The Tour de France is an annual multiple stage bicycle race primarily held in France, while also occasionally making passes through nearby countries. The race was first organized in 1903 to increase paper sales for the magazine L’Auto; it is currently run by the Amaury Sport Organisation. The race has been held annually since its first edition in 1903 except when it was stopped for the two World Wars (1915-1919; 1940-1947). As the Tour gained prominence and popularity the race was lengthened and its reach began to extend around the globe. Participation expanded from a primarily French field, as riders from all over the world began to participate in the race each year. The Tour is a UCI World Tour event, which means that the teams that compete in the race are mostly UCI ProTeams, with the exception of the teams that the organizers invite.
The Tour de France, the Giro d’Italia and Vuelta a España make up cycling’s prestigious, three-week-long Grand Tours; the Tour is the oldest and generally considered the most prestigious of the three. Traditionally, the race is held primarily in the month of July. While the route changes each year, the format of the race stays the same with the appearance of time trials, the passage through the mountain chains of the Pyrenees and the Alps, and the finish on the Champs-Élysées in Paris. The modern editions of the Tour de France consist of 21 day-long segments (stages) over a 23-day period and cover around 3,500 kilometres (2,200 mi). The 2014 edition consisted of 9 flat stages, 5 hilly stages, 6 mountain stages with 5 high-altitude finishes, and 1 individual time-trial stage. The race alternates between clockwise and anticlockwise circuits of France.
The number of teams usually varies between 20 and 22, with nine riders in each. All of the stages are timed to the finish; after finishing the riders’ times are compounded with their previous stage times. The rider with the lowest aggregate time is the leader of the race and gets to don the coveted yellow jersey. While the general classification garners the most attention there are other contests held within the Tour: the points classification for the sprinters, the mountains classification for the climbers, young rider classification for riders under the age of 26, and the team classification for the fastest teams.
The Tour originally ran around the perimeter of France. Cycling was an endurance sport and the organisers realised the sales they would achieve by creating supermen of the competitors. Night riding was dropped after the second Tour in 1904, when there had been persistent cheating when judges could not see riders. That reduced the daily and overall distance but the emphasis remained on endurance. Desgrange said his ideal race would be so hard that only one rider would make it to Paris.
A succession of doping scandals in the 1960s, culminating in the death of Tom Simpson in 1967, led the Union Cycliste Internationale to limit daily and overall distances and to impose rest days. It was then impossible to follow the frontiers, and the Tour increasingly zig-zagged across the country, sometimes with unconnected days’ races linked by train, while still maintaining some sort of loop. The modern Tour typically has 21 daily stages and not more than 3,500 km (2,200 mi). The shortest and longest Tours were 2,428 and 5,745 km (1,509 and 3,570 mi) in 1904 and 1926, respectively.
The first organizer was Henri Desgrange, although daily running of the 1903 race was by Lefèvre. He followed riders by train and bicycle. In 1936 Desgrange had a prostate operation. At the time, two operations were needed; the Tour de France was due to fall between them. Desgrange persuaded his surgeon to let him follow the race. The second day proved too much and, in a fever at Charleville, he retired to his château at Beauvallon. Desgrange died at home on the Mediterranean coast on 16 August 1940. The race was taken over by his deputy, Jacques Goddet.
Prize money has always been awarded. From 20,000 old francs the first year, prize money has increased each year, although from 1976 to 1987 the first prize was an apartment offered by a race sponsor. The first prize in 1988 was a car, a studio-apartment, a work of art and 500,000 francs in cash. Prizes only in cash returned in 1990.