If the Tour de France is a business, who are its clients? Certainly TV audiences and roadside spectators alike. But there’s third group: mayors and local government officials.
While President Macron’s visit yesterday matters – name another race where the head of state visits every year – mayors and their colleagues in local government are the hidden VIPs of the Tour de France, they make route happen, they help pay for the race and they’re changing the shape of the sport more than you might think.
The Tour goes to Bordeaux today, a city that’s been on the race route more often than Pau, and is second only to Paris for Tour visits. Only the race hasn’t been here since 2010. The fact that it’s back is a tale of sports and politics.
Race director Christian Prudhomme likes to say he can have close to 300 candidates willing to host the Tour de France so he can take his pick but it doesn’t mean he can go everywhere, after all there are over 36,000 communes in France. Now more than half of these are just villages, many are one horse towns but each has an elected mayor and all are eligible. See Sarran which hosted a stage finish for its population of 274 in 2020, albeit with regional backing, tiers of local government together.
Bordeaux is France’s 9th city by population and hasn’t been a candidate for some time but in 2021 nearby Libourne hosted the race and it’s going back tomorrow too. This started a conversation with Bordeaux’s mayor Pierre Hurmic who is a cycling fan, and according to this morning’s Le Monde Humic leapt over the barriers in Libourne to corner Prudhomme about bringing the race back to his city. But as a member of France’s Europe Ecology political party, many of his colleagues are keen on cycling, but not the Tour de France. Many Greens see the Tour de France in a bad light: the carbon emissions, the “macho” culture, even privatising the public realm for a day to benefit a corporate event with its publicity caravan and sponsorship fest. There’s a lot the Greens don’t like, and they like to point it out. Prudhomme was able to reassure Humic and his colleagues that the Tour is trying to improve and it’s an example of the race listening to its customers. Even if the phrase doesn’t resonate everywhere in France, here the customer is always right.
To watch the Tour de France on French TV is to see ad breaks with ASO-branded videos encouraging cycling as transport, a sop to the Greens and just a good idea too. The Tour is trying to become more ecological with more electric vehicles and even if that’s a whole other debate, it’s notable that electricity company Enedis is on board as a race sponsor to reach local councillors to talk infrastructure like charging points. When Lyon’s mayor Grégory Doucet branded the Tour “machiste“, macho, well there’s now the Tour de France Femmes where Mayor Doucet can bid to host the race if he doesn’t like the men’s event. It’s this kind of pressure, more than social media or corporate sponsors, that led to the podium hosts changing with men and women alike these days. None of this means the Tour has become a virtuous paragon of ecology and equality of course but there’s a conversation and the race is beginning to dance to the tune of its clients: the mayors, and in turn the population. If your thesis is a grand tour is a reflection of society, here it’s mediated via the channel of local government. Curiously for France’s national sporting event, the race has yet to visit a town run by the far right Rassemblement National (ex-Front Nationale). It could be geography given many are in one spot along the Mediterranean coast like Cogolin and Fréjus… but who knows?
Customers still pay and hosting fees still count. In recent years the standard tariff has been €70,000 for a stage start and €120,000 for a finish. It’s handy income but round up and multiply by 19 days and it’s close to four million Euros, useful but remember a grand départ can “sell” for five million Euros or more. Hosting fees in total are about 10% of the Tour’s income, nice but not game changing and as we can see the start is the real earner.
But for the Tour and its director, time spent with mayors must account for a much larger share than the 10% monetary value, it’s vital for the race to have the course it wants and on the roads it needs. As well as appearances at ASO’s races and the Tour de France route presentation, Christian Prudhomme told this summer’s Pédale magazine he has two other big appointments in his diary: one is the Salon de l’Agriculture, France’s farming trade fair that’s part trade fair, part folklore and part government networking where he can meet and greet politicians (as well as the farming union whose members produce the themed field art – this year’s message is “my nature, my future”, an appeal to a new generation to take up farming). The other is the Congrès des Maires, an annual meeting of mayors where you imagine Prudhomme risks RSI from all the form handshakes, and cramp in the cheeks from the constant rictus of smiling but he’s well trained, this is a big part of his job.
For mayors and local officials the hosting fee is just the entry ticket, it’s not as simple as paying, waiting for July and hope they get to stand on the podium for a handshake with the maillot jaune and a nice photo for the office. Instead roundabouts on the route into town might have to be erased temporarily, there’s spend to promote the visit, bunting to buy budget to hang it and more. But the flipside is an apparent cost-benefit exercise suggesting that for every Euro spent, twice this sum is given back, some in tangible measures likes hotel bookings and tourist tax revenues, others in publicity, recognition and so on that are harder to quantify. Either way many, but not all, mayors love the Tour. A few can get really involved, for example in 2019 the then mayor of Epernay Franck Leroy – a cyclin fan – didn’t just bid and host the Tour de France, he helped draw the route through the champagne vineyards where Julian Alaphilippe won, and then was a willing host for the same roads to be used in 2022 for the Tour de France Femmes.
These mayors and their colleagues in local and regional government are customers and hosts of the Tour de France. So while there’s route made for TV audiences, there’s plenty in the race that’s also aimed at the mayors. They and colleagues in various layers of local government help make the race happen from hosting stages to getting roadworks done.
Above all these local politicians are are helping to pull ASO into the 21st century and arguably there’d be no Tour de France Femmes without a new crop of mayors. So while the race is back to Bordeaux today it’s not just a 170km race from Mont de Marsan but a stage in a longer journey too.