Since 1903, the Tour de France has provided plenty of memories

Greg Lemond races toward the closest Tour victory ever  Credit: Jean-Pierre Lenfant /Allsport
Since the early years of the last century, the greatest bicycle race on earth has been going strong interrupted only by a pair of world wars.

In those fourscore and a few races, it has generated more drama, more heroism, more tragedy, and more history than any other annual sporting event. Even those of us who have been paying attention to the Tour for only the past few years know that.

Here is a selection of the most memorable moments in the remarkable history of this sporting event.

1903: The first moment

The inaugural Tour de France Cycliste was organized by a pair of sports journalists looking to make their own sensational news. Geo Lefevre and Henri Desgrange created a six-stage bicycling epic that started and ended in Paris and traversed 2,428 kilometers

Sixty riders started the race. All of them had mustaches. The favorite was Hippolyte Aucoutier, who had already won the biggest existing events, Paris-Roubaix and Bordeaux-Paris. However, instead of christening the fine tradition of Tour champions, Aucoutier initiated the fine tradition of Tour dropouts, quitting after the fourth stage.

Fellow Frenchman Maurice Garin took advantage of the situation and won by a margin that remains the largest in Tour history: two hours and 49 minutes.

1923: A prodigal son returns

The great cyclist Henri Pelissier and Tour de France race director Henri Desgrange despised each other. A winner of almost every other major cycling race, Pelissier seemed to race the Tour specifically against Desgrange rather than against the other riders.

Pelissier quit the Tour, sometimes wearing the yellow jersey, no fewer than four times due to conflicts with Desgrange and with other race officials. But in 1923, Pelissier actually finished and won the event, many believe just because he knew it would bother the man who would have to award him his prize.

1948: What might have been

When Italian Gino Bartali won the 1938 Tour de France at age 24 by a whopping 18 minutes, it looked like the next Tour legend was in the making. History had other plans. Between 1940 and 1946 Bartalis peak years no Tours were held on account of World War II.

Yet Bartali would become a Tour legend nonetheless by returning to claim the 1948 Tour title. He won every Alpine stage plus two other stages in teaching the youngsters a lesson and thumbing his nose at history.

1957: The playboy cometh

Cycling was a workingmans sport in image and reality until the arrival of Jacques Anquetil. Brash and exciting, Anquetil captivated the publics attention not just with his riding but with his notorious partying, skirt chasing, sports car driving, and devil-may-care attitude.

Needless to say, other riders and the press loved to hate Anquetil, but his riding shut them up. A matchless time-trialer, he won the 1957 Tour handily even without factoring in the mountain stages. After belatedly paying his dues in the sport for the next four years, Anquetil returned to win the race four more times, becoming its first five-time winner.

An outspoken opponent of drug testing, Anquetil spoke the oft-quoted remark, You cant win the Tour de France on mineral water.

1974: The Cannibals last hurrah

Eddy Merckx earned his reputation as the greatest cyclist of all time primarily through his five victories in the only race that matters.

His most memorable victory was his last, which came after his streak of four consecutive wins was broken in 1973 by Luis Ocana and many cycling pundits were proclaiming that Merckx was through.

Although his climbing had always been his greatest weapon, it failed him in this year and he found himself nearly two minutes behind the leader at one point. Dramatically, Merckx came back to win by making up a tremendous amount of time descending the Alps at a frenzied, death-defying pace.

1986: An American champion

After intentionally losing the Tour de France in 1985 to help his teammate Bernard Hinault win his record-tying fifth Tour, Greg LeMond was determined to become the first American winner the following year.

Riding timidly at first, LeMond gained confidence in the Alps and took the yellow jersey from Hinault who had defaulted on a promise to return the favor to LeMond in the 17th stage. He squeaked out the overall victory by a margin of three minutes over Hinault.

1989: A comeback for the ages

Just six months after winning the Tour de France, LeMond was nearly killed in a hunting accident in Colorado. Although he returned to professional racing the following year, his old form was gone. The only spark he showed was in finish second in the final time trial of the Tour of Italy one month before the Tour de France.

As another American comeback kid would do 10 years later, LeMond reclaimed the yellow jersey in the opening time trial. However, the great Laurent Fignon, a two-time champion himself, was present and making a comeback of his own. The two giants fought tooth-and-nail throughout the race.

On the day of the final time trial, Fignon held a 50-second lead. Although LeMond was the superior time trialist, it was generally conceded that the stage was too short for the American to make up the gap. However, racing like a man possessed and benefitting from superior technology, LeMond clocked the fastest time trial in tour history and won the race by eight seconds.

1995: Records were made to be tied

Although three men (Jacques Anquetil, Eddy Merckx, and Bernard Hinault) had won five Tours before Spaniard Miguel Indurain went for his fifth, none of his predecessors had managed five in a row.

Showing his champions heart, "Big Mig," rather than ride conservatively, made a dramatic solo break in the first mountain stage, thrusting himself to the front of the general classification.

Laurent Jalabert returned the favor in a subsequent stage, putting 10 minutes on a scared Indurain, but the latter responded and won the Tour, and his place in history, fairly comfortably.

The following year, however, Indurain appeared all-too-comfortable, and blew his chance for an unprecedented sixth victory. He started the race overweight, was crushed in the Alps, and promptly retired at the conclusion of the 1996 Tour.

1999: Another great comeback

After the disastrous, scandalous Tour de Farce of 1998, the so-called greatest cycling race on earth needed a wholesome storyline with which to redeem itself. In Lance Armstrong, it got just what it needed.

As the whole world knows now, Armstrong was stricken with testicular cancer in 1996 at the age of 25. Thanks to aggressive treatment and the Texans otherwise sterling health, he recovered fully, despite the fact that the cancer spread to his brain. The world champion and Tour de France stage-winner missed only one season of racing.

Armstrong served notice that he was a great rider once more by finishing fourth in the 1998 Tour of Spain. The following July, he won the opening prologue of the Tour de France, then broke open the race in the first mountain stage.

Armstrong rode conservatively, pulling out the stops only to win the final time trial, and became the first cancer survivor and only the second American to won the Tour de France.


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