When Henri Desgrange began a new bicycle road race in 1903, he saw it as little more than a temporary publicity stunt to promote his newspaper. The sixty cyclists who left Paris to ride through the night to Lyons that first July were working-class ...
ass boys trying to earn a little extra money from what had only recently become a professional sport. None of them knew they were pioneers of the most famous of all bike races, which would reach its centenary as one of the greatest sporting events on earth.
The races of the early twentieth century - as with the late - were marred by cheating and chicanery, and at one point the Tour seemed unlikely to survive. But survive it did, and, with a kind of unconscious genius, it gradually evolved and became more and more elaborate. Key to this was the inclusion of the Alps and the Pyrenees, as well as occasional excursions to the Puy-de-DUme and Mont Ventoux peaks. It is the stages over the great mountain passes which more than anything make the Tour a contest of supreme stamina and courage.
Before long the race had become a national institution - an old adage maintains that invaders from Mars could land in France in July and go unnoticed, so absorbed is the country by la grande boucle, the great loop around the country. Along the way the Tour has opened a window both inwards upon French culture, inspiring a whole new kind of journalism, ruthless civic rivalries and any number of popular songs, and also outwards upon European politics. And yet it always comes back to the sheer physicality of the ordeal: no one who has stood on a blinding July day at the Col du Galibier 8,000 feet above sea level to watch the riders make their agonising way up to the pass and then helter-skelter downhill can really doubt that this race - controversial, corrupt or tainted as it has occasionally been - remains a magnificent contest, and an epic display of human spirit.
Geoffrey Wheatcroft's masterful history of the Tour de France's first hundred years is not just a hugely entertaining canter through some great Tour stories; nor is it merely a homage to the riders whose names - Coppi, Simpson, Mercx, Armstrong - are synonymous with the event's folly and glory; focusing too on the race's role in French cultural life it provides a unique and fascinating insight into Europe's twentieth century.