|Yellow newspaper, yellow jersey. No coincidence.|
Today marks the beginning of what is invariably the biggest three weeks of racing for each and every one of the 198 starters. As such, I thought a good place to start would be the beginning...
In 1903, the newspaper L'Auto invented the race as a way to boost sales. Without radio or television, reporters were free to wax lyrical about the feats of the riders, be they true or not. And wax they did:
"The steepest mountains, the coldest and blackest nights, the sharpest and most violent winds, constant and unjust setbacks, the most difficult routes, never-ending slopes and roads that go on and on - nothing has been able to break the spirit and willpower of these men"With such an abundance of superlatives and shameless mythologising (not to mention lies; the course was mostly flat), Henri Desgrange, the editor of L'Auto, was able to whip up such interest in the race that his newspaper's sales increased six-fold.
The 1903 tour took place over a similar amount of time as the race these days and while it was about 1,000 km shorter than it is this year, the big difference between the first edition and the modern incarnation relates to the number and distance of stages. This year, there are 21 stages that each average around 160 km in length. In 1903, there were six stages, each averaging over 400 km. As such, the riders spent about 15 hours in the saddle and started each stage in the middle of the night.
Another big difference relates to the bikes; frames made of heavy plumber's piping and one fixed-gear to push the thing along. As such, while there weren't many hills that year, the 26 km/h average of the winner, Maurice Garin, is nonetheless impressive.