Excerpt: Les Woodland’s Tourmen

The Tour’s current status as a wealthy, far-reaching business enterprise that is the heart of the professional racing calender is huge reversal of fortune. There are teams who argue that without a trip to the Tour their sponsors will abandon them. It wasn’t always so. In the 1970s there was talk that because of its precarious financial position, the Tour might have to be nationalized and teams sometimes had to be begged to enter the Tour. Félix Lévitan, who was then responsible for the financial side of the Tour, used many small sponsors to pay the Tour’s expenses. Prizes were sometimes in kind rather than cash. At one point there were twelve classifications the riders could compete for and the awards ceremonies were endless. It was all a bit tawdry. In the 1990s Jean-Marie Leblanc cut the number of sponsors in order to make the race “comprehensible”. The result was a gusher of money for the Tour and its current prosperity. In spite of this fabulous success, there is reason to be concerned.

The question of the Tour’s importance, cost and relevance is one Les Woodland dealt with in the concluding chapter of Tourmen: The Men Who Made the Tour de France.—Bill McGann

The most serious of Sunday papers is Le Journal du Dimanche, which means “The Sunday Paper.” It began, like L’Équipe, after the war. Since then its analytical approach has earned it a place in serious-thinking France. Its opinion surveys are conducted by Ifop, the Institut Français d’Opinion Publique, founded after a professor at the Sorbonne in Paris met the pollster George Gallup in the USA. Ifop has become the heavyweight of French polling organizations and its assessments of politicians and policies are taken seriously. This underlines the worth of the survey in 2007, for the Journal du Dimanche, of how the French view their Tour. And the French, it seemed, line the road with few illusions. The paper summarized: “78 percent of them doubt the honesty of a victory, whether it’s in the Tour de France or any other race.”

Do you, personally, like the Tour de France?

Total (%) Men (%) Women (%)
Yes 52 62 43
No 48 38 57


Today, when a rider wins a stage of the Tour de France or another cycling race, do you doubt the honesty of the victory?

Total (%)
Yes 78
No 21
No opinion 1


Which of these opinions fits you better?

  Total (%)
The fight against doping in cycling should be conducted even more severely and cheats should be excluded from races, even if they are stars   80
Doping is now widespread in cycling; that should be recognized and it should be handled medically   19
No opinion   1


The Journal du Dimanche said the worry was that “only 36 percent of those younger than 35 say they like the Tour; it is older people who have kept their affection: 64 percent of those older than 50, 70 percent of those aged more than 65. Probably because this generation grew interested before the era of suspicion, whether it was individual (Pedro Delgado, contested winner in 1988) or generalized (starting with the Festina affair in 1998). Perhaps, too, because you have to go back two decades to find the last French riders in yellow in Paris, Laurent Fignon (1983) and Bernard Hinault (1985).”

Why? What does this mean? What else is there?

• • •

Graeme Fife spoke of divisions of cycle racing: “The men who concentrate on the Tour and nothing else and the real pros who honor the tradition of the sport.” The last great stars to ride a whole season, with heart as well as legs, were Eddy Merckx and Bernard Hinault. The first not to, he reckoned, was Greg LeMond. And he was speaking before Lance Armstrong, Jan Ullrich and others.

The result of specialization parallels Mario Cipollini. He rode a seven-day Tour when everyone else rode a month. Those who concentrate on the Tour ride the same race but a different season. They hardly start from the same place. More than that, they force others to do the same, for there’s no point in starting if you don’t hope to win or have your leader win. The result is that even classics are becoming preparation for the Tour. And more and more specialists aren’t riding those either.

The specialization rumbles more disastrously further down. The classics and Tours make up the visible part of the year. It would be disastrous if the classics lost their luster. But padding out the calendar and therefore the living of professionals in general are the little races, the Tours of this-that-and-the-other put on by clubs which every year scrape together the money. The more the stars, the more easily can be collected the money. But there are standing costs and a minimum prize list and so the price doesn’t fall proportionately with the quality of the field. When sponsors lose interest in minnows, they keep their money in their wallet or choose another sport.

In France, the best of the rest are banded into a season-long competition called the Coupe de France. The hope is to create excitement and maintain interest. But, for all that the races are open to everyone, the field is almost all French with a handful from across the border if the race is near Belgium and a sprinkling of foreigners obliged to ride because they are in French teams. They are good races but…who cares?

Some of it is that no French rider has won the Tour de France in ­decades. The last was Bernard Hinault in 1986, ending a period in which Frenchmen won 20 of the 39 Tours since the war. An immediate fall from a success rate of almost 50 percent to exactly zero doesn’t go unquestioned. And France asks the question over and over.

If you’re not French, of course, it doesn’t matter. You don’t notice it. But there are concerns for all. The more Americans have won the Tour, the more the sport has succeeded in America. Belgium never had more new riders than when Eddy Merckx won five Tours. Even Britain, never better than fourth, was wonderfully happy when it happened, and its success on the track—including what one French commentator called un holdup at the Olympics—turned the British Cycling Federation from a damp rag to an organization with more members than ever.

Success breeds success. And defeat encourages defeat. Hinault’s club in Yffiniac, brimming in his day, has half a dozen members now. Jacques Anquetil’s club at Sotteville, across the river from Rouen, all but vanished when he vanished. French cycling is in a dreadful state. And while we may not know the reason, the consequences could be worrying.

The Tour takes place on public roads. It is subsidized at public expense. It pays for police to escort it but there is local expense as towns and cities lay on start and finish lines. There is no guarantee they will make a profit and, when they do, it can only be guessed how much business the race has brought. Along the way, a hundred communities a day are disrupted by having their thoroughfare closed, access to shops and bars and filling stations with it, not just while the riders pass but for hours before it. People can’t get in and out of where they live. Nobody can drive across what becomes a wall across the country, moving on a little each day. It’s all very well knowing that Gaston in the village bar is selling more beer than usual but that counts little when you’re stopped from your daily life without recompense.

On Mont Ventoux, taxpayers pay to have eight tons of litter shifted every summer, most, says the mayor, from cyclists and their followers. The Tour is an expense to many more towns and communes than it is a profit for others. Sponsorship may cover the main costs but they overlook all the incidental ones: the disruption, litter, damage, loss of trade, minor road improvements, signposting of road closures, expenses for planning meetings, medical care and much else.

The crowds for the Tour grow year by year, sometimes dropping, always making up what they lost. Nobody knows for sure because they can’t be counted—claims for places like the Alpe d’Huez are preposterous because there just isn’t that much room beside the road—but nobody denies they are a lot. The crowds turn the Tour into a national occasion, a month-long street party. But…

What happens when a politician questions, as one will, what right the sport has to clog up the roads of France in summer when only foreigners win? The logic isn’t complete but the sentiment appeals. And it appeals to the many, as the Journal du Dimanche’s survey showed, who have no interest in the Tour. For the moment nobody has said it. But it would take only an analysis of the cost of disruption to start the questioning.

To question the Tour would be politically risky. Not everyone in France is a Tour fan—most are no more than generally interested—but there are enough that they’re best left unprovoked when votes are at stake. To call off the Tour, therefore, is improbable. But what would it take for the government to say “Gentlemen, we lend you the roads of France at the expense of the French, but we get little back in national pride. You run a commercial company and you exist to make a profit. Perhaps the time has come to give back to France some of what it has given you. You can’t, we know, guarantee a French winner. But let’s say that we will give you the roads again each summer if you at least give us a French team. Please, go away, do what Henri Desgrange did in 1930 and give us something to cheer for.”

Old Dezzie must be chuckling in his slumber.


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  1. Alex Torres

    Tourmen is unquestionably an amazing reading. But I have a different opinion (more positive I’d say) on the current status os the Boucle. I’m no one to dispute numbers, surveys or to question Les’ analysis, but I can’t escape some facts: 1) the french are notoriously blasé about their own lifestyle, so even though they may have responded the survey as they did the numbers may not say much about their real love and affection to the Tour – it might even say otherwise! And 2) just one trip to France in july is sure to give anyone a true measure of this love. I am here now as I have for a few times and I only see it growing.

    Truth is, the Tour has become the greatest, longest, broadest-reaching propaganda of a country. For a whole month, TVs all over the world get much more than a glimpse of big cities and countryside of France. I’d guess its hard – if not impossible – to measure precisely the impact of that in the tourism figures but it sure must be huge. France has always been a traditional vacance destiny but my opinion is, the growing of the Tour, the TV era and

    I don’t know about the lack of recent french heroes in cycling. Maybe it has to do with more countries taking part in the race, the Aussies have just won their first title, immagine that! Americans have fared good in past years IMHO because they did an excellent job of mixing the old tradition of the sport (the EURO part of the equation) witht the “new” scientific approach to training and racing. And so it goes.

    Back in the day, the french kids dreamt of becoming bike racers to escape a poor life of endless and boring labour in the fields. Now they have better options to become rich and famous fast, trying soccer, surf or any other radical (Red Bull-sponsored) sport. Cycling is hard, very hard and small compared to tennis, golf and pretty much any other discipline. But it’s still a magnificent show exactly for those reasons, as we can see every year. And the french have this connection with this part of life: they absolutely LOVE a show, no matter who or what.

    See it live in the Champs Elisees or any mountainside, or even in a small villa in the middle or nowhere France is a gift and these people here know it. The Tour is their biggest show despite of what they may declare in a survey. La Grand Boucle may have its ups and downs of course but aside my deeep love and appreciation for it (and cycling in general), IMHO it will only grow and get stronger even among their creators.

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