Jean-Pierre Carenso

Jean-Pierre Carenso has died aged 86. A former director of the Tour de France, Carenso – pictured on the right – is one of several “forgotten” directors from the 1980s and did a lot to change the race and the business of pro cycling in a short space of time.

Go back to the 1980s and the Tour de France had the feel of a travelling circus and a tired one at that. A lot of the features we take for granted didn’t exist. The village départ at the start, the big arch over the finish line, a slick podium ceremony, all had yet to be invented. Yet it was the pre-eminent bike race, so important that teams used to pay entry fees to start. All this changed in the late 1980s and Jean-Pierre Carenso was a driving force behind this.

A brief history of Tour de France directors…
How many Tour de France directors can you name? Christian Prudhomme occupies the role today, many will remember Jean-Marie Leblanc. Jacques Goddet, Félix Lévitan and Henri Desgranges all have their name in history… and Wikipedia pages, as a proxy for this. But in the 1980s there were four others, but often with short roles that they’ve been overlooked.

Today the Tour de France is run by Amaury Sport Organisation and to cut a story short it was called Société du Tour back then. Just like today, the Société du Tour was under the same roof as L’Equipe, the daily sports newspaper, but then also alongside other titles like Le Parisien, a daily newspaper. In the 1980s the Amaury group hired former tennis pro and advertising executive Jean-Pierre Courcol to help develop Le Parisien and within a few years he was running L’Equipe.

Courcol seems to have opened up the Amaury group to the world of advertising and business and when Tour de France directeurs Jacques Goddet and Félix Lévitan left – Goddet halting a 50 year run; Lévitan leaving under a financial cloud – after 1986, Courcol introduced Jean-François Naquet-Radiguet as the new directeur of the Tour de France for 1987. Naquet-Radiguet was an outsider, having been in charge of a French wines and spirits business in Mexico and his tale is well told in “The Cognac Salesman and the Conman” by Daniel Friebe in The Cycling Anthology, Volume 5. Naquet-Radiguet accelerated the modernisation of the Tour. Acceleration, not starting, because if Goddet had ran the show for 50 years he’d hardly pickled the Tour in time, after all he and Lévitan signed the sponsorship contract to replace Perrier as the “official drink” with Coca-Cola a couple of years prior to Naquet-Radiguet’s arrival.

The first thing Naquet-Radiguet did was put some theatre into the route presentation… by putting the route presentation in a theatre. Until then next year’s map had been handed out to journalists in a room but he turned it into the format we know today, with a staged presentation, complete with a highlights reel from the previous edition. He was also behind the village départ, the VIP zone where riders, sponsors and other guests can hob-nob before a stage, radical in 1987, ubiquitous at any big stage race today. But he lasted less than a year and was out by May 1988. With the race just weeks away Courcol had to step in as co-directeur, hired Xavier Louy to help, a man so discreet entries about his time at the Tour see his name sometimes listed as Louis.

When 1989 Tour de France route was unveiled in the autumn of 1988 so were the race’s new directors. Carenso was unveiled as a new co-director in tandem with Jean-Marie Leblanc. Leblanc was an ex-pro who’d become a journalist, rising up to become the cycling chef at L’Equipe and Vélo magazine and working with sister company the Société du Tour as the race radio announcer as part of his move into race organisation. Carenso had enjoyed cycling in the hills behind Nice in his youth but made his name in advertising in Paris and was part of a series of high profile campaigns. He invented the slogan “du pain, du vin et du Boursin” for a brand of cheese spread that’s still a catchphrase in France today despite the ad being outlawed by anti-alcohol ad laws in the early 1990s. Carenso was also part of the team behind the billboard campaign in 1981 featuring a model in a bikini with the strapline (translated) “tomorrow I’ll take my top off” and sure enough two days later billboard was reposted with the model now standing topless… and a new strapline saying “tomorrow I’ll take the bottoms off”. You can guess what the billboard looked like next, albeit with the model’s back to the camera. You can also question the taste of these ads – and complaints flew in across France – but they were radical in adland not for the nudity but the rapidity, to prove that billboards got noticed and crucially the message they convey could be changed across France in a day. So Carenso was Monsieur Business to Leblanc’s Monsieur Cyclisme but not just anyone from French corporate life, someone pioneering and influential in French advertising.

Carenso picked up where Naquet-Radiguet stopped. The Tour got a new logo, its brand was trademarked. Teams no longer paid to start the Tour de France but were instead given a payment to cover expenses, a practice that continues today. The Tour – a bit like the Giro today – had many ancillary competitions but Carenso thought it was all too complicated: the long podium ceremonies bored the public and hogged riders when they could be going on television instead. The problem was each ceremony existed for its sponsor and so to cut this would mean slicing income too. Or not because Carenso shifted the focus from lots of sponsors to a select handful who would pay beaucoup in order to stand out. He started with about 50 sponsors in 1988, cut that in half for 1989 and delivered his plan to reach just five for 1990. Or take the example of the cars used in the Tour, the Société du Tour had a long rapport with Peugeot but Carenso dared to ask for a payment of 500,000 francs (about €120,000 today) on top of the fleet of vehicles lent to the race. Peugeot boss Jean Todt thought it was a joke, a bluff that this rambling circus could ask for money on top but while he was chuckling to himself Italy’s Fiat offered six million francs and so the Tour swapped from French cars to Italian in 1989: c’est le business. Things even went as far as selling the naming rights to in the 1989 event with Stage 20 going from Aix-les-Bains to “Hewlett-Packard-l’Isle-d’Abeau”, the US computer company branding the finish thanks to their offices there. Carenso left the Tour de France in 1994 after “strategic differences” with Jean-Claude Killy, a former downhill ski champion then appointed as Carenso’s senior.

What’s striking is that there don’t seem to be any Carensos in and around the sport now. All races today look and feel very similar to a decade ago now; maybe Wouter Vandenhaute has modernised some Flemish races, but setting up VIP villages beside the course is out of Carenso’s handbook rather than something radical. Michele Acquarone had some fresh ideas but was driven out of RCS. It’s hard to imagine someone senior in a big ad agency, Google or Facebook, quitting their job today to run a major race. “No bad thing” some may quip if outsiders come to trample on traditions and sophistications for the sake of a quick buck. But Carenso handled sponsorship, TV rights and the presentation of the race and left the route, time bonuses and all that to Leblanc.

France changed a lot in the 1980s and there’s a thesis waiting to be done about whether the Tour mirrors change in France, from socio-cultural attitudes, the media to business practices. Naquet-Radiguet and Carenso were brought in to do a job and perhaps if it wasn’t them, others would be hired to modernise the Tour de France? But it wasn’t others, it was them. Naquet-Radiguet and Carenso did a lot in a very short time to make the Tour what it is today, and by extension the sport and business of professional cycling too.

Photo: Société d’art et d’histoire du Mentonnais

9 thoughts on “Jean-Pierre Carenso”

  1. Nice piece, takes me full circle. Can remember the school French exchange and my host family singing to every TV advert each evening including Boursin, and the 1990 Tour at the same time. DIdn’t know there was one man behind both.

  2. An excellent analysis of the contribution of Jean-Pierre Carenso to today’s Tour de France. They continue to be a talented group of people. RIP J-P Carenso

  3. Fascinating piece and I agree the parallels between French society and the evolution of Le Tour would make for a very interesting study.

    • The race has changed a lot, from Desgranges using it as a means to exploit French territorial conquests and demonstrate physical resilience (which explains a lot of today’s macho culture in the sport, another thesis), right up to politicians asking for the podium ceremony to change for 2020, and for the race to be more environmentally friendly in the coming years. The race seems to be the reflection of rural France, of its medium sized host towns.

      I became interested in Carenso’s tenure after being interested in the 1989 Tour and that edition of the race had a purposeful theme, to celebrate the bicentennial of the 1789 revolution and the race seems better for it, it was part of a programme of events in 1989 rather than just a summer sports event and something a tennis tournament or sailing race can’t do.

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