In its 100 years of history, the Tour de France has had some high moments and low moments. It's also produced at least one German winner.
The Tour de France has turned into a major media event.
On July 1, 1903, 60 cyclists embarked on the first-ever Tour de France from the Parisian suburb of Montgeron. The first segment of the trip was a 467 kilometer (290 mile) stretch, nearly twice the distance of a single stage today.
The event got its start as a publicity gimmick for the French sporting magazine L'Auto (today's L'Èquipe), but it eventually grew into the world's preeminent cycling race and one of the top sporting events – producing both heroic moments and legendary athletes, not to mention helping the magazine reach its desired circulation goals.
This Sunday, the event will celebrate its centennial as racers peddle their way from Paris to the Alps and from the Pyrenees to the Atlantic, beating sweltering heat and the harsh elements before wending their way back to the French capital. By the time the race ends on July 27, riders will have completed 20 stages and covered 3,427.5 kilometers of terrain. And during the 90th race, they will reflect on the event's history -- which has been nearly as rich as that of the Olympics.
Some of the most colorful athletic memories at the Tour de France have come from an elite group of racers who each won the event at least five times.
From the '50s to the mid- '60s, Frenchman Jacques Anquetil dominated the race, and from the end of the '60s through the mid-'70s, Belgian Eddy Merckx headed the pack. From the late '70s through the mid-'80s, Frenchman Bernhard Hinault was almost always first to cross the line, and in the '90s, the event belonged to Spanish cyclist Miguel Indurain. Last year, American cyclist Lance Armstrong won his fifth victory.
Germans on Tour
Germany , too, has written Tour de France history, even if it has only produced a single winner in 100 years. In 1932, Kurt Stöpel took second place. And in 1977, the then 22-year old Dietricht "Didi" Thurau rode in first place with the yellow jersey for more than two weeks, not losing it until the race climbed its way into the Alps.
"If I had had a little more experience, I think I could have won that race," Thurau recalls. "But things turned out differently. Still, it was great to be able to wear the yellow jersey for 15 days and such huge euphoria broke out in Germany. It could hardly have gone any better."
In the end, Thurau came in fifth place. The first German victor came along 20 years later, when Jan Ullrich (photo) celebrated his Tour de France win along the Champs Elysee in Paris in 1997.
"It's an incredible feeling to ride along the Champs Elysee," Ullrich remembers. "I had goosebumps. The kilometers passed by so incredibly quickly. At first I couldn't believe I had won. Instead I looked at my front and back tires to see if I had broken a spoke. I was afraid something would break or that I'd have an accident. It took me a little bit of time to realize [that I had won]."
But Ullrich and Thurau aren’t the only Germans to make their mark on the Tour de France. In 1962, Rudi Altig became the first German to wear the green jersey, which is awarded to the most consistent finisher in all 21 stages. He was followed in 1990 by Olaf Ludwig.
Erik Zabel of Germany wears the green jersey jubilates after the first stage of the Tour de France July 7, 2002.
Record-winning sprinter Erik Zabel donned the green jersey for six years in a row between 1996 and 2001. But last year he lost it to Australian Robbie McEwen. This year, he's taking that loss in stride.
"I had already won six times and felt like I was untouchable," he says. "For the next tour I hope to win again – and to enter into the race in good condition and the necessary freshness. And, of course, I have an advantage that will make it less stressful: I'm not in the position of having to defend my jersey."
But Germany's greatest hope for this year may again rest with Jan Ullrich, who is competing in the race for the first time since he was sidelined after having knee surgery and getting caught using ecstasy.
Highs and lows
Of course the Tour's 100-year history hasn’t been without its scandals. As far back as 1904, race organizers had to disqualify one cyclist after discovering that he had completed some of the stretches by train or car. And there were even doping problems to cope with in the early years, the most dramatic of them ending in death. Tom Simpson, a Brit, died during the 1967 event while ascending one of the most challenging stretches on the route: Mount Ventoux. He had pumped himself full of amphetamines and alcohol and, quite literally, pushed his body to the limit.
"Tom Simpson fell for the first time during the first ascent of Mount Ventoux," recollects Rolf Wolfshohl, a German cyclist who was racing as part of Simpson's group. "People helped him back on his bike two or three times and pushed him along. He just rode along apathetically. But in the end he couldn't go any further and he had to be evacuated by helicopter. He was announced dead on arrival at the hospital."
Tour de France doping scandals hit their lowest point in 1998. That year French cyclist Richard Virenque's Festina team was disqualified from the race after border police discovered doping substances in the car of one of the team's crew. The discovery led to raids throughout the event – and some teams even fled across the border to avoid getting caught or merely boycotted the rest of the race.
German cyclist Jens Voigt recalls the event angrily. "We're just cyclists – it wasn't like we had been accused of anything or that we had committed any kind of bad crime. But we were treated like criminals," he says.
Fans having lunch by the road wave as the pack rides past on July 7, 2002.
There were other memories, too, including some humorous ones. In 1950, after taking the lead, Algerian racer Abdelkader Zaaf stopped by a sidewalk cafe and emptied two bottles of wine to quench his thirst. After sleeping off his stupor under a tree, he started back on the course hours later but went in the wrong direction – right back to the starting line.
But somehow, even with the scandals, the popularity of the race just keeps growing stronger. And even though technology continues to enhance the equipment used by riders and sports science continues to improve the way they train, it's still one of the world's biggest sporting challenges.
"People always say that the race has gotten easier," says Ferdi Kübler of Switzerland, the oldest living winner of the Tour de France. "But it's just changed. People have more and better materials, they have more masseurs and mechanics. The care is also much better. They can even be fed in cars. We couldn't do any of that. But in my opinion it is still the most difficult sport in the world."