came just a minute after Garin in the first stage, was forced out of the race in the second stage due to a crash. With no real challenge afterwards, Garin finished comfortably ahead of Lucien Pothier to win the first ever Tour de France. His lead of 2 hours 59 minutes and 31 seconds is a record which still stands.
The Tour de France was a boon to L'Auto. Its special edition printed after the race sold more than 120,000 copies, exceeding the wildest dreams of the editors and sponsors. Its rise to fame was such that the once formidable rival Le Vélo went out of business in 1904. Pierre Giffard himself later joined the L'Auto. The Tour de France, meanwhile, became an annual event and grew into the most coveted event in cycling calendar. The latest edition which started on June 29, 2013, is its hundredth edition.