1894 brought a great deal of political strife to the nation of France, which became deeply divided over the false conviction of Alfred Dreyfus, a Jewish French army captain accused with dubious evidence of passing military secrets to Germany. Dreyfus was finally exonerated in 1906, but by then the incident had already caused the fallout of former colleagues and the rise of an intense newspaper rivalry, which spawned the greatest bicycle race the world has ever known.
I refer of course to the Tour de Donut in Staunton, Illinois, which has been held annually in July since 1989 as an alternative to the Tour de France. That other silly little French bicycle event has been going on since 1903 when the then newly founded French newspaper L’Auto sought to surpass the previously established Le Vélo by creating its own sensational event and then scooping its rival.
The plan worked. As the circulation of L’Auto grew, Le Vélo went out of business, and with the exception of a few missed years for world wars, the Tour de France has been going strong ever since, as the original and most famous multi-stage bike race in the world. You may have even heard of it.
There was a little trial and error at the beginning, figuring out where the course would go, how many stages it would consist of, how the winner would be determined, and whether or not the bulk of the racing should occur in the dark of night to make violent sabotage easier. It was eventually decided that no, the stages should probably be held in the daylight hours, which has significantly cut down on the cyclist beatings.
The rules have changed a lot through the years, as has the course, with the current event (ongoing as I type this) visiting four countries in twenty-one stages and covering about 2080 miles, quite a few of which are mountainy.
The Tour de Donut has changed course a few times, too, fluctuating between thirty and thirty-six miles through the small town of Staunton and into the surrounding countryside containing a couple of smaller towns, corn fields, and occasionally frustrating hills. It’s a tough ride, for tough people, who like donuts.
Like its French counterpart, Tour de Donut is a multi-stage race, with the ends of stage one and two each marked by donut stops, offering the most serious competitors the opportunity to gain a five-minute advantageous adjustment to their total race time for each donut consumed. The final stage ends at the finish line where cyclists are greeted with much fanfare, awards ceremony, and usually some leftover donuts.
It’s a fun event, and with often more than six times the number of competitors of the race that inspired it, the Donut’s popularity far exceeds the Tour de France. I think that’s mostly because of the donuts. Also, it may be a slightly less challenging race and so might be more accessible to the average casual bike rider.
I have participated in the Tour de Donut twice, once about eleven years ago and then again last Saturday. This year’s thirty-four-mile course started in the rain, with gusty wind, and much celebration. Citizens of Staunton and donut enthusiasts lined the streets with encouraging signs, cowbells, and inflatable donut décor.
By the time it was over, the rain had let up, the air had warmed, and I had a belly full of donuts and a tee shirt to prove that I had participated in the greatest bicycle race the world has ever known.