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The Tour de France
The Tour de France, considered France's most famous sporting event, is the most prestigious of three "Grand Tours" (including Italy's Giro d'Italia and Spain's Vuelta a España), attracting riders and cycling teams from around the world. This grueling three-week race takes place in July and ends in central Paris, drawing millions of live spectators along the way each year.
The Tour de France was the brainchild of French cycling journalist Géo Lefèvre, who in 1902 envisaged a near-2,500km cycle race across the country that would take in varied stretches of terrain. With the support of L'Auto editor Henri Desgrange and accountant Victor Goddet, the race was launched the following year in the hope that it would boost the circulation figures of the Paris-based sports newspaper.
On 1 July 1903, 73 cyclists set out from the village of Montgeron just outside Paris to complete the six stages of a circum-navigational race. They would pass through Lyon, Marseille, Bordeaux, and Nantes before finishing in Paris after just six days of cycling. The race ended up taking 19 days and only 21 competitors could endure the final leg, a distance of 471 km between Paris and Nantes. Maurice Garin finishing in first place.
The Tour de France returned in 1904 but a series of dubious practices saw it quickly slide into disrepute. Nails were planted in the road and competitors caught catching car and train rides part of the way. After initially dissolving the event, L'Auto salvaged it by imposing stricter rules.
Up until WWI, during which the Tour de France was called off, the race saw its fair share of controversies, with dangerous cycling conditions, doping scandals, and allegations of poisonings. However, its popularity had built up momentum, and by the 1920s the race attracted more than 100 cyclists from throughout Europe.
In its long history, the Tour de France has produced many legendary riders. Among these is Lance Armstrong, often called the greatest Tour de France rider of all time for winning seven consecutive races between 1999-2005 and for overcoming testicular cancer and a comparatively slow start to his professional cycling career.
His great rival, the German Jan Ulrich, held the record of never finishing below second place in the Tour de France until his fourth place finish in 2004. Despite incurring weight and health problems, he remained ones of the best time trial riders, winning two World Titles, an Olympic title and the Spanish Tour throughout his career.
Brittany's Bernard Hinault is another famous rider, whose win in1986 marked his entry into the 'five Tour wins' club occupied by the best Tour de France cyclists. By the end of his cycling career in 1985, he had won 28 stages in the Tour de France and is one of only two cyclists (the other being Belgium's Eddy Merckx) to have won all three major competitions of the Tour.
The Modern Tour de France
The Tour's legendary route is 3500km long, split into 3 competitions and twenty-one day-long 'stages' ranging from steep hills to flat routes, and including two rest days. The race starts in different locations every year, with the last stage culminating in recent years in the thrilling race towards the Arc de Triomphe on the Champs-Elysées.
Each team has nine riders with the number of teams taking part each year varying between 20 and 22. Each stage is divided into three different cycling categories: Flat Stages for the sprinters, Mountain Stages for the climbers and Time Trials for riders who can push a high gear around a course ranging from 40km to 60km.
The overall winner of the Tour de France is the cyclist with the lowest general classification i.e. the lowest aggregate time at the end of all 21 stages. The cyclist with the lowest time at the end of each stage also wears a bright yellow jersey to clearly mark him apart from the other cyclists. Jerseys are also awarded to the 'King of the Mountains', the points leader and the best young rider.