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Tour de France: A brief history of cycling's greatest bike race

For three weeks of the year cycling fans put their bikes away and root themselves to their sofas, eyes fixed on their television screens as they watch one of the greatest races of the season play out in front of them. We are, of course, talking about the Tour de France - the one bicycle race that nearly everyone on planet Earth has heard of. But what is this race, why is it so special and why should I sit down to watch it throughout the month of July? Let us tell you…

No prize in the sport of cycling is more iconic than the Tour de France’s yellow jersey. Photo: © Velo Collection (Michael Steele) /Getty Images.

This three-week race is regarded by many as one of the toughest sporting events in the world. With 21 gruelling stages to complete over a 23-day period, adding up to around 3,500km in total, the Tour de France is a race of pure endurance. The winner isn’t necessarily the strongest rider, but rather the one who can survive the most suffering, day after day. Five-time winner of the Tour, Bernard Hinault, summed up just what it takes to win this great race:

“You can’t win without suffering. Whether it’s in the mountains or in a time-trial, you have to spare no effort. You may feel drained at the finish, but the joy of winning helps you forget everything.”


The Tour de France is the oldest stage-race on the cycling calendar and the first real pioneer of multi-day bicycle racing. Its inaugural edition, back in 1903, took place in an attempt to help boost sales of the then failing national newspaper, L’Auto. The Tour’s first director, Henri Desgrange, sent the riders on an intrepid, six-stage tour around the perimeter of France for the race’s first edition. 

Riders were largely self-supported in the early editions of the Tour, embarking on adventures into the unknown with nothing more than a couple of spare tyres around their necks. Photo: "Tour De France 1928" by Numerius is licensed under CC BY-ND 2.0.

This maiden Tour started in Montgeron and finished in Paris, visiting Lyon, Marseille, Toulouse, Bordeaux and Nantes along the way. Many of the stages in this first edition exceeded 400km in length, forcing riders to race throughout the night. The home favourite, Maurice Garin, won this inaugural edition and in doing so etched his name into the cycling history books. The Frenchman, affectionately known as ‘The Little Chimney Sweep’, won the first edition by a massive margin of two hours, 59 minutes and 21 seconds - the largest winning margin in the history of the race.

In the editions that followed the race snowballed in popularity and soon inspired similar races elsewhere in Europe, most notably in Italy with the Giro d’Italia. During these early years Desgrange toyed with the race’s format and in 1910 he sent the race on its first foray into the Pyrenees, setting a precedent that would remain for nearly every edition since. 

He changed the race once again in the 30s when he introduced the concept of national teams, forcing riders to race for their countries rather than their trade teams. After a brief hiatus during World War II the race returned in 1947 under the control of a new chief organiser, Jacques Goddet. Goddet orchestrated the race up until 1986, slowly moulding it into the three-week race we all know and love today. 

Jacques Anquetil (left) dominated during the 60s, winning five Tours, but he didn’t capture the public quite like his great rival, Raymond Poulidor (right), did. Photo: "Poulidor_04" by Chris Protopapas is licensed under CC BY 2.0.

Over these post-war years, each decade has been dominated by a different rider - their names almost as famous as the Tour itself. Jacques Anquetil dominated during the 60s, Eddy Merckx the 70s, Bernard Hinault the 80s and Miguel Indurain the 90s. These four riders also share the record for the largest number of wins in this race, each one having five overall titles to their name.

France dominates the winners list in this race, with 36 wins from 108 editions. Despite topping this list, the home nation has failed to win since 1985 when Hinault took his fifth and final overall title. Several Frenchman have come close over the years - most recently Romain Bardet who placed second in 2016 - but none have managed to bring home the coveted yellow jersey and end the 37-year drought.

It’s France’s sporting rivals, Great Britain, who dominated the race during the last decade. Since 2012, British riders have taken six overall titles with three different riders - Bradley Wiggins (2012), Chris Froome (2013, 2015, 2016 and 2017) and Geraint Thomas (2018). All three of these riders rode for Team Sky during their Tour-winning years, a team that have dominated the Grand Tours for the best part of the last 10 years. In 2019 they won their seventh Tour title in just eight years, this time with the young Colombian, Egan Bernal.

Bernal became Team Sky’s/INEOS’ seventh Tour winner in eight years in 2019, as well as the first ever South American winner of the race. Photo: © Velo Collection (Justin Setterfield) /Getty Images.

Like the other Grand Tours, the Tour de France route changes every year as the organisers dream up new and ever more challenging ways to test the riders. Over the last couple of years the race has subtly evolved, with shorter and more unpredictable stages - akin to those in the Vuelta a España - the new norm. Shorter stages may sound a lot easier than the barbaric, 400km-long stages the riders faced in the inaugural Tour, but in reality they’re not. These shorter stages reduce the quiet moments of the race, forcing riders to be on their toes during every waking moment.

The 2022 route, which is due to start in Copenhagen, Denmark, and finish in Paris, France, is headlined by six summit finishes, two individual time trials and a high-mountain stage that will see the riders grovel their way to the the 2,413m-high summit of the Col du Granon. The rest of the route features hilly stages aplenty, but only a couple of flat stages for the fastmen. In place of sprinting opportunities this year, the organisers have opted for dynamic stages that will suit a wide array of riders and promote aggressive and entertaining racing.

Such a dynamic route is bound to favour the all-rounders and stage racing specialists, those riders that can race against the clock just as fast as they race up steep mountains. Tadej Pogačar, the winner of the last two Tours de France, fits that bill perfectly and will be back this year eager to score his hat-trick. If he does, then he’ll join an elite club of just five other riders - Louison Bobet, Anquetil, Merckx, Indurain and Froome - to have won three Tours in-a-row.

This year’s Tour de France is billed as a two-horse-race between two Slovenian superstars, but we could see some others get involved in the fight for yellow. Photo: © Velo Collection (TDW) /Getty Images.

Winning for a third time isn’t going to be easy however, not with a fully-fit Primož Roglič - runner-up in 2020 - and a stacked INEOS Grenadiers squad also set to line up. Don’t forget the second-tier favourites either, like Aleksandr Vlasov, Enric Mas, Ben O’Connor or Jack Haig. Pogačar has a serious challenge on his hands and one that could prove more difficult to overcome than his challenges in 2020 and 2021. 

Whatever happens on the roads to Paris, we’re sure to witness an entertaining race. Be sure to tune into our daily live coverage in RaceTV between July 1st and July 24th so you don’t miss a moment of the action! Keep an eye out for our ‘Tour de France Mega Guide’ and stage-by-stage previews over the coming weeks too for a detailed look at the routes and favourites for this year’s race.



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