The First Tour de France

The very first Tour de France took place in July 1903.

The bicycle race is world-famous today but in 1903, it initially did not excite much interest. The six-stage race was scheduled to occur in June, but the registration was far below expectations. Disappointed organizers decided to make a few changes. They delayed the race for a month, cut the entry fee by half to 10 francs (about $90 in 2018), and increased the prize money to 20,000 francs. A publicity blitz was launched by the race’s sponsor, the newspaper L’Auto.

L’Auto announces le Tour de France

With these adjustments, registration swelled. On July 1, 1903, 60 contestants gathered just southeast of Paris, in Montgeron, to officially start the race. For 19 days, a mass of determined cyclists rode over 1,500 miles through France, captivating the press and thrilling the people who followed the race in the papers and ran to the road to cheer the cyclists as they rode by.

On July 19, Maurice Garin won the race in Paris, finishing with a time of 94 hours, 33 minutes, and 14 seconds. Garin was a 32-year-old chimney sweep who had won his first race in 1893. He had beaten the runner-up by a margin of over three hours.

Maurice Garin, first winner of the Tour de France

L’Auto was well-repaid for its sponsorship; its circulation was boosted by 160%. In fact, the Tour de France was such an unexpected success that the race became an annual July tradition.

Today, the race is a French institution. Yet it has not been without change or controversy. In 1904, Maurice Garin, dubbed petit ramoneur (“little chimney-sweep”) by an infatuated French press, won the race again. However, the disgraced cyclist was later disqualified when it was discovered he had taken a train in the Alps to ensure his victory.

2008 Tour de France cyclists (Source: Bryn Lennon/Getty Images Europe)

Contestants today race in teams, not as individuals, as the 1903 contestants had. Cyclists’ top average speed today is 27.5 mph, nearly double the average speed when first tracked in 1919. And contestants no longer drink alcohol while racing, since the practice was banned in the 1960s.

But the Tour de France has proven it can continue to adapt without diminishing what made it wonderful. Today, La Grande Boucle (“The Big Loop”) is witnessed by over 12 million spectators who line the route every year, and delights over 3.5 billion people who tune in to watch from afar!