The bizarre origin of the Tour de France
The death of Emile Zola had much to do with the birth of this celebrated cycle race
The Tour de France is surely the World’s best-known and most celebrated cycle race. It takes 23 days to stage, with the competitors, who come from many countries, completing a series of grueling stages that take them all round France and usually across borders to visit neighbouring countries en route.
Most people are not aware that the race began as a competition between two daily sporting newspapers, and was linked to the notorious Dreyfus case and the death of one of France’s most famous writers.
Alfred Dreyfus was a captain in the French army who was tried and convicted of spying for Germany in 1894. The problem was that Dreyfus was completely innocent. The evidence against him was weak in the extreme, but he was not only a native of Alsace – which was then part of Germany – but he was also Jewish. It did not take much for an anti-Semitic and anti-German military court to find Dreyfus guilty and pack him off to the penal colony of Devil’s Island.
Many people in France were far from satisfied that justice had been done, and one of these was the writer Emile Zola, who in 1898 wrote a piece that condemned the French establishment over the Dreyfus case. This was splashed across the front page of L’Aurore newspaper under the heading “J`Accuse” (I accuse).
This made Zola extremely unpopular with the anti-Dreyfus faction in France, and Zola was forced to flee to London until the situation calmed down.
Zola was still a marked man in the eyes of some extreme anti-Semites, and his support for Dreyfus – who in 1899 had been allowed to return to France but without a full pardon – was not forgotten.
In 1902 Emile Zola died as the result of what appeared to be a tragic accident, when he and his wife were overcome by carbon monoxide fumes after lighting a fire in their Paris apartment. It was not until 1928 that it emerged that their chimney had been blocked deliberately by a right-wing fanatic and that Zola’s death (his wife survived) had been murder.
However, this was far from clear at the time, especially as tests carried out the day after Zola’s death showed that there was nothing wrong with the chimney. Of course there wasn’t – the killer had by then removed the obstruction.
The fact that there was still a huge amount of controversy in France about the whole Dreyfus affair led to accusations flying in all directions. In particular, two sporting daily newspapers, Le Velo and L’Auto, took opposite sides on the question of whether Emile Zola’s death was related to the Dreyfus case. The arguments went on right through the winter of 1902-3, but eventually tempers died down and the two newspapers decided to settle their differences in a way that might have been expected of publications devoted mainly to sport – a bicycle race!
And so the first Tour de France took place in July 1903 and it has been run ever since, apart from during the two World Wars. The event soon caught the attention of the French public and sales of L’Auto (the original main sponsor) went through the roof.
A particular feature of the Tour de France is the wearing of coloured jerseys by certain competitors. A yellow jersey is worn by the overall leader. The colour is no accident, being a recognition of the fact that L’Auto was printed on yellow paper. In the early days the rider with the lowest standing wore a green jersey, although from 1953 this became a mark of pride rather than shame, because it is worn by the leader of the various sprint stages on the Tour. Green was the colour of paper used by Le Velo!
About the author
I am a retired librarian, having spent most of my career in academic and industrial libraries.
I write on a number of subjects and also write stories as a member of the "Hinckley Scribblers".