Le Tour

The Ups and Downs of the Tour de France

Sporting prowess, heroic riders, and big business: Despite doping rumors, the Tour de France, which will be held this year from July 6 through 28, remains a major spectacle enjoyed worldwide.
The 2018 Tour de France peloton near the town of Dreux in the Centre-Val de Loire region. ©Alex Broadway/ASO

The Tour de France is a paradox. Created in France in 1903, it has long embodied an authentically French competition in its portrayal of a country, a culture, rural life, bell towers, hamlets, and vineyards. A timeless France. But with globalization, media coverage, and the boom in sports as business, the bicycle race has been a worldwide event whose audience is comparable to that of the Olympics. The proceedings are filmed from the air by an army of drones and helicopters, and on the ground by a fleet of agile motorbikes equipped with GoPro cameras, enabling viewers to intimately experience the race from the comfort of their couches.

Another paradox is that the last French rider to win the Tour de France was Bernard Hinault in 1985. The first U.S. team – sponsored by 7-Eleven — competed for the first time the following year. The 1986 race was won by an American athlete, Greg LeMond, who became the first Anglophone to head up the general classification.

The race’s concept has remained almost unchanged since it began. Every year in July, more than 100 cyclists cover almost 2,200 miles over 20 stages with just two rest days. The event demanded superhuman abilities at the start, given the equipment of the time. Racers carried spare tubular tires hung around their necks, stuck on their own patches, and sought out local blacksmiths to repair their bike frames. And if a train ever divided the peloton, those in front would wait for the others to cross the tracks.

The excitement of la Grande Boucle is found in the contrast between the racers’ heroic endurance, the local festivities, and the accompanying big business. Sponsors battle it out to sign partnerships with teams (rights cost between two and four million euros), or to have their brand name written on a jersey. There is also a publicity caravan — a convoy of branded vehicles originally launched before the advent of television — that distributes T-shirts and baseball caps to spectators for 45 minutes before the start of each stage. Tourists and locals form endless crowds, with many arriving hours before the riders fly past to mass together along the road. The mountain stages attract a particularly passionate lot, forcing the cyclists to navigate through a compact, noisy horde.

Every rider’s dream is to win the yellow jersey, a concept invented a century ago this year to help identify the peloton leader. This excellent marketing ploy transformed the race into a daily saga, with spectators hoping to see the yellow jersey change rider, and watching for breakaways, falls, and withdrawals.

Today, cyclists come from all over the world, including Colombia, Kazakhstan, and Australia… A Chinese team with a huge budget has been announced for 2020. The American riders Greg LeMond (three-time winner, even after being seriously injured in a 1987 hunting accident), Floyd Landis (who won in 2006 before losing his title for doping and going on to start a marijuana business), and Lance Armstrong (seven yellow jerseys) helped give worldwide renown to this event — even after Texas-born Armstrong was stripped of his victories after testing positive for doping through transfusions and EPO injections. But has there ever been a drug-free Tour de France? Skepticism would be understandable, given the enormous physical endurance demanded of cyclists. In the past and until the 1960s, the stimulants used were less sophisticated. Riders would make do with ether, wine or beer. Later, alcohol was replaced by amphetamines and cortisone.

During the golden age of American champions, U.S. Postal and 7-Eleven financed their team. This all changed after the Armstrong doping scandal, although the rider said “We did what we had to do to win. It wasn’t legal, but I wouldn’t change a thing” in an NBC interview last May. The only U.S. brand present in 2019 will be bike manufacturer Trek, which will be co-sponsoring a team with Italian coffee company Segafredo. For more than 50 years, the Tour de France has not been cycled by national teams as in the past, but rather by sponsors, with riders sporting the name of their brand.

Available to watch in 190 countries, the Tour is still a major publicity opportunity for France with its landscapes, châteaux, and medieval towns where locals watch the race from their balconies. Many viewers, including Americans, watch the Tour to get a closer look at French cultural heritage. In the United States, NBC offers a live broadcast of the daily stages on its premium channel, as well as the final 45 minutes of the last stage finishing with a sprint on the Champs-Elysées in Paris. Francophone channel TV5 MONDE will be rerunning the full 2019 Tour, which will be taking riders through Southern France and Val Thorens, the highest ski resort in Europe. The starting line has often been drawn in another country since 1954, and this year will be in Brussels.

Did you know? In 1989, Donald Trump sponsored the Tour de Trump, an American cycling stage race inspired by the French model but only held on the East Coast. During the inaugural edition, the riders were met in the town of New Paltz, New York, by anti-Trump protestors. Even the public reception was lukewarm. It seemed U.S. audiences preferred mountain bike and BMX races. After the second edition, Trump found himself faced with bankruptcy and cancelled his sponsorship. The race was renamed the Tour DuPont after its new sponsor, a major U.S. chemical company, and enjoyed six editions before finally disappearing when its financing was withdrawn.

Article published in the July 2019 issue of France-AmériqueSubscribe to the magazine.