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NZZ

Tour de France:
What has remained of the Myth


Published as a preview to the 106th Tour de France. A colloborative data-based look at the differences in the sport and event from the first tour. It is still the race where heroes are born and careers are destroyed. But many things have changed.

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Written, researched, and visualized in collaboration with Claudia Rey and Christof Krapf. Read the article in German here.


In 1903, Henri Desgrange, the founder of the sports newspaper L'Auto, sought a way to increase the circulation of his newspaper. He invents the Tour de France.

60 cyclists start in the suburbs of Paris for the first Tour de France. After a few kilometers, there is a major wreck. The drama is exactly what Desgrange is looking for: He prints a special edition. The myth of the suffering heroes of the tour is born. Since then, the world's most famous and biggest cycling race has been captivating millions of spectators year after year. The myth has remained, but many things have changed.

How the sport has changed 

We looked at 🥇the winners,  🤦🏻‍♂️ the losers, 🇨🇭the Swiss,  🗺 the stages, 🚐 the caravan and 💰 the prize



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🥇The winners
The first 36 finals are dominated by racers from France, Italy and the Benelux countries.
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Finally in 1950 comes Switzerland – the Züricher Ferdy Kübler. Over time the Tour is won by riders outside of Europe and they got faster.


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🥇 The winners
Average speed over the overall winner. The speediest of todays Tour cyclists are almost 20 km/h faster than those in 1903. 

In the early years of the race, over half of the cyclists couldn't even finish. With the introduction of teams 🚴🏻‍♂️🚴🏻‍♂️and escort cars, the number who make it to the finish line has increased. Today crashes are the reason for a cyclist has to throw in the towel.


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🤦🏻‍♂️ The losers 
Proportion of entrants in procent who finish the race to the end
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In the first half century of the Tour de France only between 40-60% finish the race. Today the finishing rate hovers around 80%.

In the early years of the tour many athletes give up. They overestimate themselves, are no match for the more than 400 kilometers long stages. Some lose their sense of direction or ambition.

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🚴🏻‍♂️🚴🏻‍♂️ The team 
Team structure 1903 and today. 
The team structure drastically changed. In 1903, Maurice Garin was on his own: repairs to the bicycle, drinks, food - all up to him to take care of. Today, teams consist of eight cyclists and more than 20 supervisors.

Where are the Swiss 🇨🇭in all this?
At the beginning of the fifties, the Swiss finally had their moment of Tour de France fame: with Ferdy Kübler in 1950 and Hugo Koblet in 1951, two Zurich successors win the Tour de France. Since then Switzerland has never again won.


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🇨🇭 The swiss
Number of swiss cyclists who entered the Tour de France. 

In 1982 fourteen Swiss cyclists are at the starting line - before and after that there are were more than ten. The 1982 race began with the prologue in Leimental. For three days the tour team traveled through Switzerland. And on the 20th of July, a Swiss moment of glory follows: Beat Breu wins on the legendary Alpe d'Huez.

The Swiss are also successful in sport in the 1990s - almost every year a Swiss rider is in the top ten.

🗺 The actual route of the tour has also seen some changes. The first Tour de France was 6 stages up to 467 kilometers long. 

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🗺The route 
The Tour is significantly shorter and the stages are not even half as long as they were in the early years.


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🗺 Proportion of the stages categorized as flat, hilly, mountain or time trials.  

Until 1927 there were only flat and mountain stages. Then the organizers had the idead to stagger start intervals in 16 of the 24 stages. This way the teams do not see the opponents and therefore have to cycle each section fast as possible. The new format seems to be a fiasco. It leads to crowd confusion as no one can judge which cyclist is in the lead. 

Today, there are usually two time trials in the stage plan. It can be single, team or mountain time trial.


The meat producer Cochonou in the closing ceremony in 2016 on the Champs-Elysées in Paris. The caravan of advertising vehicles has signifantly grown overtime and since become a political issue. 

🚐 And this 160-car-long advertising parade?
The caravan was invented in 1930 for the cash of course. Back then, there were only three sponsors in six decorated cars following the athletes and tossing giveaways to the spectators. In 2018, 35 sponsors participated with a total of 160 vehicles.


But the caravan often is the recipient of harsh criticism. Several times spectators have been run over by escort cars and fatally injured. In any case, today more than 47% of the crowd say they come just to see the caravan.

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🚐 Survey answers reporting the reason to watch the tour, in procent. 

💰All this caravan-ing and broadcasting has over the years drastically increased the budget of the Tour.

When Desgrange announces the Tour de France in 1903, hardly any athletes signed up. The entry fee of 20 francs, the meager prize money and the duration of five weeks scared off many. Desgrange raises the prize money to 20,000 francs (today: 78,851 Euros), shortens the race, halves the entry fee and guarantees the athlete five francs daily allowance.


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💰Thanks to broadcasting rights, the prize money has significantly increased 
Amount of prize money in Euros (converted to 2013 Euros) 

In the thirties, the tour becomes more lucrative for the drivers - the budget and thus the prize money increase thanks to the newly launched advertising caravan. The adverising opportunities and broadcasting rights overtime has increased the overall prize pool and that of the first place winner. Though, compared to other events like Wimbledon – with 2.6 million Euros going to the 1st place winner –the amount is low.



This article was also converted into a one-page information graphic for the print edition of the paper. 



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