Riding Old School At The Tour de France
In 2012, American cycling champ Lance Armstrong was stripped of his victories at the Tour de France, becoming the modern-day poster child of a sport hopelessly gripped by doping scandals.
But in fact, the world’s most celebrated bicycle time trial never enjoyed a clean image and the early breed of riders survived by smoking, boozing and doping. It was competitive cycling, the old school way.
Launched by the French newspaper L’Auto in the early 20th century, the Tour de France was created to boost the paper’s circulation amid a readership war with its main rival.
Chasing money and prestige, 60 riding professionals, amateurs and adventurers took off in the inaugural Tour de France on July 1st, 1903 to claim a piece of the 20,000-franc purse ($2.4 million today).
Cycling competitions had already been established in France with popular regional races and velodrome events drawing throngs of competitors and spectators. But this was a new tournament that took rugged road racers for 2,428 km (1,509 miles) around the country in 6 grueling stages, averaging 400 km per stage.
In contrast, the modern Tour de France covers 21 stages with an average distance of 160 km each.
Though cyclists were permitted to rest for at least 24 hours between races, the multi-day event pushed the limits of physical endurance in an era when road conditions, bicycle gear and nutrition were spartan at best.
Carrying goggles around their necks and spare inner tubes around their shoulders, cyclists rode day and night and were on their own on long stretches and remote mountain passes.
Riders had to fix their own bikes if they broke down, or walk the rest of the way. Competitors could still participate in other stages if they dropped out of a race, but they would not be eligible for the general classification.
Cigarettes and booze, already ingrained in French culture, were just an extension of the riding experience. Smoking was believed to open up the lungs and riders would even light up before taking on a big climb.
Beer and champagne were routine hydrations and racers made regular pit stops at local taverns for food, drink and rest. On the road, riders grabbed bottles of alcohol from cheering fans and downed them as a natural fuel.
Winner of the Tour’s first competition, Maurice Garin counted “lots of strong red wine” and a “mix of coffee and champagne” as helping him win an earlier tournament.
Artificial performance enhancers such as ether, nitroglycerine and strychnine were widely used and even accepted as necessary to dull the pain and reduce fatigue.
By 1930, drugs were so much part of the Tour that when national teams were formed that year, riders were reminded in the rule book that drugs would not be provided by the organizers. Doping wasn’t officially banned until 1965.
The first edition of the race succeeded in raising L’Auto’s paper circulation and the newspaper decided to run a second event. But the Tour became a victim of its own success and the “win at all cost” mentality settled into a strategy.
Cheating became rampant at the 1904 Tour and even took on a comical tone by today’s standards. Riders were accused of resting in cars and even taking trains for parts of stages.
With time, the Tour assumed a more glamorous image but it never became sanitized. Smoking and boozing were abandoned by serious athletes, but doping and cheating persisted.
Lance Armstrong admitted controversially that it is “impossible” to win the Tour de France without doping. His old school counterparts would not have disagreed.
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