Imagine riding over 2,000 miles in three weeks time, battling snow, rain, crazed fans, broken bones and even the slight possibility of death. Well, this is what 180 riders will be facing for the start of the 2011 Tour de France.
This year is the 98th Tour de France; it will run from July 2 through July 24 covering about 2,156 miles. Starting with a Prologue stage in La Passage du Gois Barre de Monts, France, then 20 more stages, nine of those in the mountains, one team time trial day (a race against the clock, fastest time wins) and one individual time trial. Of all these stages there are only two rest days; day 10 and day 16. It’s hard to fathom what these men go through on a daily basis let alone in three weeks time. The Tour de France is by invitation only, the race organizers invite about 22 teams this year each with nine cyclists. Total prize money is about $2.1 million.
Starting back in 1903 the Tour de France was the idea of the Parisian newspaper editor Henri Desgrange of the L’Auto to help boost circulation. The course was marked out to be an around France stage race, covering a distance of 2,428 km(1,508 miles,) taking place over 19 days in six stages and rankings based on the cumulative time over the course of the tour. Sixty riders began the first race and the winner who dominated throughout the tour and today still holds a record for the greatest margin of victory of 2 hours and 49 minutes was Maurice Garin.
The first Tour was billed a success with over 20,000 people showing up and lining the streets to watch Garin cross the finish line, and L’Auto newspaper sold 130,000 copies, 100,000 more than the newspaper’s circulation had been six months earlier. The following year 1904, was billed as the almost last Tour de France, since it became a must win for all French cyclists to win and they would go to any lengths to do so. Riders were caught catching trains, taking cars, and even sabotaging their opponent’s bicycles. All of these infractions forced the race officials to implement many more rules on how the race was to be done. Around this time Desgrange also felt the success of the tour would rely on theroute to change every year.
In the 1919 race the now famous yellow jersey or “maillot jaune” was introduced. The cyclists wore the yellow jersey in order to show who was leading the race because previously no one could recognize who was winning, and also L’ Auto was printed on yellow paper. In later years many other jerseys were designed to show various leaders; red polka dots to show king of the mountains, green to show the points leader and white to show best young rider.
The 1930’s saw many new developments; team time trials were introduced to try to attract more attention to the sport, the publicity caravan was also established, and in the early 1930’s national teams were introduced to enable riders to be substituted out of the race if they became injured. And furthermore, everyone would ride identical bikes. In 1937, the popular derailleur systems were finally introduced, enabling the riders to change gears without removing their wheels. Some of these changes were short-lived but these changes also helped mold much of what is today’s modern Tour de France.
In 1903 for the second year in a row my great grandfather, Bobby Walthour Sr. and his partner, Benny Monroe of Memphis won the Madison Square Garden’s six-day bicycle race (they covered 2,300 miles in those six days). The team that placed sixth in that race was Lucien Petit-Breton of France and his partner French national champion Henri Contenet. Lucien Petit-Breton went on to win the Tour de France in 1907 and 1908. By comparison the French have won the tour approximately 36 times, Spain 12, and the United States 10.
So if you find yourself channel surfing between July 2 and July 24 you have four American teams to cheer for; BMC (Bicycle Manufacturing company,) Garmin-Cervelo (GPS and bicycle company,) HTC-High Road (cell phone and sports management company,) and Radio-Shack (technology retail stores.) This year we have no Lance to cheer for, but look for many other American riders, like Chris Horner, winner of 2011 Tour de California and Levi Leipheimer, and racing in his 16th tour, George Hincapie from Team BMC.
Matt Walthour, a Marco Island resident since 1985 is a graduate from Embry Riddle Aeronautical University, and is the owner of Island Bike Shop and Scootertown on Marco Island and Naples. He is also a member of the Marco Island bike path ad-hoc committee.