Tradition at The Tour de France

by John Eustice

Tour Tradition

From Erik Zabel: “Super boring first two Stages, but only in the first 90%. As always, when the riders are fresh from the easy race, the finals are very hectic & chaotic. Thrilling last 10k’s yesterday and today, welcome to the Tour!”

There’s lot of discussion on how to “improve” cycling. Velonews publishes articles from Outside the Lines that delve into the economics of the sport, Lance Armstrong spent time on a recent podcast talking about shortening the duration of the Tour and putting more stages on circuits; everyone seems to have an opinion. And, in fact, why, in the opening weekend with the greatest TV audience of newcomers trying out cycling for the first time, would the organizers not try and design a more captivating stage? Mind you, the wind was absent which neutralized the racing but even so, why not open with a grand circuit race?

Well, they will never, ever, shorten the Tour – in fact the UCI just added a rule allowing Grand Tours to actually lengthen – to allow more recuperation from trips to Israel and the like – and they will never put the race on circuits either. Here is why.

The photo above is of my son George during a father-son 2013 trip to the Tour. We picked up a new Canyon for him that was delivered to our little Git (bohemian-style French simple lodging) and followed on bicycle for a few days. I’d just teased him that we were on a budget and there was nothing for lunch and he’d better be damn quick to snatch up whatever food was thrown his way from the Publicity Caravan – which he did, having a blast in the process. The Tour once did a survey and found that a full 50% of the roadside audience was there for the trinkets and trash, as the industry terms it, thrown from the motley collection of speeding floats that precedes the race by two hours. When CocaCola was sponsoring the Tour, it was by far their most successful experiential marketing program, reaching 15 million roadside spectators over the course of the three weeks.

George and I would find a hotel about 20k from a point on the racecourse, ride to watch it pass and then go back. I’d scour the Michelin maps – which are works of art and if one learns to really read them, it’s as though the road comes alive in front of your eyes – to try and find an abandoned farm road in the middle of nowhere to get close to the race. Fact is, every cow path on the Tour route is filled with the cars of people trying the same thing. One simply could not fit the number of fans lining the roadside into a circuit setting. And what would you do with the all-important Publicity Caravan? Have it do a few laps? It’s that simple. What’s more, like the Seventh Inning Stretch, taking the family to watch the Tour pass by is an ingrained French tradition, one that will last for as long as the Tour exists.

Client entertainment drives the economics of the Tour. It’s the most exciting and effective client entertainment invention in history, and to lose a third week would mean untold millions of dollars in missed deal opportunities. The French do glam like no one else. Guests are put into Champagne-filled VIP cars driven by ex-pros, given an eyeball-to-eyeball view of the race and its riders, then dropped off at the halfway point for lunch – a very good lunch. Their replacement VIP’s are helicoptered in, the two groups switch places, and a grand time is had by all. There’s nothing like it at all and if they could figure out a way to extend the race to four weeks they would. The Tour works, it is what it is, and will remain just that. Again, my broken record – if you want more interesting, inventive racing, do it here in America. We can have the best racing in the world. Stop trying to change European racing, it’s a fool’s errand.

Ah yes, the racing. These early days are like trying to interpret palace intrigues. Who’s up and who’s down. Froome, Porte, Quintana, down a bit. Jakob Fuglsang, who lost a key Astana teammate in Luis León Sánchez (did any of you see his incredible Giro performance?) seems very good to me coming off of second in the Tour de Suisse. Fuglsang was eight yesterday, which means he’s feeling great and in control. And Valverde, who has not lost a stage race this year, is lurking. My feeling is that this is going to be a different Tour than we’ve seen in the past few years, Froome may not be what he was, Porte’s team is in disarray, Kwiakowski seems a bit unhinged to me which speaks to the atmosphere on Sky…early days yet. The TTT will balance things back out, but I see a chaotic race, which is wonderful for all of us.

John EusticeJohn Eustice, is the organizer of the Thompson Bucks County Classic in Doylestown, Pennsylvania and a long-time cycling analyst who has contributed to ESPN, ABC Sports, Time Magazine, and CNN among others. The Bucks County native resides in New York City. He was a pioneer on the European racing circuit and is a two-time United States Professional Champion.