The cycling season is almost halfway. In about a month the biggest race of the year will start. But there are so many more races. And not only on a professional level. There are so many cycling races these days for amateurs. It made me think about the impact cycling can have in a country. In Europe, for instance, cycling is very popular. It is no wonder that all the three grand Tours take place in Europe. Why is it that cycling is so popular in Europe rather than in other parts of the world? To answer this question, we have to go way back in time.
In the 19th century, Europe was the continent with the biggest influence in the world. In the middle of this century the industrial revolution began in England and spread out to the other western countries in Europe. This created new jobs, thus more people moved to the cities in their countries. Another result of this revolution was that the roads were improved. Also, new tools were used to create machines, cars and bicycles. This led to the production of more bikes and the makers of them came up with quite some improvements over the years. Instead of walking or riding a horse, people bought a bicycle to get from place A to place B. It did not last long until someone came up with the idea of organising a bicycle race. The first bicycle race was held in Paris, France. It was on the 31st of May in 1868. It was a short race and it was held in the Parc de Saint-Cloud. The participants had to race against each other in a race over 1200 metres. It was won by an Englishman, James Moore.
It was such a success that in the following year another race was organised in France. It was the first race over a long distance. The race started in Paris and led the riders to Rouen, a distance of 124 kilometres. It was held on the 7th of November, 1869. A total of 120 riders participated in this race and again, James Moore, was the winner of the day. He completed the race in 10 hours and 40 minutes. He won a new bicycle and one thousand golden francs. Only 32 riders managed to finish within 24 hours, including one woman. The event was organized by the cycling magazine Le Vélocipède Illustre and the Oliver brothers. They were the owners of The Michaux Company, a bicycle manufacturer company. We could call them the first sponsors of a cycling event. In 1870, the Franco – Prussian war started and the race was no longer held.
France wasn’t the only country with short cycling races. In the next couple of years, short cycling races were organized all over Europe. In 1870, the ‘Old ordinary bike’ or ‘High bicycle’ was produced and used by people to race with. Races took place on the streets in several villages and sometimes thousands of people came to watch riders compete against each other in a race. This bike was not a safe bike though and a lot of accidents happened with it. Around 1888, manufacturers of bicycles came with a ‘safety bicycle’, introducing bicycles that were chain driven and that had wheels with the same diameter.
A cycling race with ‘high bicycles’
A good example of a street race held in a small village is ‘The Open Hill Climb’ in Catford, England. It took place for the first time in the year 1887. The riders rode up the Westerham Hill. The road was still unpaved, so it wasn’t easy for the riders. In the first edition, 24 riders started in the race and twelve of them made it all the way up. Along the hill, many spectators waited for the riders and cheered for them as they passed by. It was held by the Catford Cycling Club, founded in 1886. Around this time, cycling clubs were founded all over Europe.
The Hill Climb was announced in 1888
A couple of years later two races were held in France again. This was in the year 1891. The two races were Bordeaux – Paris and Paris-Brest-Paris. Bordeaux – Paris was a race of 600 kilometres, while Paris-Brest-Paris was a race of 1200 kilometres long. Both races were organized by newspapers and needed to increase the sales of the newspapers. Sales did increase and in the years after more new races were held, such as Liège-Bastogne-Liège in 1894, followed by Paris-Roubaix in 1896 and Paris-Brussels, also in 1896. All these races were sponsored by newspapers or magazines. It led to the first grand Tour in 1903. The magazine L’Auto needed more sales from their magazine. They did not think of a one-day race, but announced a three-weeks race instead, leading the riders around France. They called it the ‘Tour de France’ and it is still the most popular race until today.
Le Petit Journal was the sponsor of Paris-Brest-Paris
The roots of cycling take us back to England and France in the late 19th century. Western Europe was blooming during that time, which led to improved roads, proper bicycles and newspapers and magazines that needed money and found out that sponsoring a cycling race was just the way to improve the sales. That is the reason why cycling is so popular in Europe today. The roots of cycling are there.
Riders in a small town in France in the Tour de France of 1907