When you're learning French, it's hard to miss France's biggest sporting event of the year.
From 6th July this year, a group of elite cyclists will push themselves to the limits of endurance on a route that takes them to all corners of France – as well as passing through Belgium – before crossing the finishing line around three weeks later at the world-famous Champs-Élysées in Paris.
The Tour de France occupies a unique position in the French cultural and sporting landscape. And to non-French, it takes its place alongside all the other well-known images of France that colour our impressions of the country.
If you're interested in the Tour, its history and its cultural significance, here’s everything you need to know about this venerable and revered cycling race.
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The Origins Of The Tour De France
Let’s start by looking at how it all began. The Tour de France is the world’s best-known and most iconic cycling race. There has been a Tour every year since 1903 – apart from a brief hiatus during each of the World Wars.
However, the origins of the race don’t lie in sporting competition but in a rivalry between two sports newspapers, Le Vélo and L’Auto.
At the beginning of the 20th century, the most popular sports paper in France was Le Vélo. L’Auto was a newcomer to the scene, set up in 1899 specifically to challenge the dominance of the older publication.
However, by 1902, things weren’t going according to plan and L’Auto was failing to match the circulation numbers of Le Vélo.
As the story goes, the most junior member of the journalistic team, Géo Lefèvre, proposed the idea of staging a large-scale bicycle race to improve sales at a crisis meeting.
The editor of the paper, Henri Desgrange, was intrigued by the suggestion. So together they began to hatch plans for the first-ever Tour de France.
A Gruelling Ordeal
The first event took place the following year in 1903 and was a gruelling ordeal for the riders, even by today’s standards. There were only six stages. But each one involved an average of 400km of cycling and took up to 18 hours to complete!
To put this into perspective, nowadays, no stage is over 250km, and many are shorter.
A generous purse of 20,000 francs for the winner attracted 60 riders – some professionals, many simply courageous amateurs. But by the end of the first stage, 23 had already dropped out.
The course took riders over unpaved roads. There were no support vehicles. Participants had to repair damaged bicycles by themselves. And they rode in darkness through the night to complete each leg.
At the end of it all, professional French cyclist Maurice Garin won the inaugural Tour de France. And the last-placed rider finished the course over 60 hours behind him.
The Early Years Of The Tour De France
The original Tour had been intended as a one-off. But such was the noise and excitement it created in France that a race was soon organised for the following year. It was marred by underhand tactics – including fans restraining and beating up rival riders under the cover of darkness, participants hitching rides in vehicles at night and more.
Garin, the victor of the previous year, won in the end. But he, along with the second- and third-placed finishers were later disqualified for cheating. This led to the abolition of nighttime riding and the introduction of shorter daytime-only stages the following year.
By the third year of the Tour, it had already become a huge success and an eagerly anticipated event. It also achieved its original aim of challenging Le Vélo, perhaps far more so than anybody at the 1902 meeting could ever have envisioned. Since only journalists from L’Auto could cover the race, sales of the newspaper soared.
By 1908, L’Auto was selling around a quarter of a million copies, up from around only 25,000 before the Tour began. Le Vélo had been soundly defeated. And the newspaper closed its doors forever in 1904. L’Auto later became L’Équipe, a popular sports newspaper in France to this day.
The Tour De France Now
Since those early years, the Tour has evolved into the world’s most famous and prestigious cycling race. Early on, the organisers resisted technology, for example banning the use of gears and insisting on the use of wooden rims.
There were also experiments with awarding points for each leg. Or deciding the winner by calculating the combined time for the whole race.
Nowadays, the combined time is used. And the race leader with the lowest overall time at the start of each leg wears the coveted Yellow Jersey. The race now has 21 stages that take place over 23 days.
Each year, the Tour includes two or three time trials. But it mostly consists of mass-starts where the cyclists all set off together. Of these, the most spectacular to watch and the most challenging to ride are the legs that take place in the mountains of the Pyrenees and the Alps, with several climbs having achieved particular notoriety down the years.
Not all stages are in France, with some also taking place in neighbouring countries.
The Tour De France Jerseys
The Yellow Jersey worn by the overall leader may be the most important and the one every cyclist aspires to. But there are others too.
- The ‘King of the Mountains’, the cyclist who has performed best in the mountain stages of the tour, wears a white jersey with red dots
- The rider who is leading the points competition wears the Green Jersey
This is a classification within the overall Tour, with points being awarded to the first 15 finishers of each stage as well as to the first 15 to cross a designated ‘sprint’ point in each stage.
The 2019 Tour De France
This year, the Grand Depart – the start of the race – is in Brussels for the the second time in the race's history. The 2019 edition will see seven mountain stages and five summit finishes, including Tourmalet, a formidable pass that has featured 82 times, more than any other in the history of the Tour.
The total distance of the race is 3,480km.
The Cultural Significance Of The Tour In France
To outsiders, the Tour de France is something as quintessentially French as the Eiffel Tower or baguettes. But what does it mean to the French themselves?
The first Tour came at an incredibly sensitive time in France’s history. Just over 20 years before, the monarchy had been overthrown for the final time and the Third Republic was established.
Bastille Day was celebrated for the first time in its current form on July 14th 1880. Le Marseillaise had only recently been adopted as the national anthem. And France was searching for national unity and a new identity.
Against this background, such a spectacular event was a source of pride for the French as well as something that could help unite the nation. Early on, most of the riders were French. And seeing Frenchmen perform such superhuman feats on two wheels would also have evoked great feelings of patriotism.
Plus, this was at a time when few people ever travelled beyond the nearest town. And the population began to learn about the geography of France with the Tour maps printed in copies of L’Auto. And take an interest in the rest of their own country.
How The French View The Tour De France Today
The French see The Tour de France as a national institution. Most French will have stories of the times they witnessed the riders pass somewhere close to their homes.
And many will also remember seeing the Tour when they were children. This is mostly due to the Caravan that passes a couple of hours before the cyclists, throwing out small gifts for young spectators to pick up from the floor.
Everyone in France knows when the Tour is taking place, especially thanks to daily TV coverage.
Even for French people who aren't cycling fans, watching the athletes pass through the varied regions of France – from the lush fields of Normandy in the north to the Mediterranean landscapes of the south and taking in the Alps and the Pyrenees in between – is a way of learning about parts of the country they didn’t know before.
Just like when people were fascinated by the maps published in the writeups found in L’Auto in the early days of the Tour!
The Tour de France is one of the three Grand Tours, along with the Giro d’Italia and the Vuelta a España.
- the oldest
- the original
- the most demanding
- the most prestigious
- and of course, it’s French
For all these reasons, the French see it as a source of national pride. And an integral part of the annual cultural calendar in much the same way as Wimbledon is in Britain.
How To Talk About The Tour In French
Here are a few vocabulary items related to the Tour de France that might come in useful if you're planning to go and see a stage in France or just chat to French-speaking friends or family about it.
- Arrivée – the finish line
- Caravane publicitaire – the Caravan, advertising floats that pass a few hours before the riders, throwing out souvenirs for children to pick up
- Chasseurs – chasers (literally ‘hunters’), riders trying to catch up with the leaders
- Col – a mountain pass
- Classement générale – General Classification, the standings in the race according to cumulative times
- Doubler – to overtake
- Étape – stage
- Maillot à pois – the white jersey with red spots worn by the ‘King of the Mountains’
- Grimpeur – literally a ‘climber’, a rider who is a mountain specialist
- Maillot jaune – the Yellow Jersey, worn by the leader of the classement Générale
- Maillot vert – the Green Jersey, worn by the leader of the points competition
- Peleton – the main pack of riders
A Unique French Spectacle
Watching the Tour on TV – or even better travelling there to watch the riders for real – offers a unique insight into the country.
Listening to the commentary and seeing the views of the hugely varied French countryside as the Tour passes through can be extremely inspiring.
And can also help give your motivation to continue learning French a big boost.
Or even be another reason to get started on your French-learning journey.