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 Bearnaise 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 Mer-ckx (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.
In 2012, however, in response to a report of the United States Anti-Doping Agency indicating that Armstrong engaged in widespread use of banned substances and practices, the Union Cycliste Internationale formally stripped him of his seven Tour de France victories.
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 Cafe 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.
Amaury Sport Organisation
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