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Today, the Tour de France is the most famous cycling event in the world, and it’s also considered one of the toughest sporting events. But most fans of the Tour de France don’t know how different the race was back in 1903, when the first Tour de France challenged cyclists with a grueling competition.

On July 1, 1903, sixty riders entered the first Tour de France, chasing 20,000 francs in prize money. Journalist Geo Lefevre created the race as a publicity stunt to sell newspapers, and it quickly became a fan favorite. But the first stage, a nearly 300-mile ride from Paris to Lyon, almost destroyed the cyclists. The men braved unpaved roads with no helmets, and the extreme distance forced the cyclists to race by moonlight.

Over a third of the racers gave up during the first day.

The first stage winner, a former chimney sweep named Maurice Garin, grabbed the top spot after a grueling 17-hour ride. Garin went on to win the 1903 Tour de France when he raced from Nantes to cross the finish line in Paris on July 18, 1903. Only 21 of the original 60 riders completed the race.

Cycling technology looked completely different in the early twentieth century. In 1903, cyclists road steel bicycles with wooden rims, which weighed considerably more than the 15-pound minimum weight introduced in 2000. Plus, in the early years, riders weren’t allowed to receive any help during the race. Cyclists carried spare tires and tubes, and they repaired their own flats on the side of the road.

Since 1903, new technologies have transformed the Tour de France, from lightweight carbon frames to aerodynamic helmets. And cyclists chase any technology that promises an advantage. That’s one reason Tour de France cyclists rely on nitrogen in their tires. Nitrogen limits tire pressure fluctuations due to temperature changes, a major advantage over regular air. As cyclists climb mountains and ride through the French countryside, nitrogen-filled tires maintain pressure, which improves handling.

And professional cyclists aren’t the only ones who benefit from nitrogen inertion––drivers can also switch from compressed air to nitrogen, which keeps car tires at the correct pressure longer and saves wear and tear. Just like cyclists gain an advantage because of technology, drivers can also improve handling and avoid under-inflation with nitrogen.

Post Author: Genevieve Carlton Ph.D.

Ph.D. - Research Historian from Northwestern University. A writer and researcher she has published pieces for Ranker, Stacker and Atlas Obscura. She has published a nonfiction history book with the University of Chicago Press and a number of scholarly articles with top journals.

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