by Kathy Wolfe
This year’s Tour de France bicycle race takes place from July 1 to 24. How much do you know about this 2,000+-mile event? Follow along and see!
• From its humble beginnings in 1903, the Tour de France is now ranked as the world’s biggest annual sporting event. Twelve million spectators line the race route, while another 3.5 billion watch on television over the three-week period.
• In 1902, a French newspaper, “L’Auto,” was seeking to boost circulation and conceived the idea of a bicycle race as a marketing scheme. Sixty cyclists entered the race, with just 21 finishing the course. The length of the inaugural race was 1,508 miles (2,428 km). The first winner was Frenchman Maurice Garin, who completed the race in 94 hours, 33 minutes. Garin was declared the winner in 1904 as well, until it was discovered he had ridden the train for part of the race! He was also accused of having his teammates knock other competitors off their bikes and place tacks on the road to cause punctures. The title was then awarded to 19-year-old Henri Cornet, who remains the youngest cyclist to win the Tour de France.
• The route and its total distance change every year. The current length is about 2,200 miles (3,500 km) compared to the original 1,508 miles.
• The longest race was in 1926, with a distance of 3,570 miles (5,745 km). The cyclists always pass through the Pyrenees and the Alps, and always cross the finish line on the Champs-Elysees in Paris. Until 1926, the starting line was in Paris (that year, the riders were taken by train to the start in Evian.) Since then, the beginning has been in the Netherlands, Belgium, Switzerland, Germany, Luxembourg, Spain, Monaco, and Denmark, among others, in addition to France. This year, the race will commence in Copenhagen, Denmark. The route will wind through Denmark, Belgium, Switzerland, and France, and will include six mountain ranges.
• The race encompasses 21 stages over 23 days. The mountainous stages require riders to climb 11,000 feet (3,350m). Even a stage described as “flat” will demand a climb in elevation of over 4,000 feet (1,219 m). The riders’ times for each stage are compounded with previous stages, and the rider with lowest cumulative finishing times becomes the leader. Since 1919, the race leader after each stage wears the yellow jersey. The rider under age 26 with the lowest cumulative times wears a white jersey.
• Although riders are given two “rest days” during the 23 days, they are seldom “resting.” They aren’t racing, but they are taking slower, shorter recovery rides to stretch out their legs, and scope out the next day’s stage. They also meet with journalists or have duties to perform for their sponsors. It’s usually a day to sleep in a little, grab a massage, and refuel with food.
• Food is a vital part of the grueling race. A racer burns an average of 7,000 calories per day, and will need to consume nearly 124,000 calories to complete the three-week competition. How much is that? It’s the equivalent of 872 slices of cheese pizza, or 252 McDonald’s double cheeseburgers, or 619 Krispy Kreme glazed doughnuts.
• The average Tour cyclist makes 486,000 pedal strokes during the race, about 90 revolutions per minute.
• From the initial 60 starting riders in 1903, the number has grown to between 20 and 22 teams, with eight or nine riders in each.
• Four cyclists have won the tour five times – Belgium’s Eddy Merckx, Jacques Anquetil and Bernard Hinault of France, and Spain’s Miguel Indurain. Indurain is the only man to have won five consecutive Tours. Merckx holds the record for the highest number of days wearing the yellow jersey, a total of 96 days.
• For seven years, from 1999 to 2005, Texas-born Lance Armstrong won seven Tour de France titles. His first win came at age 27, two-and-a-half years after being diagnosed with stage three testicular cancer, which had spread to his lymph nodes, lungs, brain, and abdomen, giving him a 20% chance of survival. Before his cancer treatment, Armstrong had ridden in four previous Tours, winning two stages. Following his seventh win in 2005, he retired from racing. It wasn’t until 2012 that a United States Anti-Doping Agency investigation determined that Armstrong had used performance-enhancing drugs during much of his career. He was stripped of all of his Tour de France titles and received a lifetime ban from all sports. He also lost $75 million of endorsements. The cycling union decided that his wins would not be allocated to other riders. After years of denying doping allegations, in January, 2013, Armstrong made a “limited confession” during an interview with Oprah Winfrey.
• Because the Tour’s record books are blank after vacating Lance Armstrong’s victories, there remains only one American who has won the Tour. Greg LeMond was the champion in 1986, 1989, and 1990. American George Hincapie holds the record for the most consecutive finishes. Hincapie has completed the race 16 times, a distance of more than 32,000 miles (51,500 km).
• Hard to believe, but Tour de France riders in the 1920s shared cigarettes while riding! It was a common conception at the time that smoking helped open up the lungs as the riders approached the tough climbs. Bikers also consumed alcohol along the route to ease body aches and pains. That was banned in 1960, as by then it was considered to be a stimulant.
• There have been some fatalities in the race’s history, with the first in 1910. That rider, Adolphe Heliere, wasn’t killed in a biking accident, though. He drowned on one of the rest days. The first rider to die while racing was Spaniard Francisco Cepeda, who, in 1935, lost control of his bike while descending a steep mountain pass in the Alps, crashing into a ravine. In 1995, an Italian rider crashed into a concrete pylon in a high-speed descent in the Pyrenees. A British cyclist collapsed during a climb in the 1967 Tour, and was found to have a mixture of amphetamines and alcohol in his system, as well as being severely dehydrated. It was reported that he drank a bottle of brandy to down the various pills he had ingested. Twenty spectators were killed in 1964 when a tanker truck lost control coming around a curve too quickly, crashing into the crowd, then over a bridge and into a canal.