It might be the Tour of Spain but there’s a French touch here. The event is owned by the French, a lot of the sponsors are French and this weekend the race crosses the Pyrenees for a French stage finish.
Le Tour d’Espagne
First the Vuelta is owned and controlled by Amaury Sport Organisation (ASO), the company that owns the Tour de France. ASO owns the Tour de France lock, stock and barrique but doesn’t own the Vuelta outright. Instead it bought 49% of Unipublic, the company that owns the Vuelta back in 2008 with the remaining 51% being held by Atresmedia Televisión, a Spanish media company that is itself owned by Grupo Planeta from Barcelona and German group RTL-Bertelsmann.
ASO’s role is visible in obvious ways, for example compare websites lavuelta.com and letour.fr and you’ll see both use the same template. Similarly when the TV rights deal for the Vuelta is announced, the headlines say ASO. It’s worth noting a new marcha or ride for amateurs called La Etapa which is the copy of the succesful Etape du Tour format for riders to try a route of the Tour de France.
Next come a host of French sponsors. The red jersey is sponsored by Carrefour, a French supermarket chain. Carrefour has extensive operations in Spain so it’s normal but note it already sponsors the mountains competition in the Tour so there’s the link to ASO already. The maillot rojo has another French connection as it’s supplied by Le Coq Sportif.
What’s surprising is the sheer number of other French sponsors. French consumer loan company Cofidis sponsors the most combative rider every day and the French team has made a point of hiring Spaniards like Luis Angel Maté and Daniel Navarro because it too operates in Spain. Other French sponsors include optician Alain Affelou, food conglomerate Danone and telecoms company Alcaltel.
There are other sponsors from Spain of course but it seems the French ownership has opened the door for French companies operating in Spain to sponsor the race.
Los Pirineos – Les Pyrénées
The visit this weekend isn’t by chance. The Vuelta has visited France before, so far so normal as the Pyrenees mark the border between the two countries. But the difference here is that the name of Peyragudes might be familiar to you as it featured as a stage finish of the 2012 Tour de France. You might remember the day because Alejandro Valverde was up the road and Chris Froome was itching to chase him down and generated a polemic because he dropped Bradley Wiggins in yellow only to sit up and tow his chief to the line. Peyragudes is a ski resort but only just, a small cluster of buildings and some ski lifts. This looks like a classic piece of cross-selling by ASO who can dangle the prospect of hosting a Tour stage and give priority to host towns that promise to bid for a stage of the Vuelta or another of its races like the Dauphiné or Paris-Nice.
For all this the Vuelta remains resolutely Spanish. The race director is Javier Guillén and his team of Francisco Giner, Pablo López-Barajas, Pedro Lezaun and Charles Ojalvo don’t sound very French do they? Indeed the race remains quite Spanish, it doesn’t venture abroad as often as the Tour or Giro, in fact incursions into Portugal are rare. There was talk of a start in Amsterdam for 2015 but that’s been pulled.
There’s also a conservative side. ASO has only really embraced social media this year and this is copied by the Vuelta. The race has to take on the Giro and its Italian owners RCS
Spaniards might feel “their” race isn’t all there’s but the international support has its advantages. First it means sponsors like Carrefour or Cofidis who have presumably outbid Spanish sponsors, so more money for the race. Although how much goes on the race and stays in Spain is another matter, it could just be a bank transfer from Paris to Paris.
More interestingly changes are coming to the sporting calendar. The idea is to streamline the World Tour and stop overlapping events. For example the Vuelta clashes with several other World Tour races like last weekend’s GP Ouest France-Plouay and the upcoming double in Canada, the GP Cycliste de Québec and the Grand Prix Cycliste de Montréal. With this in mind it’ll be interesting to see what happens to the calendar. ASO is arguably the most powerful player in the sport won’t want to see its asset devalued; in other words it will defend the race against moves to shorten it or shift it on the calendar.
Ok, it’s the third of the grand tours but that’s like complaining you’ve got the third largest gold bar in the world. In other words it’s the world’s third biggest race and that has to be valuable. Whilst the sport is probing new markets and Spain might get the headlines for chronic unemployment, a three week race in a country with close to 50 million people and live airtime for hours every day is valuable. More so since the Spanish public are keen followers of the sport and the Vuelta is part of the landscape. It crude terms this means a ready audience and stars for the local population to know and follow.
It’s a Spanish race but the frequency of French sponsors is more than a coincidence, it’s a reminder that the race is half-owned by the Tour de France. ASO seems to be opening the door to more French involvement via sponsorship and even the choice of some stage finishes. None of this changes the racing although it can influence the race route.
ASO are hunting for more cycle races. They looked at the Tour of Britain and are interested in more events in South America whether pro races or amateur gran fondo events.