Tour de France

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Tour de France

Type of Holiday: Sporting
Date of Observation: July
Where Celebrated: France
Symbols and Customs: Arc de Triomphe, Jerseys


The cycling race known today as the Tour de France can be traced back to 1903, when two Parisian sports publications, Le Vélo and L'Auto, were competing for readers. Le Vélo had already organized the 400-mile Bordeaux-to-Paris race and the 700-mile Paris-Brest-Paris cycling marathon. So Henri Desgrange, a former cycling champ and editor of L'Auto, decided to create an even more grueling event that would last an entire month and take competitors on a 1,500-mile route through France that began and ended in Paris. "Le Tour de France Cycliste" was an instant success, drawing huge crowds and doubling the circulation of Desgrange's paper.

Although the course varies, today's Tour de France race averages 4,000 kilometers (2,500 miles) and always includes challenging stretches through the Alps, the Massif Central, and the Pyrenees mountains, with a finale in Paris (see ARC DE TRIOM PHE ). What distinguishes the Tour from other long-distance cycling races are the physical demands it places on the riders. It is divided into twenty-three timed stages, or legs, which are covered over a three-week period, with one day of rest. Two hundred riders compete in teams of ten, and it is the job of certain team riders to help "clear the way" for the team's best cyclist. A well-balanced team will have riders who specialize in sprinting and climbing, some good all-around riders, and a few domestiques (servants), whose sole function it is to support and clear a path for the team leader, even if it means giving him their own bicycle when he has a flat tire. It is not uncommon for a rider to win four or five of the daily stages and still finish far behind the winner, who is the individual with the lowest cumulative time for all stages combined. Similarly, it is possible to win only one stage, or none at all, and still finish first by staying close to the leaders day after day and waiting for them to falter. The real keys to winning the Tour de France are consistency and endurance, and the victors usually become international celebrities.

The names most commonly associated with the Tour de France are the five-time winners: Jacques Anquetil (1957, 1961-64); Belgian Eddie Merckx (1969-72, 1974), considered by many the world's greatest all-time cycling champion; Bernard Hinault (1978-79, 1981-82, 1985); and Spaniard Miguel Indurain (1991-95). Greg LeMond was the first American to win the Tour (1986, 1989-90). But perhaps no one embodies the spirit of the Tour de France more than Lance Armstrong from Texas, who rode to victory in 1999-only three years after being diagnosed with cancer and given a fifty percent chance of survival. The fact that he became fit enough to ride in the race-let alone win it-was a testimonial to his vast personal strength. That victory was Armstrong's first of seven in a row, and his winning streak ended with his retirement after the 2005 race.

The Tour de France has always been marked by stories of extraordinary courage and commitment. Eugéne Christophe was in second place in the 1913 Tour when he broke the fork of his bike on a steep climb through the Pyrenees Mountains. Knowing that attacks by bears were a constant danger, he ran ten miles, carrying his bike, to the nearest village, where he used the local blacksmith's forge to make the necessary repairs.

Tom Simpson of England, a former world champion, collapsed and died while climbing Mont Ventoux in the 1967 Tour. His last words were, "Put me back on the bike." Unfortunately, the use of performance-enhancing drugs was found to have played a role in Simpson's death, and "doping" scandals have continued to plague the Tour to this day. Riders are now routinely tested for drug use throughout the race.

Like the modern sports world at large, the Tour de France has had its share of performance-enhancing drug scandals. In 2006, Tour winner Floyd Landis was stripped of his title after testing positive for anabolic steroids. Many people felt, however, that it was the 2007 Tour de France that hit rock bottom when two teams withdrew from the race due to team member doping. But the most shocking event in the season's string of doping scandals was the dismissal of race leader and expected winner Michael Rasmussen by his team, Rabobank, before Stage 17 of the Tour for lying to race officials about his whereabouts during mandatory drug tests.

The 2007 race ended in humiliation and disgrace, but many are optimistic that the new zero-tolerance drug policy instituted by the Union Cycliste Internationale (UCI), the governing body of cycling, will allow the Tour de France to regain the prestige it has enjoyed in previous years.

Despite these problems, the Tour de France continues to attract viewers. Over one billion people watch it on television and another fifteen million stand by the roadside to catch a glimpse of the racers. In 1984 the Tour Feminin, a special women's race, was added to the event as a stage race of about 1,000 kilometers (625 miles) that was run concurrently with the final two weeks of the men's tour. In 1998, the name Tour Feminin was changed to La Grande Boucle Feminine Internationale at the insistence of the organizers of the Tour de France, who felt that the name Tour should denote only the men's race. Although the course has been shortened, the dates changed, and the race has been plagued by financial and sponsorship woes, La Grande Boucle continues to survive as one of the most prestigious women's cycling races today.


Arc de Triomphe

Although it has been estimated that more than a third of France's population turns out to watch part of the Tour de France, by far the largest crowd forms along the Champs-Elysées, the most famous boulevard in Paris. As the riders complete the final stretch of the last stage, they pass many of the city's well-known sights, including the Louvre, the Tuileries Gardens, the arcades of the Rue de Rivoli, the Place de la Concorde with its Egyptian obelisk, and, finally, the Arc de Triomphe (Arch of Triumph). Photographs of the winner passing in front of the Arc have appeared in newspapers all over the world, and the Arc itself has become a symbolic backdrop for victory in the world's greatest cycling race.

Commissioned by Napoleon in 1806, the Arc de Triomphe marks the tomb of the Unknown Soldier, who is buried under the center.


The leader at any given stage in the Tour de France is the rider who currently holds the lowest accumulated time. He can easily be recognized by the yellow jersey he wears, a tradition that started in 1919. In contrast, the last-place rider is referred to as "the Red Lantern."

In the 1930s, the "King of the Mountains" classification was created to reward the rider who excelled at climbing, and a white jersey with red polka dots became the sign of this distinction.

The rider with the most sprint points in the previous stage wears the green jersey. Sprint points are earned in finishes, along the route, and in individual time trials. The solid white jersey is given to the leading rider under the age of twenty-five.


Brunel, Philippe. An Intimate Portrait of the Tour de France. 2nd ed. Denver: Buonpane Pub., 1996. Henderson, Helene, ed. Holidays, Festivals, and Celebrations of the World Dictionary. 3rd ed. Detroit: Omnigraphics, 2005. Van Straalen, Alice. The Book of Holidays Around the World. New York: Dutton, 1986.


Le Société du Tour de France
Holiday Symbols and Customs, 4th ed. © Omnigraphics, Inc. 2009

Tour de France

The Tour de France is the world's greatest bicycle race and also the annual sports event with the most viewers—an estimated one billion who watch television coverage beamed around the world and 14.6 million who stand by the roadside. The tour, started in 1903, takes place mostly in France and Belgium, but also visits Spain, Italy, Germany, and Switzerland. It is divided into 21 timed stages, or legs, over three weeks, and has become a French national obsession. The newspaper sports columnist Red Smith once wrote that "an army from Mars could invade France, the government could fall, and even the recipe for sauce BÉarnaise be lost, but if it happened during the Tour de France nobody would notice."
The route and distance of the tour is different each year, averaging 3,500 kilometers (about 2,100 miles, or the distance from Chicago to Los Angeles). It always includes strenuous mountain passes and a finale in Paris. The number of riders is limited to 180, and the rider with the lowest cumulative time for all stages is the winner. There have been four five-time winners: Jacques Anquetil (1957, 1961-64), Eddy Merckx (1969-72, 1974), Bernard Hinault (1978, 1979, 1981, 1982, 1985), and Miguel Indurain from Spain (1991-95). Merckx, a Belgian who seemed almost immune to pain, is considered the all-time greatest cycler. He competed in 1,800 races and won 525 of them. In 1986, Greg LeMond was the first American to win the tour. He was nearly killed in a 1987 hunting accident, and endured accidents and operations during the next two years, but came back to win the tour in 1989 and again in 1990. American and former Olympian Lance Armstrong narrowly survived cancer diagnosed in 1996 and went on to win the Tour from 1999 to 2005—the first person to win seven times.
The first tour in 1903 was organized as a publicity stunt by Henri Desgranges, bicyclist and publisher of the cycling magazine L'Auto . On July 1, 1903, 60 bikers started from the Alarm Clock CafÉ on the outskirts of Paris, and three weeks later Maurice Garin was the winner, and the tour was born. In 1984, the Tour Feminin, a special women's race, was added to the tour, and is now a stage race of about 1,000 kilometers, run concurrently with the final two weeks of the men's tour. The first winner was an American, Marianne Martin.
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Holidays, Festivals, and Celebrations of the World Dictionary, Fourth Edition. © 2010 by Omnigraphics, Inc.
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