Le Grand Tour
On July 1, 1903, Henri Desgrange wrote, in a front-page editorial, “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 so was born one of the greatest sporting events in the world, the Tour de France.
The race had been conceived several months earlier, when a reporter named Géo Lefevre presented his ideas to Desgrange, his editor, over lunch in a Paris restaurant. They should hold a race around l’hexagone, he told him, over six stages, like the great track races, but with rest days in between, since the riders would be covering vast distances. It would attract Europe’s most revered road racers and an enormous audience. It would be the most audacious cycling event ever held.
Sixty riders took to the start that first morning at the Café au Reveil Matin on the outskirts of Paris. Standing there in the early-dawn cool, they had only an idea in front of them — an idea of a nation that was still as much a fancy as it was a reality and of the race that would take them around it, a race that was almost unfathomable to them at the time.
No one of those racers could have imagined the toil ahead of him, the strain the countryside would inflict on his body, the exhaustion he’d sink into. No one could have imagined how popular the Tour de France would become.
Just 21 of those first 60 starters reached the finish 2,428 kilometres 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 kilometres.
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.
Lefevre and Desgrange’s venture became real that first July too. L’Auto’s readership jumped from 25,000 per day to more than 130,000, prompting the paper to set funds aside for a second edition of the race the following summer, which began a cycle that would continue 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. But, as beautiful as the Tour is, and as impressive as the feats of its racers are, that process has lead the Tour to become a shell of what it once was.
Long gone are the days when the start of each stage brought about the possibility that anything could happen. The stakes are so high now, and the peloton is so hyper-professional, that the Tour has settled into a fixed pattern. The racing is controlled, the attacks measured and predictable. The action is constrained. The riders do what they have to do to win, but they’ve lost much of their forbears’ pioneering spirit.
Not that we should blame them. Today’s riders are competing at the pinnacle of what is now the most demanding sport in the world. There’s no room for error. No one can simply throw caution to the wind. But that wasn’t always the case, and it certainly wasn’t in 1903. I’m fascinated by that first Tour.
So, on July 2, I will set out to ride the route of the original Tour de France, stage by stage, as it was raced in 1903. I won’t contend for the maillot jaune as I dreamed I would do when I was a young racer. But if I make it to Paris, it will be my own victory. I will have ridden Le Grand Tour.
Stage 1 Paris – Lyon, 467 km (Check the story of this stage)
Stage 2 Lyon – Marseille, 374 km (Check the story of this stage)
Stage 3 Marseille – Toulouse, 423 km (Check the story of this stage)
Stage 4 Toulouse – Bordeaux, 268 km (Check the story of this stage)
Stage 5 Bordeaux – Nantes, 425 km (Check the story of this stage)
Stage 6 Nantes – Paris, 471 km (The story of this stage is coming up soon)