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Le Tour De France: The History Behind Bicycles in Posters

"I thought of that while riding my bike."
-Albert Einstein, on the Theory of Relativity
Printed in 1896, La Chaine Simpson by Toulouse Lautrec features a precursor to Le Tour de France. Click on the image to learn more.

Printed in 1896, La Chaine Simpson by Toulouse Lautrec features a precursor to Le Tour de France.

The tightly knit pack of bikes are currently bounding through the town of Reims, the town where kings were crowned for over 1300 years; Le Tour de France is in full effect. Le Tour de France is one of the more exciting markers of July, and provides us with a wonderful opportunity to explore the visual history of cycling through our original vintage posters.
Le Tour began in 1903, as a commercial promotion for a fledgling new sports magazine, L’Auto. L’Auto was not the success its backers wanted. Stagnating sales lower than the rival it was intended to surpass led to a crisis meeting on 20 November 1902 on the middle floor of L’Auto’s office at 10 Rue du Faubourg Montmartre, Paris. The last to speak was the most junior there, the chief cycling journalist, a 26-year-old named Géo Lefèvre. Desgrange had poached him from Giffard’s paper. Lefèvre suggested a six-day race of the sort popular on the track but all around France. Long-distance cycle races were a popular means to sell more newspapers, but nothing of the length that Lefèvre suggested had been attempted.If it succeeded, it would help L’Auto match its rival and perhaps put it out of business. It could, as Desgrange said, “nail Giffard’s beak shut.” Desgrange and Lefèvre discussed it after lunch. Desgrange was doubtful but the paper’s financial director, Victor Goddet, was enthusiastic. He handed Desgrange the keys to the company safe and said: “Take whatever you need.”L’Auto announced the race on 19 January 1903.

– source

The first winner that year was Maurice Garin, who was awarded a significant monetary prize as well as claim as the first title holder of the now infamous race.
maurice garin
The French love of bicycling traces back to its very first inception in 1806 by Baron von Drais. Though instantly accepted as a fun trend, the original forms of bicycles were very crude and uncomfortable to ride. It wasn’t until the improvements in comfort were made in the 1890s that the bicycle became a unifying staple of French society. People of all ages, and (significantly) sexes were now able to participate in the same fun mode of transportation. The bicycle developed around this time was comfortable enough for women to ride in their long skirts, and played a large role in the developing suffrage movement. Susan B. Anthony went so far as to assert that, “the bicycle has done more for the emancipation of women than anything else in the world.” The way women dressed was even changed; corsets and bustles were tossed to make way for faster bicycling. Evidence of two such trailblazers can be seen in our below original vintage posters from the era:
Motocycles Comiot by Steinlen, 1899. Click on the image to learn more about this piece.

Motocycles Comiot by Steinlen, 1899. 

This turn of the century by Pal is a wonderful example of women embracing the bicycle. Click to learn more about Palais Sport.

This turn of the century by Pal is a wonderful example of women embracing the bicycle.

By the time Le Tour de France was devised, the French public was completely obsessed with all things vélo. Adding in a race that twisted and turned its way through the Pyrenees and Alps, ending in the Champs Elysees was just about all French cycling fans could take. Over 100 years later, fans still enthusiastically dot the 2,200 miles of French countryside and cities to watch the cyclists rip past.