Published on June 18th, 2012 | by JT0
History of the Tour de France
Saturday 30th June – Sunday 22th July 2012
2012 celebrates the 99th Tour de France, one of the world’s most loved and watched sporting events which has run since 1903, thwarted only by two world wars. The Tour is a professional stage race over three weeks competed by cyclists from all over the world and producing true cycling champions highly proficient in climbing, sprinting and time trialling. The course changes every year, covering over 3,200 kms of road and mountains throughout France and nearby countries. The circuit is clockwise and anti-clockwise on alternate years and concludes with a final stage along the Champs-Élysées.
[The Tour]“…put flesh on the bones of values taught in school but seldom internalized: effort, courage, determination, stoic endurance of pain, and even fair play. It familiarized a nation with its geography. It brought life, activity, excitement into small towns where very little happened; it introduced a festive atmosphere wherever it passed…” Eugen Weber, foreword to Tour de France: 1903–2003
As one of the most physiologically demanding of athletic events, the New York Times aptly compared the Tour de France to “running a marathon several days a week for nearly three weeks”, with the total elevation of climbs being compared to “climbing three Everests.” The Tour de France is a true test of endurance, stamina and cycling ability which makes it so compelling to watch.
The Tour de France (La Grande Boucle) originated due to media rivalry over Alfred Dreyfus, a soldier convicted of selling military secrets to the Germans. The editor of the largest French daily sports newspaper Le Vélo very publicly believed Dreyfus to be innocent, which annoyed those who thought he was guilty so much they started their own rival daily sports paper L’Auto. To boost sales of L’Auto, which consequently put Le Vélo out of business a year later, a journalist named Géo Lefèvre proposed the idea of a six day cycling race around France.
The first Tour de France started in Paris at 3.16pm on 1 July 1903, with a 10 Franc entry fee, a prize of 12,000 Francs, between 60 and 80 entrants and lasted for 19 days. The second Tour de France was almost the last as the overnight stages encouraged cheating, namely by riders (including the previous year’s winner Maurice Garin) using cars and trains. Rival fans also attacked riders. However, the Tour continued, with the third year’s stages all being held in daylight to make any cheating obvious.
From 1936 there were as many as three stages in a single day, however the performance enhancing drug-related death of Tom Simpson in 1967 led to the UCI limiting daily and overall distances and imposing rest days.
Each day of the Tour has a stage, with the day’s winner being determined by the aggregation of individual times. Finishing well in a stage or being first past a designated point may also be rewarded with a time deduction. As the final times are calculated during the course of the whole race, it is actually possible to win without winning a stage, which has happened six times in the Tour’s history.
In most stages, riders start together, with the first kilometres, the départ fictif, being a rolling start without racing and the real start, the départ réel announced by the Tour director waving a white flag. A red triangle (flamme rouge) above the road indicates the final kilometre.
A short time trial to determine the next day’s race leader (6.4km this year).
Either ending in with a breakaway by an individual cyclist or with a bunch sprint, the flat stage features most competitors riding together in a pack or “peloton” and despite the title, can feature some climbs. This year’s Tour features 9 flat stages.
The mountain stage is where the real contenders start to be seen. The most physically challenging stage, where riders often have to climb to 2,000 metres from sea level (sometimes more than once a day), the 2012 Tour consists of 9 mountain stages, 3 with a summit finish.
There are 2 individual time trial stages in this year’s Tour, in addition to the Prologue. Time trials start with the rider currently in last place, then work through the placings at intervals of two minutes with the first placed rider starting last.
Two rest days are included during the Tour and are often used to transport riders from a race finish to the next starting destination, along with giving competitors a well deserved rest.
The only region of France which hasn’t been visited by the Tour de France is Corsica, although the opening stages of the 2013 tour will be held there in recognition of the 100th (110th edition) Tour.
The Tour has finished with laps of the Champs-Élysées since 1975, a very flat and less challenging stage.
Visited for the first time in the Tour’s history this year will be the Col du Grand Colombier, climbed in the Tour de l’Ain and featured recently in the Critérium du Dauphiné and Tour de l’Avenir. Climbs in the Pyrenees include the Col d’Aspin, Col d’Aubisque, Col de Peyresourde and the Col de Tourmalet, which will all be climbed in stage 16. The Alps features two Hors catégorie climbs – Col de la Madeleine and Col de la Croix de Fer 25 climbs will count for HC, Cat 1 or Cat 2 mountains classification points.
The Col du Galibier is the most visited mountain in the Tour, with the mountain’s 100th anniversary in the Tour being marked by the 2011 event. The hardest mountain to tackle is said to be Mont Ventoux due to the harsh conditions and a snowstorm in 1996 resulted in the stage from Val-d’Isère to Sestriere being shortened from 190km to 46km.
Early Tours changed frequently between regional, national and trade teams. Nowadays, between 20 and 22 teams (22 this year) of 9 riders are invited to take part by the Amaury Sport Organistation which organises the Tour. Although an individual rider will celebrate victory, it is very much an team event, with members supporting the lead rider to take victory.
Monetary prizes have mainly been bestowed on winners, beginning with 20,000 Francs in 1903. Prizes and bonuses are also given at the end of the race for daily and final placings. Between 1976 and 1987 an apartment was the first prize and 1988’s first prize was a car, an apartment, a piece of art and 500,000 Francs. Cash prizes returned in 1990. In 2012, around 2 million Euros are up for grabs to teams and riders with the winner of the general individual classification receiving 450,000 Euros.
The yellow jersey may be the most famous item of clothing in the Tour de France, but there are also white, green and polka-dot jerseys for other accolades. A rider winning more than one competition at the end of a stage wears the most prestigious jersey, with the other jersey going to the runner up in the relevant stage. The concept of coloured jerseys are used widely within the cycling world, for example in the Tour of Britain and the Giro d’Italia.
Brightest and best is the Yellow Jersey (maillot jaune), worn since 1919 by the general classification leader (whoever has the fastest time overall) who also starts the Tour’s next stage. The Yellow Jersey will often change hands a few times during the tour, but tends to find a familiar wearer after a mountain or time trial stage. The overall winner of the Tour is the rider receiving the Yellow Jersey after the final race stage. Only three riders have ever worn the Yellow Jersey from start to finish, in 1924, 1928) and and 1935.
The Green Jersey (maillot vert) is known as the sprinter’s prize and awarded to the rider with the most points gathered over a stage. More points are awarded for flat stages and fewer for mountain stages, so riders favouring a good sprint on the flat tend to go for this one.
The best young rider under 26 placing highest in the general classification wears a white jersey (maillot blanc). Four cyclists have won the young rider and general classifications in the same year, Fignon (1983), Ullrich (1997), Contador (2007) and Schleck (2010).
There are three miscellaneous categories:
Combativity – The prix de la combativité goes to the most daring rider, who usually tries to break clear of the field, who can wear a white-on-red number instead of black-on-white the next day.
Team –Black-on-yellow numbers are worn by the team with the lowest sum of the three best riders’ times from the previous day.
Lanterne rouge – Named after the rear red lights of vehicles, the red lantern (lanterne rouge) is given to the rider in last place. Any rider falling too far off the pace can be eliminated from the tour by the “Broom Wagon” which follows the riders around “sweeping up” those that have fallen behind the pace.
Historical jerseys – between 1984 – 1989 a red jersey was awarded for passing intermediate points during the stage and between 1968 – 1989 a patchwork jersey representing each individual jersey was worn for points scored from standings in the mountains, points and general classifications.
Rainbow Jersey – UCI Stripes
Not a jersey that is won in the Tour, but the current World Race Champion can wear the UCI stripes. National colours can also be worn by country champions instead of team colours.
The Tour de France has been plagued with allegations of substance misuse from alcohol and ether for pain numbing since 1903 to a variety of performance enhancing drugs in recent years, including Alberto Contador being stripped of his 2010 victory and recent accusations aimed at Lance Armstrong.
The greatest event in the cycling world, the Tour de France showcases the skills and talent of the best cyclists out there who excel through various disciplines of cycling in tough conditions over three weeks. There’s nothing quite like it and it’s no surprise that this prestigious race is something of an institution. Henri Desgrance, the first editor of L’Auto sums it up perfectly:
“From Paris to the blue waves of the Mediterranean, from Marseille to Bordeaux, passing along the roseate and dreaming roads sleeping under the sun, across the calm of the fields of the Vendée, following the Loire, which flows on still and silent, our men are going to race madly, unflaggingly.”