Vive L’Indifférence

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.

Free Show
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.

Low Profile
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?

Voeckler targeting the 55+ demographic

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 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

16 thoughts on “Vive L’Indifférence”

  1. Nail. Hit. Head. On! There was a time I thought it was all a deceptive visage when a French person wandered out and would ask “is the Tour coming through?” Plenty of indifference to the race. Find that at Motocross to, when after lunch 25-30000 would roll in after missing practice, qualifying races, support race and one of the main races. Que pasa? Why would they give a toss about bike racing, when they have better things to do!? But i guess bike racers are fairly marginalised in every country. Midweek of the 2nd week is when i up my game roadside when i’m low on food and funds and try and get as many Maidelene cakes and Haribos as poss

  2. From a distance the Tour always appears a spectacular, glamerious sporting event. Closer inspection gives a slightly different impresssion. There is an element of tackiness and the night about much of what surrounds the event. The attitude of the majority of the French population has always left me somewhat confused. On the one hand they regard the bike as a queen, whilst on the other showing little enthusiasm for many cycle races, enthusiasm of the type evident on the first two stages in the UK. I am not sure INRNGs insight clarifies my confusion !

  3. Great read. Reminds me of Wimbledon here in the UK. Not many people follow tennis but for two weeks we get the show from South London.

  4. Most viewers of pro bike racing in many countries likely never were serious cyclists. Riding a bike for true fitness is not an easy task. Many presumably have good intentions of taking up a sport for fitness/health reasons, but how many actually follow through? Those who do might relate to the almost impossible challenges that many stages in Grand Tours bring, and not just Grand Tours. We can empathize with their pain because on our own level we have suffered too. To endure a race like the TDF, pain and suffering is foremost. Stage 5 epitomized that quite well.

    In France, Europe, the US and so on, we have fanatical non-cyclists AND cyclists who get caught up in the excitement that a hugely popular event is taking place in their backyard. So you go stand along the roadside and gather handfuls of freebies tossed from cars shaped like the products they’re advertising. Or you wait for your favorite riders, teams and the peloton to whiz by because you’re there to purely enjoy the race itself. Or you sit in your recliner with a big TV and go on a virtual vacation of the country you love, enjoying the beautiful aerial images that one might never see if traveling isn’t plausible. All the best sights that a place has to offer, all in a three-week span.

    “It’s a celebration of the French landscape and a shared event for a populace who value cohesion and communal events more than most.” There’s a lot to be said for this statement. It brings people out into the world who enjoy being with their fellow countrymen during a race/celebration that has such a long, storied history. That local culture is honored is a tradition that also has a very long history.
    Be grateful for that.

    Very informative piece, INRNG, thanks!

  5. I used to work with a guy from Spain. I was super-excited for the Vuelta that year & asked him if he ever went to watch it live. He said that in college he & his friends would put it on TV when they wanted to lay on the couch after a night of drinking.

    So, yeah, they watched it. Kinda 🙂

  6. An interesting piece, especially given the Grand Depart occurring in my own back yard. I feel that here in England we have been starved of the luxury afforded to the French by having such a sporting great spectacle that showcases beautiful countryside. The numbers and support for the opening Tour were outstanding, but one could imagine English people becoming ambivalent to the event if it occurred each year for three weeks.

  7. I cycled the length of France with my dad in May. I think it was the sixth day before another cyclist passed us (and we weren’t moving quickly).

    It was also striking that virtually all the cyclists we saw were 60 or 70-year-old men.

  8. Thanks inrng, for all your posts since you started this. They’ve made me a better informed cycling fan, and a better informed public can only contribute to improving the cycling culture. Any news on 2r? Is Vroomen still undecided on a wake-up effort? I thought it was really refreshing.

  9. As always, a thought-provoking article from INRNG.

    I watch all the races I can receive in Bulgaria via online sources, purely to see the racing itself. I also enjoy the ‘tourism’ element of the daily routes, I must admit.

    This year, Eurosport coverage (in English, at least) features a ‘poetry corner’ related to the WW1 anniversary, an added feature, given that the Tour itinerary deliberately celebrates some significant wartime sites. It adds a positive element, though I’m not sure ES has got the balance quite right.

    It’s interesting to note the comment about Wimbledon, too. Spot-on, ‘Duncan’!

    In the end, however, it’s sad that INRNG has to (correctly, I’m sure) debunk the myth of the whole of France turning out for their own national Tour, the (apparently) biggest of them all. Is this why they haven’t had a winner since 1985, perhaps? In other words, is their heart is not in it?

  10. I think a large part of the Australian/US/UK wave of pro cycling fans (“New World” fans if you will) have been drawn to the sport by two principal things:
    – that fact that cycling is (in the New World) a niche alternative/”indie” sport that has an air of exclusivity because it takes a while to understand its arcane rutuals and gear, and until recent times, takes some effort to seek out and follow. It is about belonging to a true subculture, in a way that being a football fan in the UK or a baseball fan in the US can never be; and
    – because it is so closely linked in our minds to a romanticised New World view of Europe with its cafes, Cinzano, sunshine, quaint villages, seemingly endless road candy and the exploits of the riders from what I like to call the “wool era” (Merckx, Coppi, etc).

    Neither of these factors would really apply to European based fans given the sport has always been around, bubbing in the background behind football, etc. For them cycling is just a second-tier, gritty, deeply working class sport that holds none of the thrill of the new that in some cases piques our New World interest.

    • In the UK (part of Europe), cycle racing never went away, so it’s not ‘New World’.

      Also, we relate to stage 5 conditions more than those of sunny Italy or Spain. So it was ironic that Yorkshire had no rain for the two days Le Tour visited!

      With Lottery funding & consequently more TV coverage, pro racing has taken off again, but of course it’s still a minor sport behind cricket, rugby etc.

      Many people DO watch for the scenery, but also at least know who the local riders competing are.

      • UK part of Europe? To some that would be very controversial.

        Bicycle racing has been around in Australia and the US for a long time as well. More a comment on consistent presence of riders from those countries in continental pro-cycling races. Worth noting that the first Australians to ride the Tour did so in 1914 (Snowy Monroe and Don Kirkham) not sure when Americans or riders from the British Isles first showed up.

        Obviously the interest in pro cycling (rather than just riding bicycles) in each of these regions has gone from minute to significantly more substantial in the past 10 or so years, but not building from a base of zero. UK only labelled “New World” in a continental pro-cycling sense. 🙂

  11. When I was in Paris last year during the Tour, I had a hard time finding a cafe or bar that had the race on. At one cafe, when I asked to watch the race, the owner turned up his face, said “Ahhhh”, mimed the act of inserting a syringe into his arm, and then finally changed over to the channel and left me alone to watch the race.

    • Yeah, French people will bring up “le dopage” quite often when the Tour comes up in conversation. The fact that there hasn’t been a really serious French GC contender since the Festina scandal hasn’t helped. There is a perception that French riders are now cleaner than their foreign counterparts, and that this is making it hard for them to win the maillot jaune.

      If a French rider emerges as a serious contender to win in Paris, I think we will see a lot of French people abandon the blasé attitude. Voeckler’s run in 2011 did excite the masses, even though a lot figured there was no way he could keep it up to the end.

  12. Oh so true, I guess some of us do see the forest for the trees. We appreciate all the elements of cycle racing which pull us to this site. Others not so much, but we all do share the fact the we can get on our bikes ride a 100 miles in a day and see so much, and so many wonderful things with no visual restrictions almost as if we are in helicopter.

    My mother in law who was forced to watch the tour a few years back during breakfast while visiting my wife and I in California. Subsequently, went on a trip to France, when I asked her about it she mentioned that she really liked what she had seen while watching the tour with me that she wanted to go back!

    Marketing money well spent!

  13. Bicycle and bicycle races/activities are over century-old in France. They ride and race since forever, in cities and countryside, on and off road for fun, transportation and sport. On top of it, this somewhat blasé way of dealing with their biggest cycling event is also very typical of the french, and not only towards the Tour but most things too.

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