The Tour de France And The Road Ahead

Christian Prudhomme Tour de France

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.

The Route
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.

26 thoughts on “The Tour de France And The Road Ahead”

  1. Maybe ASO should contribute more but I’m not sure it’s necessarily “good for business.” There is a big conflict of interest. With increased likelihood of catching dopers comes greater risk for negative PR for ASO. Even catching dopers before the Tour starts will just mean more stars absent from the race.

    The Tour de France would love nothing more than to run a race for an entire three weeks with no positive tests – and even better no positives from participating teams during weeks ahead of Le Tour.

    Will contributing more money to anti-doping accomplish that?

    • I think ASO would be happy if cheats could be screened before the race or, as I say above, cynically kept cheating at a low and undetectable level.

      Spending more might not bring direct results but it can help. Like I say, ASO can’t pretend it is powerless and it can’t afford to see its prime asset devalued by constant scandal.

  2. Clearly the sport requires leadership, courage and a determination to resolve this persistant problem.

    Historical evidence suggests that neither the UCI or ASO would meet these criteria.

    Where this leadership might come from is difficult to see at the present time. One thing appears clear, what is needed is an independent body, composed of respected individuals with an understanding of the current situation, to move the current position forward. Maybe WADA has a directive role to play in establishing or assisting in the setting up of an alternative, independent doping body.

  3. Generating the passport data is important, but can (or will) the UCI act fast enough to weed out riders? The usual rubbish about due process means that failed tests involve the riders national organisation, the UCI and CAS which can easily take longer than the length of the tour – and consider that Contadors test for Clenbuterol was a German journalists’ story and that the UCI weren’t saying anything

  4. I agree, if the Tour de France guys don’t want to spend the next decade saying sorry they need to take their hands out of their pockets and put the money to some good use.

  5. Thanks for the reminder that someone who REALLY wanted to clean things up was axed by those with far less sporting interest and far MORE interest in money. The entire sport of pro cycling is simply reaping what its been sowing for years. They missed a big chance when they embraced BigTex and let his first (well, maybe not?) doping offense go unpunished in 1999. What a huge turd-in-the-punchbowl ASO is left with at their big celebration of 100 years! The IOC should demand heads roll at UCI. WADA was the child born of the Festina scandal, I hope a new UCI might be the result of the BigTex fiasco. Anti-doping programs controlled by an independent body who answers to WADA and CAS would be a great start – then The Mad Hatter and Mr. Mars (or better, their replacements) can truly say they don’t know anything about cheating, they just enforce the bans handed over to them and spend their time with bribes and other chicanery involved with promoting the sport.

  6. The ASO may not want to wrestle control from the UCI but I don’t think they have a choice. It is evident that the UCI are not going to clean up professional cycling and the future will involve more scandal for both the UCI and race organizers.

    In welcoming Lance Armstrong back to the Tour, the ASO have shown that they are not interested in clean(er) cycling. I don’t see anything coming out of a UCI/ASO collaboration. The washing machine has been on a “spin and rinse” cycle for awhile.

    For myself, I am not certain that I will watch the 2013 Tour de France. I concluded recently that I can enjoy my cycling without the Tour de France.

  7. Inrng, if the teams did decide to go it alone (and it is a big if), asking for a share in TV and advertising a la F1, soccer etc., would ASO come to the party? Or would there then be the ‘lockout’ TDF with only French teams racing ? It seems if the breakaway league were to succeed ASO would have to come to the party.

      • If there was a coherent season, what do you think the season TV rights would be worth? Le tour and the US Masters seem to be the standout events that negotiate by themselves. Or do the ASO do a package negotiation for all their events together?

        If broadcasters were able to bid for the season, they might be able to innovate the coverage as well. On bike cameras?

      • That may have been true once, but is it still true?

        Would the British watch the Tour with a British contingent headlined by Malcolm Elliott, if Cav, Wiggo, and Froome were off racing against Schleck, Contador, Evans, Van Gardaren, Hesjedal etc in a race in some other part of the Alps?

        • sorry, ASO, that’s just nonsense. I have no desire to watch etapes on my tv, never mind make my usual trips over to watch the stages from the roadside.

  8. And yet I see on CN that Alberto plans on being at the presentation of the route, I would have thought that given he only had a Tour win scratched from the list this year that they may have chosen to leave him off the invite list if they were serious about shunning those causing their race disgrace.

  9. Test Madame Amaury’s theory … and run an edition of National Teams.
    It could go either way with the general public … all this ‘juicy’ tabloid stuff may whet their appetites.

  10. Astana were blocked from the race for their doping record – was it 2008? Did that post-date Clerc’s departure?

    Personally, that is the way I’d go if I was the ASO: if you want to race in our races, assuming the teams care about that for other races), then you need to meet ASO’s “higher” ethical standards: teams must submit themselves to additional criteria to win an invite to ASO’s races, which would be purely discretionary and subjective (no room for appeals, court cases, nothing – just a committee of sensible, credible people making a decision with a heavy emphasis on teams with no doping connections (or at least demonstrable reformed behaviour) and no involvement with other corrupt practices (covering both bases with Vino here). In return for meeting this “higher ethical criteria”, each team invited would get a guaranteed “appearance fee” (or something tied to advertising revenue etc).

    This starts to by-pass the UCI – as you say, money talks and the teams would just scale back what they are willing to pay for a ProTour licence for the other races.

    I accept that it does have a drawback for those races that are struggling financially but it would highlight that they need to be re-thought, re-structured and marketed differently to get the interest back up. A development for them could be that those that follow the ASO criteria could be given power by ASO to award points that count towards TdF selection by the “committee”. If they were smart, then RCS could team up with ASO and join the bandwagon for its races and, bingo, the UCI become dead in the water and back to what it should be – a grass-roots development organisation for the amateurs, run by amateurs.

  11. Stupid Questions Time
    Has every expert or person with a shred of integrity walked away from the UCI?
    Do we know what the UCI board and executive officers pay themselves? Can we compare the salaries to a commercial enterprise with a similar revenue and employee numbers? if different why?
    So are they as poor as they claim?
    How come seeing as they accept donations from questionable sources, they do not pursue other funding models? The Paul Kimmage/UCI ‘competence court case’ in December 2012 has already garnered $69,130 from 2,280 contributors. Could a similar model of the anti doping unit be funded by the general public? The annual report being published to all. Sorry the last point was really moronic, expecting a small bit fo accountability from the UCI is a farce waiting to be written.

  12. At least on a personal level I know that my excitement following a race is somewhat dulled when the main players in a race are returned dopers. The hard truth is that a convicted doper continues to do damage to the credibility of the sport even after returning from a ban – there will always be a lingering scepticism and disappointment/distrust from the public – as evidenced by the very mixed views on Vino’s Olympic win earlier this year.

    Ultimately the fans and spectators are the real product of the TDF which ASO sells to sponsors and TV networks – without them the ASO has little to offer. Without faith in the event the fans will dwindle and so will the TDF brand value. The ASO need to have both hands on the steering wheel of their own event and can’t afford to leave this entirely in the hands of the UCI.

    Surely the ASO hold the key to draw the line in the sand. Leave UCI to impose the 2 year sanction on doping offenders allowing the riders to return to general competition after serving their time, but ASO should move towards imposing permanent bans on riders caught for doping offences, committed from today forwards, from competing in any ASO owned event. Such a stance from the ASO would serve to rebuild spectators and sponsors confidence in a clean TDF, and would serve as further deterrent against individual riders doping. Teams would be pressured to pro-actively police/encourage top flight riders to avoid doping whilst the actions of a single rider wouldn’t punish/exclude the rest of the team. Upcoming riders would see the risk of being caught would exclude them from the key events to which they aspire to competing in.

  13. Given the window of effectiveness of PED abuse has shifted from “hours” with the stimulants favoured in bygone eras to at least weeks with hormones such as EPO, while the window of detectability remains short, it seems that any analytical testing system would have to start comprehensive, frequent (daily or bi-daily) testing at least weeks before the start of an event.

    I.e. If they want to catch cheats with analysis, they need to change it so riders need to go through very stringent, multi-week if not month+ testing programmes pre-competition.

  14. Given how much they made from Armstrong and Postal, I’d like to see some collossal donations towards antidoping from Nike, Oakley, Giro and, especially, Trek.

    On the road, Trek weren’t much of a brand until the 7 tour wins. Their success is built on Armstrong’s doping.

  15. I found this link to give an idea on the turnover for ASO – it seems to be extracted (from their parent company’s publication) l’Equipe in 2003. Any other nuggets out there to help build a picture of the money in cycling?

    Handbook on the Economics of Sport By Wladimir Andreff, Stefan Szymański

  16. Wait, is it silly to assume that all the publicity about cycling is actually GOOD for the TdF and ASO?
    I gotta think that for the 13 hard core cyclists that profess to not watch cycling anymore, there will be millions more who tune in to see what all the fuss is about.

    The TdF isn’t going anywhere, guys.

    • The Tour has only been stopped by world wars.

      People will watch. When Armstrong came back I remember a quote in French from a curious spectator saying (translated) “we’ll probably go and see the beast” meaning they feared it was a freak show but there might be some entertainment. The risk is cycling can’t become WWF wrestling, people need to believe they’re seeing an honest contest.

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