Tour de France - 1903: The race is born

As they edged out of Paris on their fixed-wheel steeds in the fierce afternoon heat of 1st July 1903 to ride through the night towards Lyon on the opening 467-kilometre stage of the first ever Tour de France, little did the sixty enlisted riders know that they were pioneers of what would become the most famous of all bike races.

Tour de France - 1903: The race is born

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Tour de France in 1903

What was born out of a publicity stunt to boost sales of the ailing L'Auto newspaper would in its time become the biggest annual sports event on the globe – with 3.5 billion television viewers worldwide tuning in to watch Bradley Wiggins's victorious ride last summer.

"With the broad and powerful swing of the hand which Zola gave his ploughman in The Earth, L'Auto, a paper of ideas and action, is going to fling across France today those reckless and uncouth sowers of energy, the great professional road racers..."

So began L'Auto editor Henri Desgrange's essay introducing the Tour on the morning of the inaugural stage of the first Tour.

"From Paris," he continued, "to the blue wave of the Mediterranean, along the rosy, dreaming roads sleeping under the sun, across the calm of the fields of the Vendee, following the still and silently flowing Loire, our men are going to race madly and tirelessly."

Madly and tirelessly they raced, indeed. Stages in the opening Tour averaged over 400 kilometres in length; all but the first started before dawn – and the last stage from Nantes to Paris started at 9pm so that the riders would enter the French capital for a prime-time finish in front of 20,000 spectators.

Plans for the first Tour were announced on the front page of L'Auto on 19th January 1903. The original intention had been for a 35-day event but this was reduced to six stages over 19 days following protests from the riders.

Initially, there was little interest from those "great professional road racers" that Desgrange courted, forcing L'Auto to up the prize money, halve the entry fee and allocate five francs expenses per day.

78 riders enlisted of which 60 actually took to the start. They were all professionals – but not all professional riders: carpenters, blacksmiths, innkeepers, teachers, even a trapeze artist, were present at the Reveil-Matin cafe in the Paris suburb of Montgeron at 3.16pm on 1st July when the starting flag was waved.

There were 49 Frenchmen, four Belgians, four Swiss, two Germans and an Italian. The two riders who first signed the register – Henri Ellinamour and Leon Pernette – were never seen again during the race, which took on a remarkably different format than present-day Tours.

For starters – some riders took up to 35 hours to complete the stages. Cyclists who broke frames or wheels had to carry out their own roadside repairs. Participants rode with spare inner tubes around their necks, relying on the moonlight as they rode after dark. Bikes weighed 15kg, some (but not all) had brakes and none had any gears.

The accumulation of what L'Equipe describes as "suffocating dust, blinding sun, buffeting mistral, bone-breaking vibrations, punctures, falls and losing the way" meant that seven much-needed rest days were granted to the "swashbuckling fortune-hunters" during the 19-day clockwise odyssey around France.

Pint-sized Frenchman Maurice Garin, one of the pre-race favourites, won the opening stage in a time of 17 hours, beating his nearest rival by one minute to Lyon – despite a bout of indigestion after eating too many cherries. 23 riders abandoned the stage – but were not disqualified.

One huge difference between then and now was the rule that riders who abandoned stages were allowed to continue the race but would no longer feature in the battle for the overall victory. As such, Hippolyte Aucouturier won stages two in Marseille and three in Toulouse despite giving up the opening stage with stomach cramps and food poisoning, while Switzerland's Charles Laeser became the first foreigner to take a win, in stage four to Bordeaux, but did so after throwing in the sponge during the previous stage.

Nicknamed 'The White Bulldog' because of his tenacity and choice of attire and 'The Little Chimney Sweep' because of his stature (1.62m) and previous profession, Garin held a two-hour lead by the time the race reached Toulouse.

The 32-year-old won stage five to Nantes as his closest rival, Leon Georget, abandoned when falling asleep while having a rest on the side of the road. Garin, a heavy smoker who kept himself alert with frequent swigs of red wine, took his third stage win on the final ride into Paris to secure the overall victory by just under three hours over Lucien Pothier, a trainee butcher.

Garin was not the only winner: L'Auto managed to push its circulation to more than 100,000 as a result of their gimmick, leaping ahead of its main competitor Le Vélo, which was forced out of business within the year.

The inaugural Tour's total distance of 2,428km was covered in an average speed of 25.678 km/h compared to the average speed of 34.9 km/h set by British winner Wiggins over 3,488km in 2012. Where Wiggins rode into Paris sporting a yellow jersey, Garin entered the city with a simple green armband with the famous maillot jaune not making its first appearance until 1919.

In stark contrast to modern day Tours – most of which are decided on the precipitous slopes of the Alps and the Pyrenees – the first Tour was largely flat with no forays into the mountains.

Following the invention of gears, race organisers introduced the famous Col du Tourmalet in 1910 – and gave a prize of 100 francs for the one man, Gustave Garrigou, who reached the top without dismounting. A year later, the first Alpine ascent was introduced in the form of the unforgiving Col du Galibier.

Of the 60 entrants, only 21 riders completed the entire inaugural race in 1903 and Garin's overall victory by 2hrs 59mins and 31secs remains the greatest winning margin in any Tour de France. With his 3,000 francs prize money (around £25,000 in modern currency) Garin bought a gas station in Lens where he worked for the rest of his life until his death, aged 85.

Garin retired from cycling in 1904 after his victory in the second Tour de France was overturned and he was banned for two years when it was revealed that he – and 11 others – took a train during part of a stage. The disqualification of the top four riders in the overall standings is perhaps proof that even in its infancy, the Tour was affected by those not adverse to performance-enhancing methods.

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