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Bicycle Races in France- The Origins

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Long distance bicycle races and challenges are quite common in several countries. What stands apart for France is that such races are steeped in a rich history that can be traced back to a century and more.


PBP Poster with Maurice Garin 1901


Competitive Journalism is at the origin of what are the oldest and the most prestigious long distance bicycle races in the world today- Le Tour de France and Paris-Brest-Paris.

In addition to these two long distance events, the first documented bicycle race in the world is generally held to be a 1,200 m race at the Parc de Saint-Cloud, Paris in 1868. The first inter-city race is held to be between Paris-Rouen the following year. Both these races were won by an Englishman. The successes of such races shortly led to the development of bicycle racing as an organised sports in Britain, France, Netherlands, Sweden etc.


Paris-Brest-Paris, the oldest long-distance cycle event, is a 1200 km cycling challenge meant to test the endurance of the rider and the bicycle. It was organised for the first time in 1891 by Le Petit Journal- a newspaper headed by Pierre Giffard (1853-1922), a French journalist.

A couple of years later, in 1894, France was hit by the Albert Dreyfus affair. Dreyfus, a French soldier, was accused of passing military secrets to Germans. The French public opinion on his innocence remained divided- while some believed him to be innocent, others thought of him as guilty.

By this time, Pierre Giffard, the man behind Paris-Brest-Paris, had joined 'Le Vélo' as the editor. Le Vélo was the popular sports newspaper of the time. It used to bring out political articles from time and time. Giffard was convinced of the innocence of Dreyfus. This alienated his principal advertisers. They deserted Le Vélo to bring out a rival newspaper under the name of L'Auto-Vélo (later changed to L'Auto*). Henri Desgrange (1865-1940), a bicycle racer and record holder, became the editor of L'Auto. In order to promote the circulation of the newspaper, one of its journalists, Géo Lefèvre, suggested to bring out an even bigger bicycle race than PBP. Thus Le Tour de France was born in 1903 with the joint efforts of Desgrange and Lefèvre.

First Paris-Brest-Paris (1891)

As many as 206 competitors took part in the first event that started on September 6. While both amateurs and professionals participated, entries from foreigners and women were refused. The participants were supposed to use the same bicycle throughout the competition and carry their own provisions. However, a supporting crew was allowed to carry gears and pacers. Charles Terront won the race in 71 hours, 22 minutes followed by Jiel Laval. Around 100 racers competed up to the finishing line.


Maurice Garin


It may be recollected that the roads did not have asphalt as it was not invented back then! Given the physical endurance and logistics the race required, it was decided to hold the event once every ten years. The second edition of PBP, in 1901, allowed International participants. It was won by the Frenchman Maurice Garin who was also the winner of the first Tour de France in 1903.


Since its origin, several changes have been incorporated into the structure and the nature of PBP. Since 1971, PBP has been held once every four years. The last PBP was held in August 2007.

First Tour de France (1903)

Announcing the competition in January 1903 in L'Auto, the race called for participation from individuals. After an initial low response and high entrance fees of twenty francs, the event was finally conducted from July 1-19. The entrance fees was reduced to ten francs and the prize money was upped to 20,000 francs. Out of the 60 total participants, some were sponsored by bicycle companies. The race was to be covered in six stages from Paris-Lyon-Marseille-Toulouse-Bordeaux-Nantes and back to Paris. The longest leg of the race was between Paris and Nantes at 471 km. Maurice Garin, the winner of the earlier PBP, won the race in 94 hours, 33 minutes and 14 seconds. Only 20 other participants completed the race.


The Tour de France races have been held ever year, since its origin, except brief periods of suspension owing to World Wars I & II. The tour celebrates its 96th year in 2009. Spread over a period of 23 days, participants cover a distance of around 3,500 km in 21 stages involving plains and mountains. There are several sub-competitions. The over-all winner receives approximately €450,000. Participants compete for €3,000,000 in total prize money.



Maurice Garin



The first documented bicycle race was a 1,200 m sprint. It was held on May 31st, 1868 at Parc of Saint-Cloud in Paris.  It was won by expat Englishman Dr. James Moore. This was followed in 1869 by the first inter-city bicycle race from Arc-de-Triomphe, Paris to cathedral in Rouen. It was won once again by Moore who covered a total distance of around 130 km in 10 hours and 34 minutes.


Giro d'Italia

Following the success of Tour de France and the subsequent increase in subscriptions of the newspaper L'Auto, Italy began its own tour 'Giro d'Italia' in 1909. Starting on May 13th, the first race was divided into 8 stages totalling approximately 2,500 km. It was supported by the newspaper 'La Gazzetta dello Sport' which is in circulation till date. The first winner of the race was Luigi Ganna. Till 2009, there have been 92 editions of the race. Giro d'Italia precedes the Tour de France as it is held in the month of May.


Vuelta a España

Spain was the last to catch up with its neighbours in starting an equivalent bicycle race. Starting in 1935, the first race had 50 competitors in a course spread over 3,400 km in 14 stages. Belgian Gustaaf Deloor was the winner of this race. Since 1955, the event has been held annually. As on date, there have been 63 editions of the race.


Though Tour de France is a popular sporting event known the world over, Giro d'Italia and Vuelta a España are relatively lesser known outside of Europe. However, the three together form the Grand Tours of the world of long-distance cycling races. So far, only 5 cyclists have won all the three Grand Tours in their careers- Jacques Anquetil (France), Alberto Contador (Spain), Felice Gimondi (Italy), Bernard Hinault (France) and Eddy Merckx (Belgium).



First Tour de France: 1903 from 2,428 km

Most Wins in Tour de France: Lance Armstrong (USA) at 7 (1999-2005)

Longest Tour de France: 5, 745 km in 1926

Shortest Tour de Frane: 2, 420 km in 1904




Official website of Paris-Brest-Paris (in English & French)

Official website of le Tour de France (in English, French, Spanish and German)

Official website of la Vuelta a España (in English, Spanish and French) 



*L'Auto was the earlier precursor of L'Equipe- a sports newspaper that is in circulation since 1948 till date.

Photos: Maurice Garin, Poster of Maurice Garin for 'La Française'