In less than a week the first stage of the Tour de France will be ending in the town of Harrogate, North Yorkshire, United Kingdom where I live. And then will pass through again the next day during the second stage. To honor the occasion, this post provides a brief history of the Tour de France.
The first Tour de France was held in 1903, and like many sporting events, designed to make money. At first to increase readership of the French cycling magazine L’Auto (today in circulation as L’Equipe); and currently to sell anything from automobiles to sporting equipment to disposable pens. However, in 1903 the need for L’Auto to make money on the Tour de France resulted from the Dreyfus Affair.
The Dreyfus Affair fractured French society along conservative and progressive lines for over a decade; starting in 1894 when Alfred Dreyfus, a captain in the French Army, was convicted of treason for passing military secrets to ‘zee Germans.’ Dreyfus was of Jewish descent and the evidence against him weak and even fabricated. Dreyfus was tried and found guilty twice. However, he was pardoned by the French government in 1899 and fully reinstated into the French military in 1906 (after the charges against him were finally proven baseless). These successes was largely thanks to the work and writings of liberal intellectuals of the time, among them Emile Zola (whose famous J’accuse open letter in a Paris newspaper highlighted the weaknesses of the case against Dreyfus and pushed for a new trail). What became known as the Dreyfus Affair exposed a schism within French society highlighting the growth of nationalism and antisemitism (long term causes of the coming world wars).
Still not seeing the Dreyfus affair’s connection to the Tour de France? Well, in 1899 Jules-Albert de Dion a leading French automobile industrialist, who became the Marquis de Dion in 1901 and believed Dreyfus guilty, struck the president of France on the head with a walking stick during a party at a horse track. Dion’s behavior and arrest was heavily criticized in the cycling magazine Le Velo edited by Pierre Giffard; a magazine that Dion was a major advertiser in. As a result of the editorial, Dion pulled his business from Le Velo and started rival cycling magazine L’Auto with other anti-Dreyfusards.
The early readership of L’Auto was low; so, in 1903 the chief cycling journalist Geo Lefevre proposed a six day cycling road race of unprecedented distance. A race that L’Auto’s editor, Henri Desgrange dubbed a ‘Tour de France.’ L’Auto attracted riders through the unprecedented prize it offered, as well as a participation stipend to all riders who averaged 20 km/h on all stages of the race. L’Auto continued it’s self promotion during the race by giving the overall race leader a yellow jersey, a nod to the yellow paper that L’Auto was printed on. Maurice Garin ended up winning the inaugural race in 1903. The success of ‘Le Tour’ for L’Auto was huge, dramatically increasing it’s readership to the point that rival Le Velo ceased publication a year later in 1904.
The first Tour de France created such fervor among readers and spectators that Desgrange said the second one in 1904, would be the last. And that indeed looked to be the case based on the rampant cheating among riders and violence by fans towards riders along the route. Second time winner, Maurice Garin was disqualified along with several other top riders. Making Henri Cornet the youngest winner of the Tour De France at age 20. However, another race did occur in 1905, and every year after that, save the years during the world wars.
So while L’Auto (and consequently the Tour de France) may have come out on the ‘wrong side’ of the Dreyfus Affair – and history (assuming you prioritize the values of republicanism and openness as important to a society); it has given the world an incredible popular sporting event. So popular internationally that since 1954, every few years the opening stages of the Tour de France have been held outside of France. And this year it has come to Yorkshire!