Magazine’s sales stunt that grew into icon of sport

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THE Tour de France was first staged in 1903 to increase paper sales for the magazine L’Auto.

Executives had met at the publication’s Paris headquarters to discuss falling circulation when its newly-recruited chief cycling correspondent, a 26-year-old by the name of Géo Lefèvre, suggested a six-day race around Paris to boost sales.

The original plan was a five-stage race from May 31 to July 5, 1903, that started in Paris and took in Lyon, Marseille, Bordeaux and Nantes before returning to the capital. Toulouse was added later to the route, with Frenchman Maurice Garin the first winner.

Stages would go through the night and finish next afternoon, with rest days before riders set off again. However the costs proved too great for many and only 15 entered.

The Tour’s format was then changed to 19 consecutive days over the first three weeks of July, with a daily allowance offered to riders who reached an average speed of 20 kilometres per hour.

In recent years, the Tour has been tainted by countless doping controversies – many riders could not compete the gruelling mountain stages without resorting to performance-enhancing substances – and cancer conqueror Lance Armstrong has now been stripped of his seven titles after being exposed as one of the greatest frauds in sports history.

That said, the ‘zero tolerance’ approach towards drugs by the now defunct HTC-Highroad team, where Mark Cavendish came to prominence before he joined Team Sky, has helped to restore credibility to the race.

With Bradley Wiggins winning this year’s race with a Team Sky that is projecting a clean image and dispensing with the services of those riders or back-up staff with a drug-tainted past, this is, potentially, an exciting new era for a race that will celebrate its centenary edition next year. It has been staged every year since 1903, except during the two world wars.

More recently, the Tour has raced through several countries before ending on the Champs-Elysees in the heart of Paris where Wiggins, this year’s victor, led the Team Sky ‘train’ round the final bend this July before Cavendish sprinted across the winning line on an unforgettable day for British sport, just five days before the London Olympics’ opening ceremony.

When the Tour last came to England in 2007, Transport for London said there were two million spectators to the capital. The event generated £88m for the South East – and media coverage worth an estimated £35m.