The first Tour De France was a far cry from the polished international sporting event we see on television today. Organized by the financially free falling L'Auto magazine, the desperate editors thought that organizing a grand cycling tour was the only thing that could save their publication. But in 1903, cyclists weren't enthusiastic about what was pitched to them as a heroic race through roads more suited to hooves than wheels, with bikes weighing up to 44 pounds, on a single fixed gear, for three full weeks. Assembling enough riders for the race meant bribing unemployed laborers from the suburbs of Paris, including a butcher, a blacksmith, a chimney sweep, and a wrestler. Through these characters' backstories, Cossins paints a nuanced portrait of France in the early 1900s. The race itself is packed with mishaps and adventure - in part due to the fact that water was scarce at the time, so the men drank wine and beer throughout, often keeling over from their bicycles in a drunken stupor.
There was no indication that a ramshackle cycling pack would draw crowds to throng France's rutted roads and cheer the first Tour heroes. But they did, and cycling would never be the same again.