L'Auto Publicity Stunt
The Tour de France started as nothing more than a publicity stunt to sell some newspapers in 1903. At its heart, the Tour remains just that, a vehicle to sell tires, shoes, bikes, telephones and countless other items that the eager sponsors of the teams and the race want to promote.
60 Men and 20K Frances
Journalist Geo Lefevre had dreamt up the fanciful race as a way to boost the circulation of his struggling daily sports newspaper, L’Auto. Henri Desgrange, the director-editor of L’Auto and a former champion cyclist himself, loved the idea of turning France into one giant velodrome. They developed a 1,500-mile clockwise loop around the country.

The starting line:

Stage 1: Montgron - Lyon
Distance: 467 km (290.2 mi)
Top Time: 17h 45' 13"
Winner: Garin

Stage 2: Lyon - Marseille
Distance: 374 km (232.4 mi)
Top Time: 14h 28' 53"
Winner: Aucouturier

Stage 3: Marseille - Toulouse
Distance: 423 km (263 mi)
Top Time: 17h 55' 04"
Winner: Aucouturier

Stage 4: Toulouse - Bordeaux
Distance: 268 km (166.5 mi)
Top Time: 8h 46' 00"
Winner: Laeser

Stage 5: Bordeaux - Nantes
Distance: 425 km (264.1 mi)
Top Time: 16h 26' 31"
Winner: Garin

Stage 6: Nantes - Paris
Distance: 471 km (293 mi)
Top Time: 18h 09' 00"
Winner: Garin

Unlike today’s riders, the cyclists in 1903 rode over unpaved roads without helmets. They rode as individuals, not team members. Riders could receive no help. They could not glide in the slipstream of fellow riders or vehicles of any kind. They rode without support cars. Cyclists were responsible for making their own repairs. They even rode with spare tires and tubes wrapped around their torsos in case they developed flats.


Sleep Riding

And unlike modern-day riders, the cyclists in the 1903 Tour de France, forced to cover enormous swathes of land, spent much of the race riding through the night with moonlight the only guide and stars the only spectators. During the early morning hours of the first stage, race officials came across many competitors “riding like sleepwalkers.”

And Your Winner

Maurice Garin

Twenty-three riders abandoned the first stage of the race, but the one man who barreled through the night faster than anyone else was another pre-race favorite, 32-year-old professional Maurice Garin. The mustachioed French national worked as a chimney sweep as a teenager before becoming one of France’s leading cyclists. Caked in mud, the diminutive Garin crossed the finish line in Lyon a little more than 17 hours after the start outside Paris. In spite of the race’s length, he won by only one minute.


The 1903 Tour de France winner Maurice Garin in his trademark white coat and flat cap.

Maurice Garin after his victory in the first stage

The next year the French cycling union stripped Garin of his title as a result of mysterious allegations of cheating. To win the 1904 Tour de France, Maurice Garin took the train...