Book Review: Le Tour de France Côté Verso

Le Tour de France Côté Verso, by Jean-Louis Pagès

The Tour de France is a travelling circus and while all eyes are rightly on the riders and landscapes, it requires a shadow army of workers, many of whom work overnight. They put up barriers, lay cables, paint finish lines and more. For over 30 years Jean-Louis Pagès was part of this and eventually in charge of it all. This book explains much of the behind-the-scenes work that makes it all happen.

This book is in French and given the niche angle, not going to be translated in a hurry so only a portion of readers will go on to read the book. Why review? Because if some do, they’ll get to read about the logistics and personalities behind the Tour but it’s also a chance to look at the subject matter and the issues around it…

Jean-Louis Pagès is from the south of France and started out as a history and geography teacher but, thanks to a cousin with a military background who was working for the Tour de France, he was asked if wanted to help out in the summer of 1984. He did, and over 30 years rose up the ranks to become the Directeur des Sites du Tour, responsible for the start and finish zones of the race. This is a crucial role and, as the book sets out in detail, there’s a lot of work involved. If you think someone just decides roughly where to have the start and finish and then on the day some trucks and workers appear to set up camp for the day… this book will school you.

The job is far removed from Christian Prudhomme’s public role. Pagès features in a documentary by French TV channel M6 that goes backstage at the Tour de France (1h12m50s onwards for the logistics) and some of the scenes in the book appear, from the pre-dawn act of tracing the finish line in person with a piece of chalk, to his morning briefing to staff.

Pagès often worked privately, even anonymously, when sent to potential host towns to scope out their viability. He’d visit discreetly, walking and driving around and even duck questions when asked by locals why he was taking notes and measurements. It’s all about quietly checking out the feel of the town and above all, the logistics from likely parking spots for the publicity caravanne to easy exit routes off a mountain. Multiple candidate towns meant he was driving 120,000km a year, with 200 hotel nights and there are anecdotes about local cuisine and icy hotels. It’s only once the race route was announced every October that he’d go back to the towns to begin discussions with local mayors about the plans.

Sometimes the tail can wag the dog. Which side of a mountain to race up for a decisive summit finish? Pagès had his say and sway, arguing one side is better because it’ll allow the caravan easier access off the mountain and sometimes this could be a decisive factor, although most often he’d often be crucial to deciding where in a host town the finish would be.

Pagès’s tale also is one of the Tour’s enormous growth. Others will measure this by audience reach or annual income, this book supplies beaucoup anecdotes. When he joined the Tour riders signed on for each stage at a converted street market stall, while the finish line was just that, a white line painted on the road sans arch, and a flatbed truck was used for the podium ceremony. Then came a start village, a dedicated podium and more. Today the Tour is so big it travels with 2.5 megawatts of power generators to help supply the zone technique where every day 50-60km of cables are laid and recoiled. The start village gone from a few stalls to a 5,000m² exhibition zone and the finish area typically requires about 70,000m² – about 10 football pitches – and that’s just the footprint each day of the two sites, there are so many other details with plenty in between as well.

Many might remember the 2007 Tour de France for its scandal. The summit finish on the Col d’Aubisque saw Michael Rasmussen’s last day in the yellow jersey ahead of his rest day exit in Pau. For Pagès, the Aubisque summit finish marked an important change as it was the first time for him that the Tour’s finish zone was scaled back so that it could fit at the top of the pass, with parts of the zone technique located further down the mountain. It worked, and ever since this has allowed the big Tour to visit small places, think the Galibier summit finish in 2011 or the Col de la Loze in 2020. Yet this is only by redistributing elements of the finish elsewhere.

Le Tour victime de son succès… … son gigantisme est devenu un handicap
The Tour is a victim of its own success… …it’s gigantic nature has become a handicap

Often the Tour’s enormity is a challenge, in the words of one time race director Jacques Goddet to a young Pagès: “there are no problems, just solutions“. A summit finish atop the Galibier? The top is just a mere bend in the road, there’s barely parking for ten cars. But Pagès made it happen, even when race director Christian Prudhomme was ready to settle for a finish lower down.

Yet while there’s plenty of pride in a job often well done, it’s not a triumphant account. The book does conclude with a long reflection about the scale of the race, 4,500 people on the move in 2,400 vehicles every day, the resources this consumes and whether it can be reduced without degrading the event. Pagès also dwells on the inflationary tendency where each Tour must have more than the last. A summit finish must be higher, there must be more cobbles, the Planche des Belles Filles’s novelty as a fierce summit finish isn’t enough, along comes the “Super Planche” and going by the trends it’s a matter of time until the men’s race has a gravel stage, then two.

For Pagès though it’s always about the logistics. He’s not a cyclist. Indeed he deliberately avoided hiring cyclists or sports fans as finish zone workers because they’d be distracted by the race in July. It’s also the grind involved to make it happen, whether toiling workers rousing from bunkbeds inside adapted coaches at odd hours, or the countless hours of meetings amid the mille-feuille of local government.

The organisation has got harder, the Tour is so big that its arrival in a town requires meetings and over the years the bureaucracy has grown, he’s gone from being able to look the mayor in the eye or to shake hands on something, to more meetings, bureaucracy and a world of badges, lanyards and worrying that a lack of personal contact is making the Tour less welcoming for host towns too. But perhaps his predecessor Richard Marillier, a retired special forces commando, felt the same when the Tour began to use laptops and cellphones in the late 80s rather than paper maps? Pagès has retired leaving his Stéphane Boury in charge now.

The Verdict
An interesting read in French about the logistics and politics of the Tour de France, there are plenty of anecdotes about the race, politics and ASO along the way; including chapter and verse on the Orica bus in Corsica. The repeat themes are the work on the ground in advance of the route, and the difficulties of finding the right site given the demands the Tour makes keep on growing.

  • Le Tour de France Côté Verso, by Jean-Louis Pagès is published in France by Kennes and sells for €19.90

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19 thoughts on “Book Review: Le Tour de France Côté Verso”

  1. Enjoyed that. Eye opening numbers. I’ve ridden the etape a couple of times and marvelled at the village set up – never even thought about the race. 2,400 vehicles! Gosh

    • good point, the l’etape village is amazing and that’s easy for ASO compared to the Tour. I’m so spoiled by the l’etape experience that I have trouble signing up for the stuff we have here in the States, not fair surely but if anyone gets the chance to do a l’etape jump on it.

    • Every day. Have a look at the youtube link in there, it should open at the point in the documentary where the logistics start (the whole documentary is good but in French, and long). You can see Pagès and the others doing their thing at the Pierre St. Martin finish area and how the site is transformed from a car park into the finish zone.

  2. “A summit finish atop the Galibier? The top is just a mere bend in the road, there’s barely parking for ten cars.”

    As someone who’s never been on a bike in the Alps I find these details fascinating. Hope to see it with my own eyes one day. Great review as always.

    • Often the ski stations host finishes which explains why the Tour in the Alps often goes to some monstrous sites. But TV trumps hosting fees these days so a Galibier summit finish is worth more in terms of spectacle and audience than a finish in, say, Valloire, the ski resort/town down below the pass.

      There’s usually a few “the Pyrenees are more charming than the Alps” comments every year during the Tour but that’s largely a function of where the riders/media are taken to, there are plenty of charming, rustic places in the Alps as well but the Tour tends to visit the big resorts of the Alps as they pay for it, and they can house the race for the night, not just the riders and team staff but all the thousands needing a bed for the night.

  3. Thanks, very interesting. Do you know if it’s only Pagès who’s dwelling on inflationary tendancies, or if it’s a more general worry at the head of TdF ?

    • I think he’s aiming at Christian Prudhomme’s tendency towards the spectacular. There are chapters on different themes and one is all the race directors he’s worked under and it’s clear he liked Prudhomme as a colleague and working with him was fine but all these extra sites just makes things harder, it’s something many other races face too. The Vuelta was a summit finish atop the Sierra Nevada or to visit the Canary islands, the Giro has the Zoncolan and Strade Bianche and now wants more. Probably the trick is to use these things from time to time but not always.

      This year’s Granon finish is part of this, a very tough climb but the finish was in a nature zone so they could only have some of the “zone technique” at the top and there were restrictions on spectators parking there, in part to keep the climb clear but also to allow a speedy evacuation off the mountain.

  4. It’s not just the sport; there are huge forces of local politics and influencers in each town, overlaid with the business imperatives of tiers of sponsors. The operation to feed and water, to entertain and generally buy space in places without flattening the local commercants is a work of art.

  5. The size of the tour and the numbers of vehicles and staff (but of course also the number of spectators, most of whom are likely to come by car) raise the question whether this gigantism is still possible from an ecological point of view in the future. Any ideas or discussions on how to reduce the environmental impact of the Tour?

  6. Thanks for the review. There was an interesting observation on the Cycling Podcast this week about the environmental impact of the Tour as it’s grown into the current scale. While there are attempts to introduce measures like more electric vehicles, there are some contrasts with some of the measures taken by the other two GTs (eg no plastic bottle, size of the caravans). The Tour publicity caravan stands out as on ongoing anomaly and yet it’s key to the financial model. Not sure how they begin to address that.

    On the subject of the cycling podcast, I read Daniel Friebe’s book on Jan Ullrich on holiday and found it a gripping and emotionally powerful read. Would be interested to see your considered review. I’d heartily recommend it to all.

    • The caravan is meant to be reducing its emissions but good luck making fuel/energy savings on a giant chicken or lion float that’s probably less aerodynamic than a team bus, it’s relative. They are also chucking out less plastic, but again relative, less rather than zero but there are things like reusable coffee spoons from bamboo, cotton hats, the companies involved don’t want to be giving out junk that fails as they’d look bad too.

      I caught the cycling podcast too and one thing is this isn’t littering, every last scrap is fought for.

      Have the Ullrich book too and about to delve into it. For any German speakers there’s a great documentary on Sportschau in Germany, “Being Jan Ullrich”, which despite the English name is in German. It’s very well filmed, even artful at times.

      • Completely agree it’s not litter. Fair enough to scrap over a tiny sausage or pack of savoury biscuits, but our fridge still carries magnets for tyres and my emergency sunhat is the KoM. These are prized items and you’d better be quick to catch them off the trucks rolling by!
        Better to get these caravane freebies than bidons because you don’t miss seeing the riders. I always chuckle when some old chap who’s been waiting ages to see the race go by misses the closest sight to run and get a bidon out the ditch. Quite often there is nobody else around and he could have waited, but No, the magic will be gone…

        It’s useless to argue against having a caravane. Sure, the vehicles should be electric and the latest e-vehicle platforms being like skateboards means novelty shapes are easily added and changed over. But if reading about this subject tells us anything, Le Tour will need so many charging points they’d better take a massive generator truck to each ville départ

      • Come on. Every last scrap is fought for? And kept as a treasured souvenir by everybody forever?
        That’s simply impossible and insults the intelligence of your readers.

        It’s tat and it’s litter. It’s fun and it’s the magic of the moment. But it’s still tat and litter. Reusable coffee spoons made from bamboo and cotton hats aren’t going to cut it, no matter how vehemently some will assert that it’s useless to argue against having a caravan.

        If there are truly no problems, only solutions, then it should not be beyond the wit of the Tour to keep the fun and bin the tat.

  7. I know some people who work on the Tour of Britain, Tour Series and Women’s Tour, including the guy who plans the route. Although nowhere near the scale of the TdF it’s still a huge operation that runs to a greater or lesser extent for most of the year. Even a simple task like putting out the signs warnings of road closures takes a small team an entire week of very long days. I get the impression it’s somewhat more collaborative than the French version too: no secret reconnaissance trips, because all the host areas have asked to be involved. Probably the regional politics and the paperwork are the same!

    I wondered what it would take to put on a local amateur race and quickly concluded it would be impossible. Small wonder that so few new races find their way onto the calendar and even some long-standing events have disappeared.

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