• Spectators cheering competitors in the 1951 Tour de France. (Getty)Source: Getty
One of the hardest sporting events in the world, well over 100 years of history, with thousands of competitors... there's plenty of ridiculous facts that come out of every edition of the Tour de France!
By
Jamie Finch-Penninger

5 Jul 2021 - 9:11 AM  UPDATED 5 Jul 2021 - 9:11 AM

SBS is the official broadcaster of the Tour de France with LIVE, FREE and EXCLUSIVE coverage of TDF 2021 from June 26 - July 18.

How to watch the 2021 Tour de France LIVE on SBS
Don't miss a pedal stroke of the 2021 Tour de France from 26 June to 18 July, as SBS Cycling Central brings you every moment LIVE, FREE and EXCLUSIVE via SBS and streaming online via SBS On Demand plus the SBS ŠKODA Tour Tracker App.

A sporting event with no parallel, the long history of the Tour de France has seen the drama, passion and stories of thousands of cyclists over the years illuminate the roads of the French countryside as the top cyclists in the world battle for the famous yellow jersey.

1. An epic race

Competitors in the Tour de France aren’t your average professional athletes, these are some of the toughest competitors in the world. Last year’s edition saw the riders tackle 58,831 metres of vertical ascent during the race, that’s equivalent of 6.64 ascents of Mt Everest!

Though, of course, the Tour de France hasn’t yet headed to the Himalayas. The mountainous terrains they tackle are the peaks of the Alps, Pyrenees, Massif Central, Vosges and Jura mountains.

2. Eating your way around France

To fuel all that climbing and effort, you need to take in an awful lot of food! Cyclists expend between 17,000 to 29,000 KiloJoules(KJ) per stage of the race, the average recommended male adult intake is 8700 KJ. So, up to 3.5 times the average on the hardest days of racing.

It’s no surprise to see riders eating consistently while on the bike, scoffing some energy-rich food and specially made carbohydrate-packed gels to keep their glycogen levels up. In modern times, nutritionists and cooks are a key part of every team’s staff.

SBS viewers can take a more leisurely culinary tour through France than the riders with Guillaume Brahimi’s cooking show, Plat du Tour. The acclaimed French-Australian chef highlights special ingredients of the region that the Tour travels through and puts his own twist on some classic recipes.

3. Sweat it out, drink it back!

Scientific studies have come out showing a massive decrease in performance when athletes have sweat out 2-3 per cent of their body mass. With peak sweat rates reaching 1.5 litres an hour at high effort in the French summer, it doesn’t take long for waterless riders to get to a point where they’re dehydrated. 

An estimated 37,000 water bottles will be consumed by the 176 riders during the 21 stages of the Tour, taken from team cars trailing the peloton and helpers positioned at key points along the route. Riders in teams called ‘domestiques’ (French for servant) also perform that helper role for their designated team leader, dropping back to cars to collect bottles, or offer their own to their team leader if he missed an opportunity to grab one.

4. Taking teamwork to a whole new level

So, cooperation with your team is clearly pretty important but one particularly impressive selfless display has lived down the ages.

René Vietto was leading the 1934 race in the Pyrenees when he heard his leader, Antonin Magne, was stuck at the top of Col de Port with an unrideable bike after a wheel buckled. The problem was that Vietto was in the lead of the race, at the bottom of the descent from the Col de Port, and faced a choice of riding on to potentially win the race, or head backwards on the course to help his team leader.

Displaying incredible loyalty, Vietto turned around, climbed back up the mountain and gave his front wheel to his team leader. The scenario nearly repeated itself the next day, when on the descent of the Col de Portet d’Aspet, Magne broke his chain. Again, Vietto was on point, this time giving his bike to his leader. Magne went on to win the race, Vietto was fifth overall and despite coming close late rin his career, would never win the Tour de France.

There’s another amazing story of Vietto, that he had a septic toe amputated rather pull out of the 1947 Tour de France… of course this is untrue. Instead, he had a lot of penicillin administered on the rest day and had the toe amputated post-race.

5. The only Australian Tour de France winner

Cadel Evans may not have had the same quality of legend attached to his performances, but he was building his own epic, a story of the unlucky runner-up at the Tour de France. He was second in consecutive Tours de France in 2007 and 2008. The first was by the second smallest winning margin in Tour history, just 23 seconds behind Alberto Contador.  

He was getting older as well, and many thought the younger generation of Grand Tour stars had passed Evans and he was unable to get back to his best after several injury-plagued Tours. The 34-year-old didn’t know when to quit though and his performance at the 2011 Tour de France captivated Australians as they watched first Aussie win in the legendary race first run in 1903.

6. Margin of victory

The least amount of time to complete a Tour de France is 86 hours 15 minutes and two seconds - at an average speed of 41.7 km/hr. So you’d think the winner would take victory by maybe an hour? 10 minutes in a closer year?
Certainly in the first year of the Tour, 1903, on unpaved roads, riders carrying their own equipment and days of racing getting up to 471 kilometres in length that was the case. That first race was won by Maurice Garin by two hours, 59 minutes and 21 seconds, a record that doesn’t look like being bested anytime soon.

These days, winning margins are just a few minutes, even down to the seconds, meaning that the race for the famous yellow jersey awarded to the leader of the Tour de France is often balanced on a knife’s edge.

7. Controversy

”The Tour de France has finished and I fear that this second edition of the event has also been the last.” -Henri Desgrange, Tour de France founder.

Made in the wake of a scandal-infested 1904 Tour, it has turned out to be one of the least founded fears in the history of sport, as the Tour de France attracts as much interest from mainstream media for the moments outside the norm that embrace the at times farcical nature of the sport. Cheats, misadventure, dramatic crashes and all the stories that accompany a travelling sporting circus around a loop of France have stoked the fires of public fascination.

The 1904 Tour was coming to a head when young Henri Cornet had his food spiked by sleeping pills ahead of a key stage. Cornet crashed heavily the next day and appeared out of the running for the win. He battled his way to fourth by the finish, but found himself elevated to the win after the top three competitors - including 1903 winner Maurice Garin - were found to have taken a train during the race. All three were disqualified and Henri Cornet at just 19 remains the youngest ever winner of the Tour de France. 

8. Performance enhancing drugs

Drugs in the early days of the Tour de France were mostly painkillers, used to make the marathon days in the saddle easier. Alcohol, ether and strychnine (rat poison) were in use commonly through to 1965, when a banned substance list was introduced to the sport. Even cigarettes in the early days were smoked prior to big climbs, the feeling being that they opened up the lungs.

Post the banned substances list, doping has gone underground, the dark science of sport. Scandals such as the Festina affair at the 1998 Tour de France, Floyd Llandis’ drug-fuelled 2006 Tour win and the drama after Lance Armstrong’s seven Tour de France titles being stripped when his doping history became public have rocked the cycling world.

Cycling is now the most stringently policed sport for doping; out of competition testing, unannounced visits, intelligence operations that have uncovered doping rings and a biological passport that monitors athletes for unusual fluctuations in biological levels all play their part in changing the efficacy of cheating to win. Cycling’s culture has changed as well, many more riders are prepared to speak out about cheating within the ranks of the peloton.

9. Started as a way to sell newspapers

That the Tour wasn’t begun with the idea of testing the peak of physical achievement is an odd thought, but the race began as a way to prop up falling circulation of L’Equipe fore-runner, L’Auto. It was having its sales threatened by rival publication Le Velo and thought a grand cycling race, with the results and stories covered exclusively in the paper would give it the edge in the cutthroat world of news.

So it proved, and the Tour de France has grown into the worldwide phenomenon it is today, with the race broadcast to 190 nations each year.  

10. What's next in the list at the 108th edition of the Tour de France in 2021?

The history books aren’t yet closed on the Tour de France with pages still to be written in a likely continuation of the mix of celebration of physical achievement, drama and controversy that has seen ‘Le Tour’ become a mainstay of many sporting fans’ yearly schedule. The 3,383km 2021 edition of the Tour de France shapes as one where the next generation of cycling is set to confirm its hold on the sport.

Reigning champion Tadej Pogačar was the youngest winner since Cornet all the way back in that controversial 1904 Tour and is already building a legend of being one of the best riders in history after an immense comeback performance on the penultimate day to win last year’s Tour.

You can watch the race on SBS and SBS OnDemand from June 26 to July 18, with all the race news, highlights and viewing details on the SBS Cycling Central website.