The Tour de France currently under way started on July 1st in Düsseldorf. Yes, that's in Germany. And that is not as strange as it sounds.
The Tour is both the oldest and most popular of the world's major cycling races. Although the three-weeks-long race traditionally ends at the Champs-Élysées in Paris (1), the initial stage has often, and with increasing frequency, been located outside France.
Those excursions – sometimes followed by one or more stages abroad before returning to la patrie – have so far been limited to eight of France's close neighbours (the Netherlands, Belgium, Germany, Switzerland, Luxembourg, Spain, Ireland and the UK). An overview by year (start-finish):
- 1954: Amsterdam-Brasschaat
- 1958: Brussels-Ghent
- 1965: Cologne-Liege
- 1973: Scheveningen-Scheveningen
- 1975: Charleroi-Charleroi
- 1978: Leyden-Leyden
- 1980: Frankfurt-Frankfurt
- 1982: Basel-Basel
- 1987: West Berlin-West Berlin
- 1989: Luxembourg-Luxembourg
- 1992: San Sebastian-San Sebastian
- 1996: Den Bosch-Den Bosch
- 1998: Dublin-Dublin
- 2002: Luxembourg-Luxembourg
- 2004: Liege-Liege
- 2007: London-London
- 2009: Monaco-Monaco
- 2010: Rotterdam-Rotterdam
- 2012: Liege-Liege
- 2014: Leeds-Harrogate
- 2015: Utrecht-Utrecht
- 2017: Düsseldorf-Düsseldorf
Because of its long history – the current edition is the 104th one – the race also known as La Grande Boucle (the 'Big Loop', for its course around France), is a goldmine for statisticians and trivia fans. Here are a few nuggets:
- The Tour de France was first organised in 1903, usually takes up most of July, and has been held every year since, except during the World Wars and their immediate aftermath (1915-18 and 1940-46).
- The first race was won by Maurice Garin, who could have won the next year too – had he not been caught cheating: for part of one stage across the Alps, he took a train rather than his bike.
- The entire race this year covers approximately 3,500 km (app. 2,200 mi). The longest one ever was the 1926 edition: 5745 km (app. 3,570 mi).
- Participants will burn up to 5,000 calories per stage, and sweat enough over the entire race to flush a toilet 39 times.
- Paris is the city that has hosted the most starts and/or finishes (139), followed by Bordeaux (80), Pau (68), Bagnères-de-Luchon (58) and Metz (40).
- The Tour attracts a global tv audience of around 3.5 billion every year and around 12 million roadside spectators – more than the Olympics or the soccer World Cup - making it the largest single sporting spectacle in the world.
- Australian Stuart O'Grady and German Jens Voigt hold the record for most participations (17).
- The yellow jersey, for a particular day's leader in the general ranking and thus also for the final victor after the last stage, was worn by just a single participant – i.e. the eventual winner – during the Tours of 1903, 1924, 1928, 1935 and 1999. The maximum number of wearers was 8, in 1958 and 1987.
- The winners are determined by total raced time. They usually, but not necessarily also win one or more stages of the race. Six participants won without doing so: Firmin Lambot of Belgium in 1922, Roger Walkowiak of France in 1956, Gastone Nencini of Italy in 1960, Lucien Aimar of France in 1966, Greg LeMond of the U.S. in 1990 and Óscar Pereiro of Spain in 2006.
- At 36 years old, Firmin Lambot was the oldest winner ever, in 1922. The youngest ever was Frenchman Henri Cornet, 20 years old in 1904.
- The smallest margin between winner and runner-up was 8 seconds, in 1989, when American Greg LeMond beat Frenchman Laurent Fignon. The largest margin remains that of the first Tour: 2 hours, 49 minutes and 45 seconds between Maurice Garin and fellow Frenchman Lucien Pothier.
- The fastest race yet was in 2005, with an average speed of 41.6 km/h (25.7 mph). The slowest race was in 1919: the average speed was 24.05 km/h (14.9 mph).
- 1919 also was the year with fewest participants finishing the race: only 10.
- Belgian Eddy Merckx holds the record for most stages won by a single rider (34), most days spent in the yellow jersey (96), and most Tours won (5 – an honour he shares with Jacques Anquetil, Bernard Hinault and Miguel Indurain).
- Lance Armstrong won seven consecutive Tours between 1999 and 2005, but was stripped of his titles in 2012 when it emerged he had used doping. The disgraced American has since compared himself to cyclism's Lord Voldemort: He of whom nobody speaks.
Maps are another way to bring Tour stats to life. French newspaper Le Monde has made an interactive map, showing its readers how often the race has passed through their particular département. Moving the slides along the ruler above the map allows you to choose between an all-time overview, or zoom in on a particular period.
In the first decades of its existence, the Tour generally remained true to the circumambulatory course that its name implies. The stages followed a route near the outer borders of the country, generally staying clear of the French interior.
Brittany was generally also avoided, because of its eccentric location – Bretagne is a peninsula pointing away from France proper, surrounded on three sides by the Atlantic. Also avoided before World War I was Alsace-Lorraine, but for geopolitical rather than geographic reasons: the area was part of Germany. The first Tour passed through the area in 1919, immediately after its re-annexation to France.
When viewing the map for the entire history of the Tour, the course along the (vaguely) hexagonal edge of France's borders is somewhat less pronounced, but still some departments are clearly more popular than others. As Le Monde explains, from the 1970s onward, the introduction of demi-étapes (half-stages) and more off-beat routes ensured that the less-well-visited areas of France also got their share of Tour attention. In 2013, for the Tour's 100th edition, the race had its initial and second stage on Corsica, the first (and as yet only) time the race ever made it to the French island in the Mediterranean.
The least-visited mainland department is Indre, unsurprisingly near the centre of the country. The Tour passed through here for the first time only in 1992, but the organisers seem eager to make up for their oversight: Indre has been visited by the Tour 7 more times in the quarter century since.
Paris, the end point of the race and for most of the years until the Fifties also the starting point, naturally is the most-visited place. The mountainous Pyrenees region on the Spanish border is a virtual certainty every year. The most-visited departments outside Paris are all here: Hautes-Pyrénées (100 times), Pyrénées-Atlantiques (98) and Haute-Garonne (97).
The only other department with over 90 visits is Savoie, in the Alps. Also quite popular, and virtually flat, is the département du Nord. Zoom in on the years from 1950 to 1970, and a block of four northern departments darkens to deep blue, showing one of that era's three Tour hotspots – the others being the southwest and southeast.
Select the last ten Tours, and it is clear the centre of gravity has shifted southward, with a dark blue zone stretching from the Pyrenees all the way to the Alps.
The Tour tool is a lot of fun, and can help you kill some of the hours between the start and finish for each of the stages that separate the cyclists from the finish line on the Champs-Élysées on 23 July.
Strange Maps #847.
Got a strange map? Let me know at email@example.com.
(1) For every year since 1975. The very first race ended at Ville-d'Avray, west of Paris. From 1904 to 1967, the finish line was at Parc des Princes in the southwest of the French capital. From 1968 to 1974, the Tour ended at the Vélodrome de Vincennes, east of Paris.