It was called the Dreyfus Affair.
The arrest of Alfred Dreyfus in 1894 had cut France in two. Accused of selling military secrets to Germany, Dreyfus, a 35-year-old French army captain, was sentenced to life in the notorious Devil’s Island prison. Convicted on what seemed like the slightest evidence, the Dreyfusards (those who believed in his innocence) rose up against the anti-Dreyfusards (those who “knew” he was guilty).
While the major French newspapers took sides and published endless editorials, Dreyfus’ most ardent defense appeared not in the most popular newspaper of the time – “Le Petit Journal” – but in its sports supplement – ” The bike”. Although still popular, Dreyfus’s editorials allowed “Le Vélo” to sell 80,000 copies a day (unlike today, the sports pages of French newspapers were sold separately from their original newspaper).
Dreyfus’ haters couldn’t stand this at all, so two of them started their own sports journal, which would spend most of its pages hitting its readers over the head with Dreyfus guilt. Entitled “L’Auto”, its first issue appeared in October 1900 and was printed on yellow newsprint to distinguish it from the green pages of “Le Vélo”.
It was not a success. Advertisers feared appearing anti-Dreyfus and losing half their customers; and readers were put off by the yellow pages. Bankruptcy would be filed in January 1903 unless something drastic could be done.
The editor of ‘L’Auto’, Henri Desgrange, gathers his small team and solicits any idea, however ridiculous, to try to save the newspaper. No one said anything, and the meeting was nearly over when Geo Lefevre – the newest and youngest journalist whom Desgrange had poached from ‘Le Vélo’ on the strength of his rugby coverage – surprised everyone with his suggestion: “And a bike race?”
Lefevere explained that when “Le Vélo” covered a one-day cycling race, sales increased. Instead of just covering a race, ‘L’Auto’ should create one. And not just a one-day race, but a multi-day race. One around France. The longer the run, the more coverage will be written and the more items will be sold.
It was wild and unprecedented, but Desgrange liked it so much that he had the young journalist walking to explain to the owners of the newspaper.
History records two different stories of the encounter. The one in which the owner quickly opens the company safe and tells Desgrange to “take whatever you need.” In the other case, the owner opens the safe (which was empty) saying: “We have nothing to lose”. Whatever the truth, the owner supported this last ditch effort to save “L’Auto”.
The newspaper quickly announced their multi-day, multi-stage race starting May 31 in Paris and ending July 5 with the riders returning to Paris. The winning rider would earn 12,000 francs, the equivalent of six years’ salary. The very first Tour de France was about to begin.
But no one came in. Well, 15 people signed up, but most weren’t sure if they would even run. Professional cyclists didn’t exist yet, and everyone who raced had a full-time job. The ones that didn’t give you weeks and weeks off to ride your bike.
Desgrange shortened the race to just 19 days and offered a small per diem to anyone who entered. This time they had 80 runners registered (only 60 showed up). And on July 1, 1903, the world’s first Tour de France began.
Cyclists rode heavy steel bicycles that had only one gear, along horrible dirt roads, while wearing woolen turtlenecks. They rode at night, with a miner’s oil lamp strapped to the front. The lamps did not illuminate the road ahead, but made them visible to the horses, carriages, and new automobiles with which they shared the road.
The cheating started almost immediately. When a young woman offered the riders a tall glass of lemonade, French rider Emile Pagie gratefully accepted it. It was poisoned and Pagie fell seriously ill after drinking it. Family and friends of other cyclists put broken glass and nails on sections of the road; a racer was caught being towed by an automobile; and a handful of riders were seen boarding a train at one point. An Italian runner was beaten by a mob before authorities could save him. A rider also fell seriously ill, but that was due to liters of red wine while riding.
Which isn’t the only case of doping in 1903. Nitroglycerin, strychnine, cocaine, opiates, ether, and brandy were all used by various runners to stay awake, numb their pain, or give them an advantage. competitive. Accidents were also a constant, with spectators, dogs and night cows causing numerous pile-ups and injuries.
The race was won by French rider Maurice Garin, a poor chimney sweep who, as a baby, had been sold into servitude by his parents for a slice of beef. He arrived in Paris three hours early and was welcomed by 100,000 spectators. The yellow jersey, based on the newspaper used by ‘L’Auto’ had unfortunately not been created in time, so Garin was draped in a green armband. “L’Auto” also destroyed its competition in sales and is still in print to this day (now called “L’Equipe”).
The cheating was so bad in the 1904 Tour de France that Desgrange told everyone it would be the last. He was convinced otherwise, and he has raced every July since then (with the exception of two world wars; and COVID-19 caused the Tour to be held in August instead of July in 2020). Desgrange died in 1940, but his initials have appeared on every yellow jersey since then.
Alfred Dreyfus – whose arrest indirectly created the world’s greatest bicycle race – was released from prison in 1906. He was innocent after all, having been framed by the top brass of the French army. His only crime was being Jewish.
Mike Selby, BA, MLIS, is the Programs and Community Development Librarian at Cranbrook Public Library