The Story of the Tour de France

From the WebMD Archives

July 27, 2001 -- The Tour de France is where the crème de la crème of the world's cycling elite race around France for 20 days, vying for a large cash prize and the title as the world's best cyclist. What does it take to be a Tour de France contender? Read on to find out.

The Tour de France owes its birth to a man named Henri Desgrange. In the 1890's Desgrange paid the bills by working as a legal clerk, but by 1903, Desgrange was editor of the French sports magazine L'Auto. As a publicity stunt for the magazine, he and the journal's chief cycling reporter, Georges Lefèvre came up with the idea of the longest ever cycling race and dubbed it the Tour de France. The rest, as they say, is history.

Today, the race is 3,454 km (or nearly 2,142 miles) long and is divided into 20 stages: 10 flat, 3 medium mountain, 4 high mountain, 2 individual time-trial, and 1 team time-trial. Starting in Dunkerque at the Northern tip of France on July 7th, the racers wend their way down the east side of the country then up the middle, ending in Paris on July 29.

This year's participants make up 21 teams of nine bikers each, hailing from the U.S., France, Belgium, Italy, Germany, Spain, Denmark, and the Netherlands, for a total of 189 participants. At least for U.S. enthusiasts, this year's star is cancer survivor Lance Armstrong. Hailing from Texas, he won the race last year and the year before. His particular strength is in biking the mountainous regions. Probably his biggest competition once again this year is German Jan Ullrich, who won the tour in 1997 and came in second in '96, '98, and 2000.

So, what does it take to bike up to 140 miles a day, through all types of straight-aways, monstrous inclines, and hairpin turns?

Andrew Feldman, MD, tells WebMD that a sport like cycling, "requires a tremendous amount of endurance for a long period of time. ... You have to have the genetic capacity to do it [well]. Then you can train yourself to be great at it. ... [In the Tour de France], you're now in competition with all the [cycling] prodigies from every country ... who have been nurtured in the same way. ... Then it becomes a matter of little things [like] ... specific training at a specific altitude, equipment, ... hydration ... diet, and ... the psychological factor of getting through the grueling task of being at that level of competition."

Feldman is chief of sports medicine at St. Vincent's Hospital in New York, and author of the book, Jock Doc's Body Repair Kit.

Cycling enthusiast Mark Hribar and women's basketball coach at Susquehanna University in Selinsgrove, Pa., tells WebMD that a typical training program for a Tour de France cyclist starts with some preseason running, followed by long-distance biking for six to seven hours a day on flat surfaces as well as hills and mountains. The participants then sharpen their skills by breaking up these long rides into intervals of 15 or so minutes each in which they alternately ride hard and then back off a little. Gradually, they shorten these intervals. Before the Tour, the cyclists participate in other races to hone their skills and test their abilities. After the Tour, they may take a little time off, but many also participate in several other races taking place across the globe.

Individual cyclists develop their own personal training techniques. Armstrong, for instance, rides in a lower gear, a technique called 'spinning', to increase his heart rate. He also does some hard hill biking.

For the rest of us, consider some gentle biking around the neighborhood and maybe watching the Tour de France on TV.