Since its inception in 1903 France has been the pre-eminent nation in Le Tour. French riders have won more Tours than those of any other nation, crossing the finish line in Paris 36 times in the 101 editions of the race that have been run to 2014; twice the total of second placed Belgium. French riders have also won more stages than those of any other nation, 693 in total. Belgium are again in second place with 467. France can also claim the first ever winner of Le Tour, Maurice Garin in 1903; the first winner of consecutive Tours, Lucien Petit-Breton in 1907 and 1908; the first winner of three consecutive Tours, Louison Bobet in 1953, 1954 and 1955; and the first five-times winner of Le Tour, Jacques Anquetil in 1957, 1961, 1962, 1963 and 1964. Despite this statistical dominance the last French overall victory came in 1985 when Bernard Hinault won his 5th Tour. Since then the French have barely troubled the podium, with only Hinault placing second in 1986, Jean-François Bernard third in 1987, Laurent Fignon second in 1989, Richard Virenque third in 1996 and second in 1997, and after a long gap Jean-Christophe Péraud and Thibaut Pinot claimed second and third respectively in 2014.
Henri Desgrange, the Father of the Tour, was an intensely patriotic Frenchman who in 1914 enrolled in the French Army at the age of 50, going on to receive the Croix de Guerre for heroism during combat. Desgranges always saw Le Tour as a uniquely French race, a celebration of La Patrie, and while he wanted the victory to fall to the best rider Desgrange wanted that rider to be French. Ironically, given that Desgrange once claimed that the ideal Tour would be one so hard that only one rider would be strong enough to finish the race, it was a curious rule that left Le Tour’s first ever non-French stage winner in a position where he could continue to compete.
The rules of the 1903 Tour were designed to make it a competition of individual strength and performance. Riders were banned from being paced, whether by other riders or motor-cars. They were required to source their own food, to ride on the same bicycle throughout the race, and make their own running repairs without assistance. Strangely the rules also allowed for a rider to continue the race after they had abandoned a stage. While no longer eligible for overall victory they could continue to ride for stage wins and daily prizes. Given the monumental length of the stages in the first Tour (the first stage from Paris to Lyons was 467 kilometres long) this rule made some sense. Poor road conditions, inclement weather, and the risk of mechanical failure could all conspire to rule out a rider’s chance of overall victory by creating insurmountable time losses. The rule allowing riders to continue after abandoning a stage gave them an incentive to carry on even if ultimate victory was now beyond their grasp.
It was under such conditions that the Swiss rider, Charles Laeser, became the first non-French stage winner in the very first Tour de France. Having abandoned on stage 3, a 423 kilometre monster ride from Marseille to Toulouse, Laeser was back on the start line for stage 4, the 1903 Tour’s shortest stage at just 267 kilometres from Toulouse to Bordeaux. As he was no longer in contention for the overall Laeser had to start the day’s racing one hour behind those who were still competing for the general classification. Legend has it that during the stage he stopped to help another rider from the first group repair his wheel before riding on himself, which if true makes his victory on stage 4 all the more remarkable. The first group of six crossed the line in Bordeaux led by Julien Lootens who rode under the name Samson, and for a while Lootens was regarded as the stage winner. 50 minutes later Laesens crossed the line, signed in with the officials, who discovered that Laesens had covered the distance 4 minutes and 3 seconds faster than Lootens. Laesens was declared the stage victor, becoming the first non-French winner of a Tour stage, ironically beating the Belgian Lootens into second place thus denying him the honour. Had all the riders started at the same time one wonders if the result would have been the same.
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