As you know, the Tour de France began in 1903 as some sort of wild-hair publicity scheme for the sports daily L’Auto, a paper that eventually evolved into what is now L’Equipe. The race differed remarkably from the one we know and love today. The original Tour could probably best be described as a synthesis of a modern stage race, that exercise in sleep deprivation known as the Race Across America (RAAM) and a mountain bike race, held under original NORBA rules.
Like the Tour, it was a stage race. Like RAAM, the first Tour was an individual sport, with no cooperation between riders allowed. Like an old NORBA race, riders were completely on their own, required to provide their own support and mechanical assistance.
The 1903 Tour de France was 2468 kilometers (editor: 1534 miles), but involved only six stages. These things were monsters, ranging from the shortest ? Stage 4’s 268km (editor: 167 miles) run from Toulouse to Bordeaux ? to the longest, Stage 6 from Nantes to Paris at 471km (editor: 293 miles). (Obviously, the Tour’s tradition of turning the final stage into a victory parade for the overall leader hadn’t yet taken hold.) Instead of one or two formal rest days as we now see, the 1903 Tour’s stages were separated by gaps of several days. The 1903 Tour began in Paris in July 1 and ended in Paris on July 19.
You can see from the finishing times that things must have been quite different than they are today. Frenchman Maurice Garin won the first Tour, with an impressive time of 94 hours, 33 minutes and 14 seconds. Lucien Pothier finished second, two hours and 49 minutes behind the winner. If you think that’s a substantial time gap, keep in mind that there was a whopping 63-hour gap between the first and 20th-place finishers. They’d obviously not come up with the concept of a time cut, either, leaving attrition to make those calls. Indeed, of the 60 starters, only 21 finished.
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