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The First Tour de France in 1903

Updated: Apr 15


The winning scene at the finish of the first Tour. In the middle on the right: the winner, Maurice Garin, to his left: most likely Leon Georget.

The 1903 Tour de France marked the inaugural cycling race organized and sponsored by L'Auto, predecessor of the present-day daily, L'Équipe. Spanning from July 1 to 19, it comprised six stages covering a distance of 2,428 km (1,509 mi), with Maurice Garin emerging victorious.


Conceived to bolster L'Auto's readership amidst competition from Le Vélo, the race was initially slated for June but was postponed by a month due to a lack of entrants. Prize money was increased to attract participants. Unlike modern Grand Tours, the 1903 edition featured fewer but significantly longer stages. Cyclists were not obligated to compete in all six stages, although doing so was necessary for general classification eligibility.


The riders get ready to start. Note that what constitutes effective cycle clothing hadn’t been settled.

Pre-race favourite Maurice Garin dominated, winning the first stage and maintaining his lead throughout. He secured victory in the final two stages, finishing with a commanding three-hour margin over his closest rival. L'Auto's circulation soared more than sixfold during and after the race, affirming its success and prompting a rerun in 1904, following the demise of Le Vélo.


Cyclists had one to three rest days between each stage, and the route was largely flat, with only one stage featuring a significant mountain. The cyclists were not grouped in teams but raced as individuals

Cyclists competed individually, paying a fee of ten francs for overall classification or five francs per stage. With stages commencing before dawn due to their length, the final leg even started at 21:00 the night before.

While the inaugural Tour de France didn't feature mountain passes, it included several lesser cols like the col du Pin-Bouchain and col de la République.

The first kilometre in the history of the Tour de France.

Pacing by hired cyclists was banned by Desgrange, although initially allowed for the final stage before being rescinded. Stewards ensured riders completed the full route, and the leader was identified by a green armband, as the yellow jersey wasn't yet introduced.

Prizes were awarded to the top eight cyclists per stage and the top fourteen in the general classification, with additional compensation for all finishers based on daily performance and overall speed.

The finish in Bordeaux, which saw the first-ever foreign winner of a stage, the Swiss Charles Laeser.

Unlike modern stage races, cyclists who abandoned during a stage could restart the next stage, though they'd be ineligible for the general classification. Hippolyte Aucouturier, who withdrew in the first stage, returned and won the second and third stages. Charles Laeser, victorious in the fourth stage, hadn't finished the third stage.



Out of the sixty starters, primarily professionals or semi-professionals, 49 were French, with the remainder comprising 4 Belgians, 4 Swiss, 2 Germans, and one Italian. Twenty-one were sponsored by bicycle manufacturers, while 39 entered independently. Additionally, 24 cyclists participated in specific stages, with varying entries across stages.


Maurice Garin, in his trademark white coat and flat cap racing in the 1903 Tour.

Maurice Garin and Hippolyte Aucouturier were the top contenders for victory in the pre-race predictions. Garin asserted his dominance from the outset, clinching the first stage—a grueling 471 km journey from Paris to Lyon. Starting at 15:16, cyclists initially maintained a brisk pace of 35 km/h. However, the challenges emerged early, with the first abandonments occurring after just 50 km. By 23:00, Garin and Emile Pagie led the race, reaching the Nevers control point with expectations to conclude by 8:00 the next morning.

Maurice Garin is greeted by enthusiastic fans.

Overnight, Aucouturier, Garin's primary rival, suffered stomach cramps, forcing him to retire from the stage. Meanwhile, Jean Fischer violated regulations by employing a car as a pacer. Despite setbacks, Pagie persisted after falling but was unable to maintain pace with Garin, who ultimately crossed the Lyon finish line one minute ahead around 9:00 in the morning.

Leon Georget signs in under the watchful eye of an official. To minimize cheating riders signed in a stops along each stage.

Despite Aucouturier's withdrawal from the first stage, rendering him ineligible for the general classification, he was permitted to continue in subsequent stages. In the second stage, he claimed victory in the sprint. However, in the third stage, separate start times were implemented, with Aucouturier among those vying for the general classification. Although he finished 27 minutes after the leading group, his adjusted time secured him the stage win.

Willie Hume.

Meanwhile, Garin maintained his lead, benefitting from Pagie's crash in the second stage, which eliminated him from contention. However, Aucouturier's bid for a third consecutive stage win was thwarted in the fourth stage when he was caught using a car's slipstream, resulting in his disqualification. Swiss cyclist Charles Laeser, who had abandoned in the third stage, seized victory, becoming the first non-French winner.

The winner Maurice Garin.

As Garin continued to dominate, Émile Georget faced setbacks in the fifth stage, enduring two flat tires and even falling asleep during a roadside rest, failing to finish the stage. Garin extended his lead by winning this stage, despite controversy arising from his tactics to secure victory. The final stage, the longest at 471 km, concluded in Ville-d'Avray instead of the Parc des Princes velodrome due to local regulations. Garin clinched his third stage win, sealing overall victory with an impressive lead of 2 hours 59 minutes 31 seconds—the largest margin in Tour de France history. The riders, upon reaching Ville-d'Avray, proceeded to the Parc des Princes, where they completed several laps of honour, concluding the race amidst a large crowd gathered to witness the event.

The 1903 Tour de France winner Maurice Garin.

The Tour de France's impact on L'Auto was profound, with a special edition of 130,000 copies produced post-race, and regular circulation surging from 25,000 to 65,000. The overwhelming success ensured the race's return in 1904, solidifying the cyclists' status as national icons. Maurice Garin, the reigning champion, aimed for a repeat victory in 1904 but faced disqualification. Despite this setback, Garin's winnings from the 1903 race, totalling 6,075 francs (equivalent to approximately $40,000 and £23,000 in 2006 values), enabled him to invest in a petrol station, where he worked for the remainder of his life.


Maurice Garin pictured after his victory in the first stage.

 


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