The greatest show on Earth: Celebrating 100 years of the Tour de France

Richard Moore casts his eye over a history of high passions, dirty cheats and "assassin" organisers - and trumpets the British invasion.

When the 100th Tour de France begins this month, a British rider, Chris Froome, will start as the bookies' favourite to succeed another Brit, Sir Bradley Wiggins, as overall winner, while a third rider from these isles, Mark Cavendish, is fancied to win the opening stage on Corsica.

Such a scenario would have been inconceivable for the first 50 editions of the world's biggest cycle race. It wasn't until the 42nd Tour, in 1955, that a British team even started. Three years later, thanks to Brian Robinson, came a first stage win. Finally, at the 49th Tour, Tom Simpson became the first Brit to wear the yellow leader's jersey.

Yet for that first half-century, the Tour was the most alien of sporting events, as impenetrable on this side of la Manche as the language used to describe it. Ernest Hemingway, when he lived in Paris, said he wanted to write about "the marvels of the road-racing in the mountains", but added, "French is the only language it has ever been written in properly and the terms are all French and that is what makes it so hard to write."

The importance of language (and photography) was no incidental point. The Tour was established in 1903 by a daily newspaper, L'Auto, as a commercial vehicle for its product. Thus did a mutually dependent relationship begin: the Tour needed newspapers and, as it became more popular, newspapers needed the Tour.

It was founded by Henri Desgrange seven years after the modern Olympics were founded by another Frenchman, Baron de Coubertin, but while the Games were enshrined with Corinthian values that put participation above winning, and amateurism over professionalism, the Tour de France could not have been more different.

After the second Tour, won by Maurice Garin, the first four finishers were disqualified for various forms of subterfuge, including short cuts, jumping on trains and spreading tacks on the road. "The second edition [of the Tour] will, I fear, be the last," said Desgrange. "It has died of its success, of the blind passions that it unleashed, the abuse and the dirty suspicions."

But the Tour continued – and so have the blind passions, the abuse and dirty suspicions.

From the start, the riders were professionals, but there was no glamour. "Tradesmen" might have been a better term; Desgrange preferred ouvriers de la pédale (pedal workers). The concept of celebrity was anathema to Desgrange. He imposed ever greater demands, with individual stages as long as 482km in 1919 (the longest this year is 242km), over increasingly tough terrain. In 1910 he included the Pyrenees, which provoked the eventual winner, Octave Lapize, to yell "You're assassins!" at the organisers after struggling to the summit of the Col d'Aubisque.

"There could be many reasons for me to take pleasure in the success of this eighth Tour de France," Desgrange reflected, "but first of all there is a fact we must face: we brought far too many people to Paris, and there was not enough wastage. Out of 110 starters, 41 riders finished the race. I repeat that this is far too many. The Tour de France has a reputation for being an extremely tough event; let us justify public opinion by putting new obstacles in front of our men." The next year, he included the Alps.

A rider who threatened to upset Desgrange's strict views on his humble "pedal workers" was Henri Pélissier, as controversial in his day as Lance Armstrong. Pélissier railed against Desgrange's draconian rules, which k encompassed bikes, clothing and even the food the competitors were allowed to eat.

In 1924, Pélissier – whose 1923 win saw sales of L'Auto surge from 600,000 to a million – abandoned the race in protest at Desgrange's insistence that riders finish in the same clothing in which they started. First, though, he created a scene by tossing his racing jersey to the road; then, with his brother Francis and a third rider, Maurice Ville, he decamped to a bar in Coutances. "It's not enough that we should race like brutes, we also have to freeze or stifle as well," he railed. "You have no idea what the Tour de France is. It's a Calvary. And what's more, the way to the cross only had 14 stations – we've got 15 [stages]." Pélissier then offered to show the father of investigative journalism, Albert Londres of Le Petit Parisien, "how we keep going", pulling containers from his bag. "That's cocaine for our eyes, and chloroform for our gums," he said. Ville joined in: "That's horse ointment to warm my knees." "We run on dynamite," explained Francis.

It didn't start to change until after Desgrange's death in 1940 and the Second World War, when individual stars emerged, led by the iconic Fausto Coppi and the elegant Hugo Koblet (who always carried a comb and eau de cologne in his pocket for the photographers at the finish). This began a process that you could say reached its apotheosis when one rider, Lance Armstrong, seemed bigger than the sport.

But in doping, Armstrong was not new. Drugs were part of the Tour from the early days, as Pélissier said, and Coppi confirmed; he said he only took amphetamines "when necessary". And when is it necessary, he was asked? "Almost all the time." It was Tom Simpson's death on Mont Ventoux, in 1967, that highlighted the dangers, but, as we know, that didn't stop doping.

The British public's introduction to the Tour, however, might not have been through Simpson's tragic death, but the photographer Bert Hardy, who attended the 1951 race for Picture Post. "The Greatest Show on Earth" was the headline to the story that accompanied Hardy's pictures, but the tone was one of bemusement: "In 38 years it has become not merely France's, but possibly the world's, most sensational sporting event… No other sporting spectacle in the world draws so many spectators, causes so many arguments, or involves so much money."

To which the only response is, plus ça change! But there has been one significant change: the fervour for the Tour that now exists in Britain. And the fact that this year's race is far more likely to be won by a Brit than a Frenchman.

The 100th Tour de France begins on 29 June. 'Tour de France 100: A Photographic History of Cycling's Most Iconic Race', by Richard Moore (£30, Bloomsbury Sport) is out now.

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