It covers 2,000+ miles. It lasts three weeks. It’s the third most-watched sporting event in the world (after World Cup soccer and the Olympics). And it starts this Saturday, July 2, for the 98th time.
But it was fierce politics and intense rivalry — not a love of cycling — behind the origins of the Tour de France. The Dreyfus affair, in fact, was the prime mover.
A French soldier named Alfred Dreyfus was court-martialed in 1894 after being charged with selling military secrets to a German military attache. Capt. Dreyfus was sentenced to a life of solitary confinement on the dreaded Devil’s Island. He was exonerated five years later, but not before there were false documents produced to underscore his guilt, military cover-ups of new evidence, and anti-semitism overtones that would re-surface again and again in the coming world wars.
In 1898 Émile Zola wrote his famous J’accuse letter to the president of France, defending Dreyfus. Printed on the front page of a leading newspaper, J’accuse was the talk of France and made headlines around the world. Everyone and every major publication in France took sides. And herein lay the seeds of the Tour de France. (Stay with me now…)
In 1899, at Paris’s Auteuil racetrack, there was a spirited smackdown between spectators who believed in Dreyfus’s innocence and those who were sure he was guilty. Somehow in the fray, the president of France was hit with a walking stick by the owner of the De Dion-Bouton car company. The CEO (who was actually a Count) spent 15 days in jail for his offense and was absolutely skewered for his behavior in France’s largest sports daily, Le Vélo. Le Vélo sold something like 80,000 copies daily. Hence, a lot of skewering. And it just so happened that the skewering editor of Le Vélo believed in Dreyfus’s innocence.
Of course, revenge isn’t always the best business plan for starting a newspaper, and by 1903, L’Auto was seriously struggling. One of the paper’s young writers suggested a marketing tour de force: a bike race that would circumnavigate France. (L’Auto’s editor, Henri Desgrange, is often given credit for creating the Tour de France, but Desgrange distanced himself from the race until he was sure it would be a success.)
L’Auto’s circulation was 25,000 before the first Tour de France in 1903. It leapt to 65,000 in 1904, the second year of the Tour (and consequently, the year of rival Le Vélo’s
demise). By 1908, L’Auto’s circulation was a quarter million, and by 1923, a half million.
L’Auto was printed on yellow paper — thus, the maillot jaune (yellow jersey) of the Tour winner. In 1946, L’Auto essentially became L’Equipe — and since 1948, L’Equipe is printed daily in France (and is now owned by the media group that also owns the Amaury Sport Organisation, organizer of the Tour de France).
And what became of Capt. Dreyfus? He served in World War I, left military service with the rank of Lieutenant Colonel and was awarded the Legion of Honor. He died in 1935. In a 2006 ceremony, President Jacques Chirac described Dreyfus as “a patriot who passionately loved France.”
p.s. The last time a French rider won the Tour de France was in 1985. It was Bernard Hinault’s 5th win.