Tour de France: From donkey to wine

At the door is a new, this time already the 107th edition of the most resounding and prestigious annual sporting event in the world. The Tour de France is not merely a cycling highlight of the year and not just a search for the best cyclist on French roads, it is a sporting highlight of the summer with the longest tradition and stories that can be written only by the drama of endless miles, ups, downs, falls, affairs, tears of happiness and sadness, each time most often expressed at the finish line on the famous granite blocks of the Champs-Élysées in the centre of Paris.

The Tour is a trademark of France, the most touristy country in the world, similar to the Eiffel Tower, cheese, champagne, Napoleon or Asterix. The Tour is also, more than anything else, an exceptional mixture of passion, enthusiasm, the adrenaline of – both competitors and spectators. And of course, the most prestigious bicycle race in the world, which time and time again serves up amazing stories, records, anecdotes and scandals.

It has been like this since 1903, when the then journalist of the sports newspaper L’Auto (later L’Equipe) Geo Lefevre, with the support of his editor Henri Desgrange, gave the initiative for organizing the first cycling race, which had six long stages (the longest Nantes-Paris as much as 471 kilometres), and was won by the Frenchman Maurice Garin at an average speed of 25 kilometres per hour (today it is about 41 km/h). Garin also won a year later, but after a week the organizers took away his victory because he had travelled half of one of the stages by train. Yes, also affairs have always been an integral part of the Tour de France.

Last year’s winner, Egan Bernal, a Colombian, became the youngest in the Tour history to cross the finish line in the yellow jersey at the age of 22, but he is still not the youngest winner of the Tour de France. How is this possible? The famous yellow jersey was introduced on the Tour as late as 1919, mainly to make it easier for both the competitors and spectators to see the current best in the race, so that the youngest winner, the 19-year-old Frenchman Henri Cornet, was not yet in yellow in 1904. However, Cornet was also green and pale that year, as his rivals later admitted that they had added a sedative to his food during dinner at a roadside inn in the last two stages. But neither the sedative nor the tacks sprinkled on the road in the last stage (because the villagers were angry that the turmoil was on their local road), which caused him to drive the last 40 kilometres with punctured tires, prevented Cornet from winning 116 years ago.

Tour de France has served up countless anecdotes over the years, but has also most certainly developed professionally, and, in recent years, became one of the most attractive sporting events in the world in terms of media, economy and sponsorship. In the past, the riders had raced every man for himself, in the first years certainly without escorts, without service vehicles, without teams, only individually. Accordingly, there were also more either funny or tragic incidents.

Before the First World War, the riders have been known to smoke a few cigarettes before each stage, thinking that nicotine would help them in their uphill struggles, and they had also accepted help from roadside spectators on more than one occasion. The Algerian Abdel-Kader Zaaf was thus listed at the top of the anecdotes in 1950, he had built up a lead over his rivals of more than half an hour in the scorching heat, but had ran out of water and grabbed a bottle offered to him by a spectator alongside the road near Perpignan. He quickly took a few sips and found out too late that there was wine in the bottle. According to the eyewitnesses, he soon started zigzagging across the road, he then put down his bicycle, laid down in the shade of a nearby tree, and fell asleep. After 20 minutes, the spectators eventually woke him up, the confused Zaaf jumped on his bicycle and drove off – in the wrong direction. After a few kilometres, when the majority of riders were already very close, he became ill and ended up in a nearby medical centre and resigned. The Frenchman Napoleon Paoli also did not make it to the finish line in 1920, as he crashed into a donkey on a curve during his descent and broke his bicycle. Then he mounted the donkey and headed towards the finish line, but was disqualified for accepting unauthorised outside assistance.

Nowadays, of course, such anecdotes are nearly impossible, as the race is organized at the highest possible level, but scandals still accompany it throughout all its long years. In recent years, the most high-profile affair was most certainly the one of the serial winner, the American Lance Armstrong, who won seven times in a row between 1999 and 2005 but was later stripped of all his victories due to the proven use of banned performance-enhancing drugs.

This year’s Tour de France, which will start on 29 August on the Côte d’Azur and end on 20 September in Paris, will most certainly be different from all the past ones due to the Covid-19 pandemic. The competitors will be in some kind of a bubble the entire time, therefore, highly isolated from the outside world, regularly tested for Covid-19, and the Tour will end not before mid-September for the first time. In the caravan of 22 professional teams, there will be as many as five Slovenians, including officially the best in the world, Primož Roglič (Jumbo Visma), who is considered one of the favourites. Also participating will be Tadej Pogačar, Jan Polanc (both UAE Team Emirates), Matej Mohorič (Bahrain McLaren) and Luka Mezgec (Mitchelton Scott).

Continental, a long-time partner of the Tour de France, will supply as many as six teams this year with their tires, hand-made in the German city of Korbach. Continental will also supply all the race’s escort vehicles, and will once again be the official sponsor of the stage finish lines, as the winner of each of the 21 stages, shall be handed over a Continental trophy on the podium.