Geo Lefèvre. A name engraved in stone, set atop the upper pantheon of the Experiential Marketing Hall of Fame.

In 1901, Lefèvre was a writer for Le Vélo Magazine (“The Bike” for the French-impaired), who knew his way around the cycling world in France. He rode as an amateur racer but followed the progress of the pros religiously. More importantly, he knew the long-distance competitors had the largest fan base.

The following year, Lefèvre was convinced to write about competitive biking for L’Auto (yes, “The Auto” for the logic-impaired). The magazine was a car-based competitor of Le Vélo, but the publisher, Henri Desgrange, knew the country’s biking obsession—which began a dozen years earlier—wasn’t about to subside. Early on, Geo had an idea about switching bike fans’ interest to L’Auto. It was a fantastic idea, but a brutal brainstorm for racers.

The magazine would sponsor the longest road biking race ever contested.

France was a farming country, many worked the countryside day after day. There was something honorable, sporting, about testing the stamina of bikers racing through the mountainsides, the heat, the rain, the elements, the mile after the other miles. So, one day over lunch, Lefèvre found the fortitude to tell Desgrange of his bold experiment, which he knew would increase magazine circulation.

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Lefèvre laid it out, imagining a grueling race that would last more than six days—then he ended the tête-à-tête with an awe-inspiring mic drop: It would start in Paris, track the entire shape of France, and finally finish back where it all started.

Marketing genius! Immediately, Desgrange was … unimpressed.

There were already long-distance auto races, from Paris to Vienna and St Petersburg, as well as from Paris to Rome. Desgrange asked what this biking “Tour de France” would prove? Neither spoke of it again for days. Then Lefèvre performed a maneuver frequently employed in many companies around the globe: He waited until his boss thought it was his idea.

First Tour de France facts:

  • In 1903, the average speed of riders was a little over 15 MPH.
  • There were 60 starters, 21 finished.
  • The race was led from start to finish by Maurice Garin, a 32-year-old Frenchman riding for the team La Française.
  • As he marinated over the next few days, Desgrange took a fancy to the Tour de France concept. In January of 1903, Desgrange made his decision, and announced it in L’Auto: “We intend to run the greatest cycling trial in the entire world. A race more than a month long; from Paris to Lyon, then to Marseille, Toulouse, Bordeaux, Nantes and back to Paris.”

    Yes, correct, the contest was initially scheduled to run for five weeks, but it quickly became obvious the race wasn’t attracting top bikers with the length of time required. So Desgrange reduced the duration—but not the route—to a little over two weeks. To his credit, he came upon a brilliant idea that made the Tour a lasting tradition. The race would run at the exact time of the country’s two-week holiday, a highlight of each year. Ever since, the Tour de France has announced the impending excitement of summer and celebration.

    The first race launched with incredible excitement, along with cars riding in front, launching free magazine samples to those along the route. The result was immediate and substantial—people rushed to buy issues to learn the progress of the cyclists and find out the winners of each day’s race. The upshot: L’Auto’s circulation doubled, almost tripled, while Le Vélo went bankrupt.

    Tour de Marketing:

    The Tour was an incredible success for L’Auto. Newspaper sales were boosted from roughly 25,000 issues per day to 65,000. People rushed to buy copies to learn the progress of the cyclists and find out the winners of each day’s race. What’s more, their competitor went bankrupt.

    The race took 19 days with a total distance of over 1,500 miles. There were 60 competitors, including professional riders, but only 21 finished the race—won by a Frenchman, Maurice Garin (The Little Chimney-Sweep), by a margin of close to three hours. The last one to finish came in two days behind. Notably, Garin also won the second race, but he and the next three finishing bikers were caught cheating. The early Tours were well-known for their version of the Whacky Races, with glass shards and nails thrown behind competitors, plus secret car- or motorcycle-tows—even hired thugs took out racers.

    But the marketing ploy worked, in ways no one could have imagined in 1903.

    Today, the race adds up to well over 100 hours of television airtime. It offers exposure to multiple countries worldwide. And for every dollar spent in advertising, each brand makes more than five times that in awareness (true, look it up). And while doping scandals (looking at you, Lance) sent Nike scrabbling, lesser brands like French clothing manufacturer Le Cog Sporif and American electronics developer Belkin have gladly taken up the call, with fantastic results.

    Experiential marketing, phht. The Tour was a life-changing and world-building event, and the hub that now supports brand spokes that reach millions of buyers worldwide.

    Bruce Wilson

    Author Bruce Wilson

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