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French Cycling Culture Essay

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Updated: Dec 28th, 2019

History of Tour de France

According to Thompson the history of this great race takes us back to the period in the late nineteenth century. During this period there was dramatic change within the country following the collapse of the second empire (7). A new third republic was proclaimed and with it major changes began to emerge within society in France.

For the working class who were either unable or unwilling to flee German troops the new regime represented an opportunity for social democracy under the commune (Thomson 7).

For conservative citizens of the country, the military debacle, foreign invasion and political vacuum due to Napoleons III’s abdication faith in the republic had been rattled. The French president would later send troops to Paris ending the experiment on self government (Thompson 7).

Following this there was rapid progress in changes to legislation within the country resulting in promotion of patriotism and unity between all regions, social classes and political convictions (Thompson 8).

In addition to this the country busied itself with expanding its railroad network deep into the French countryside. During this period the nation’s urban architecture also changed significantly and the great steel and glass architecture of the period spawned monumental structures like the Eiffel Tower (Thomson 8).

It was also during this period that inventors and entrepreneurs began to promote new locomotive technologies such as the bicycle, automobile and airplane. These new technologies challenged the traditional conceptions of time and space. The era was characterized by International exhibitions where the country would present to the world a self confident image of accomplishment, flair and technological know-how (Thompson 8).

The middle class within the country was expanding at a very rapid rate and saw the introduction of mail order shopping supported by the growing railroad network (Thompson 9).

Just as it may be assumed that mass consumption of goods was a part of this era, so too was the mass consumption of leisure. Changes in legislation saw a reduction in the number of working hours coupled with an increase in wages (Thompson 9). This prompted enterprising business people to venture into modern forms of entertainment such as wax figures, music halls and the first movie theaters.

However, it is noted that no form of entertainment and leisure appealed to people more than sport (Thompson 9). The French participated in several sports including gymnastics, soccer, tennis, rugby and track and field. However, no sport captured their imagination, time, energy or discretionary as much as cycling (Thompson 9).

This prompted the political optimists and individuals profiting from the changes to equate the change with progress and the promise of a greater future for the nation (Thompson 9).

Some even saw sort as a very likely candidate for national regeneration following the effects of the war with Germany and the political and social divisions in the country. During the period the bicycle came to symbolize both the promise of modernity and the inherent dangers associated with it.

Following this several inventors busied themselves with the development and improvement of bicycles. During this period numerous changes were made to the machines including the introduction of spokes connecting the hub to the rim (Thompson 10). In addition to this was the innovation of the free wheel made possible through the use of ball bearings.

In this era also, changes were made that resulted in the production of a less precarious bicycle than the Penny Farthing (Thompson 10). Primitive wooden wheels were also gradually replaced by solid rubber wheels and eventually hollow rubber tires (Thompson 10). It is based on these refinements that the initial dangerous machines were refined into comfortable and reliable machines (Thompson 10).

Following these developments and road races on bicycles soon became a popular event in France. In light of this growing popularity the cycling and sports enthusiasts created new opportunity for clothing designers, newspapers and bicycle shops (Thompson 17). According to Saviola, this prompted the French cyclist and journalist Henri Desgrange to begin initial efforts to initiate the race in 1903 (Saviola 7).

Desgrange was appointed to head the newspaper in 1900 when he was only thirty five years old. Though a trained solicitor by profession he was also an avid cyclist who had obtained an amateur cyclists license (Thompson 19).

Following this achievement he trained persistently and rose among the ranks within the cycling industry to become a manger of one of the popular velodromes in Paris. Throughout this period he would be a contributor of articles to newspapers and magazines.

Prior to this a former assistant of a competing newspaper, L’Auto-Velo, had joined Desgrange’s staff and had presented a novel idea to him over a lunch meeting. The assistant had noted that the main reason for the popularity of the L’Auto-Velo news paper was due to the immensely popular automobile races they organized (Thompson 17).

Using this information it became apparent to Desgrange that the best way to beat his competitor was by organizing an even larger and more prestigious event. The main aim of this event was to draw more readers from the L’Auto-Velo to Le Velo (Thompson 17).

The two then began to consider a Tour de France that would be organized to be covered in stages with rest days in between. To earn his new bosses trust the assistant began to develop a six day track race where racers covered hundreds of kilometers daily for almost a week.

He had noted that large provinces had been asking to be included in the itinerary for events including the best racers and were willing to support the Tour de France (Thompson 18).

After managing to convince the newspaper treasurer to support the idea, Desgrange was eventually won over and the paper began earnest plans to launch the race the following summer. At the same time the owner of the L’Auto-Velo had take the Le Velo newspaper to court of allegations of infringement. In his argument, he stated that the second term in the name of the newspaper constituted infringement.

He won the court case and in 1903 the Le Velo newspaper was renamed L’Auto (Thompson 18). This would not impede the success of the Tour de France and the new newspaper would soon become dominant in the French sports press. The route for the Tour is best illustrated in a map of France drawn by Francesca Paoletti as it illustrates the highlights the route takes through the French countryside (See Appendix A).

Reasons for the Rivalry between Le Velo and L’Auto-Velo

The main reasons for L’Auto-Velo’s desire to bring down Le Velo can be attributed to economic and political considerations. It has been noted that L’Auto-Velo was financed by a powerful automobile manufacturer (Thompson 18).

By the turn of the century the papers had become fierce rivals due to the major following the Le Velo had garnered and its competitive advertising rates. In addition to this, it has been noted that the commercials takes were very high with the main financer of L’Auto-Velo accounting for 15% of the French automobile market (Thompson 18).

In addition to that the Le Velo was a major political irritant. This can be seen in the Dreyfus affair where the papers both took the same side in their analysis of the matter.

It should be noted that this did not sit well with some of the financiers of the L’Auto-Velo paper who strongly felt the paper was to be none aligned in political matters (Thompson 18). Following a humiliating defeat in politics Giffard’s rivals would capitalize on the situation and launch the L’Auto-Velo newspaper.

Famous Cyclists

In discussing some of the famous cyclists that have participated in the Tour de France the discussion will also go into some of the details of how the race is ran.

For example it has been reported that it is traditional for the first week of the Tour de France to cover several consecutive days of flat stages (Liggett, Raia and Lewis). This stage of the race is best suited for sprinters. These are cyclists who have the ability to quickly accelerate their bicycles to speeds of above 40 Mph (65 Kph).

These sprinters are usually the most muscular looking and opportunistic cyclists involved in the race. During these flats stages riders compete strategically based on the flow of the day. The team will move slow if the group is unmotivated and fast if spirited (Liggett, Raia and Lewis). It has been noted that as the race enters the final miles it has been observed that each team attempts to surround their sprinter.

It has often been argued that Mario Cipollini of Italy is the greatest sprinter in cycling history. Due to his flamboyance, charisma and outspoken personality he managed to rule the sprints in the Tour de France and the Tour of Italy for over a decade (Liggett, Raia and Lewis).

He won the world championship road race in 2002 but has built a reputation from his furious sprint finishes. He has reportedly won 12 stages of the Tour de France and 42 stages of the Tour of Italy (Liggett, Raia and Lewis).

Another category of riders that are within the pack are the rouleurs. This category is often largely out of the limelight but constitute the greater percentage of the cyclists in the Tour de France (Liggett, Raia and Lewis).

This category includes riders with the ability to maintain a steady and strong pace for several hours. It has been reported that on windy days, rainy days ad any other day this category have the most thankless duty of setting the pace for the race (Liggett, Raia and Lewis).

This category often forms the biggest percentage of a team’s riders. Their duty includes going to the head of the pack and acting as wind breaks. As the cyclists who control the mood of the race their contribution is invaluable yet their individual time for glory is rare (Liggett, Raia and Lewis). This group expends the most energy on the team since they do not have the benefit of drafting.

Frankie Andreu of Michigan is among the most popular rouleurs. He has completed the Tour de France nine times and holds the current American record for finishes (Liggett, Raia and Lewis). He retired in 2000 following 12 years of professional cycling packed with hard work.

He managed to accomplish a second place finish in a Tour de France stage. He managed eighth position in the 1988 Seoul Olympic road race and fourth position in the 1996 Olympic rod race in Atlanta (Liggett, Raia and Lewis).

Another category of riders that will be considered is that of the time trial specialists. In the time trials the cyclists compete rider against rider and cyclists advance based on their own skills. These races are often referred to as the Race of Truth (Liggett, Raia and Lewis).

In these races, the best racers master an ability to pedal at a sustained high rate of speed without exceeding their individual cardio vascular limits. For this reason time trialists and the bikes they ride represent the epitome of cycling efficiency (Liggett, Raia and Lewis).

In these races everything is state of the art. The equipment used is aero dynamic and designed for maximum performance. For this reason teams spend countless hours and money on development and refinement of equipment (Liggett, Raia and Lewis). In this category of riders one great name is that of Greg LeMond.

He became the first American to win the Tour de France in 1986. He later returned to the race in 1989 and recorded a monumental victory. In this race he used two novel approaches to win the race in the closest finish in the history of the Tour (Liggett, Raia and Lewis).

His first approach was to decline to receive his time recordings and opted to ride the race based on his feelings. He also used triathlete handle bars that allowed him an aerodynamic tuck. These strategies allowed him to narrow his time deficiency and win the Tour by eight seconds (Liggett, Raia and Lewis).

A discussion on the Tour de France would not be compete without mentioning one of the most popular racers to ever be associated with the Tour, Lance Armstrong. As a professional cyclist he first managed to win the Tour in 1999 amid stiff competition.

During this race the first eight stages had been characterized by a back and forth struggle among the contenders. However, in the ninth stage, an exceptionally difficult stage characterized by an especially difficult climb, Lance Armstrong managed to come out victorious (Bradley 25).

This sudden ascension to the front of the pack would offer the much needed confidence that allowed him to triumph despite the fact that there were still eight stages of the race. He built a comfortable lead and won the race at least seven minutes ahead of the closest contender (Bradley 26). The following year he would again return to the field in exceptional form to reclaim the Tour de France title in 2000 (Bradley 32).

In the year 2001 he was contracted with cancer and began to receive treatment for the ailment. This did not deter him from participating in the Tour in 2001. Victory in this race would not come easy for the two time champion who had fallen to 23rd position by the 10th stage of a 20 stage race (Doeden 1). He would have to use curious techniques to bluff the competition to gain an advantage.

Following this bluff he managed to fall into second position and eventually won the race to manage three consecutive Tour de France titles (Doeden 5). By the end of an illustrious career he would take the title a record six times (Bannon and Moyer 69).


The Tour de France has become so popular in France that the month of July would not be the same without this major event taking place. However, in recent times there has been concern over the changes observed with regard to the popularity of the event. Part of the reason for this is due to what appears to be a trend towards doping among the professional participants of the race (Thompson xvi).

The Tour successfully managed to survive the drug related death of English racer Tom Simpson which occurred in 1967. The crisis with regard to doping again reared its head in 1978 and 1998 (Thompson xvi). These events have contributed in part to the reduction in popularity of the Tour and there is a need to consider whether they can have a lasting impact on the race.

It has been reported that for a long period the physical endurance that the race requires has allowed participating athletes to become established a role models within society.

In addition to this it has been noted that due to the financial incentive and competitive essence of the Tour, several racers have resorted to drugs to ease the suffering and improve their cycling prowess (Thompson xvii). This trend has continued to damage the image of the sort and the race with incidents continually being reported (Thompson xx).

Information related to doping has continued to damage the public perception in relation to the Tour. An example of this is seen in articles that were published that allegedly proved the fact that Lance Armstrong used banned drugs to win the 1999 Tour de France (Pampel 209).

The article goes further to articulate why the substance managed to pass the test by the World Doping Agency. The presence and continual emergence of such incidents and information has seriously damaged the public perception in relation to the Tour.

Additional information

It goes without saying that the Tour de France is among the most popular sporting events in France. However, the French are also reported to be passionate lovers of the outdoors aside from their love of competitive cycling.

This is seen in the fact that the French Cycling Federation (FFC) has only about 100,000 members countrywide. This is in sharp contrast to the fact that almost 30% (approx. 18 million) of the French population ride a bike occasionally (Andreff and Szymanski 398). This goes to support reports that indicate bicycles are considered special in most European industrialized countries.

The above fact comes into play because bikes can be used as an instrument for either transportation or sport. This makes the bicycle perennial and not easily substituted. It has been reported that due to this culture French bicycle producers sell between 2 and 3 million machines annually (Andreff and Szymanski 398). Many of the riders cycle for recreation purposes.

In addition to recreational cycling activities it is reported that touring the French countryside on bicycles is a very popular affair. There are plenty of accommodation facilities in the country that cater for cycling tourists. These include chateaus, village hostelry, to mention a few. These facilities come in a wide variety and are aimed to facilitate suitable accommodation for travelers on various budgets (Gelber 409).

In addition to hotel rooms the country has a large number of camping and caravan parks which are frequented by cycling tourists (Gelber 409). In the rural areas the tourists are also likely to find Gites or Chambres d’Hotes, which refer to wide range of accommodation in the rural areas (Gelber 410). There are also hostels, hotels and refuges all aimed at ensuring travelers on the trail have access to safe and suitable accommodation.

Works Cited

Andreff, Wladimir, and Stefan Szymanski. Handbook on the economics of sport. Cheltenham: Edward Elgar Publishing Limited, 2006. Print.

Bannon, Joseph J., and Susan M. Moyer. Lance Armstrong: Six-Time Tour de France Champion. Austin: Austin American-Statesman, 2004. Print.

Bradley, Michael. Lance Armstrong. White Plains, NY: Benchmark Books, 2005. Print.

Doeden, Matt. Lance Armstrong. Minneapolis: Lerner Publications Company, 2006. Print.

Gelber, Ethan. Cycling France. Victoria: Lonely Planet, 2009. Print.

Liggett, Phil, James Raia, and Sammarye Lewis. Tour de France for Dummies. Hoboken, NJ: Wiley Publishing Inc., 2005. Print.

McGann, Bill, and Carol McGann. The story of the tour de France: How a newspaper promotion became the greatest sporting event in the world, Volume I: 1903-1964. Indianapolis: Dog Ear Publishing, 2006. Print.

Pampel, Fred C. Drugs and Sports. New York: Facts on File Inc., 2007. Print.

Thompson, Christopher S. The Tour de France: a Cultural History. Berkeley: University of California Press, 2008. Print.

Saviola, Joseph A. The Tour de France: solving addition problems involving regrouping. Printed in the USA: Rosen Classroom, 2004. Print.

Appendix: Map of France

Map of France

(McGann and McGann viii)

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