Henri Desgrange Biography

Cyclist (1865–1940)
French bicyclist Henri Desgrange is best known for organizing the first Tour de France.


Born in Paris, France, Henri Desgrange trained in the legal profession, before he turned his love for cycling into a career. In 1893 Desgrange set the one-hour record for cycling, and soon after began writing books about cycling and edited a cycling magazine. In 1903, Desgrange organized the first Tour de France—today the world's biggest cycling event. He died in 1940 in Beauvallon, France.

Early Life

Born Henri Desgrange on January 31, 1865, in Paris, France, along with twin brother Georges Desgrange. Henri was born into a middle class family, and became a bike enthusiast at an early age. To make a living professionally, however, Desgrange became a lawyer, and worked as a clerk at the Depeux-Dumesnil law office. When a client spotted Desgrange biking to work, and daring to show his bare calves in public while doing so, the law clerk was given a choice between keeping his job and cycling. He chose to leave the law office.

The World of Cycling

After leaving his job, Desgrange fully immersed himself in the world of bike racing. Upon watching his first professional race in 1891, he persuaded the owner of the Folies Bergres burlesque theater to invest some of his profits into a bike racing arena, called a velodrome. In 1893, at this velodrome, Desgrange set the world's first one-hour cycling record: a distance of 21.9 miles. After breaking this record, Desgrange increased his involvement in the biking world. He wrote bike coaching manuals, including the book La Tte et les Jambes (1894) (in English, The Head and the Legs), which discussed his thoughts on the sport of professional bike racing. In 1897, he began work as the program director for the Parc des Princes velodrome and, several years later, also director for Velodrome d'Hiver.

Desgrange stumbled into the life as a sports editor in the early 1900s, after sports publication Le Velo printed an article advocating for the acquittal of soldier Alfred Dreyfus, who had been convicted of selling government secrets to the Germans. Several large financiers of the paper disagreed with the article, withdrew their financial backing, and started a rival publication, called L'Auto. They asked Desgrange to be their editor-in-chief.

Tour de France

But Desgrange knew little of the publishing business and, when the magazine began suffering from poor circulation shortly after its creation, he turned to cycling to save the sinking publication. In 1903, at the suggestion of one of his writers, Desgrange proposed a "Tour de France", a cycling event that would be sponsored by L'Auto. After a bit of deliberation, Desgrange and his team announced the race in January 1903, declaring it to be "the greatest cycling trial in the entire world. A race more than a month long: Paris to Lyon to Marseille to Toulouse to Bordeaux to Nantes to Paris." The promotion more than doubled the magazine's waning numbers.

Desgrange scheduled five weeks for the race, from May 31 to July 5, and listed an entry fee of 20 francs. The conditions were deemed too hard, however, and a week before the event only 15 people had dared to sign up. Panicked, Desgrange then shortened the race dates to July 1 through July 19, promised a five franc per day allowance to the first 50 riders, and increased the prize money to 20,000 francs. Suddenly, 60 riders had signed up.

Still afraid the race would be a failure, Desgrange didn't attend the first Tour de France on July 1, 1903; instead, he allowed writer Georges Lefvre to handle the logistics. The race, however, was a runaway success, with a crowd of 20,000 paying spectators at the finish line waiting for the winner. After the race, Desgrange released a special edition of l'Auto, which sold 130,000 copies.

Later Life

In 1936, after suffering from health issues, Henri Desgrange discovered he would need two prostate operations, with the Tour de France to fall between them. Desgrange convinced his surgeon to allow him to follow the race. Laid in a car packed with cushions, while a doctor accompanied him, Desgrange followed part of the first stage of the race before he was forced to return home due to ill health. He soon retired from L'Auto, and his work on the Tour de France.

On August 16, 1940, Desgrange died at home. A monument dedicated to his memory stands at the Col du Galibier, and a prize is offered each year to the first rider over the col in the Tour de France race.

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