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Tour de France overview: A newspaperman’s dream to a way of life

Even more than 100 years ago, French newspapers engaged in fierce circulation wars. News scoops were fine, but promotion ruled, and Henri Desgrange one day forged a grandiose idea. He invented the Tour de France and it was held for the first time in 1903.

Today, the Tour de France is the world’s largest free sporting event. Spectators can watch every stage in person and along the entire route, without admission.

Desgrange’s embellishment of of an assistant’s concept — a race around France — was announced in an editorial of L’Auto, a periodical published on yellow newsprint.

Two world wars have interrupted the annual event, but the spectacle created by the publisher, a former track cyclist, remains.

The race’s centenary was held in 2003 and the 97th edition will held July 3-25, beginning in Rotterdam and ending in Paris

Frenchman Cesar Garin won the inaugural Tour de France. Sixty riders participated and pedaled 1,550 miles in 19 days, and there were sometimes several days of rest between the six racing days. Only 21 riders finished. Circulation of the newspaper, L’Auto, doubled and its competitot, Le Velo, folded.

Several years later, L’Auto became L’Equipe, the current daily French sports newspaper.

Since the rece’s debut, cyclists from host nation have won 36 times, but not 1985 when B
ernard Hinault claimed his fifth title. Belgium has had 18 winners and the United States has had three riders combined for 11 overall titles.

Floyd Landis’ victory in 2006 was the 11th by an American, although he was subsequently disqualified for doping offenses. Lance Armstrong won seven consecutive times (1999-2005) and Greg LeMond won the race three times (1988, 1989-90.)

As per tradition, each year’s course is announced in the previous October. The exact mileage of the Tour changes each year, but usually it’s around 2,200 miles and includes 20 stages and one or two rest days. The field is usually comprised of 20 teams, 16 automatic selections based on world rankings and four at-large teams selected by the race organization.

Race organziers, the event is owned and operated by Amaury Sport Organization, can add teams and alter the route.

Riders compete on international trade teams, not for their countries. Teams usually riders from several countries, and usually cyclists from an estimated two-dozen countries participate in the race. The cyclists can encounter rain to snow and temperatures near freezing to more than 90 degrees.

On harrowing, narrow descents, speeds can approach 60 mph, and while climbing, the field can encounter more than 10-mile ascents with average grades of more than eight percent. The most severe climbs are called hors categorie or beyond category. And the cyclists with the lowest cumulative time wins.

The French and other European countries are passionate about the sport. They line the course, write the names of their favorite riders in chalk or paint on the asphalt along the course. Families treat the race as celebration. About 90 minutes before each stage, a caravan of publicity vehicles distributes sponsors’ trinkets to the spectators, who scramble for the stuff while waiting for the cyclists to arrive.