The Tour de France attracts about 12 million people to the roadside. That’s the biggest audience in the world. Subtract the foreigners on holiday and roughly 15% of the French population will watch the race, impressive given the route has to miss many regions each year.
It’s easy to imagine cycling as a wildly popular sport in France and assume the crowds flock to cheer on the champions. In fact the French are surprisingly indifferent to cycle racing. Whilst you might watch the race for its sprints and climbs, your average French viewer wants roadside freebies and helicopter panoramas on TV.
Surveys by TNS Sofres, a marketing agency, show the prime motivation behind the decision to go and watch the Tour de France is the publicity caravan that precedes the race. It means giant motorized representations of bottled gas, freebie packets of Haribo sweets and Bic pens can draw more people than peloton and the chance cheer on the yellow jersey. This is not new, in the 1960s L’Equipe wrote that after the joy, music and cheers of the caravan had sped across the countryside, the race itself was the “tail of a comet”.
The Landscape Show
It’s not just the roadside crowds who watch in spite of the race. According to an infographic by Sportlabgroup, a sports marketing agency, the largest segment of the television audience in France is made up of people tuning in for scenery rather than the racing. While you watch a mountain for the sport, more watch for the landscape.
France from the Sky
“The helicopter, where you get the feeling of seeing the whole country backwards”
– Antoine Blondin
This indifference to the actual racing is no accident, it is cultivated by the television producers. France Télévision’s Jean-Maurice Ooghe is the man behind the stunning images filmed for the Tour. Every winter he drives the route of the upcoming Tour de France. But he’s not scouting the crucial climbs or tricky sprints, instead he’s making notes on every church, waterfall or castle worth filming. He’s not stuck in his car either, he’ll meet locals along the way to get info so that the airborne cameras never miss a thing. New for 2014 is the use of drones sent to film particular spots ahead of the race. French TV executives even refer to the race broadcast as “La France vu du ciel” or France seen from the sky and this explains why the TV coverage is packed with views from beyond the race. Note hours of aerial footage of the French countryside alone would not work but arguably the procession of the race is the perfect medium to explore the countryside.
If you want to measure the sport’s popularity, look beyond July. Races like the Dauphiné and Paris-Nice are big events but far from profitable. Watch them live and the crowds are often lite at best. Several races have vanished and more will go. A recent article in business paper Les Echos spells out the struggles for smaller races: identity, rising police costs, regional government reorganisations. What happens to the Tour du Limousin if the Limousin region is merged into an other region as part of a territorial reform?
No riders in France have had real celebrity status since Richard Virenque. That’s great as it means no gawking from paparazzi and gossip columns. But riders struggle for recognition and to earn product endorsements, you won’t find a French cyclist on a prime time TV ad or the side of a breakfast cereal box. Thomas Voeckler is reduced to promoting camper vans. Of course the profile is low because the results are too, there are many promising French riders but no star.
It’s All Good
Jack Kerouac wrote “if moderation is a fault, then indifference is a crime” but there are good sides. The indifference to the Tour is not subtractive. The Tour infects many with the cycling bug, a share of the crowd might turn up to grab some of the 14.5 million freebies hurled out from the caravan but go home inured to the sport. Time spent snoozing in front of TV watching the landscape roll by means race tactics are absorbed by osmosis. The wider public grows up with a rudimentary understanding of cycle racing, for example politicians will use biking metaphors in a speech to suggest hard work, “I’ve got my head in the handlebars” for example is the opening phrase of a politics piece in Libération, a newspaper.
A degree of apathy towards the pro peloton helps explain why millions will stand on an inaccessible mountain despite repeated doping scandals. They’re not having to walk away from the sport because they never walked up a mountain in the first place just to see the riders. The race is a circus and what goes on inside the peloton isn’t important to many.
If a share are indifferent, they are many are committed fans. France remains a heartland of the sport with several pro teams and the roads of France are full of cyclos every weekend. It’s significantly better than the situation in Italy for example and the French cycling federation has a record level of members. Arguably cycling is only a mainstream sport in Belgium. Europe might be the sport’s homeland but it’s far behind soccer and has to compete with motorsport, tennis, basketball and athletics for attention.
It’s too much to expect everyone to be interested in the race. Millions in the US have better things to do when the Super Bowl is on. Indeed the Super Bowl’s halftime concert can attract bigger ratings than the game, a similar tale to the publicity caravan’s popularity.
All this makes the Tour a socio-cultural event for millions, way more than a mere bike race. It’s a celebration of the French landscape and a shared event for a populace who value cohesion and communal events more than most. No other sports event in the world attracts a bigger live audience. But if the French embrace the Tour de France millions are surprisingly indifferent to racing. Who’s wearing the yellow jersey?
Footnote: if the piece has a familiar tone I contributed a similar piece for the now dormant 2r magazine last summer