It should be one of the best jobs in cycling but Tour director Christian Prudhomme keeps finding his efforts to promote the world’s biggest race thwarted by its past. As much as he wants to promote next summer’s route he’ll also have to look back to the Armstrong years. These days no preview seems complete without a moment of retrospective regret.
A former journalist and broadcaster, Prudhomme is skilled with words and presentation so expect a good show – it’ll be streamed live on the web. The 2013 Tour will be unveiled with a message of hope for the future and a nod to the past, especially as the next Tour will be the 100th edition, le Tour du centenaire.
Only perhaps it’s time for the Tour de France to announce more than route planning? It won’t happen tomorrow but the race and its parent company dominate the sport like no other and hold the keys and the purse-strings to help clean up the sport. Nobody else has as much power.
A quick nod to the expected route. We know the start for certain with the first few days on the stunning island of Corsica – no prologue – before the race returns to the French mainland for a team time trial and then starts its lap of France. The sleuth blogger Thomas Vergouwen has a very good idea of the route with almost all the stages unveiled and when anyone mentions the likely route of the Tour de France for the next year, I’ll bet they’ve visited his blog.
The Road Ahead
But the Tour de France is so more than route planning and racing on the roads of France. It is pro cycling. Maybe it’s not your preferred race, chances are if you’re visiting a niche blog then you know your Omloop Het Nieuwsblad from your Il Lombardia. But for everyone else the Tour and the yellow jersey are the essence of pro cycling.
The Tour dominates. Pick your metric, whether audience, prize money, sponsorship, ranking points, crowds, brand recognition, the number of books and the Tour always trumps.
If that’s not enough we can’t view the Tour de France in isolation. First because parent company ASO owns many other races, from one day classics to stage races, including a 50% stake in the Vuelta and it even gets a cut from the UCI’s Tour of Beijing as a service provider. Second the whole calendar and licensing system orbits around July. Sponsors today pay hefty premiums to assemble teams with enough ranking points to qualify for the top-18 squads and then pay the UCI for licences and the main goal behind this is the golden ticket of automatic entry into the Tour de France and the certainty this offers sponsors. Teams are already paying a lot to ride the Tour de France but ASO could probably charge more.
The Tour makes a lot of money. How much is unknown because accounts are not published. Income is derived from three primary sources:
- TV rights. Selling the right to broadcast the race nets a conservative €30 million per year according to some reports but it should be a lot higher
- Host towns bid for the right to hold the race. Many towns and regions welcome the Tour and submit candidacies to host the race. As such ASO has a list of up to 400 start and finish towns to help it thread a route around France. The going rate for a finish and start the next morning is approximately €150,000 before tax whilst hosting the grand départ costs from €2-10 million. Envelope maths says 23 (the Tour charges rest day towns too) x €150,000 = over €3 million so ASO should make over €5 million a year on this
- Race sponsors also pay, from small companies who offer trucking or catering in small deals all the way to big sponsors like Nestlé or Skoda who dominate the publicity hoardings or the named sponsors on the yellow jersey like French bank LCL. Again this brings in millions.
All this money makes people jealous. Imagine being a struggling race organiser. The teams have been trying to get a share, first by asking for greater compensation for riding the race – they get prize money and a payment to cover expenses – and more recently talk of a breakaway league has tried to drive change. But we fall back on the point that sponsors will pay a lot for the chance to get their jersey on TV every July via branded lycra. So whilst the teams might want more for the sake of equity, ASO can play the poker-face and refuse, knowing that unless all 18 teams bind together nothing changes.
But we come back to the problems of the sport and doping. If Christian Prudhomme stands up tomorrow and deplores the idea of seeing the results of this race decided in Switzerland, whether by the UCI or the Court of Arbitration for Sport he and his ASO colleagues can’t feign impotence for ever given they control the biggest race and the accompanying budget. Money goes a long way.
An interview with ex-ASO boss Patrice Clerc this week saw him point out how the Tour has tried to take an ethical stance before. In 2003 the race said non to Danilo Di Luca because he was under investigation and in 2008 the race tried to exclude Tom Boonen after he tested positive for cocaine but he was let in after an arbitration hearing went against the race. Clerc was taking other initiatives but this wasn’t good for business and the Amaury family who own ASO (ASO = Amaury Sport Organisation) ejected him. Clerc in particular was trying to decide who could and couldn’t come to the Tour, taking a strong line on anti-doping so he could exclude teams he didn’t like. But the UCI saw it as their job to govern the fitness of teams and after a public battle Mary-Odile Amaury and the UCI buried the hatchet… in Clerc’s back and he was out.
It might be hard but ASO needs to resume control of their race. Christian Prudhomme could try to pick the teams he wants but this torpedoes the UCI’s World Tour for if a team buys a UCI Pro Team licence but cannot race the Tour then the UCI licence is worthless. Plus it is a fraught game because it’s hard to know who to exclude, we might suspect teams but do we go so far to block them? And barring a whole team can punish the entire squad for the individual actions of a rider, or a core group, of riders on the squad.
“We are not Fifa with billions in the bank.”
UCI President Pat McQuaid, 22 October 2012
There are betters ways than excluding teams we don’t like. If ASO wants to protect the Tour de France then spending money on anti-doping is an investment that yields. ASO has beaucoup money whilst the UCI is so poor it’s had to shakedown Lance Armstrong and the Beijing authorities for cash. The intersection of surplus and deficit here makes the most obvious solution is for the Tour to make much bigger contributions to the UCI’s anti-doping effort, funding the bio-passport scheme so that more tests can be conducted on more riders more regularly. Everyone wins here because it can weed out scandal before the Tour starts. Even cynically it means those who are determined to cheat have to limit things, like a plane flying low under the radar they have to take things more slowly otherwise they’ll be caught or crash.
The 2013 Tour will start in Corsica but whilst this is supposed to be the centenary Toyr we’ve just deleted seven of the recent editions. Shouldn’t this be the 93rd edition?
As Wednesday’s presentation tries to look the future it will be forced to address the past. Expect talk of regret and further sanctions as Prudhomme calls for more to be done. But he cannot hold his hands up and say ASO is for nothing when it comes to fighting doping. It’s the technical remit of the UCI to conduct anti-doping tests and politics and business suggests ASO won’t try to wrestle control of testing nor team selection from the UCI. But the two can work together. It’s good for business.