The Vuelta’s French Connection

Thursday, 5 September 2013

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.

Le Sponsoring
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.

Still Spanish
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

Strong Backing
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.

Valuable Asset?
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.

ASO’s portfolio of races: from Qatar to Norway via Spain

Conclusion
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.

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{ 14 comments }

channel_zero September 5, 2013 at 5:42 pm

The UCI’s obsession with eliminating World Tour events so there are no conflicts is broken. The UCI is using the strategy in all their disciplines and it doesn’t make more viewers. It doesn’t add value for advertisers either. I just PVR the event and fast forward through the commercials. (thank you mythtv!)

In the U.S. the popular pro sports have events running simultaneously. The fans watch hours and hours of various matches and switch to better ones as they feel the need. This is the opposite of the UCI’s strategy and works very well for everyone.

Imagine having two World Tour events in different time zones. One finishes, and you join the next one in progress. That’s a concession to the UCI’s weird obsession with creating one important event and will actually “grow” the sport as UCI honchos are so fond of saying.

Anonymous September 6, 2013 at 10:09 am

You can run parallel events in sports where one team plays another team. Harder in cycling as all teams take part and the stronger riders on a team can only ride one event.

Martijn September 5, 2013 at 6:06 pm

I wondered why Cofidis was invited, because quite frankly they have been dreadful this season. But it is because Cofidis is a big sponsor. And maybe there no semi-decent Spanish continental teams besides Caja Rural? Otherwise I can’t see why NetApp was picked over a Spanish team.

Javi Polo September 5, 2013 at 7:52 pm

This has a bureaucratic explanation… only Pro Continental teams can be invited to the Grand Tours, and Caja Rural is the only Spanish Pro Continental team nowadays.

KeithjamesMc September 5, 2013 at 7:59 pm

Alcatel is actually a mobile handset business which was sold to the Chinese. Roots are French though.

Alcatel-Lucent is the networking equipment company which is a Franco-USA company.

Duncan September 5, 2013 at 8:07 pm

Caja Rural are the only Spanish pro-continental team whilst continental level teams are not allowed to ride World Tour races. Thus NetApp Endura’s and too an extent Cofidis’ selection (although cofidis have a history of being given wildcards to the vuelta)

Anonymous September 5, 2013 at 11:17 pm

…might feel “their” race isn’t all theirs but…

Larry T. September 6, 2013 at 1:35 am

Half of the damn sport is owned by ASO! If you count 100% of LeTour and 50% of La Vuelta they own half of the Grand Tours, plus two of the five monuments of cycling, not to mention their other, smaller events. On one hand it’s great they spend some of the vast profits of LeTour on these other events that might have gone belly up, but their influence on the sport is probably too much.
UCI changing the calendar to avoid conflicts is an interesting idea – since they are the ones who created the disastrous globalization of the top-tier, forcing teams to have enough riders, staff and equipment to compete at separate events during the same time-frame, jacking up the costs of running a team to unsustainable levels. As much as doping scandals (which is another thing they must answer for) the insane costs are killing the sport.

Henry Bolingbroke September 6, 2013 at 11:57 am

I would rather have ASO running the races than the UCI!

BarkingOwl September 6, 2013 at 2:03 am

Personally I am very happy with the involvement of ASO. I think they were very proactive at targeting drug cheats during the late naughties after becoming fed up with every Tour being swamped by scandal . I think they forced the UCI into action and are responsible for much of the headway that Mr McQuaid is trying to claim credit for.

Larry T. September 6, 2013 at 3:53 am

Yet not ONE racer at pro cycling’s biggest event was caught by anti-doping tests. The UCI’s “Mad Hatter” would say he’s presided over the total cleanup of pro cycling…but ya gotta wonder…ASO has a pretty serious interest in avoiding scandal too after recent developments.

huub September 7, 2013 at 11:08 am

thats because everyone is clean now

channel_zero September 8, 2013 at 8:53 am

Yes, well, Patrice Clerc was running the TdF during the time you mentioned.

I believe the end of Clerc in the job was due not only to Mme. Amaury (???) demanding a much softer stance on doping in the media properties, but Armstrong (Wiesel?) demanding Clerc depart and the TdF become a more forgiving anti-doping organization.

Bundle September 6, 2013 at 10:09 am

One question: if it’s so automatically taken for granted that the Giro is “more” than the Vuelta, why is it that both have had the same points value for as long as there have been FICP/UCI points?

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