Regional newspapers are big in France, selling more than the national dailies. Open a local newspaper and you don’t have to turn many pages before you find the latest on the grape-picking harvest or minor traffic accidents. It reinforces the pleasant idea that not much happens in rural France, there just isn’t enough bad news to report.
For many places in France the passage of the Tour de France is the highlight of the year or even the decade. In a great piece Le Monde today reports on the importance of a stage visiting French towns. There are 36,000 mayors, from Paris down to tiny villages, and most of them would love to see the race visit their corner of France.
Take Jacques Maurice, maire of Arc-en-Senans. This is a sleepy village of just 1500 inhabitants if you include the surrounding rural houses and farms, famous for the royal saltworks, a lavishly decorated salt mine. Mayor Maurice didn’t even ask for the Tour de France but nearby city of Besançon wanted a stage and they picked his village for the start. Appropriately enough Besançon is the French capital of clocks and watchmaking as this will be the firs time trial stage.
“The Tour de France is one of the most widely seen events in the world” the mayor of Besançon, Jean-Louis Fousseret told Le Monde, adding “millions of TV viewers around the world, 1,200 journalists. What more could we do except from staging the Olympics or the football World Cup?“. Similarly in the same Le Monde article Kader Chekemani, a local government official in Rouen and the Haute Normandie region says “The Tour is part of a development strategy to improve the city’s attractiveness. It’s a global event which contributes to our reputation“.
They’ve got a point. But at the same time do you really notice where the race goes? The spotlight is on the event itself and unless there’s anything really exceptional, the TV images often showcase fields and castles rather than municipal pride, when the finish comes the focus is on the sprint train or the whites of a rider’s eyes. Meanwhile the attendant journalists are grabbing rubbery baguettes from service stations instead of sampling local produce and sleeping in out-of-town motels rather than visiting historic city centres.
For me a place has to stand out to get noticed. For example you probably want to ride up Alpe d’Huez given the association with the Tour de France even if the climb is actually a rather function road that leads to a concrete ski resort. Clearly the association with the Tour has worked and the ski resort does a roaring trade in the summer from cyclists.
There’s an entertainment factor as well in that when many French decide where to go on holiday in July, being able to see the Tour is a bonus. Some places have jazz festivals, some try fireworks. The Tour de France is a big draw and it will feature on the promotional brochures and websites being produced during the winter.
Costs and benefits
Towns pay ASO about €90,000 to host a stage finish; €50,000 for a départ but this varies a little according to supply and demand. The actual burden gets shared amongst different layers of local government, at regional and departmental level too. But there’s more. Some roads have to be redone, Stage 7′s finish at the Planche des Belles Filles ski station includes a 20% ramp for the last 250 metres but you can’t put the finish line trucks on this slope so the authorities have promised €500,000 to tarmac a flat area nearby in order to accommodate the podium trucks, TV production materials and all the other peripatetic components of the finish zone.
Indeed the visit to Switzerland has seen the Swiss authorities calculate the total cost adds up to 900,000 Swiss Francs (€720,000 / US$ 1 million) when you factor in everything from road resurfacing to police cover to cleaning litter after the roadside crowds have gone. Porrentruy’s politicians voted unanimously in favour. “It can seem a lot, and it is, but we asked the other Swiss municipalities that had staged the race before and they all got dividends back. In general everyone says it’s something important for the continued development of the region” says Jean-Claude Salomon of Porrentruy.
Don’t forget the other aspect of the media: TV images show the mayor waving off the bunch, or shaking hands on the podium with the winner. This is valuable publicity for their re-election campaign.
Join the queue
Porrentruy has been asking for years to host a stage, first submitting a bid in 2007 before finally being selected for 2012. Other towns do the same. Some feature regularly, for example Pau is a large city with ample hotel accommodation in the Pyrenees, where else can the race go?
ASO can use this to its advantage. Want the Tour de France? Well why not host a stage of Paris-Nice or the Dauphiné first as a rehearsal. This cross-selling allows ASO to rake in money from lesser races and can benefit the sport as a whole, bolstering the wider calendar.
Note that so far few have mentioned cycling. Towns are bidding for the race not because they want to support the race or even showcase local roads but to make a more general appeal about regional development, summer vacations and more. For these mayors, the Tour isn’t a bike race, it’s so much more.
And if you are a foreign reader, note the costs go up for inviting the race abroad. It is reported that the 2007 Grand Départ in London cost about €10 million but that it brought benefits worth even more.
Towns pay plenty for the privilege of hosting the Tour de France. Millions of TV viewers will watch, thousands of journalists will arrive. I can’t help feel they are there for the race and few pick up on the municipal marketing. But then again, had you heard of Porrentruy before?