The First Tour de France

Sixty Cyclists and Nineteen Days of Daring on the Road to Paris


By Peter Cossins

Formats and Prices




$50.00 CAD


  1. Hardcover $40.00 $50.00 CAD
  2. ebook $3.99
  3. Audiobook Download (Unabridged)

This item is a preorder. Your payment method will be charged immediately, and the product is expected to ship on or around June 6, 2017. This date is subject to change due to shipping delays beyond our control.

From its inception, the 1903 Tour de France was a colorful affair. Full of adventure, mishaps and audacious attempts at cheating, it was a race to be remembered.

Cyclists of the time weren’t enthusiastic about participating in this “heroic” race on roads more suited to hooves than wheels, with bikes weighing up to thirty-five pounds, on a single fixed gear, for three full weeks. Assembling enough riders for the race meant paying unemployed amateurs from the suburbs of Paris, including a butcher, a chimney sweep and a circus acrobat. From Maurice “The White Bulldog” Garin, an Italian-born Frenchman whose parents were said to have swapped him for a round of cheese in order to smuggle him into France as a fourteen-year-old, to Hippolyte Aucouturier, who looked like a villain from a Buster Keaton movie with his jersey of horizontal stripes and handlebar moustache, the cyclists were a remarkable bunch.

Starting in the Parisian suburb of Montgeron, the route took the intrepid cyclists through Lyon, over the hills to Marseille, then on to Toulouse, Bordeaux, and Nantes, ending with great fanfare at the Parc des Princes in Paris. There was no indication that this ramshackle cycling pack would draw crowds to throng France’s rutted roads and cheer the first Tour heroes. But they did; and all thanks to a marketing ruse, cycling would never be the same again.



Descriptions of Marseille–Paris and each of the six stages of the 1903 Tour de France are based on details, comments and quotes reported in contemporary newspapers and magazines.



The keen and the curious begin to congregate from midday. By one o'clock, when the riders start to emerge from the roadside barn that has been set aside as their dressing room, allowing them some privacy as they change and have a final massage, the heat is oppressive, almost unbearable. There's hardly a breath of wind. Dust billowing up from the construction work on the Paris–Corbeil railway line hangs in the still air.

The race organisers had been praying for a good crowd, certainly more than the few hundred who are milling about in and around the Auberge du Réveil-Matin. That's more than enough to keep the proprietor, Monsieur Renard, and his staff far busier than they would normally be on a Wednesday lunchtime, but it hardly bodes well for the inaugural Tour de France. Henri Desgrange and his editorial team have been building the new race up for weeks in the pages of L'Auto, and necessarily so. If it doesn't succeed, there won't be a second, and L'Auto won't survive for much longer either.

The race officials have set up the control point for the start inside the cafe. Riders must register here over the next 90 minutes in order to compete. The first to sign in is 20-year-old Parisian Henri Ellinamour, who is handed a green armband bearing the number 64 by official starter Alphonse Steinès. He is closely followed by another rider from the capital, Léon Pernette, who walks away with his armband and square of red cloth with the number 44, which he secures to the top tube and seat tube of his bike with rubber straps.

As more riders arrive, the smell of embrocation becomes impossible to ignore. After signing in, they carry out their final preparations for the start, pressing spare parts into the square leather bags hanging from their handlebars, wrapping replacement tubes and tyres around their shoulders, always keeping their machines within eyesight to prevent sabotage, which is not unknown. This done, most flop down on their backs to rest. Two gendarmes survey them from their horses. They are almost redundant as the spectators who have been tempted out by 'the greatest race the world has ever seen' are hardly in a frenzy as they take shelter from the sun in the shade offered by the twin line of poplars lining the Avenue de Paris as it heads away from Villeneuve-Saint-Georges towards Montgeron.

Many of those gathered beneath the trees are amateur cyclists who have turned up on their bikes with the intention of following the professionals for as long as possible. Among them is a young man who has been making a name for himself in amateur races around Paris. Eugène Christophe is currently an apprentice locksmith on the Rue Chaton, but will go on to have a very illustrious future on the bike and will eventually be remembered for repairing his forks in a forge at the foot of the Col du Tourmalet in the 1913 Tour and, in 1919, for being the first rider ever to wear the race's yellow jersey.

In his diary later that evening, Christophe will write dismissively: 'The greatest bike race the world has ever seen? It was more like a fourth-category race. There was hardly anyone there. Where were all the cars? It looked more like the start of an amateur race to me. These guys may be among the biggest names we know but they looked like riders who had won their first inter-club race…'



A meeting between two friends in a cell at the Prison de la Santé in Paris's 14th arrondissement provided the surprising impetus for the foundation of the Tour de France. It took place in June 1899, a few days after the city witnessed a series of events that had almost cost the nation's president his life, had threatened the survival of the Third Republic, and provoked headlines across the world.

The man brought up from one of La Santé's 500 cells was a most unlikely prisoner. Jules Félix Philippe Albert de Dion de Wandonne was better known as Count de Dion, a French noble and co-founder in 1883 of the De Dion-Bouton automobile company that had become the world's biggest manufacturer by the end of the nineteenth century, producing the sum total of 400 cars a year. A tall, solidly built and very imposing figure with a thick moustache waxed to perfect horizontal tips, de Dion was serving a 15-day sentence for attempting to assault the president of the French Republic, Émile Loubet, during a demonstration at the Auteuil racecourse in Paris.

The count's visitor was journalist Pierre Giffard, a columnist on the best-selling Le Petit Journal newspaper and editor of Le Vélo, the leading sports title of the era. Giffard, who favoured an upward tweak on his equally luxuriant moustache, wanted to explain why he had written an opinion piece condemning de Dion's behaviour for Le Petit Journal and subsequently rerun it within the green-coloured pages of his own paper.

Brought together by their love of automobiles, these two prominent men were very vocal proponents of radically opposed camps on the main political issue of the moment, the Dreyfus Affair. This stemmed from the conviction in 1894 of French artillery officer Captain Alfred Dreyfus on a charge of treason after military secrets had been passed to the German embassy in Paris. Although evidence of the Jewish officer's innocence subsequently came to light, high-ranking officers suppressed it, leading to widespread accusations of anti-Semitism, as well as demands for a retrial and Dreyfus's release.

The accession of Dreyfusard Loubet to the presidency in February 1899 following the death of Félix Faure proved the turning point in the affair. The new president instigated a review of the case, which led to Dreyfus's release from the notorious Devil's Island penal colony after four years of hard labour. But his actions also infuriated de Dion and the ardent nationalists in the self-styled League of Patriots who believed that the army must be backed in every eventuality and that France was under threat from people they regarded as subversives. Loubet's appearance at the Auteuil racecourse provided them with a chance to voice their dismay.

Initially vocal, the protest quickly took on a more threatening edge. The Associated Press described how Baron Christiani 'raised his cane to strike the president with all his might. The blow was averted by General Balloud, and the cane, descending on M. Loubet's hat, crushed it down, forcing it over his face like a candle extinguisher.'

After half a dozen gendarmes had rescued Christiani from a severe roughing up at the fists of irate Loubet supporters 'with blood spurting from his nose', de Dion barrelled in, swinging his cane, its jewel-encrusted end breaking off after making contact with another officer's head. 'He was promptly arrested, but his arrest was an excuse to his friends to cry, "Resign", "Down with traitors, Jews and Dreyfusards",' AP reported, adding that Loubet was 'pale and greatly cut up, but firm', and that several ladies in his party had fainted.

De Dion was happy to receive his friend in La Santé even though their political differences had been so clearly underlined. 'He was a journalist of talent with whom I was on very good terms, because we were both fervent defenders of the automobile', he said of Giffard. 'During his visit he explained his opinion to me and told me that when it came to automobiles he would remain my friend and ally, but that in politics I would find in him a committed rival.'

Freed from La Santé, de Dion soon demonstrated that he shared Giffard's double-edged approach to their friendship. In March 1900, Giffard stood for election for the parliamentary seat of Yvetot and was tipped for a clear win. Yet in the run-up to the vote, Count de Dion had copies of Giffard's La Fin du ChevalThe End of the Horse–distributed throughout the constituency. In it, Giffard had written about his discovery of the bicycle, how it had changed his life for the better and how, crucially in this instance, it would replace the horse in rural areas. This message did not sit well in an agricultural constituency set in the heart of rural Normandy. 'It had a magical effect and, on the day of the vote, a certain majority was transformed into a resounding defeat,' de Dion crowed gleefully.

But the defeated man had his revenge. 'Giffard couldn't forgive me and decided he would no longer mention my name in his paper and banned absolutely any kind of publicity for the De Dion-Bouton brand, which bore the brunt of the grudge that he felt towards me,' Count de Dion said. 'Due to the fact that Le Vélo had a large readership, the decision was bound to have a severe impact on the De Dion-Bouton company. It was as a result of this concern that I decided to establish a newspaper to rival Le Vélo.'

That newspaper was L'Auto-Vélo, and this account fits the standard narrative of its founding, which stresses the political conflict arising from the furore over Dreyfus and the anti-Semitism so evident in that affair. However, as de Dion suggested, while political issues were key to the founding of L'Auto-Vélo, and, in turn, the Tour de France, commercial factors were also highly significant, arguably even more so.

In that period before the mass production of motor vehicles, manufacturers like De Dion-Bouton depended absolutely on sales to those with the money and time to indulge what was still a very exclusive and expensive passion for motoring. One of the best ways to reach out to them, although its title may suggest otherwise, was through Le Vélo's pages. Branded as 'the daily journal for all sports', it had, since its foundation in 1892, focused heavily on motorsport and the latest developments in vehicle production, building up a circulation of 80,000. De Dion needed to reach these readers, and he wasn't the only one.

Several other key players in the nascent automobile industry, notably Adolphe Clément, Louis Renault and Édouard and André Michelin, felt that Le Vélo's coverage was becoming skewed towards the rival automobile company headed by Alexandre Darracq, who had started out producing bicycles under the Gladiator name in the early 1890s. Darracq both financed Le Vélo and spent considerable amounts promoting his vehicles in its pages to its wealthy readers. Consequently, as Darracq's share of the burgeoning car market blossomed, it was inevitable that his rivals would establish a title through which they could talk up their own vehicles.

They sought out a man they felt could turn a new title into Le Vélo's principal rival, and didn't have to look far to find him. Henri Desgrange had already worked in Clément's publicity department. He had subsequently established a reputation as one of the most forward-thinking businessman in France's thriving cycling industry.

One of twin boys born in 1865 to wood company owner and architect Jacques Desgrange and Marie Hortense Beaurens, Desgrange was working as a notary's clerk in Paris when he witnessed cycle racing for the first time. In 1891, he was among the crowd that watched the finale of the first edition of Bordeaux–Paris, won by Englishman George Pilkington Mills. Inspired by the intrepidness of the riders who had covered the 600 kilometres in little more than 24 hours, Desgrange bought a bike and started training on the roads between Versailles and Paris. 'I couldn't go to Versailles without thinking that Mills, the giant of Bordeaux–Paris, had passed the same way as me,' he wrote.

By 1893, Desgrange was well known on the Paris cycling scene. A regular contributor to a number of cycling periodicals, he set the first UCI-recognised mark for the World Hour Record that same year, completing 35.325km on the Buffalo track, so called because it was located at the place where William 'Buffalo Bill' Cody's Western show had set up camp when it had performed in Paris.

Sitting upright on a bike that weighed between 12–13kg and was fitted with spongey tyres that were a mighty 45mm wide and not fully inflated, Desgrange's effort looks rather feeble when compared to the 54.526km achieved by Sir Bradley Wiggins at the London Olympic Velodrome in June 2015. But it was groundbreaking at the time as the Frenchman was an amateur and consequently prohibited from riding with pace-makers, as professional racers almost always did in that era.

Desgrange went on to set a number of other distance records on the track over the next two seasons, but gained a greater reputation as a coach and race organiser. In 1894, he wrote a training guide, La Tête et Les Jambes (The Head and the Legs), directing copious and often very severe advice towards his 15-year-old self. He also served as director of the riders' union, was a member of the French cycling federation's (UVF) sporting commission and had overseen the running of two Paris velodromes, a third in Bordeaux and advised on the construction of a fourth in Madrid. He was also one of the main contributors to the magazine Le Véloce Sport de Bicyclette, wrote occasionally for Giffard's Le Vélo and had produced a cycling-related novel.

In 1897, with velodromes springing up all over France as entrepreneurs realised the financial possibilities of providing a programme of races to paying audiences that were often many thousands strong, Desgrange and business partner Victor Goddet financed and directed the construction of the Parc des Princes track, a groundbreaking venue thanks to its 666.66-metre ring of cement that was twice as long as most tracks. Dismissed by Le Vélo as too big and too far from the centre of Paris, the Parc was a great success, attracting huge crowds to watch the best riders of the era. Very much a man of the belle époque, that period between the Franco–Prussian War and the Great War which was characterised by peace and optimism that boosted economic, technological and cultural innovation, particularly among the moneyed classes, Desgrange sensed opportunities at every turn in cycling and sought them out.

On a clear April morning in 1900, Desgrange and Goddet made their way to Count de Dion's offices on the Avenue de la Grande Armée, often described as 'L'Avenue du Cycle' because of the number of bike shops along the grand tree-lined spoke that runs down from the hub of Étoile with the Arc de Triomphe at its centre. De Dion presented them with a simple proposal: would they consider establishing and managing a title to rival Le Vélo? Desgrange was tempted but uncertain. While keen to avenge that paper's dismissal of the Parc des Princes, which had been compounded by Giffard's refusal to take ads promoting the Parc's events, he knew that accepting the offer could imperil their track's future. Desgrange and Goddet slept on the proposition. The next morning, they accepted it.

The new associates then turned to deciding a name for the new title, settling on L'Auto-Vélo (Cars and Bikes). It was the ideal choice given the commercial interests of the new title's backers, but it would come at a cost. Initially, this was relatively insignificant. During his forensic research for the biography Desgrange Intime, French writer Jacques Lablaine discovered that Count de Dion had spent 1,000 francs acquiring the weekly satirical and illustrated magazine L'Auto-Vélo, which had been established in 1897, but subsequently published only intermittently. His intention was clear. He wanted his new title to trade on the name of Giffard's well-established paper. But would the law allow this?

The bullish and arrogant de Dion assumed so, as no one had challenged the use of the name L'Auto-Vélo during its three years of existence. In judicial theory, this meant that no one now could. In this assumption, though, Count de Dion and L'Auto-Vélo's other backers were mistaken.*

Thirty-nine shareholders bought the 400 shares in the relaunched version of L'Auto-Vélo, including aristocrats such as Baronet Sir David Salomons, whose father had founded what is now Natwest bank, and prominent industrialists like Renault, the Michelin brothers, Clément and, of course, Count de Dion, who purchased 192. It was an impressively influential line-up, but if de Dion had any thoughts of using the new title's pages to push any kind of extra-sporting agenda–and it is believed that he wanted to include a political pamphlet within the first issue–Desgrange crushed these immediately. In the opening column on the first page of the inaugural edition of 16 October 1900, the penultimate paragraph stated, 'there will never be, in L'Auto-Vélo, any question of politics… you can count on L'Auto-Vélo never talking about this with you.' Desgrange remained as good as his word until the imminent outbreak of the Great War induced an anti-German tirade in 1914.

His more immediate concern was attracting readers to the new title. One of his first moves was to exploit a split between Hippolyte-Auguste Marinoni, the editor of Le Petit Journal, and Pierre Giffard to take over control of the second edition of the decennial race, Paris–Brest–Paris, which had been established by Le Petit Journal at Giffard's instigation in 1891. The first edition had caused a sensation, turning winner Charles Terront into France's first sporting star. The second running in 1901 proved no less impressive, pitching Lucien Lesna, Terront's successor as the nation's cycling icon and winner of Paris–Roubaix just a few weeks earlier, against Maurice Garin, already a two-time winner of that same event, which had quickly become one of the racing season's most prized titles.

Lesna reached the halfway point of the 1,200-kilometre race with a two-hour lead on his rivals. At Rennes, with the course three-quarters completed, Lesna paused for what he hoped would be a revitalising bath and meal. However, it had the reverse effect. Sapped by fatigue and a strong headwind, he fell victim to la fringale, that moment that almost every cyclist has experienced when the body's resources are all but exhausted and legs don't respond to the mind's urging to continue. With Paris almost in view, Garin overhauled the favourite, who failed to finish as the younger man soloed to glory.

Sales of L'Auto-Vélo soared for several days leading up to, during and just beyond Paris–Brest–Paris, but quickly tailed off to 30,000 a day once again, which was less than half of Le Vélo's total. This presented Desgrange and his backers with a dilemma that remains to a degree in the modern era: how could they make events that were free-to-view financially viable? Their initial answer was to establish another race in the same ridiculously optimistic scale as Paris–Brest–Paris.

Without Marseille–Paris there might never have been a Tour de France. Run in May 1902, it was the first road event both invented and organised by Desgrange, and proved a huge popular success. Crucially, though, it planted the idea for an even grander event in the mind of L'Auto-Vélo's cycling correspondent, Géo Lefèvre.

One of several editorial staff Desgrange had poached from Le Vélo, Lefèvre had first-hand experience of the extent of the antipathy between his new and his former boss. After receiving a job offer from Desgrange, he went to inform Giffard he was leaving. 'I felt I had to let my boss, the irascible Pierre Giffard, know about this offer I'd had from a rival, but as soon as I mentioned Desgrange's name Giffard wouldn't listen to me for a second longer and literally threw me out on to the pavement of Rue Meyerbeer where Vélo had its offices,' he recalled.

Desgrange, Lefèvre discovered, was 'a man as hard as my first boss', but the pair quickly established a tight bond. 'He was a hard man but in the good sense of the word, that's to say hard at work, both on himself and on others. Beneath his very tough exterior, he was a lovely chap, who, when you got to know him, had a good sense of humour and, in business, was liable to show emotion… but after he'd won the battle,' Lefèvre explained of his journalistic mentor.

Confident Marseille–Paris would replicate the sporting and financial success that L'Auto-Vélo had enjoyed the previous year with Paris–Brest–Paris, the paper announced a 6,000-franc prize for the winner, clearly intent on tempting the sport's leading performers to participate and in doing so turn their backs on Giffard's Bordeaux–Paris, which was scheduled to take place just two weeks later. This objective was achieved when Lesna and Garin registered to compete, setting up the delicious prospect of a revenge match between the major protagonists in Paris–Brest–Paris.

Marseille–Paris promised to create more of a stir than the established event, and not only because the route linked two of France's three biggest cities via the third, Lyon. Like many other parts of southern France, Marseille rarely featured as a venue for major sporting events. As a result, the local press and population greeted the new race with considerable fervour. In his evocative book on the event, L'incroyable épopée de Marseille–Paris 1902, Didier Rapaud reveals that this enthusiasm was much needed as sales of L'Auto-Vélo had dropped to between 18,000–22,000 copies a day by May 1902, a quarter of Le Vélo's total. In order to reverse this decline, Desgrange and Goddet decided to print six special issues in addition to their daily, hoping that these would add tens of thousands of readers.

Less importantly for L'Auto-Vélo's future, but of much greater significance for the sport's, Desgrange and his organising team also opted to open the race up to touristes-routiers riders as well as the headlining coureurs de vitesse (speed racers) such as Lesna and Garin. The latter always competed with entraîneurs, usually very gifted racers in their own right who worked in rotation as pace-makers for the star man with the backing of a major manufacturer or supplier.

Unable to call on support of this kind, the touristes-routiers had little hope of competing for the biggest prizes or even demonstrating their own potential as racers. Consequently, the introduction of a separate category for these solo performers, which included a 1,000-franc prize for the first touriste-routier to finish–the equivalent of almost six months' salary for the average working man in France–provided them with unprecedented motivation.

As riders began to sign in for the start in Marseille, news emerged that Garin would not be starting as a consequence of a chest infection picked up while undertaking a reconnaissance of the race route. This left pre-race favourite Lesna without a serious rival for the title and imperilled L'Auto-Vélo's sales objectives. Desgrange, though, responded quickly, adjusting his paper's editorial emphasis from the duel between two huge rivals to a focus on the sheer scale of the test that Lesna and the other participants were up against. Although, at 938 kilometres, Marseille–Paris was almost 300 kilometres shorter than Paris–Brest–Paris, its hillier route, rougher roads and the likelihood that the field would be racing for the opening quarter of the race into the teeth of a strongly gusting mistral made it an extremely daunting prospect for those set to take part.

'It is demonstrably clear that battles such as these are epic and the men involved in them are heroes just like those who were once acclaimed and crowned with laurels in Greece,' wrote Lefèvre, who was charged with directing and covering the new race while Desgrange remained in Paris to oversee production of the organising paper's extra editions. While undoubtedly over the top, Lefèvre's words appear less so given what lay in store for the five dozen or so racers who lined up in Marseille…


Opened just a few months before and bearing the name of its proprietor, the Café Riche on the corner of Cours Belsunce and the majestic La Canebière is the extremely sumptuous setting for the control point at the start. Open between nine on that Saturday evening and one on the Sunday morning, this temple of luxury that has quickly become a favourite haunt of Marseille's bourgeoisie, who gather there to talk business and gossip over a coffee, lemonade or absinthe, is already packed when Italy's Giuseppe Ghezzi, a touriste-routier, arrives and becomes the first rider to sign in.

Soon after, Lucien Lesna makes an unexpectedly early appearance, adds his signature to Georges Abran's start sheet, then just as quickly disappears, returning to his hotel to get a couple of hours' sleep prior to the start in the early hours. No sooner has the Swiss-born, French naturalised rider departed than rumours of the non-participation of his main rival, Maurice Garin, are confirmed by the organisers. The buzz of excitement within the Café Riche turns to clamour. 'Can it be true? Will there be no rematch between Lesna and Garin? Can anything beyond bad luck prevent Lesna winning in Paris?'

It's a blow to the new race, and a heavy one, but as quickly as it comes it is forgotten. The Marseillais have waited too long to witness such a momentous sporting event to allow the absence of one rider to diminish their enthusiasm, even if he is one of the favourites. Captivated by what Midi Sportif has described as 'this gigantic exploit' in which the participants will 'defy death a hundred times', excited spectators converge on their city's most renowned thoroughfare, allaying the organisers' fears that Garin's absence might prove fatal to their race's success.

Riders continue to appear, each of them trailed by a throng of fans. By 11 o'clock, as the bands of the 159th infantry regiment and the 9th Hussars offer a totally unexpected musical interlude, the Canebière is jam-packed. It is nothing less than a Bastille Day in May, the carnival atmosphere completed by a parade of Marseille's 17 cycling clubs.

At one in the morning, Abran calls together the 58 riders who have signed in from the 104 who had registered and, with a wave, signals for them to proceed at a slow pace through Marseille's heaving streets towards the suburb of Saint-Antoine, where the official start will take place.

At three precisely, Abran first raises and then drops his arm, and Lesna and the other coureurs de vitesse flee into the darkness with their pace-makers, the setting moon providing illumination for less than an hour of their trek northwards. Five minutes later, the touristes-routiers, spare tubes wrapped around their shoulders, some equipped with the latest innovation for a cyclist wanting to maintain his speed in the form of a rubber tube that can be fitted to allow urination on the move, follow into the blackness.

Barely eight kilometres have passed when a crash almost ends Lesna's hopes. Already leading the field with his crack team of four pace-makers, the race favourite hears warning cries from the riders he's slipstreaming, but can't see or avoid a heap of rocks piled up at the roadside to be used on works for the Marseille to Aix-en-Provence tram line. Despite somersaulting two metres through the air, he is fortunate to escape with minor cuts and grazes and is quickly under way again, having abandoned his broken bike and jumped on one offered by one of his pace-makers. The delay enables Jean Fischer to take the lead.


  • "A book that will entertain everyone - from those casually interested in an adventure tale to avid sports enthusiasts."—Galveston County Daily News
  • "Essential...The First Tour de France takes you back to the race itself. Cossins produces a deeply researched and detailed description of the race that toggles between background information on the race's organization and the individual stages, with long stretches of real-time-style stage reporting one chapter at a time.The effect of this, especially the latter, is soaring."—Chris Fontecchio, Podium Café

On Sale
Jun 6, 2017
Page Count
384 pages
Bold Type Books

Peter Cossins

About the Author

Peter Cossins has written about professional cycling since 1993 and is a contributing editor to Procycling magazine. He has covered sixteen Tours de France, writing for the Guardian, Times, and Telegraph, and is the author of several previous books on cycling related subjects.

Learn more about this author