15 Bizarre and fun facts about the Tour De France Facts you didn’t know

Discover unusual facts about the world-renowned Tour de France, including historical oddities and the practice of smoking and drinking while cycling across France.

By Annie André ⦿ updated January 10, 2024  
racers during the tour de France used to smoke while riding (photo)
racers during the tour de France used to smoke while riding (photo)

The world-famous Tour de France is a gruelling race that requires top physical and mental conditioning. The athletes train hard year-round, eat balanced diets and take care of their bodies.

However, once upon a time, the Tour de France was just a bunch of cigarette-smoking, booze-guzzling men riding their bikes on unpaved roads through the French Alps. 

Read on to learn more quirky and interesting Tour de France facts that will have you scratching your head in amazement.

Then vs. Now: The Tour De France fun facts

For those of you who are a bit clueless about “le Tour de France,” let me first give you a little back story on the fun and quirky beginnings of the Tour de France.

1- The 1st Tour de France Was Originally A Sales Gimmick!

First tour de France newspaper announcement (photo)


In November of 1902, Geo Lefevre, a journalist from the newspaper L’Auto, had an idea to boost newspaper circulation.

The idea was the Tour de France.

Two months later, in January of 1903, the first Tour de France was had, but the circumstances and details were very different from today.

  • There were only six relatively flat stages over 18 days vs. the 21 rather mountainous stages over 23 days of today.
  • There were 60 entrants in the 1903 race vs. the nearly 200 entrants of 2021
  • Roughly 60% of the first Tour de France of 1903 did NOT complete the race, while 78% of riders completed the race in 2021.
  • Garin won 3000 French Francs for winning the 1903 Tour de France, which, adjusted for inflation, is roughly 11k Euros. Tadej Pogačar, the 2021 Tour de France winner, took home €500,000 for finishing in first place in the 2021 Tour de France. 

Geo Lefevre succeeded at boosting the circulation of the newspaper with his Tour de France publicity stunt. But more importantly, he created the biggest cycling and racing event in the world of sports.

2- The Tour de France is more popular than the American Super Bowl And The Summer Olympics

Each year, millions of Americans tune in to watch the Super Bowl. Even non-football fans tune in just to watch the commercials and the half-time show, which now features some of the biggest acts in music.

Even if you’re not an American football fan, you probably already know that it’s one of the biggest sporting events in the US and one of the biggest American television events.

But did you know that the most passionately followed sports in the world are not all that popular in America at all?  The worldwide popularity of the Tour de France makes American Football look like a drop in the bucket, mainly because the world doesn’t share America’s love for American football.

 The Super Bowl looks at best like a runner-up when it comes to global television viewers.  Let me put it into a bit of perspective for you.

21-day Tour de France race (3.5 billion viewers):

According to the facts page of the Tour de France Yorkshire, the Tour de France attracts a total of 3.5 billion television viewers annually, which seems like a lot if you consider that’s roughly one-third of the world’s population.

Although it’s not clearly explained how they derived these numbers, my guess is that they count total views for the entire 3-week race, and viewers can get counted multiple times if they watch the race for multiple days.  (source)

Super Bowl ( 114.4 million viewers):

In 2015, the Super Bowl between the New England Patriots and Seattle Seahawks set a new viewership record. The Sunday night broadcast of the Super Bowl averaged 114.4 million viewers per minute, becoming the most-watched event in American TV history. (source)

Winter Olympics (500 million viewers):

Not nearly as big as the Summer Olympics, the Winter Olympics has almost 500 million viewers- mainly from Canada, Scandinavia and Russia.

Italy’s cycling Grand Tour (775 million viewers):

This 3-week annual race, which takes place between May and June, not only attracts millions of live spectators, it is also watched by a yearly average of 775 million people.

The Summer Olympic Games ( 2 billion viewers):

Loved around the world, the Summer Olympic Games attracts nearly 2 billion television viewers.

FIFA World Cup (3.2 billion viewers):

Football, or soccer as Americans like to call it, has its own version of the Super Bowl called the Fifa World Cup, which occurs every four years. The Cup’s final game is usually the single most viewed sporting event on earth. In 2014, the World Cup final between Germany and Argentina set a record and drew a total in- and out-of-home audience reach of 1.013 billion. However, if you factor in all viewership for all games leading up to the final game, viewership was actually 3.2 billion. (source)

Like any popular sporting event, the stakes are high when it comes to winning the Tour de France.

3- How long is Le Tour De FranceHow long is the tour de France?

The route of the Le Tour De France course and the total distance changes every year.

In the original 1903 tour, the length was 2,428 kilometres.

Today, the 20 to 22 competing teams of 9 riders from around the world can expect to cycle over 2000 miles (3,500 kilometres).

4- How many calories do riders burn during the Tour de France?

A Tour de France rider burns an average of 7,000 calories per day. That’s roughly 123,900 calories throughout the 21-day race! That’s the calorie equivalent of eating 1,625 apples, or 872 slices of cheese pizza from Pizza Hut, 252 McDonald’s double cheeseburgers, or 619 original glazed Krispy Kreme doughnuts.

5- How much sweat does each rider produce during the Tour de France?

Throughout the roughly 3,500 kilometres Tour de France, a cyclist can sweat about 1.5 litres per hour, totalling 130 litres (32 gallons)  for the entire race. That’s a lot of sweat, enough to flush a toilet over 20 times at 1.6 gallons (6 litres) per flush. 

6- Why Did The Tour de France Riders Drink Alcohol?

riders used to drink alcohol during the tour de France. it was considered a stimulant

Two riders are pictured having a break on the steps of a tavern during the Tour de France: In the early 1900s, beer was commonly drunk during endurance performances.

There is no doubt that the Tour de France is a physically challenging event in which only the fittest of athletes can compete. With this in mind, that’s what makes the following fact even more incredible. For a long time, until the 1960s, it was common for Tour de France riders to slug a drink of alcohol during the race. Not only did they drink alcohol to dull the pain, but they considered it an honest-to-good performance booster.

As you know, stimulants are banned, and so is alcohol eventually because it was considered a stimulant.

7- Did Tour de France Riders Really Smoke During Races?

racers during the tour de France used to smoke while riding (photo)

Yes, it’s true; in the 20’s it was not uncommon for riders to share cigarettes while riding. People thought that smoking would help “open the lungs” before big climbs. Hah!

8- How many tires do riders use?

It turns out that the Tour de France isn’t just a test of physical endurance for the riders; the Tour de France bikes suffer, too. During the three-week challenge, riders combined can wear out a total of 792 tires.

9- How Fast Are Cyclists Able To Cycle?

Since the very first Tour de France in 1903, the average speeds cyclists reach have almost doubled. The average speed for the Tour of 2003 was 40.94 kilometres per hour compared to 25.67 kilometres per hour in 1903. The increase in speed was made possible mainly due to the dramatic changes in equipment, diet, roads, training, Tour rules and sometimes even doping. (source)

10- Sexism and Why Are There No Female Cyclers In The Tour De France

If you’re a woman and want to join the Tour de France alongside other male cyclists, you can forget it. Only males can participate in the race; however, there was a version for women held each year between 1984 and 1989. Unfortunately, It went largely unnoticed.

In 2014, an all-female cycling race dubbed “La Course by Le Tour de France” was created, which coincided with the 18th and 20th stages of the 2017 Tour de France and lasted two days.

I know what a lot of you are thinking. Well, of course, women can’t compete in Le Tour De France.

The classic sexist arguments against women athletes are the same in cycling as they are for other sports: 1- they aren’t as strong as men, and 2-they don’t bring in the same revenue.”

Where’s the equality in that?

11- What Countries Typically Win The Tour De France?

As of 2015, the French have pretty much dominated the Tour de France with the most wins (36), followed by Belgium (18), then Spain (11), Italy (7), Luxembourg (4) and the US (1). And no, the one US winner is not Lance Armstrong. He lost, or should I say his seven titles were stripped due to doping. See the cheating section below to learn why.

winners of the tour de France by country

12- How Much Money Do The Tour Winners Receive?

The overall winner of the race receives a purse of €450,000 (about 600,000 USD), which he will usually split with his teammates.
The total prize money awarded for the entire race (stages, sprints, overall classification) is about 4.3 million US dollars.

13- Has Anyone Ever Died During the Tour de France?

A total of 3 tour riders have died while competing in the Tour. A fourth rider drowned during a rest day, and 20-plus spectators were killed in an unfortunate accident. Below are the details.

  • The first fatality occurred in 1910, but the victim, Adolphe Helière, drowned on one of the rest days and not during a race. 
  • The first rider to die while racing in Le Tour De France was Francisco Cepada in 1935, a Spaniard who lost control of his bike on the descent of the infamous Col du Galibier in the Alps when he crashed into a ravine.
  • In 1964, a tanker truck lost control as it came around a bend too quickly and crashed through a wall of spectators over a bridge and into a canal. The accident killed 20 people and is one of the biggest tragedies in French sports history.
  • In 1995, Italian rider Fabio Casartelli and 1992 Olympic champion, died after crashing into a concrete pylon at 55mph when he failed to make a turn descending down the Pyrenees Mountains. At the time, headgear was an afterthought, but some people think he might have survived had he been wearing protective headgear.
  • In 1967, Tom Simpson showed us just how dangerous doping could be when he collapsed and died of a heart attack 3km from the top of Alpe d’Huez. In his jersey pockets, there were an array of pills and three different empty vials. His autopsy showed alcohol and amphetamines in his system, as well as extreme dehydration, lack of oxygen and over-exhaustion. Simpson supposedly drank a bottle of brandy to get the meds down and tricked his body into not knowing when to quit. Tom-Simpson died during the tour de France from a heart attack

14- Have Tour cyclists been caught cheating?

Another interesting fun fact about the Tour de France is that historically, Cheating and the Tour de France go hand in hand.

Not a year goes by in this sport without a rider getting accused of less than honourable behaviour.

The most famous and high-profile cheating scandal is the doping scandal surrounding Lance Armstrong. He won seven consecutive Tour de France titles from 1999 to 2005 but was stripped of his titles in 2012 after a protracted doping scandal.

Lance wasn’t the only person who was caught cheating during the Tour de France.

Here are just a few of the more notable cheats in Tour de France history.

  • The first scandal in the Tour de France’s history involves the first person to win the Tour de France, Maurice Garin. During the Tour’s second edition in 1904, Maurice also won but was stripped of his title for cheating, along with five other participants. Allegedly, Maurice and the other disqualified participants took the train during the Alps part of the race. A claim was confirmed by a cemetery attendant who, as a boy, heard Garin tell his stories as an old man. MAURICE-GARIN- The first winner of the tour de France and the first cheater
  • Some riders in 1904 were accused of taking trains or using cars to pull their bikes up hills. Hippolyte Aucouturier tried to be a little more discreet. Aucouturier tied a piece of cork to a long piece of string and tied the other end to the back of a car. The idea was for Aucouturier to bite down on the cork and let the car to him, all the while hoping his teeth didn’t get ripped out of his mouth and hoping that no one would see the string.
  • Guess what? Someone saw the string. Hippolyte-Aucouturier: cheated during the tour de France by having a car pull him from a string he put between his teeth
  • In 1904, after cyclist Antoine Fauré passed through his hometown, 100 of his fans ran out into the street to block his opponents. Riders had to get off their bikes and find their way through the crowd to get by.
  • The winner of the 1947 Tour, Jean Robic, nicknamed “the hobgoblin” for his slight stature, was a strong climber, but his weakness was on his descent. He became famous for taking bottles filled with lead mercury from his team car at the peak of a climb, which gave him the weight he needed to descend the summit at incredible speeds.  (source)jean-robic-cheated by carrying lead bottles on his bike

15- What technology differences existed?

Prior to 1937, riders had to get off their bikes to switch gears because bikes did not have a derailleur before then.

The bikes of 1903 were made of heavy steel and wood, which could weigh as much as 18 kg (39 lbs), vs. today’s carbon/alloy bike frames, which weigh about 7 kg (15 lbs).

Wrapping up fun facts about Le Tour de France

I was never a big fan of the Tour de France, but after living in France for years, I’ve been exposed to all its glamour and fanfare, making me at the least a little interested in it. It’s an amazing sport that very few people can ever imagine competing in.

Disclosure: This post may contain affiliate links, meaning I get a 'petite commission' at no extra cost to you if you make a purchase through my links. It helps me buy more wine and cheese. Please read my disclosure for more info.

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Annie André

Annie André

About the author

I'm Annie André, a bilingual North American with Thai and French Canadian roots. I've lived in France since 2011. When I'm not eating cheese, drinking wine or hanging out with my husband and children, I write articles on my personal blog annieandre.com for intellectually curious people interested in all things France: Life in France, travel to France, French culture, French language, travel and more.


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