Origin of Species - a week until le Tour commences !
It was something I was rather bemused to learn via my increased TV sports viewing, but the Tour de France (1903), Giro d'Italia (1909) and Paris Nice (1933) all started as advertising campaigns to sell newspapers. In fact, the colours of the race leader jerseys all mirror the page colours of those respective newspapers who devised each race. The stories of the various race founders end in disgrace, bankruptcy, accusations of collaborations with the Nazis and execution.
If only we could still execute malignant old media tycoons eh?
Thinking about it, I shouldn’t actually be that surprised about the race origins, as teams are still funded and organised by corporate sponsors, the most direct modern day equivalent being the SKY Racing Team.
Two mentions in two paragraphs – Rupe’s ears will be burning.
At the end of the 19th century all of France was hotly divided over the innocence of Alfred Dreyfus, a French army officer who was convicted, but subsequently exonerated, of selling France’s military secrets to the Germans. A 19th century anti-Semitic Wikileaks scandal if you will.
His cause led to the famous "J'accuse ...!" an open letter by Emile Zola accusing the government of anti-Semitism and corruption, which was published in January 1898, which led to Zola being found guilty of libel and fleeing to England for sanctuary. Gawd, plus ça change, plus c'est la même chose, amirite ?!
Le Vélo was the largest daily sports newspaper in France, and the editorial staff were also split over the verdict; so much so that a group of journalists, with the backing of local businessmen including Comte Jules-Albert de Dion (who had been wrongfully implicated in the Dreyfus affair), Adolphe Clément (of the famous Clement Pneumatics, eventually acquired by Pirelli) and Édouard Michelin (yes that Michelin), split off in a very Gallic huff and formed a new newspaper, L'Auto.
They appointed a cycling fan Henri Desgrange as the editor. He himself was a prominent cyclist, who along with Victor Goddet owned the velodrome at the Parc des Princes.
Disappointingly L'Auto was at first not the success its backers craved. Sales were still lower than Le Velo, and a crisis meeting was held in November 1902 in L'Auto's office in Montmartre, Paris (remember the opening scenes from Moulin Rouge? I believe the meeting looked exactly like that.)
Anecdotally, the last person to speak up at the meeting was also the most junior there [awww] the chief cycling journalist, a 26-year-old named Géo Lefèvre, who suggested a six-day bicycle race around France.
Long-distance cycle races were already a proven means to sell more newspapers, but nothing of this duration had previously been attempted. If it succeeded, it would help L'Auto match its rival and perhaps put it out of business. Editor Desgrange was doubtful but the paper's financial director, Victor Goddet, was wildly enthusiastic. He essentially handed Desgrange the keys to the company safe and said: "Take whatever you need." L'Auto announced the race on 19 January 1903.
But the original course proved too daunting, the entry and running costs too high for most people, so originally only 15 competitors entered. Desgrange came close to dropping the idea, but instead cut the length to 19 days, moved the race to July, and offered a daily allowance to those who averaged at least 20 km/h on all the stages.
This was a key move; the daily allowance was the equivalent to a factory workers daily wage at the time. Desgrange also halved the entry fee from 20 to 10 francs, created a tempting daily stage winner’s prize of 3,000 francs and the overall first prize of 12,000 francs – six times the annual wage for the average worker. This attracted between 60 and 80 entrants, although by the end of stage 4, only 24 riders remained.
Bizarrely on the morning of the first Tour, L'Auto didn’t even feature the race on its own front page.
The first Tour de France started outside a café, and ended outside a restaurant (you gotta love the French), before a ceremonial ride into Paris and several laps of the Parc des Princes. Maurice Garin dominated the race, winning the first and last two stages. The last rider, Millocheau, finished just over 64 hours after him. Let's just think about that ...
L'Auto's goal was finally accomplished, and well beyond their hopes as circulation of the paper doubled throughout the race’s duration.
But such was the intense passion that the first Tour created in spectators and riders that Desgrange said the 1904 Tour de France would be the last.
Quelle horreur !
Cheating was rife and riders were beaten up by rival fans. Riders escaped from fist-fights with crowds of up to 200 spectators with their hands broken, and some brawls were only broken up when race officials fired guns at the crowd.
Four masked men in a car attacked the leading riders. Other cyclists were caught taking the train, and some were accused of using a motor. Phil Ligget would be positively apoplectic commentating on all of that.
In all 12 riders, including the winner Maurice Garin, were disqualified from the 1904 race, though it took the Union Vélocipèdique de France until 30 November to make the decision (sound familiar?), mostly to let the intensity of the emotions of the public die down a little.
Sadly the heated correspondence between the UVF and Desgrange was lost when the Tour archives were moved south to avoid the German invasion, and were never recovered.
By the following spring Desgranges changed his mind, and was planning another Tour, longer at 11 stages rather than 6, and this time all during daylight to make any cheating more obvious.
Not to stop cheating mind you, just to make it stand out a little easier.
The race captured the imagination. L'Auto's circulation rose from 25,000 and by 1908 it was 250,000.
The Tour returned after a brief suspension due to World War One and continued to grow, with circulation of L'Auto reaching 500,000 by 1923. Subscriptions peaked at 854,000 during the 1933 Tour.
Le Vélo, meanwhile, had gone out of business in 1904.
But in 1944, L'Auto was also closed – its doors literally nailed shut – and its property including the Tour itself, sequestrated by the state for publishing articles too favourable to the despised Germans during their military occupation of France.
Things became a little complicated at this point; the management of L'Auto had refused German orders to keep the race running throughout the occupation, the Nazi's were keen to normalise perceptions of life under their occupation.
Riders were threatened with the Gestapo and forced to ride in alternative races organised by a former L'Auto colleague who wrote pro-German articles for a different paper.
These races, mostly due to the inexperience of those organisers invariably ended in a shambles.
So although it appears L'Auto actually stood up to the Germans, the reputational damage was done, and L'Auto was gone.
All rights to the Tour were therefore now owned by the French government.
The rights to the Tour passed through a few unsteady hands but were eventually acquired by Émilion Amaury, as the race grew in global popularity, rights were moved to the Amaury Group, which formed Amaury Sport Organisation (ASO) to oversee its sports operations.
ASO now also operate several other major races throughout the year, including the Vuelta a España and Paris–Nice cycle road races, as well as the Dakar Rally. How do they say it, "Ka-ching" ?!
Note to self; invent bike race, retire to tropical island to count money.
The Maillot Jaune - the yellow jersey of the overall race winner; ie the dude with the fastest time over the combined stages.
The Maillot à Pois Rouges - the polka dot jersey of the winner of the King of the Mountain - the best climber over the race. Originally sponsored by a chocolate maker, the polka dots matched the wrappers of their product.
The Maillot Vert - the green jersey of the winner of the sprint classification.
And the Maillot Blanc - the white jersey awarded to the best rider under 25 years of age.
This time next week ! Whoo hoo !