Today in Transportation History – 1940: Passing of a Tour de France Founder

Bicycle pioneer Henri Desgrange died in the commune of Beauvallon in southeastern France at the age of 75. Desgrange had been born into a middle-class family in Paris in 1865. Early on in his working life, he served as a clerk in one of the city’s law firms. Desgrange also developed a strong enthusiasm for bicycling for this time and – according to stories that might or might not be apocryphal – he lost his job at the law firm either for riding a bicycle to the office or exposing the outline of his calves in tight socks while pedaling through the streets of Paris.

In any case, Desgrange’s departure from the law firm proved to be both a personal and professional milestone for him as he set aside a potential career in law to pursue bicycling activities on a full-time basis. In 1891, Desgrange attended his first professional bicycle competition in 1891 as part of the crowd watching the inaugural Bordeaux-Paris cycling race. He soon began participating in various bicycle competitions, finding his niche in races that involved endurance riding.

In 1893, Desgrange established one of the earliest official hour-long records in bicycling when he rode 22 miles at the Vélodrome Paris. He went on to also set new records for 31-, 62-, and 100-mile bicycle races. By 1894, Desgrange had gained enough expertise and confidence in bicycling that he wrote a training manual for the sport entitled “La tête et les jambs.”

Desgrange’s involvement in bicycling ultimately extended well beyond just participating in races. He assumed managerial roles for venues where those races took place, becoming director of the newly built Parc des Princes velodrome in 1897 and director of the Vélodrome d’Hiver (the first permanent indoor track in France) near the Eiffel Tower in 1903.

It was also in 1903 that Desgrange, as editor of the French sports newspaper L’Auto (forerunner of today’s L’Équipe), established one of his most lasting legacies as the organizer of the Tour de France multi-stage bicycle race. Despite Desgrange’s own apprehensions, the inaugural Tour de France proved to be a huge success and the race has since become one of the most popular and prestigious sports events in the world.

A monument to Desgrange was built at Col du Galibier, a mountain pass that is part of the Tour de France in southeastern France, and a prize is awarded each year to the first rider to travel through the area during the race.

For more information on Henri Desgrange, check out https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Henri_Desgrange

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