Friday, July 26, 2013

The Origin of the Tour de France

Once again it’s time to dive into the mailbag and respond to a letter from one of our multitudes of loyal readers. So, without wasting another moment…

Dear Bertha,
July is here and one of the most spectacular cycling competitions of all time is underway – the Tour de France. Could you tell us how this historic event came into existence?
Loyal Reader Norman Piedmont,
Dodge City, Kansas

Dear Norman,
I am often asked this question by many people every time the month of July rolls around – and I’m sure all of them have been very upset with me for ignoring their question year after year. Well this year, I've decided to not be so lazy and to do the necessary research needed in order to give an educated and informative reply to the request.

As it turns out, the seeds for the Tour de France were planted back during the 5th through the 3rd Centuries (BC, that is) – back when the area was known as Gaul.  During this time, Gaul was under the leadership of a guy named Brennus J Anquetil. Now Brennus as it turns out had this bone to pick with the ruler of Italy, Cipollini Caligula-something-or-other, so he challenged him to settle their differences with a bicycle race. At first Cipollini refused but then sent word that he would participate in the race but he refused to leave Italy. This forced Brennus’ army to cycle all the way across Gaul and though the Alps for the first battle – the Tour de Allia. Brennus of Gaul was victorious at Allia but Cipollini was fast and he escaped by sprinting off to Rome. Brennus organized a chase group to follow him and ended up kicking some serious hiney upon their arrival in Rome. Over the course of the next several years, the Gauls would tour from their home base over to Rome, harass the Italians and then zip on back to Gaul. Sometime around 345 BC, they got tired of the lack of competition and made peace with the Italians.

Things were fairly boring for about 220 years when in 125 BC the Italians, after having successfully developed the five-speed rear derailleur and, under the leadership of Julius Campagnolo, decided to organize their own Tour de Gaul and so they sneaked over to the south part of Gaul and smacked all the Gaulonites around quite a bit. In fact, they smacked the Gauls so hard they renamed the entire region Provincia Romana – which was just their fancy way of saying: A Roman Province. For years and years afterwards, the Italians maintained a serious grudge against all that Brennus had stood for – even up until the time around 52 BC when Caligula Julius Coppi emerged victorious against Gaulish Head-Honcho, Bernard H Vercingetorix at the Tour de Alesia. (There wasn’t really anything noteworthy with regards to cycling about the victory against Vercingetorix – I just wanted to type Vercingetorix correctly two or three times during this article.)

The Tour was pretty much ruled by the Italians for just shy of the next five hundred years. It was during this period that the Germans, ruled by brothers BMW Ullrich and VW Ullrich, decided to get in on some of the action. At the time, German engineering really hadn't been too successful in developing a good design for a quality bicycle. Fortunately for them, a young lad by the name of Flanders E Merckx in the neighboring region of De Ballo Gallico (later to be known as Belgium) had been churning out some fairly decent racing frames. So BMW headed west to procure frames while VW headed southeast to scrounge up Italian bike components.  Upon their return, and after a frantic, fast-paced assembly process, the Germans formed three teams: The Vandals, The Oberbecks, and The Zabels, and joined in on the Tour de Gaul. The Germans were ruthless. In addition to wreaking havoc all across Gaul, for the first time in the history of the Tour, the Germans had extended it on across the western borders and into Spain – imposing fierce casualties upon King Indurain and his army.

And so it was for the next fifty years or so – the German teams capturing the top three podium spots year after year after year. That was, until the emergence of a 24-year old cycling phenomenon from the northern area of Gaul – the King of the Franks, Clovis “Big Dog” One. Clovis was more ruthless than the Germans had ever dreamed of being. Not only did all of the Gaulish cyclists crumble beneath the wheels of his team, so too did the German’s and Italian’s hold on the area. By the time 490 AD rolled around, the Tour had transformed into the Tour de Franks. Naturally this name prompted lawsuits from a couple of major sausage/wiener manufacturers and so Clovis had it legally changed to the Tour de Francia.

For roughly the next one thousand four hundred years there was not too much of a significant change in the Tour de Francia. There was that one year though, around 1429, when a woman tried to enter the Tour – a young woman by the name of Joan of Arc. She commanded a really strong team with several victories – including the Tour de Orleans just a few months prior to the ’29 Tour de Francia. Unfortunately, although women had been semi-successful at being allowed to enter some of the lesser tours, they still weren't accepted in any of the Grand Tours. Joan pretty much disappeared from the cycling scene within the next couple of  years.

Other than the Joan of Arc thing in 1429, the Tour boringly plodded along until 1894 when Alfred Dreyfus had an affair – called The Dreyfus Affair.  Five years later, in 1899, the owner of De Dion-Bouton car works whacked the President of France, Emile Loubet, on the head with a walking stick. Local newspapers got involved and by 1903 the only way they could figure out how to settle their differences was to battle it out during the Tour de Francia – or Tour de France as it had become known by then.  The French were victorious in the 1903 Tour as Maurice Garin (actually born in Italy) dominated the race to take first place and Dreyfus was acquitted from his affair. From there, the rest is modern history.

Dear Bertha,
Once again I find myself asking, “Why in the world did I even bother to ask you a question?”
Lord only knows why I am Loyal Reader Norman Piedmont,
Dodge City, Kansas

Dear Norman,
Enjoy the Ride!

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