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Tour de France

The Tour de France (French pronunciation: [tuʁ də fʁɑ̃s]) is an annual bicycle race held in France and nearby countries. First staged in 1903, the race covers more than 3,600 kilometres (2,200 mi) and lasts three weeks. As the best known and most prestigious of cycling's three "Grand Tours", the Tour de France attracts riders and teams from around the world. The race is broken into day-long segments, called stages. Individual times to finish each stage are aggregated to determine the overall winner at the end of the race. The rider with the lowest aggregate time at the end of each day wears the leader's yellow jersey on the next day of racing. The course changes every year, but the race has always finished in Paris. Since 1975, the climax of the final stage has been along the Champs-Élysées

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CYCLING

Marking a century of ups and downs

As the world's most famous cycling race reaches a milestone, some things, it seems, never change

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 30 June, 2013, 12:00am
UPDATED : Sunday, 30 June, 2013, 4:04am
 

Maurice Garin, winner of the inaugural Tour de France in 1903, belonged to an era of adventurous pioneers and so-called amateurs in a world without television and with little press coverage.

In contrast, the 2012 champion Bradley Wiggins and his Team Sky partners embody modernity and high tech in the multimedia age. Yet as the race celebrates its 100th edition, it appears the first and the last Tour winners are not entirely worlds apart.

Garin, a former chimney sweep from the Italian valley of Aosta, was known as a hard-training perfectionist, who took great care of his machine. The White Bulldog, as the Franco-Italian was known, made the arduous decision to give up wine and even cigarettes to achieve his goal of winning the Tour.

Wiggins, who started his career as a pursuit specialist and won three Olympic golds, went on a strict diet to lose seven kilos in his bid to become a Grand Tour winner.

Both men were brought up across two cultures, prefiguring the globalisation of cycling's showcase event.

Like many boys from his valley, Garin left to become a chimney sweep in France, ending up in the north of the country where he developed his taste for cycling.

Wiggins was born in the Belgian city of Ghent, one of the strongholds of Six-Day Racing, the cycling discipline in which his father Gary made his reputation as a solid yet maverick track rider.

Both men hardly knew their fathers, which might explain their motivation and an explanation of their hunger to win.

Cycling has undergone many transformations in the years between the two men's victories and, with all due respect to the 198 riders on this year's Tour, the 60 brave men who embarked for the unknown in 1903 probably had more merit.

Stages were twice as long, with a 471km ride from Nantes to Paris, and often started at night.

Bikes were gearless, three times as heavy - about 20 kilos - and riders were not allowed to receive any assistance so were forced to carry spare tyres around their neck in case of punctures. And punctures were common, as roads were covered with gravel and dust, while cobbles were usual in the north.

Riders were allowed to give up in one stage and start the next, although they did not compete for the general classification.

The race was also open to strictly amateur riders, who usually spent most of their savings for the chance to compete on the Tour. One such amateur, Napoleon Paoli, took part in the Tour in 1919 and 1920 and was forced out each time, first when he was stopped by a landslide and then when he rode into a donkey.

While such events are improbable nowadays, modern Tour riders still have to deal with the occasional bizarre incident.

Last year, the race was halted during a stage in the Pyrenees when tacks and nails were spread over the tarmac, causing havoc in the peloton.

The same thing happened in the second edition of the Tour in 1904, which was so marred by incidents that race founder Henri Desgrange considered cancelling the event forever.

Not only were nails an everyday fixture of the race that year, competitors were attacked and beaten up by fans of rival riders and the men who reached Paris in the four top placings were all disqualified for various offences, including taking the train.

Unfortunately, as the case against seven-times winner Lance Armstrong, who was last year stripped of his titles for doping, has shown, cheating has also been a feature of the modern Tour.

Founder Desgrange ended the original formula of teams sponsored by bicycle manufacturers in 1930 when it turned out they were making arrangements to earn victory for the best man for their business at the expense of sporting concerns.

The Tour was then raced by national teams, which revived interest in the event and forced the organisers to find new means to fund it as sponsors no longer paid to enter their riders.

This is how the publicity caravan that has now become a crowd favourite and a vital feature of the Tour was invented.

Sponsored teams returned in 1969, just as doping controls became systematic after the death of Britain's Tom Simpson on Mont Ventoux in 1967.

As Wiggins' victory showed last year, the Tour is now much more an international event than a piece of French national heritage. In 2012, 31 nations were represented at the start, compared with five in 1903.

Reuters

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