The Tour de France is undoubtedly the biggest bike race in the world. Since the first edition in 1903, the race has only grown in stature, which today gives it a deep historical context.
The race isn’t overly complicated. The rider that completes the stages in the shortest total time wins the coveted yellow jersey. However, the Tour rulebook has evolved down the years to create the race we witness today. Here are just some of the strangest Tour de France rules that the race has ever seen.
Louis Trousselier won the 1905 Tour de France with 35 points (Image credit: Branger/Roger Viollet via Getty Images)
Nowadays, the Tour de France is won and lost by time. The rider to accumulate the least total time, also considering time bonuses, wins the race. However, this has not always been the case.
In 1905, which was just the third edition of the Tour, organisers introduced a points system instead. Largely, this was due to a range of scandals and controversies in 1904, where the original race winner and many others were disqualified after the race, with wild accusations being thrown around such as riders catching trains to complete some stages ahead of their rivals.
Originally, the points system worked such that the first rider to finish received one point, and the next rider to finish accumulated one additional point to the rider in front. In some years, an additional point was given for every five minutes that passed too.
Eventually, Louis Trousselier won the 1905 Tour de France with 35 points ahead of his Peugeot-Wolber teammate Hippolyte Aucouturier who accumulated 61 points over the race.
Over the years, the points were recalculated at numerous points throughout the Tour de France, so riders that had already withdrawn were removed from the classification.
The points system was in place from 1905 to 1912. In 1913, the time system was re-introduced, supposedly because it had worked against Frenchman Eugène Christophe’s chances and in favour of the 1912 winner, Belgian Odile Defraye. The points system also deterred aggressive, offensive riding in some scenarios.
Luxembourger Nicolas Frantz won the 1927 Tour de France) Image credit: STAFF / AFP via Getty Images)
Henri Desgrange, the legendary Tour de France director, introduced one of his more questionable innovations at the 1927 Tour de France. Instead of leaving the startline together, teams would start 15 minutes apart on many of the flat stages, which effectively created a series of team time trials. TTTs are not uncommon in today's Tour de France, (although there have only been two in the last five years), but this essentially created sixteen team time trials. The longest was 285km...
The logic behind the innovation was to reduce bunch sprints which were considered dull. Leading teams often rode defensively until the mountains where they’d try to win the race. With this rule change, it meant riders had to ride as fast as possible on flat stages, as they were not sure where they stood compared to other teams.
The innovation was ultimately unsuccessful — it didn’t have the intended effect and only succeeded in making the strongest teams even more dominant. Nicolas Frantz won the 1927 Tour by almost two hours, one of the largest winning margins in history. By 1930, the team-trial rule was discontinued.
Mechanical failures can have a substantial impact on the Tour de France. Suffering a puncture at an inopportune moment can ruin a rider’s chances. Recently, on stage 10 of the 2021 Tour, Sonny Colbrelli suffered a puncture in the final 25 kilometres as the tempo increased. Luckily for the Italian, his team were quick to respond, and he was handed a new bike just seconds after help arrived. Riders haven’t always enjoyed this luxury, though.
In the early days, riders were not allowed to receive any assistance when suffering mechanical failures. Eugène Christophe was one of those that were more famously affected by this rule.
Christophe was positioned well in the 1913 Tour de France, and attacked on the Col du Tourmalet, which placed him in the virtual lead. However, Christophe suffered broken forks on the descent and after coming to a halt, he had to watch despairingly as all the riders he'd dropped passed him on the descent. Supposedly, Christophe walked ten miles with his useless bike over his shoulder, before arriving at a blacksmith in Ste-Marie-de-Campan.
Because of the rules, Christophe had to make the repairs himself, with the blacksmith giving Christophe instructions. The unlucky Frenchman ended the race seventh overall after his troubles.
Although he was clearly one of the best riders of his generation, Christophe suffered consistent bad luck at the Tour de France throughout his career and never managed to win the race. From 1930, cyclists were allowed to receive help when they suffered mechanical failures.
Image credit: AFP via Getty Images
Nowadays, ten, six and four bonus seconds are given to those that finish on the podium on each stage of the Tour de France. The time bonuses are minor, and although they can impact the general classification, they are unlikely to solely decide the winner of the Tour.
However, bonifications are an old idea that were around in the early years. Stage winners at the 1932 Tour de France were offered a huge four-minute bonus, whilst the runner-up and third-place finishers received a two and one minute bonus respectively. A three-minute bonus was also handed out to the riders that won a stage by three minutes or more.
The bonification system had a major impact on the ‘32 Tour. André Leducq, the eventual winner, was a capable sprinter and climber. Leducq won six stages and gained a total of 31 minutes in time bonuses, whereas the eventual second-place Kurt Stöpel won a single stage and gained just seven minutes via bonifications. Had the bonifications not been in place, Leducq would have won by just three seconds.
Nonetheless, the bonification system has been refined over the years and still holds a place in the modern Tour de France.
Cover image: AFP via Getty Images