by Robert Ferringo - 06/29/2005
Long before it was the Tour de Lance, the world's greatest cycling event was simply a bizarre marketing ploy that was spawned over a casual business lunch. This Saturday begins the 92nd running of the Tour de France, a 21-stage, 3,500 kilometer endurance trial that has literally killed men who have dared to attempt it. To some, the idea of Lance Armstrong winning an unprecedented seventh consecutive title is an amazing concept. That would be an impressive feat, but an amazing concept is what Geo Lefevre and Henri Desgrange came up with in 1902 when they decided to stage one of the most grueling exercises of human will that that world had ever seen.
Lefevre and Desgrange came up with the idea while meeting at an old French café. They were thinking of ways to boost circulation of their magazine, L'Auto, and modeled the cycling event after an automobile race that took place in their country beginning in 1899. The idea was beyond insane. We're talking about a 19-day trek of over 2,500 kilometers (1,553 miles) on the most primitive of bikes. There were no breaks for sleep and only six official stages. I mean, most guys I know get winded if they have to walk up more than three flights of stairs. These crazed Europeans were biking across their entire country, which is roughly the size of Texas.
Needless to say, the 60 people who undertook the inaugural journey ranged from circus performers to horse racing jockeys. Only 21 riders finished, and the first winner in Tour de France history was a Frenchman named Maurice Garin. He averaged 25.679 kph, and his 2 hours, 49 minutes margin of victory remains the largest ever. In comparison, Lance Armstrong averaged 40.553 kph and won by a margin of 7 minutes, 37 seconds.
The event was almost debunked after only two races. The widespread cheating that took place was comical. Some riders hopped in cars and took trains. There were rumors of riders poisoning their rivals, or fans leaving nails on the roads just for kicks. The competitors were held to strict rules that included having to finish each stage with the same amount of clothing that they started (mind you, the stages ranged from 90+ degree heat to the near freezing temperature of the Alps). They weren't allowed to switch bikes at any time and there was absolutely no outside assistance permitted, no matter what the case.
That's pretty rough, but it gets worse.
In 1905, the mountains were added into the mix, and in the 1909 race several riders almost died when they ran into snow (in July) at higher elevations. In 1910 they included the Pyrenees in the Tour. In 1911 they added the Alps. The riders accused Desgrange of being an "assassin" in part because during the 20s the race ballooned up to 5,500 kilometers. That's 3,417 miles for you keeping track at home. As a basis of comparison, the U.S.-Canada border is only 3,145 miles.
However torturous the idea of riding the mountains may have seemed in the 1910's, the presence of these topographical towers has since come to define the event. It's the struggle. It's the physical skill and mental absurdity of riding a simple machine - a bike - up a group of mountains. Yeah, a 2647-meter (that's 7,941 feet) land mass. As a result, some of the most defining moments of the Tour de France have occurred in the mountain stages.
First there was Eddy Merckx famed Tourmalet climb in 1969, and his later demise in 1975 during the Pra-Loup stage in the Alps. In 1986, Bernard Hinault allowed his teammate and prodigy, American Greg LeMond, to pass him in the Alps. This paved the way for the first American victory ever at the Tour. Like Merckx before him, LeMond was toppled by the legendary Miguel Indurain on the Val-Louron climb in the Pyrenees in 1991. And sure enough, Indurain saw the end of his five-year reign when he wilted while attempting to scale Les Arcs in 1996. Finally, Armstrong himself has said that "This race will be won in the mountains."
The Tour de France also has a darker side. There have been three deaths during the race, with Italian Fabio Casartelli's demise in 1995 the most recent. There have also been the deaths of many riders associated with the race - including a defending champ who hung himself before the 1907 race and one who was assassinated by Fascists in 1927 (I'm not making this up). Also, the cheating that plagued the race's formative years has recently manifested itself in another form - doping. Ireland's Stephen Roche, the 1987 winner, failed a drug test in 1988. It marked the first doping scandal in Tour de France history. Bjarne Riis, Jan Ulrich's former mentor, went down in the EPO scandal in 1998. Even our hero Lance has faced the intense scrutiny from the foreign press about the drugs he used during his rehab from cancer.
This year's Tour is set up unlike any other. It begins on Saturday, July 2 and finishes on July 24. There are 21 stages covering 3,500 km, and it consists of nine flat stages, three medium mountain climbs, six mountain stages, two individual time-trials and one team time-trial. The race begins in Fromentine and ends in Paris, touching German soil briefly (Stage 7 ends in Karlsruhe).
The Tour de France remains one of the world's most renowned and beloved sporting events. It is unique in that it takes sports outside of the stadium and into the mesmerizing and historic French countryside. In literature, there are four types of conflict - man vs. man, man vs. society, man vs. nature and man vs. himself. Four three weeks in July, the World's Greatest Cycling Event will roll all four into one breathtaking journey.
Here are some interesting facts and figures about the Tour de France:
Calories burned by a Tour rider, per day: 5,900 average; 9,000 max.
Calories burned by an average 28-year-old male, per day: 2,200 average.
Most stages won by a single rider, career: 34 (Eddy Merckx)
Year that the yellow jersey was introduced: 1919
Most riders to wear yellow jersey on one Tour: 8 (1987)
Smallest margin of victory: 8 seconds (Greg LeMond over Laurent Fignon in 1989)
Fastest individual time trial: 54.545 kph (Greg LeMond in 1989 over 24.5 km)
Rest days in the 2005 Tour: 2 (July 11 and July 18)
Riders in each team: 9
Spectators expected to line the route: 15 million
Riders who will start this year: 198 (split over 22 teams)
Shortest flat stage on the course: 19 km (Stage 1)
Longest stage in the tour: 239.5 km (Stage 17)
Number of water bottles used in the race, per team: approx. 42,000