First Tour de France Summary

  • Last updated on November 10, 2022

The first Tour de France bicycle race was contested in six stages covering 2,428 kilometers (more than 1,508 miles) over a twenty-day period. Since its founding, apart from breaks during the two world wars, the Tour de France has been an annual event.

Summary of Event

The Tour de France is an annual cycling race run over a series of stages throughout France. Founded in 1903, the race is very much a product of the French belle époque (1890-1914), a period in which the French demanded and marveled at all types of spectacle; cabarets and circuses were very popular. At the same time, the bicycle became both affordable and practical, and nationalist sentiment was at a high point following defeat in the Franco-Prussian war (1870-1871). The first Tour de France drew on all these elements. Sports;bicycle racing Bicycle racing Tour de France [kw]First Tour de France (July 1, 1903) [kw]Tour de France, First (July 1, 1903) [kw]France, First Tour de (July 1, 1903) Sports;bicycle racing Bicycle racing Tour de France [g]France;July 1, 1903: First Tour de France[00750] [c]Sports;July 1, 1903: First Tour de France[00750] Desgrange, Henri Lefèvre, Geó De Dion, Albert Giffard, Pierre Garin, Maurice

The Tour de France’s founding sprang directly from the Dreyfus affair. Dreyfus affair In 1894, a Jewish officer in the French army, Alfred Dreyfus, had been found guilty of passing military secrets to a German attaché in Paris and had been sentenced to life in prison. In 1906, Dreyfus was declared innocent; his name was cleared and the anti-Semitism and corruption of the powerful people who had accused him were exposed. During the time between Dreyfus’s sentencing and his exoneration, however, France became polarized: Socialist, pro-Republic “Dreyfusards” opposed the imperialist, anti-Semitic, pro-establishment “anti-Dreyfusards.” One anti-Dreyfusard was the French industrialist Albert de Dion, an automobile manufacturer who used the sporting journal Le Vélo as the chief medium for his advertising. The editor of Le Vélo was Pierre Giffard, a passionate and vocal Dreyfus supporter. Their political differences caused de Dion to withdraw his backing from Le Vélo, and he and a group of other industrialists, including Èdouard Michelin (who cofounded the Michelin Tire Company with his brother André) and Adolphe Clément (a bicycle manufacturer), founded a rival sporting journal that was to be politically neutral. This daily was initially known as L’Auto-Vélo, and Henri Desgrange, who had been Clément’s publicist, became its first editor.

Desgrange had been a legal clerk in the 1890’s, but he left this profession in order to devote himself entirely to his main passion: racing bicycles. In addition to his work for Clément, he had been a cycling reporter for Paris-Vélo, a sports paper that competed with Giffard’s Le Vélo, and managed a velodrome. The other members of L’Auto-Vélo were Victor Goddet, the magazine’s treasurer, and Geó Lefèvre, the journal’s lead cycling reporter. Although L’Auto-Vélo had been established to promote all sports (automobile racing, aeronautics, cycling, athletics, alpinism, boxing, fencing, gymnastics, horse racing, weight lifting, and yachting were all mentioned in its subtitle) it was first and foremost a cycling magazine. Giffard, who was now running Le Vélo with minimal financial backing, sued L’Auto-Vélo for trademark infringement. Giffard won the case in January, 1903, and L’Auto-Vélo was forced to become simply L’Auto. Desgrange’s circulation had dropped to alarming levels, and he feared that a title change would cause his cycling clientele to disappear altogether. He needed to take a drastic step to revive the paper, and a spectacular race seemed the perfect solution.

Credit for devising the idea of a Tour de France belongs to Desgrange’s employee, Lefèvre. Over lunch with his boss, the twenty-three-year-old Lefèvre suggested a multiday road race, far longer than anything previously attempted, that would go through all the major cities of France. Key to the success of this idea was the race’s name: “Tour de France” was a phrase with several important connotations. The first of these referred to Le Tour de France de deux enfants (1877), written by G. Bruno (pseudonym of Madame Fouillée), a best-selling and very nationalistic book commonly used to teach French geography and history to children. The second reference was to the Tour de France des Compagnons: A compagnonnage was a society for the training and mutual support of workers, particularly men in the building trades. These societies began in the seventeenth century but became popular in the early years of the nineteenth century. As part of his training, a young worker would tour France, traveling around the country and perfecting his trade at the stops along the way. Every trade followed its own particular circuit, although most left Paris and headed down the Rhône to the Mediterranean, and then through Toulouse, Bordeaux, Nantes, Tours, Orléans, and back to Paris. Each tour always headed forward, never retracing its steps. A tradesperson would travel alone on foot and was expected to be self-sufficient, exchanging labor for training, food, and lodging en route. The concept of such a circuit and the self-sufficiency requirement were both borrowed for the first cycling Tour de France.





Desgrange presented the idea of a cycling tour to Goddet, who agreed to finance the twenty thousand francs in prize money. Three thousand francs—about three years’ pay for an industrial worker at the time—would go to the winner. Lefèvre surveyed the route and made preliminary logistical arrangements, and on January 19, 1903, just four days after losing the trademark suit to Giffard, Desgrange announced the race on the pages of the newly christened L’Auto. The race was touted as the greatest cycling trial in the world. It would consist of six stages ranging in distance from 268 kilometers (about 166.5 miles) to the monstrous 476-kilometer (295.8-mile) first stage from Paris to Lyon. Given that these distances would require riders to ride for as long as twenty hours at a stretch, multiday rest periods were planned between stages. After receiving only lukewarm interest from riders, Desgrange dropped his initial demand of a twenty-franc entry fee and promised a minimum of five francs per day to each rider. In the end, he attracted a group of sixty professional racers, tradesmen, and unemployed laborers. The race began at the Café Reveil Matin outside Paris on July 1, 1903.

Overall victory in the race went to Maurice Garin, a five-foot, three-inch Italian-born chimney sweep who lived in Lens, in northeastern France. Lefèvre, however, might be the tour’s true hero. As the one-man race commissioner, organizer, and field reporter, he followed the race closely, riding his bicycle or catching a train to officiate at the finish line or at the next checkpoint. Garin’s victory in Paris took place before a crowd of twenty thousand paying spectators. In honor of the race, Desgrange produced a special edition of L’Auto that sold 120,000 copies, proving that the race’s first running had been a resounding success.


The Tour de France owes some of its success to its initial appeal: Early on, cycling fans had passionate reactions to the difficult race, and riders were egged on by regional rivalries and provoked by sensationalist journalists. Scandals, such as the 1904 disqualification of the first four finishers for offenses ranging from accepting food from spectators to taking the train for part of the course, have also helped generate interest. The race continues to be one of the world’s premier sporting events, although a few key changes have cemented its success. In 1905, for example, mountains were included on the race route for the first time. Cooperation between racers, first allowed in 1912 against Desgrange’s wishes, changed the race’s tactics.

The publicity caravan, a gaudy parade of commercial floats that dispenses trinkets to the crowd in advance of the riders’ arrival, was first included in 1930 and roused the interest of spectators, and the race’s redesign into many more and much shorter stages meant that a larger number of cities were able to share the honor of hosting the tour. Since 1903, the Tour de France has found a place in French and European culture as the subject of songs, films, and literature. Its nationalist, sporting, cultural, and commercial elements have successfully captured the imaginations of its many supporters in France and around the world. Sports;bicycle racing Bicycle racing Tour de France

Further Reading
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Dauncey, Hugh, and Geoff Hare, eds. The Tour de France, 1903-2003: A Century of Sporting Structures, Meanings, and Values. London: Frank Cass, 2003. A collection of academic essays on the tour’s cultural significance.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Fife, Graeme. Tour de France: The History, the Legend, the Riders. Edinburgh, Scotland: Mainstream, 2005. A popular history of the tour with extensive descriptions of the events surrounding the race’s founding.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Seray, Jacques. 1904: The Tour de France Which Was to Be the Last. Translated by Richard Yates. Denver, Colo.: Buonpane, 1994. A meticulous account of the 1904 tour based on contemporary newspaper accounts.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Woodland, Les. The Unknown Tour de France: The Many Faces of the World’s Biggest Bicycle Race. San Francisco: Van der Plas, 2000. A popular history relating some of the lesser-known events in the history of the tour.

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Categories: History