The Travelling Circus

There’s a growing trend for grand tours and even other stage races to start outside of the home country. Sacrilege or a good idea?

It might feel new with a wave of foreign starts but it’s a practice that’s 60 years old now. The 1954 Tour de France started in Amsterdam’s Olympic stadium. The Giro has started abroad several times although among the 11 foreign starts are microstates of San Marino and the Vatican hardly a foreign start and similar for Monaco, a stone’s through from Italy. Things changed in 1973 when the race began in Belgium. The Vuelta has only started twice outside of Spain, once in Portugal and then in the Netherlands. A French start for the Spanish race is mooted for 2015.

Why go abroad?
Money principally, the going rate to host the start is measured in millions of Euros compared to around €100,000 to host a stage finish of the Tour de France . An excellent article on details the decisions behind this year’s Giro and Tour starts. Why the huge premium? The start of a race enjoys a considerable build-up and media focus, all very valuable. It’s practical to start somewhere and then move once rather than a foreign incursion midway.

Any Italian citizens disgusted at the idea of “their” race going abroad should think twice. If you celebrate the export of wine or even opera music then why not welcome the cultural export that is the Giro? For a couple of days another country’s roads are baptised as Italian soil, a temporary annexation. It’s also an export in financial terms, a money earner for your country. The Giro is welcomed by many in Italy but the reception in Ireland was on another level. It’ll be the same for the Tour de France, huge crowds embracing a French cultural export for a weekend.

For cyclists it’s the same. If you enjoy cycling culture then seeing it exported to new markets is a good thing? I’d be inclined to say yes but note the opportunity cost. It’s costing millions to host these “big starts” and that’s money that could have been spent on a local race, for example reviving the Tour of Ireland. But this assumes there’s a pot of money marked “cycling” in Belfast, Dublin, Yorkshire and London. In reality they money is only made available because bidding for a world famous race brings notoriety and publicity that a local race cannot bring. What can happen is that the start of a grand tour shows the local authorities that there’s an appetite and an ability to host a race. ASO promote the Tour in Yorkshire this summer and next summer they’ll be back with a new 3-Day race.

There are obviously limits. There’s talk of a Dubai start for the Giro and before a grande partenze was mooted in Washington DC.

At the time there was musings about a Washington DC start. I said that before they go to Washington DC they can certainly go to Ireland.”
– Darach McQuaid, Irish Times

Set in the light of the East Coast or the Middle-East a visit to Denmark or Dublin seems almost trivial. Today the Tour de France has become a brand and exported in different ways, for example the “Saitama Criterium by Le Tour de France” in Japan or “L’Étape Argentina by Le Tour de France”, a way to take the race abroad in spirit.

History Repeating
What’s often forgotten is that these bike races have always been projects that challenged geography and logistics. The first Tour de France was wild and it only took a few years before it was heading into the Alps and Pyrennes and if these roads were on French soil they were foreign to the populace. And as historian Jean-Luc Boeuf told L’Express, the Tour is a mirror of French political life. Its route reflects contemporary themes:

  • when France was nervous about its border with Germany the Tour probed the border in an act of national defiance
  • in the spirit of post-war harmony it had starts in Amsterdam and Brussels in the 1950s
  • in 1992, to celebrate the Maastricht Treaty that turned the European Community into a deep political union and today’s European Union, the Tour visited all of France’s border countries
Henri Desgrange, publisher and publicist

You wonder what Henri Desgrange would make of it all. I suspect the Tour’s founder would approve of these foreign starts. He was a businessman and a publicist and the commercial logic would appeal. He was also a proud nationalist who regularly designed the race route to make a political statement and I suspect he’d delight in the cultural export.

Reverse Pole-arity
It’s not just the grand tours. The Tour of Poland started in Italy’s Trentino last year but this was the reverse logic, taking a relatively novel race to a country with an already established cycling heritage. It was a means to add some climbing, although Poland has its own mountains and a business decision to promote Trentino as a cycling destination.

It’s long seemed sacrilegious to start the Giro and Tour abroad, a naked money grab to pitch a nation’s sporting heritage to the highest bidder with such a premium that there’s an extra zero on the bill. Le grand shakedown. Cash is the cause and the transactional aspect is undeniable: pay money in exchange for huge publicity and a big outdoor show. But as said a hundred times already the Tour de France was created to sell newspapers, as were the Giro and Vuelta. It’s always been business first.

But watching the race in Ireland I suspect few were asking how much in cost. Instead talk of big numbers involved guessing how many fans were out, where did all that pink paint come from and what will Yorkshire and London do in July? It’s seeing new audiences embrace the sport, perhaps just for a day, that is surely the best reason to export a race for the opening weekend?

19 thoughts on “The Travelling Circus”

  1. One of my personal reasons to be supportive of ‘Grand Tour Export’ is how it’s a huge and incredible boost to the local development of the sport.

    The interest for cycling flourishes after a visit from a GT. People come to the event in masses, and they experience the circus first hand, for many of those people it’s a first time they do so. Having the Tour de France come by near you is perhaps the best introduction to the sport one can get. Indeed, it’s how I became a fan, after the Tour started in Rotterdam in 2010. This increased interest is reflected in the local development: it spawned a new race, the World Ports Classic. The local Six Day event has had a steady growth as well.

    In my opinion, this is the right way to globalize the sport. Not to create new races in foreign countries out of the ground, without any real interest (Beijing, Qatar/Oman/Dubai). No, visit the region first with the finest things the sport has to offer, and then create a spinoff race!

    This is why I challenge the Tour to start in Germany in 1-2 years, for all the reasons you mentioned. It would be the perfect way to spark an interest there once again ( ) as well as a great business decision for the ASO ( )

    • +1

      I was personally inspired to buy a road bike by the visit of the Giro to Amsterdam in 2010. I rode my regular bike over to the prologue TT course 5min from my house to have a look, and went to the start of stage 3 to Middelburg, won by Wouter Weylandt. Since then I have been well and truly hooked on watching racing and riding my bike.

  2. It might be sacrilidge to say this but what about moving the whole tour to a new country for a year. Or have a fourth grand tour that rotated around the world like the soccer world cup?

    • You can’t take the whole race away, it still belongs to each country. A weekend yes but the Tour belongs as much to the French as it does to the Amaury family.

      A fourth grand tour? A big ask given there’s talk about shortening the Vuelta to two weeks. Maybe but where on the calendar? Then you need to think of the geography and climate, it needs to be somewhere with varied terrain, a receptive audience and reasonable conditions.

  3. If pro cycling continues to grandly tour just these three countries isn’t that a bit unfair? Not that any pro sport is the epitome of fairness, but if cycling does want to reach and appeal to an international audience surely it should strive for more national equality?

    Italian, french and spanish pro-conti teams get most of the wildcard picks to the three biggest stage races every year and the host nation’s riders even get the odd bit of extra assistance/leeway from commissaires, fans, motorbikes, helicopters etc. The cycling fans of these countries benefit from the chance to join in the spectacle and the national and international exposure the races bring surely increases cycling participation amongst their inhabitants.

    There isn’t the calendar space for any more three week tours, so doesn’t a few days in another country just give a bit more balance to the season? I’m sure that the UCI’s wish for cycling to reach new audiences is helped along by making these GTs more of an international affair.

    If cycling stays mired in western-european conservatism it will remain a minor sport. While I love the rich history of these three great cycling nation’s grand tours, I also believe that the future of cycling will be far richer (in sporting terms as well as financial) if it is something that the whole world can share.

  4. A wee woman – I was always intimidated by the Tour de France(and the skinny clothes and bodies)… I didn’t (still barely do) know the ins and outs of the points, timings and rules – I’m getting there re the etiquette – mostly due to my own tootling to work and back in London and the odd (looking!) longer jaunt that the wee man and I carve out in the lanes of Tiptree. Now I am still in awe but I feel part of the races – The Giro in Belfast left us god-smacked and so proud to go home and be part of bringing the boys home before they bombed off to Italy. “If the mountain won’t come to Muhammad then Muhammad must go to the mountain.” Thank you … Thank you – so many will benefit from being part of it.

    To be close to the riders In Essex and London this Summer has us heading to Paris for the 4th year to see them in at the end.

    And dont get me started …. Let’s hear it for the girls!!!

  5. We’ve been to France for Le Tour but going to Belfast for Giro d’Italia was something else. That feeling that a place that had been through so many troubles was considered a great European city worthy of hosting a great European tour was fully rewarded. Belfast buzzed, so many people wore pink as did dogs, horses, people’s front walls and in one case an entire house front. Ireland will always love the Giro as a result and the Giro will probably feel the same.

  6. I agree with the general logic, but there has to be some sense of coherence, some continuity. I think the race has to return home by road, not a 3-hour flight. This year’s Irish start somehow didn’t feel right. But, say, Hungary, through Austria, would have made perfect sense to me.

  7. I get SO tired of the “it’s business” argument. OK, so most bike races indeed started out as little more than promotions for newspapers, etc. But a SPORT was created as a result and that is what creates the interest. If anyone was interested in watching business, ASO or RCS could easily and cheaply show videos of their journos at work in their cubicles…how many would tune in for that? The export argument about Italian wine and cheese is a loser too….those are PRODUCTS that pretty much taste the same whether enjoyed in Ireland or Italy (though I still believe there’s something special about drinking a wine that came from a vineyard you can see out the window) but the Giro and Tour are EXPERIENCES and SPORTING EVENTS rather than mere “products” to be bought, sold, exported, imported or dried out into instant powder to be reconstituted in space. I’ve seen LeTour in the UK (and elsewhere) and the Giro in France…and it’s a far cry from the real thing. In the end the MONEY GRAB is pretty much all it is, pure and simple.

      • It’s an absolutely valid way to emphasize words and thus aid the reader in understanding the tone, the notion if the other valid way to do it – namely setting letters in italics – is not an option.

        • It may be valid grammatically but nevertheless, it doesn’t improve the argument.


          Larry; if the FINANCIALS bother you SO much, don’t WATCH. Better yet, DON’T ever participate in any event RELATING to cycling where MONEY is INVOLVED. Like BIKE SHOPS. They are the worst, they CHARGE money for BICYCLES, surely the worst EXAMPLE of filthy LUCRE being ASSOCIATED with SPORT. I could go ON but typing this WAY is tiring and PERHAPS you’ve understood my POINT by now? Enjoy the CHIANTI from the corner window of your TUSCAN villa……..

    • No you miss the point . Having these events in outside the host countries bring it to a whole new audience. People that may never of seen a cycle race before get to see the very best race on their doorstep or in their neighbourhood. This is want we the fans, the riders, the organisers want more people that take an interest, follow and take part in this great sport.
      Cycling is for all, not just the ones that happen to live on a regular route of a classic or a grand tour.
      Let us all see and feel the event, the more you expose it the better it will survive

    • Actually, a rainy flat stage in the Giro with big crowds dressed in pink tastes more or less the same for me whether it’s in Ireland or in Italy. I watch it from the same couch in my home. If the Giro comes to my town however, it tastes a whole lot better.
      A Giro without the steep passes in the Dolomites won’t do for me, but whether they do a ttt and a few sprint stages in Sicily or Madagascar is not something I care for particularly. And if they use at least a part of that extra money to invest in better coverage/more start money for more top riders/more dope controls it’s a win-win to me.

  8. I would like to add that before 2012 the Giro wasn’t shown on Danish TV (at least not on the biggest channels) whereas it since 2012 has been shown on TV2’s main channel (the biggest commercial TV channel in Denmark) each year. I think that’s a huge benefit to the race and especially (Danish) sponsors.

  9. The tour hits England this summer and I can confirm the interest it is generating is really positive and I am expecting it to have a really passionate/fun filled spectator experience for the first two stages at least. People at work that used to make fun of me for watching cycling (even when Wiggins was leading the tour in 2012) are telling me they are going to watch it at the roadside.

    The ‘bike to work’ scheme has taken off at work and people have gone Strava crazy, brew times have been filled with talk about rides and fitness. A cycle club has been formed with charity rides organised. Multiple collegues have lost weight and improved their diet due to taking up cycling. Talk of following the tour when it it goes back into France and camping/cycling touring following it is happening for a few of us.

    The one reservation I have is, if its glorious sunshine the alcohol induced minority may become rather football fanatical. I hope the family atmosphere keeps the correct level of passion and respect for the riders.

  10. The motivations by the organisers may be cynical or a “money grab” but the results are surely the most important thing? I don’t think that starting in a foreign country detracts from the flavour of the race much, the fundamentals are still there, its only a couple of days at the start and can provide a novelty (in a good way) aspect.

    Not everybody is lucky enough to live in a country with an amazing cycling heritage to see races close up. Or is far into a cycling obsession to travel abroard to watch races yet. Cycling does have to develop and inspire young people to do it. We constantly hear about the problems cycling is facing in the traditional countries too…certainly my Italian friends say there is a fair bit of disinterest from the young generation. New avenues need to be opened for all business’s really and cycling is a business as well as a sport. Which is always so well explored on here!

    I guess I wasn’t overly excited about the Giro starting in Ireland but I thought that the outcome was properly heartwarming, I’ve watched a lot of races and it was outstanding. You can’t diss that, it would be pretty curmudgeonly. A load of kids are going to want to ride a bike after seeing that I reckon. And probably some older ones too!

  11. A little late but, I’ve just been reading about the Atlas mtns and if it weren’t for money and publicity wouldn’t they be a beautiful place for the Giro to visit?

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