Maurice Garin, winner of the Tour de France, 1903
The Tour de France was born on November 20, 1902 and it had highly unusual parents: the Dreyfus Affair and newspaper rivalry. Alfred Dreyfus was a French military officer accused, convicted, and then cleared of having sold secrets to Germany. The case split France in two – those who were convinced he was innocent pitted against those who were just as convinced he was guilty. A particularly nasty demonstration occurred at the Auteuil horse races. An anti-Dreyfus protestor, Comte Jules-Albert de Dion was jailed for 15 days after striking the French President, Eugène Loubet, with his walking stick. (I totally would have come down on the other side of the Dreyfus Affair than de Dion, but I’ve got the benefit of a century of hindsight.)
The debacle was reported in Le Vélo, the largest daily newspaper dedicated to sports, in a manner that favored Dreyfus. De Dion was so enraged that he joined with other anti-Dreyfusards, including Michelin of tire fame, to form a rival newspaper, L’Auto. The paper hired editor Henri Desgranges, a cyclist and part owner in a vélodrome. The paper was designed to crush and humiliate Le Vélo, but it couldn’t get out of first gear.
Desgranges called a crisis meeting over lunch on November 20, 1902. How was the paper to be saved? Géo Lefèvre, recently of Le Vélo, the 26 year-old journalist assigned to cycling, suggested a multi-day bicycle race around France. The first Tour took place July 1 to 19, 1903. Long-distance bike races were popular, but nothing on this scale had ever been attempted. The popularity of this race was as turbo charged as the Dreyfus Affair. From the very first, the Tour was plagued with allegations of cheating cyclists – although jumping in a car for a while, rather than exotic drugs, was the method of choice. Fans pulled rival cyclists from their bikes and beat them up to aid their favorites. The journalistic gambit worked. Circulation at L’Auto tripled, then increased ten-fold. As for Le Vélo, it folded in 1904.
Today’s expression, les petits ruisseaux font les grandes rivières (lay puhtee rheeso fohn lay grahn riv-e-air) means “little streams make big rivers.” The English equivalent is “mighty oaks from little acorns grow.” That describes both the newspaper, L’Auto, and the Tour de France.