Tuesday, August 06, 2002

The Entrepreneurial Origins of the Tour de France

Last night I upgraded my Dish satellite service so I can get the Outdoor Life Network, home to Tour de France coverage in the U.S. The first thing I did was watch a show on the history of the Tour and learned that it was started by a newspaper (L'Auto) as a means to promote its coverage of the popular sport of cycling. Apparently, L'Auto was on the short end of a lawsuit, which prohibited the paper from using the word "bicycle" in its title. L'Auto's nemesis was a newspaper called Le Velo (The Bicycle), and the Tour became so popular that L'Auto crushed Le Velo.

The early Tour was brutal, and not just because the riders were doing 17-hour stages. According the BBC's history, "Fans left nails in the road in front of their favourites' rivals while competitors themselves riders took car trips and even train rides." This almost killed the Tour, but the sponsors (and cyclists) persisted. The dramatic mountain stages were added in 1910. No one was sure whether the riders could actually climb the Pyrenees or the Alps. But they did.

By the way, L'Auto was printed on yellow paper. So when journalists asked Tour director Henri Desgrange to make it easier to spot the leader, he came up with the idea of placing a yellow jersey on the leader at the beginning of each stage.