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Tour de France History – facts, jerseys and basics

The Tour de France is considered the greatest annual bicycle race in the world – for many it is the ultimate show of athletic endurance and it is watched by millions around the world.

Held in France and nearby countries the race has kept audiences enthralled since 1903 with the exception of the war years when races were stopped.

Not only does this race cover some 3,600km over a period of three weeks including routes up and down mountain roads, it is also held in the heat of summer which makes for a gruelling competition of supreme stamina and endurance.  This only adds to the reputation of the Tour de France and it attracts riders and teams from all over the world.

Tour de France History

The idea of the Tour de France was borne of conflict, passion and rage in the early 1900s and has a chequered history.  At the time there were was one main sporting newspaper – L’Auto Vélo.  A competitor to L’AutoVélo named Le Vélo was started as a result of sponsorship anger at L’Auto Vélo whose editor had published an article in another journal in favour of Albert Dreyfus – a French soldier accused of selling military secrets to the Germans.  Dreyfus was from Alsace and Germany laid claim to the region. The Dreyfus affair as it was known, divided France into two camps – those who believed Dreyfus guilty and those who believed him innocent. The sponsor in question was firmly of the opinion that Dreyfus was in the wrong and he set up a new sporting newspaper – Le Vélo and forced l’Auto Vélo to have its named changed to L’Auto.  Competition between the two papers was fierce and l’Auto quickly lost ground to its rival. Though now named l’Auto, its greatest news coverage was concerned with cycling and in order to survive it needed to do something drastic.

The idea for the greatest cycle ride in the world came in 1902 from Georges Lefèvre a journalist on L’Auto and fortunately he got backing from the editor Henri Desgranges. He wanted a cycle race that was harder, longer, bigger and better than anything that ever gone before. The first race in 1903 had 60 riders drawn to the 20,000 France first prize. Newspaper coverage took readers from village to mountain in its trek across France drawing admiration and amazement from French roadside audiences and readers. Georges Lefèvre followed the tour by rail, bus and bike – a lone reporter sending his missives back to Paris to be published.  By the time the race ended in Paris, 20,000 fee paying spectators turned up, L’Auto’s circulation had gone through the roof – the race was a success.

What of Dreyfus?  He was later exonerated and given a full pardon by the state.  Le Vélo, started as a protest against an article in favour of Dreyfus eventually went out of business unable to contend with the success of l’Auto and Le Tour de France.

In its early years the riders were predominantly French but within just ten years the race went international and has delighted audiences around the world. The initial days saw riders endure dirt track roads shared with other users, fixed gear bikes and as they didn’t know any better, drinking champagne, wine and smoking during down time was quite the norm.

The race suffered from accusations of cheating, sabotage and violence. In 1905 an estimated 125kg of nails were thrown on the road during the first stage, resulting in just 15 riders reaching the finish line from more than sixty who had started. In 1910 the Tour suffered its first fatal casualty Adolphe Hélière was electrocuted by a jellyfish while bathing in Nice on the rest day held there.

The Yellow Jersey of the Tour de France – what’s it all about?

The Tour de France breaks down into day long sections known as stages and each individual participant has his finish time aggregated daily to determine the overall winner at the end of the day.  The rider who has the lowest cumulative time to complete a stage gets to wear the Tour de France yellow jersey – the leader’s jersey – the next day.  Wearing the yellow jersey brings real kudos to a rider and team and the bright colour is easily visible to the crowds and the following cameras.  As the riders whizz past the crowds, that visibility means that the rider can be picked out easily and the crowd will always recognise and acknowledge giving the rider an even further boost.

The idea of the yellow jersey was down to Henri Desgrange who was the tour manager in 1919 – l’Auto was printed on yellow paper. The yellow jersey has since inspired songs, films and books and is hugely sought after by the riders.

The other jerseys of the Tour de France:

– The green jersey created in 1953 to recognise the best sprinter. The Tour de France green jersey rewards the rider who wins the race’s points competition.

– The white jersey with red polka dots created in 1975 is awarded to the best climber; it is bestowed on the race’s ‘King of the Mountains’ (KOM), the rider who amasses the most points from the numerous categorized climbs throughout the race

– The white jersey awarded since 1975 to the best young (under 26) rider. It is given to the rider who completes the race in the lowest overall time.

What route does the Tour de France take?

The Tour de France route changes each year – but there are consistent themes: it will always take in mountain roads to test the stamina of the riders and it will always finish in the Champs-Élysées in Paris amidst much jubilation and fanfare.

The official tour de France website publishes details of the route, stages and lots of features about the ride.

The Basic Tour de France race details

The race consists of day long stages; individual race times are aggregated to determine the overall winner.

The rider with the lowest overall time wins the race.

There are normally 20 teams competing (determined by the Tour de France organizers each year) and each team has nine riders.

There are usually two rest days allowed to the riders.

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