When the 60 participants of that first Tour de France set off from Paris in 1903, they were racing for a first prize of FF 3,000 (old) French francs that at the time would buy you 7,500 one-kilogram loaves of bread. Our present day Tour winner nets 450,000 Euro that equates to rather a lot of bread.
In addition to actual money there have been some odd prizes for Tour winners. When Lucien van Impe won the 1976 Tour there was no cash prize for winning but a unit at the beach resort of Merlin Plage. Guy Merlin was a French property developer at the time and a bike racing fan and co-sponsored a team for several years. As a Tour winner traditionally shares his prize money out among his teammates I guess van Impe had to convert to cash otherwise his domestiqués may have found themselves part owners. The same fate awaited the winners of the next three Tours, a unit each at Merlin Plage!
The 1981 Tour had yet again a unit at Merlin Plage but in addition a cash prize of 30,000 new francs. The unit at Merlin Plage as a part of the first prize continued until 1987 when winner Stephan Roche picked up 180,000 new francs in addition to his unit. By 1988 developer Guy Merlin must have been running out of units, as for Pedro Delgado it was only a studio unit. But Pedro drove back to Spain in his Peugeot 405 and was able to share FF 500,000 prize money with his teammates.
Since then it has been a cash prize only for the winner. There has been some interesting within-race prizes like the Prix d’Orange, once awarded to the day’s most friendly (to the press) rider. His prize? His body weight in oranges.
2014 sees the 50th anniversary of Jacques Anquetil’s final Tour win, the first rider to win five Tours. He was an enigma. Whereas riders of all generations would be careful what they ate, Anquetil had no special diet claiming that he would sweat out all the toxins whilst racing but when he stopped riding he would then have to eat healthily. When asked if he took drugs he replied, “You don’t think one can win a Tour of France on mineral water”? He enjoyed late night card parties when his rivals would have been sound asleep. He may well have won more than five Tours had he concentrated on winning them.
Although he won his fifth Tour in 1964, he would still have been at the peak of his career and only 30 years old in 1965 when he gave the Tour a miss. He rode his final Tour in 1966 but a chest infection saw him struggle and he retired a few days out from Paris. In 1967 he was possibly still better than Roger Pingeon the Frenchman who won the Tour, and a win in 1968 could also have eventuated.
2014 also sees the 100th anniversary of the birth of Gino Bartali, winner of the Tour in 1938 and 1948, the largest gap between Tour victories. Had World War II not intervened, Bartali may well have become the first rider to win five Tours. Or maybe it would have been Fausto Coppi, his great rival, also deprived of his best years by the folly of war given it was at 30 years of age that Coppi won his first Tour.
Anquetil, Coppi and Bartali rode in an era when the financial rewards of being a top cyclist were mediocre by today’s standard. Only the top riders really had long-term financial security and this was only achieved by racing nine months of the year, and often on the winter six-day circuit.
A Tour win these days can set you up for life if managed correctly—even after handing over your winnings to your team; commercial endorsements, media employment or simply a lucrative new contract await.
I wonder if the people now living in those Merlin Plage units are aware of their history. Or if there is a plaque on the wall saying ‘Bernard Hinault Slept Here’.