Some readers may already have an idea of a Grand Tour, but, for those who don’t, suffice to say we’re not talking about the 18th century fashion for aristocrats to go gallivanting around Europe. Nope, we’re discussing the famous road cycling stage races of Europe. These gruelling tests of physical endurance were established in the 20th century and mark the peak of the cycle-racing season.
As summer finally rears its face, here’s a potted history of the races, and what you might expect if you’re spectating this year.
In the early years of bicycle racing – the 1900s – bike manufacturers and other sponsors of teams and riders (such as newspapers and drinks manufacturers) attempted to outdo each other with the most ridiculous routes and distances.
Henri Desgrange, editor of the newspaper L’Auto and keen amateur cyclist, decided – as a last ditch attempt – to improve sales of his sporting daily by proposing a tour of France on bicycles. It had been done for motorcars, but never push bikes. A mad, flamboyant idea, but it stuck.
The first Tour de France – in 1903 – was a five-stage affair that ran throughout June. Stages were so long they would run through the night and finish the next afternoon.
Riders back then were true pioneers, totally self-supported with no mechanical assistance or official feed stations. The bicycles were single-speed fixed gear machines, so it was a pretty tough experience. Many riders dropped out and by the time the race arrived in Paris, only 24 of the 80 riders remained. .
Winner of the first edition of the Tour, Maurice Garin
Tour officials and rider Octave Lapize in the Pyrenees 1910
By 1908, circulation of L’Auto had reached a quarter of a million and in 1910 Desgrange and his race officials decided to send riders (who raced independently at that time) into the high mountains.
Meanwhile, in Italy in 1909, another country where cycle racing was booming in popularity, a grand tour of the country was conceived by a sports paper, La Gazzetta dello Sport.
In 1935 Spain established its own tour too, the Vuelta a España, again organised by a newspaper Informaciones.
While there are also tours in held in Colombia, Switzerland and even Britain, they’re not regarded as ‘Grand Tours’ – only Spain, Italy and France are recognised as the big three.
These all run over three weeks, with 21 stages. The stages vary between flatter ones with sprint finishes, more undulating stages and mountainous stages which are the main spectacle of the races.
The race leader is the rider with the least accumulated time over all the stages, therefore it’s usually riders with strong teams who can ride well in the mountains who compete in the ‘General Classification’ (overall leader) category.
There is also a points or sprinters classification, a ‘King of the Mountains’ category (best rider on the climbs) and a team prize. It’s undoubtedly very demanding but there are usually two rest days across the three weeks.
There are several riders in history who’ve won all three, the last of whom was Spaniard Alberto Contador. As the greatest events in road racing, they are well worth a look. Starting with the Giro in May, the Tour in July and the Vuelta in August/September, you’re in for a season of stupendous cycling, beautiful landscapes and remarkable feats of human sporting endurance.