Leon Scieur rides through the Alps during the 1920 Tour.
Nearly 200 cyclists roll out of Porto-Vecchio on the French island of Corsica Saturday for the first stage of this year’s Tour de France, now in its 101st year. From its early days as newspaper promotional event to today’s international spectacle, the Tour has undergone many changes. British sports journalist Richard Moore documented the evolution of the race in his book “Tour de France 100: A Photographic History of the World’s Greatest Race.” Here are a few of the ways the race both changed and remained the same.
In 1903, the first tour consisted of six grueling stages across France with each day averaging more than 250 miles. The race began before dawn, sometimes midnight for the grueling mountain stages. Upon reaching the summit of the Col D’Aubisque in 1910 (the sixth of seven mountains that day), racer Octave Lapize famously yelled “assassins” at race officials. Today’s Tour runs 21 stages and two rest days over 2,087 miles. Each summer, tour organizers lay down smooth new asphalt along the way. “The Tour is a rolling road improvement program,” Moore said.
German Jan Ullrich employs carbon disc wheels to improve aerodynamics.
The first Tour bikes had two gears, riders flipped the back wheel around to change them. With sturdy steel frames, wooden wheels and silk tires, the bikes could weigh upward of 30 to 40 pounds. In the past 30 years, technology from the aircraft industry has led to frames made from aluminum, titanium and now carbon-fiber composites. Frames and wheels are now so light, that teams often add small internal weights to make the minimum of 6.8 kilograms (15 pounds). Still, bikes are built using the same geometry of a triangle, with two wheels, two brakes and rear and front forks just as in 1903.
A French family awaits the Tour with lunch in 1954.
In the Tour’s early years, riders sometimes stopped to pick up food from bars and cafes along the route. They were so exhausted they rested an entire day before starting the next stage. Even 10 or 20 years ago, riders stuffed themselves with pasta and meat, hoping they could cram enough calories. Today, riders’ diets have evolved to include high-protein grains, beans, lentils, brown rice and complex carbohydrates, according to Jonathan Vaughters, director sportif of the Garmin-Sharp Racing Team, and a former Tour rider. “When I was racing you would get a bag with croissants with jelly on the bike, and we would get spaghetti for dinner,” Vaughters said.
Domestiques, or helper riders, bring water and other drinks to race leaders.
Coffee, beer, wine and water powered the racers of the early Tour, drinks often provided by fans along the route. Helper riders known as domestiques brought fluids to the team leaders. Today, the Garmin-Sharp team analyzes the perspiration of each rider to determine what kind of customized drinks they should be swallowing, Vaughters said. “We swab samples of their sweat to see if it is high in potassium or sodium.”
Eugene Christophe had to walk for miles to weld his broken forks. Today a team car would hand him a new bike.
The first Tour was designed to be a solo effort of man and machine. Outside help was banned and one rider was forced to repair his own bike at a blacksmith’s shop three separate times. Now Tour race leaders are backed by eight other riders and up to a dozen coaches, trainers, soigneurs (assistants) and mechanics. Riders get information about their energy output from power meters attached to the rear hubs. The data is transmitted back coaches, who talk to their racers through tiny earpieces.
Orson Welles starts the 1950 Tour alongside champ Gino Bartali.
The first riders were considered “workers of the pedal” and their salaries were equivalent to factory workers. That changed in the post-war years, according to journalist Moore, with riders like the flashy Italian Fausto Coppi and his rival Gino Bartali. “They were more like movie stars,” Moore said. “They started to have a better lifestyle.” Salaries increased as did media exposure. One champion carried cologne and a comb to look good at the finish line. In the 1990s, the average salary was $50,000 to $75,000 for Tour riders. Today it’s upward of $400,000 with some topping $1 million.
Momentary chaos during the 2002 Tour.
There are few things that haven’t changed in the Tour. The intensity of competition, the throngs of fans along the road, and of course, crashes. Four riders have died during the Tour, the last in 1995, while dozens have been seriously hurt in spectacular pile-ups. “There’s always been crashes because of the high pressure to win,” said Vaughters.
Lance Armstrong struggles up the Morzine climb in 2000. He was stripped of his seven Tour titles in 2012.
The second Tour de France was almost the last, after French fans beat up rival riders at the top of one mountain stage, others threw rocks, and several riders were booted for hitching a ride on a train. Riders in later decades were accused of fighting, taking bribes or poisoning each other. British rider Tom Simpson died in 1967 after an amphetamine-fueled climb of Mont Ventoux. The 1978 tour leader was caught with a bulb of someone else’s urine in his armpit and a tube taped to his body allowing him to give a clean sample. He was kicked out. In 1998, police found bags of performance-enhancing drugs in the Festina team trainer’s car. Then came the era of erythropoietin (EPO), the blood-boosting drug that tripped up dozens of riders, including seven-time champion Lance Armstrong.
Italian Marco Pantani and others protest police doping raids during 1998 Tour. He died of drug overdose in 2004.
Moore says that the intensity of the Tour, the adulation that follows and the difficulty of keeping at the top has led to tragic lives for many winners: 1906 champ Rene Pottier hanged himself after a romantic break-up. The 1923 champ was shot and killed by his girlfriend. The 1924-25 winner died mysteriously during a bike ride. Charly Gaul, the 1958 winner, became a hermit for 30 years. Two-time winner Fausto Coppi died of malaria, although some recent reports suggest it was a drug overdose. In the modern era, perhaps the most tragic figure is Italian Marco Pantani, the 1998 winner of the Tour. He was kicked out of the 1999 Giro d’Italia for doping, and died of a cocaine overdose in 2004. “We put them on a pedestal,” Moore said. “But a lot of times they can become quite damaged people.”
Cover of 'Tour de France 100: A Photographic History of the World's Greatest Race'