This article was originally published in Rouleur issue 18.4. Download it via the Rouleur app
It’s evening on the first rest day of the 2017 Tour de France. After being taken through a tour of the replica Lascaux cave paintings, a group of journalists are enjoying a reception of regional wines and bonnes bouches. The Dordogne countryside and wild July sky make for a breathtaking backdrop.
Oh, and Christian Prudhomme is here.
Behind him a cabal of mostly greying, mostly white, mostly men waste no time in sampling the same selection of delicacies. Among them is two-time Tour champion Bernard Thévenet, who fulfils an ambassadorial role on the race organisation.
A taster glass of what I’ve been informed is an assertif white burgundy in one hand, dictaphone in the other, I’m giving (or attempting to give) the director of the Tour de France a bit of a grilling.
Because it felt like what a journalist ought to do, upon Prudhomme’s arrival I had whipped out the device, and begun asking him for his views on Chris Froome’s behaviour on the previous day’s stage to Chambéry, when he suffered a mechanical before the last climb, and the so-called “unwritten rules” that had set social media ablaze. Talk about a simpler time…
At no point do I feel like I have less than his undivided, consummately charismatic attention, but as he answers my earnestly-posed questions more eloquently than I ask them, I can’t help but feel like he’s humouring me. On the way back to our hotel and for much of the next day, I’m bothered by a lingering niggle that, in raising the subject of cycling, I was somehow missing the point.
It’s only when I’m back in the bubble of the race itself the next day, bumbling between the team buses and trying to track down the press tent buffet, that I realise I had been.
There is a theory, to which the British cinema critic Mark Kermode is an ardent subscriber, that Jaws is not a film about a shark.
The plot, Kermode says, can be viewed “as everything from a depiction of masculinity in crisis to a post-Watergate paranoid parable about corrupt authority figures”, but “the real story of Jaws is how a B-movie-style creature-feature became a genre-defining blockbuster that changed the face of modern cinema.”
In the same way – well, a similar one – the Tour de France is not about a bike race. Not only that, but it never has been. Granted, the race is a feature of the phenomenon – even, I will concede, a significant one, but it is not “the point” of the Tour de France.
I might even suggest that, on at least one level, you know that already.
For most who have an interest in the Grande Boucle also possess at least some sense of its origins. To briefly recap, Le Tour was imagined and instigated by the editor of L’Auto newspaper Henri Desgrange as a way of stimulating sales of the struggling periodical.
At the time, using bike races as publicity boosters was not an uncommon thing to do, but Desgrange’s ambitions to incorporate the whole of France were grander than anyone had previously attempted. The logic, as race director Prudhomme’s predecessor Jean-Marie Leblanc described in a 2003 interview, was that:
“It was a sports event that spectators couldn’t see, unlike a football match where spectators are present, or any other sports event. So people imagined the contest from the summaries – often in epic style – which were sometimes perhaps a little out of proportion, enlivened by the journalists, whom themselves didn’t see a lot, or at best saw things incompletely.”
Although some things have stayed the same – the Amaury Sports Organisation also owns L’Equipe, the daily newspaper which emerged from the ashes of L’Auto in 1946 – much more has changed since the days of Desgrange. The dominant media through which the race is communicated to audiences across France and beyond is no longer the daily newspaper reports of intrepid and “imaginative” journalists. After a brief stopover in radio, television is now king.
For millions around the world, television put the France in Tour de France. You tune in for the racing, sure, but the action encompasses only a small proportion of the coverage. The rest is hour upon glorious hour of infomercial: sweeping airborne steadicam shots of grand landscapes, natural and man-made, landmarks helpfully subtitled and described in detail by commentators grateful for the opportunity to talk about something other than the contents of Peter Sagan’s lunch bag. The Lascaux Experience, I note, receives an extended spot of air time.
All this is the work of Jean-Maurice Ooghe, Tour de France TV director since 1997. Ooghe, Leblanc explained, “reconnoitres the race route for weeks before the Tour – he follows the road and takes notes on a chateau to the right, a bridge here, a cathedral on the left there –everything is noted down and given to the cameraman so that they know all the time what they should be showing in addition to the race in order to direct it and put it in its context.”
Eurosport commentator Rob Hatch says that while “tourism and cycling have gone together since they broadcast more than half an hour of every stage,” he has noticed a difference in the last few years, when each stage began to be televised in its entirety.
As narrator of those visuals, Hatch sees himself as having “a responsibility to the viewer, to the race and to the tourist board that has paid all that money to put it on, to inform yourself properly, to do the right research” and then to “transmit that to the viewer in the best way that we can from the commentary box.”
While as a fan he finds the extended coverage to perhaps be “overkill”, Hatch recognises its additional value to tourists boards such as that of the Vendée department, which paid several million Euros to host this year’s Grand Départ. “It’s not a region of France you often see in holiday brochures or on cooking or nature programmes,” he says. “It’s a great opportunity for them to show off their region to the rest of France.”
They have a shining example: no single event has brought tourism’s centrality to cycling into such sharp relief as the 2014 Yorkshire Grand Départ.
Equally, few, in recent years, have grasped how “much more than just a bike race” the Tour de France is, and the bountiful opportunities it offers to regions, as thoroughly as Sir Gary Verity, Chief Executive of Welcome to Yorkshire, the county’s tourist board. The idea of bringing the Tour de France to God’s Own County is said to have come to Verity while shaving, a notion he does not disabuse me of when we speak before this year’s Tour de Yorkshire.
It was Verity’s bet that, being “the largest annual sporting event on the planet”, the Tour de France’s “stunning images with commentary going alongside [could] do more to promote [Yorkshire] than anything else possibly ever could.”
A Sheffield Hallam University study, published in March this year, found the value of tourism to Yorkshire’s annual economy to be £1billion higher for 2016 than the last time the numbers were crunched back in 2011.
While applying the necessary caveats of correlation not equalling causation, in economic terms Verity’s bet appears to have paid off – and then some.
“The reality is there are millions of people around the world who, before the Tour de France came here, didn’t know where Yorkshire was and probably hadn’t even heard of it. And there are millions of people now who, because of the Tour de France, know where Yorkshire is and have clearly heard of it for all the right reasons.”
For Verity the logic is clear: “What better way could you promote an area than to make people think ‘I want to go there to watch a bike race’ or ‘I want to go there when there’s not a bike race on and maybe cycle around myself and explore the area a bit, find out what’s on offer because it looks to be a great place’.”
He’s not just talk either. The Tour de Yorkshire, which this year expanded to four stages and has a confident claim to being the biggest bike race in the UK (certainly in terms of crowds), is the direct descendant of the 2014 Grand Départ, while the county will host the UCI Road World Championships in 2019.
The evening after my first conversation with Christian Prudhomme we encounter him again, at another soirée following the stage 10 finish into Bergerac.
As before, Prudhomme mingles with local dignitaries, delivers a speech that seems to inspire and amuse in equal measure, and enjoys plenty of local produce. We share a glance, and I tilt another glass of the local drop in his direction. I think about that day’s bunch sprint won, predictably, by Marcel Kittel, whose mojo appears to be well and truly back, before reaching across a chequerboard tablecloth for something brown and unethical to smear on a piece of pain grillé. The recorder remains safely stowed in my jacket pocket.