The history of the Tour de France
The Tour de France is synonymous with its iconic yellow winner’s jersey. But did you know the very first races awarded a green armband to the race leader? Here are some more fun facts about the history of the Tour de France, the world’s most famous cycling event.

Tour de France – The race

The inaugural Tour de France was created and sponsored by the ailing French newspaper L’Auto in 1903 to try and boost sales of the paper. The strategy worked, as the race was enormously popular, with twenty thousand people lining the streets of Paris to watch the final stage. 
The original race had 6 stages, even though it covered 2,428km. Compared with the 110th race in 2023, and its 21 stages over 3,404km, it was a monster with cyclists having to ride at night.

Tour de France – The competitors

Tour de France kit

In the early days of the Tour de France, competitors entered as lone amateurs rather than as professionals in teams. Not only were there no teams, there was no support crew meaning riders didn’t even have spare bikes, let alone mechanics, doctors, masseuses and a dedicated chef preparing carefully calibrated meals. Cyclists raced wearing spare tyres and inner tubes and stopped off at bars and restaurants to eat – and even drank alcohol and smoked while hanging out with locals. 
This more relaxed approach shows in Maurice Garin, the first-ever winner’s, lead time as he was three hours ahead of the rider in second place, whereas the modern Tour de France winning spot is a tightly contested matter of minutes.

Tour de France – The prizes

Cycling jersey tour de france

Maurice Garin was a part-time chimney sweep so no doubt his 3,000 franc winnings meant a lot as they were the equivalent of 12,000€ today. The next year, many riders cheated by catching trains or sabotaging each other's bikes to get the glory and the prize money. Instead of abandoning the event, the organizers introduced mountain stages in 1905, making it much harder to cheat your way to the winner’s podium.
Since then, the prize pot has grown considerably. The overall leader in today takes 500,000€ as well as other prizes they might accumulate over the race, though that gets shared out between the rest of the team and staff. 
In 1919, the green armband became the maillot jaune because the bright colour was easy for spectators to pick out and also because it matched the colour of the paper L’Auto was printed on. In 1953 it was joined by the green sprinter's jersey, and then, in 1975, by the polka dot King of the Mountain (KOM) jersey for the best climber, and the white jersey for the fastest overall rider under 26. 

Tour de France – The bikes and equipment

The immediately noticeable difference is that riders in early Tour de France photos didn’t wear helmets, so you’ll see them pictured in cycling caps – casquettes – or bareheaded. Helmets didn’t become mandatory in the race until 2003, after 8 deaths in 20 years, though it followed a decade of protests and resistance from riders who refused to wear helmets.
Then there are the bikes which used to weigh around 18 kilos as they were steel-framed with wooden-rims. Riders used the same bike for all the stages, whether flat or climbs, and they didn’t even have gears as bikes then were single-speed. Today, a carbon-framed bike weighs less than half the old bikes at around 7 kilos. 

Tour de France – The spectators

Tour de france kit

Today, the televised race is watched by 2 billion people around the world, with 10-12 million watching from the sidelines of the event. In the past, audiences tended to be local French fans. People were so supportive of their hometown riders, they would sometimes attack other riders and throw nails and glass on the roads.
The danger today comes more from selfie-seekers than saboteurs, so there are barriers placed on the final stretches of stages. Even so, crashes are caused by fans on narrow stretches of the road.

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