The history & impact of the Tour de France

What are the origins of Le Tour and what is its role in French history?

“My passion for the Tour led me to become a Professor of French” – Professor David Walker

David Walker, Emeritus Professor of French at The University of Sheffield, owes a lot to the Tour de France – perhaps even his career.

As a cycling mad 12 year old in 1959, David picked up a magazine about his favourite hobby and read about Brian Robinson who had just become the first Briton to win a stage on the Tour de France.

David would soon learn that the Tour de France was the most prestigious cycling race in the world and as he began to learn the vocabulary of the Tour he found the study of French at school to be intensifying.

This set him off down the road to becoming Professor of French at the University of Sheffield in 1995.

David’s passion for cycling remained through his career and his knowledge about the Tour de France helped him to fulfil another ambition when he took it upon himself to teach a module about ‘Le Tour’ to students in Sheffield.

We thought David would be the perfect person to meet with to start our ‘Deconstructing The Tour’ project so we met with him at Amici & Bici cycle cafe in Sheffield to find out about the history of the Tour, its role in the French national identity and how it evolved to become the greatest endurance challenge in the world…

What are the origins of the Tour de France?

The Tour de France is significant as a cultural event in France and goes long back before bikes. It can initially be traced back to young apprentice artisans travelling around France to work with skilled masters in their field to learn their craft. This was a process known as the ‘Tour de France.’

At the end of the 19th century when the modern bicycle was designed, France had established its Third Republic – the first republic that would really last – and its key figures set themselves the task of ‘building’ a new France.

It was at this time that many of the things we associate with modern France were officially adopted, such as the tricolour flag and La Marseillaise, and the Bastille Day celebrations on 14 July.

The founders of the bicycle race were motivated by the same patriotic instincts and decided on the title ‘Tour de France’ for the race that would travel around France and announce both the unity and significance of the country.

The founder of the Tour presented the race as a way to bind the country together during a vulnerable period of its history.

"The Tour De France was intended to be a way of announcing both the unity and the significance of France."

− Professor David Walker

Why was France vulnerable at this time and how did the Tour help?

At the time of the first Tour in 1903, France was still smarting from defeat in the Franco-Prussian War. The Tour could be seen as a demonstration of unity and strength.

It is interesting to note that in the early years there was a part of France that this epic countrywide Tour could not include. France had lost Alsace-Lorraine to Germany and so if you look at the Tour maps from the first couple of years they simply avoided Alsace-Lorraine.

However, by 1906 the Tour managed to sneak across the frontier and legend has it that the French riders would sing La Marseillaise as they rode through Alsace-Lorraine, encouraging spectators to do the same. This created a kind of French nationalist complicity.

In a sense, the Tour helped France by becoming part of the assertion of the country and an event that signified a sense of identity and pride amongst French people.

Does the race still carry important messages about France as a country?

France has always had a special character in that it links the North and South of Europe. In the north, France has much in common with countries like Germany, Netherlands and Belgium, while in the south it is typical of Mediterranean countries like Spain and Italy.

As the Tour reaches up into the north and down into the south, it unites these regions and this includes a strong message about the exploration of France and even Europe in terms of its geographical and climatological variety.

Within the race itself, this diversity is clear to see as the riders take on the challenges of long flat stages as well as climbs up mountains that seem to defy credibility, let alone the limits of the human body.

It’s amazing to think that the Col du Galibier is about twice as tall as Ben Nevis, the tallest mountain in the UK, and yet people ride up it on push bikes. In a sense, the geography is interwoven with the history of suffering and triumph over adversity which is an integral part of the mythology that underpins each year’s Tour de France.

It is undeniably a major export for France and there is a huge amount of national pride surrounding the race. There is nothing as French as the Tour de France, so for anyone who wants to learn about France and French culture the Tour is a great way in.

For more information on the University of Sheffield’s Department of French, visit our website: http://www.sheffield.ac.uk/french

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