"A Mass Phenomenon": The Birth of Cycling and Le Tour

In the past decade, there has been no sport in which the British Isles has excelled in more than cycling. Most sporting attention is put into football or rugby but in terms of success, it is hard to find a sport which can eclipse the achievements of Hoy, Wiggins, Cavendish and Trott. Cycling is often categorized into four disciplines - track, road, mountain and BMX - the former two being of particular interest to British fans. However, this piece is looking outside of the velodrome and onto the road - a sport which like many others was born out of the Victorian sporting revolution. Within two decades of its introduction came with the greatest cycling race in the world - Le Tour de France. The tour has continued to grow over the last 100 years in one of the globe's greatest annual events - but how did it come to be and how was it received? 

Before getting completely stuck into Le Tour it is useful to understand how cycling initially developed into a competitive sport which entered the hearts of minds of not just the British but all areas of the globe. The Victorian 'sporting revolution', initiated by the founding of the Football League in 1863 brought a revival in the pursuit of athleticism and physicality. The British Empire by this stage was at its peak, but after the narrow-victory in Crimea, sport was seen as an opportunity to develop the average male into one ready for war and leadership.

Cycling found itself right in the centre of the sporting boom - the modest pricing of bicycles led to rises in the sport's popularity, first in the 1870s, and then the 1890s. It was the second period of growth which Richard Holt describes as a genuine craze. Clubs known as 'Clarion Clubs' began to be found all over the country as a means of preserving the sport and as a propaganda tool for left-leaning ideologies. Cycling became a vital tool in the middle class ventures into the countryside and out of the city spaces, a chance for adventure and socialising. John Lowerson has written on cycling's 'boom', calling it a 'mass phenomenon' - words only previously used for football and rugby.


"The spread of cycling as a popular exercise has been extraordinary, and the number machines passed out annually in the manufactories at Coventry. London, and elsewhere would suffice to mount a small army. For good or evil, however, the practice cycling has struck firm root in the British soil; and must be admitted that to indulge in the pastime get almost unmitigated good out it, and not evil. The cyclist knows his map of England better than anybody else."[1]

For women the sport had a different effect. Throughout the era the idea of female participation in sport was subject to immense debate and often scrutiny. For many, cycling offered a new-found sense of a freedom - one which could be potentially dangerous to certain areas of society. The body-position and attire of a cyclist made some believe it unladylike and the large distances covered created the prospect of freedom from surveillance and 'to be in charge of one's own destiny.'[2]

Suffragettes...on bikes!
Newspaper articles on women's role in cycling are ambivalent - some positive, a lot negative - like this one found in the South Wales Daily News in 1895,

"I am sick to death of the continued discussions in the daily and weekly papers on Petticoats versus Knickerbockers for cycling ladies. Why on earth the feminine sex want to wear hideous tweed baggy knickerbockers and mannish Norfolk aud Newmarket coats atop I know not. They disfigure themselves by the wearing of such un- becoming garments, and in my opinion cease to be fascinating to the opposite sex whose clothing thev aoe. If lovely woman have. and unlovelv woman, too—only could realise how seductive, bow pleasing in the eyes of ordinary man is the pretty skirt, which she raises so deftly when crossing the road, over the dainty and pretty frilled petticoats now so fashionable, she would never yearn to don ugly cloth knickerbockers and coarse stockings and gaiters; and I sincerely hope we shall soon hear less of the ways and doings of these crazy masculine women than we are doing at present."[3]

Such articles seem astonishing to read in the modern day but it just highlights how far social attitudes have changed over the last 100 years - thanks in part to sport. Cycling was a very popular pursuit for women, growing in popularity towards the end of the nineteenth century. The Montgomery County Times noted the surge in popularity in 1897, noting the changes made to bicycles to accommodate the female figure,

"There never was anything like the sudden and amazing leap into fashion and popularity of cycling amongst ladies in 1895 and 1896. Some always had ridden the tricycles when obtainable, and even they were looked at rather askance by many folks; but when a few mounted bicycles people began to talk! This was intensified by the fact that a good proportion of the first few lady bicyclists rode in knickerbockers, or some other form of what was curiously called "rational" costume—a subject that was hotly debated. The honest truth was that all the machines first built for skirts were terribly heavy and handicapped women rideis greatly. Then all of a sudden ladies took to the new and fascinating exercise en masse; good machines at 281bs. made it easy for them really rational skirts were arrived at, and, by common consent, the knickerbockers were countermanded by the universal voice of the ladies themselves."[4]

By the end of the Victorian era sport had cemented its place in the weekly routine of millions of Britons - cycling offering a competitive challenge as well as a leisure pursuit, much like tennis and croquet before it. However, unlike other sports developed and codified around the same period, cycling lacked a major annual event. The FA Cup, Wimbledon and The Open had become mass spectator events since their inception, promoting each respective sport in the process. By 1900 - the financial opportunity within the sport had brought with it professionalism - an issue which had become the subject of debate in almost every sport it affected. The potential for financial gain created an international growth in competition.

First Tour de France, 1903
But hang on, this article is also about the Tour de France - so let's cross the English Channel and into mainland Europe. France had already displayed a great deal of affection for British sports and pastimes. Indeed, the modern Olympic Games were set up by Baron Pierre de Coubertin after he was inspired by the British sporting revolution c.1860. Cycling had been an integral part of both the 1896 and 1900 games in Athens and Paris respectively. The sport had become popular in France with a number of media publications - most notably L'Auto and Le Velo.

It may seem slightly strange but it was from these publications that Le Tour was established. Le Velo sponsored France's biggest cycle races like the Bordeaux-Paris and the Paris-Brest. L'Auto's editor, cycling enthusiast Henri Desgrange, needed to keep his paper in mass circulation and cyclists contributed a high number of sales. In order to remain popular in cycling circles - Desgrange devised a new bike race to cover the whole country, featuring 60 riders travelling 1,509 miles over 19 days. The race was to be spread over 6 stages (5 Flat, One mountain) with only those 'with a fanatical dedication to finishing the course' allowed to compete.[5]


So what of the first tour? Newspaper articles in Britain infrequently reference the race so most research leads to secondary literature. According to sports historian Christopher Thompson the tour was a success for Desgrange, seeing his publication's sales figures rising from 30,000 to 65,000 as the race began. The first tour was to have an impressive impact on French society -as L'Auto made note of the 'awaking' of cities previously 'dead to sport'.

"The greatest race ever held will commence on July 2 when the competitors in the Tour de France will start from Paris. The route of over 3,400 miles outline the entire French boundary...Naturally such a contest is confined to trade-assisted riders, but the contest will be a great test of endurance for both men and machine."[7]

Within Britain it would appear, from newspaper research, that it was around 1910 that enthusiasm for Le Tour was first felt in the country. Describing the contest as 'the greatest race ever held' surely highlights this. We have already seen that the sport was popular among social circles as a leisure pursuit - and as we have seen with sports like tennis it was only a matter of time before competition was introduced. Cycling was a major part of the 1908 Olympic games held in London, showing off a legacy from France - one which is still felt today with the success of both the track and road teams.

Number 5 for Cav in Paris?
The first Tour de France has left an impressive legacy - the race itself has not changed too much from Desgrange's original idea. Today, 'Le Tour' covers more of France and has even spread to nations like the Netherlands, Belgium and the United Kingdom as destinations for the 'Grand Depart'. In recent years, the 'most grandiose competition there has ever been' has been plagued for controversy, centered around drug-cheat Lance Armstrong. However, despite numerous setbacks, the Tour has continued to grow as media interest has become increasingly more prominent. In the UK, the success of the Team GB track cycling teams in the 2008 & 2012 Olympic games has created an appetite for the sport on the road. Bradley Wiggins, Mark Cavendish and 2013 Tour champion Chris Froome are testament to this. The 2015 race looks set to be one of the closest ever with two stages to go - can Froome bring back the Maillot Jaune? You bet he can!

By Ben Jones (@TFHBs/@TSHBs) - Follow me on Twitter @Benny_J 

[1] Dundee Evening Telegraph, (17 April, 1888)
[2] Richard Holt, Sport and the British, (Oxford: Oxford University, 1989)
[3] South Wales Daily News, (6 September, 1895)
[4] Montgomery County Times, (12 June, 1897)
[5] Christopher S. Thompson, The Tour De France, (2008)
[6] Evening Express, (30 June, 1906)
[7] Manchester Courier, (21 June 1911)


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