Monday, January 24, 2022

Guts and Glory… Tour de France

2006 Tour de France map route.

2006 Tour de France map route.

I magine riding over 2000 miles in three weeks’ time, battling snow, rain, crazed fans, broken bones and even the slight possibility of death. Well, this is what 180 riders will be facing for the start of the 2010 Tour de France.

This year the 97th Tour de France, runs from July 3rd through July 25th, covering 2,236 miles. The race starts with a Prologue stage in Rotterdam, then 20 more stages, six of those in the mountains and, of all of those stages, only two rest days! It’s hard to fathom what these men go through on a daily basis let alone in three weeks time, but the result is well worth it. The Tour de France is by invitation only; the race organizers invite about twenty teams, each with nine cyclists. The total prize money is about $2.1 million.

Starting back in 1903, the Tour de France was the idea of the Parisian newspaper editor Henri Desgrange of the L’Auto to help boost circulation. The course was marked out to be an around-France stage race, covering a distance of 2,428 km(1508 miles), taking place over nineteen days in six stages, and rankings based on the cumulative time over the course of the tour. Sixty riders began the first race and the winner who dominated throughout the tour, and today still holds a record for the greatest margin of victory of two hours and 49 minutes, was Maurice Garin.

The first Tour was billed a success with over 20,000 people showing up and lining the streets to watch Garin cross the finish line, and L’Auto newspaper sold 130,000 copies, 100,000 more than the newspaper’s circulation had been six months earlier. The following year, 1904, was billed as the almost last Tour de France, since it became a must-win for all-French cyclists to win and they would go to any lengths to do so. Riders were caught catching trains, taking cars, and even sabotaging their opponents’ bicycles. All of these infractions forced the race officials to implement many more rules on how the race was to be done. Around this time Desgrange also felt the success of the tour would rely on the route changing every year.

In the 1919 race, the now famous yellow jersey, or maillot jaune, was introduced. The cyclists wore the yellow jerseys in order to show who was leading the race, because previously no one could recognize who was winning. (Also L’Auto was printed on yellow paper.) In latter years, many other jerseys were designed to show various leaders; red polka dots to show king of the mountains, green to show the points leader and white to show best young rider.

The 1930’s saw many new developments: team time trials were introduced to try to attract more attention to the sport; the publicity caravan was also established; and in the early 1930’s national teams were introduced to enable riders to be substituted out of the race if they became injured. Furthermore, everyone would ride identical bikes. In 1937, the popular derailleur systems were finally introduced, enabling the riders to change gears without removing their wheels. Some of these changes were short-lived, but these changes also helped mold much of what is today’s modern Tour de France.

In 1903, for the second year in a row, my great-grandfather, Bobby Walthour Sr., and his partner, Benny Monroe, of Memphis won the Madison Square Garden’s six-day bicycle race. (They covered 2,300 miles in those six days). The team that placed sixth in that race was Lucien Petit-Breton of France and his partner, French national champion Henri Contenet. Lucien Petit-Breton went on to win the Tour de France in 1907 and 1908. By comparison, the French have won the tour approximately thirty-six times, Spain twelve, and the United States ten, and of course many other countries have won the event.

So if you find yourself channel surfing between July 3 and July 25, you have a record four  American teams to cheer for: BMC (Bicycle Manufacturing company), Garmin-Transitions (GPS and Eyeglass company), HTC-Columbia (cell phone and clothing company), and Radio-Shack (technology retail stores). Based on past years’ performances and current season efforts, this will likely mean that at least eight American riders will participate. This year also sees the return of seven-time Tour de France winner, cancer survivor, and highly touted as possible winner, Lance Armstrong.

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