The Top Job

Want to run the Tour de France? There’s no vacancy today but it’s starting to be talked about.

A front seat at the Tour de France, limitless food and wine, it sounds tempting…

Christian Prudhomme is the directeur du cyclisme at Amaury Sport Organisation (ASO), the organisers of the Tour de France. He 63 years old, the notional retirement age in France but it’s not compulsory and there’s no vacancy yet. Still he is starting to evoked retirement, phrases like “being closer to the end [of his career] than the start” have emerged, talk even of succession.

The job might not be what you think. The high-level business side like negotiating TV rights and wrangling with the UCI is done by people above like Yann Le Moenner, the directeur général of ASO, as in the chief executive. The technical side like crafting the race routes is largely led by Thierry Gouvenou, the race directeur ex-pro who seems happiest exploring new roads and discussing the day’s vertical gain rather than being a salesman.

Pierre-Yves Thouault is Prudhomme’s deputy but he’s the auxiliary, a support with technical skills who can go from discussing policing requirements to diesel generators the next. And if you’ve not heard of him that is almost the point.

Prudhomme and his role of directeur du cyclisme is very visible. It’s what defines the job; just as there are many technical tasks for the Giro and Vuelta too but the public face is Mauro Vegni or Javier Guillén.

Read or listen to enough Prudhomme interviews and the same stories and lines often repeat. One of them is that his role is not really a job, it’s not a career even but a “mission”, often quickly chased by a line to say it’s nothing divine of course, just that it is consuming.

He’s the one who presents the route every year and is the face in July but there’s a lot of work the rest of the year to make it all happen. He travels around France to network with the politicians who are the clients of ASO. A mayor here, a senator there and préfets everywhere, a lot of time is spent in the millefeuille, France’s layercake of local and regional governments. France’s annual assembly of départments, the congress of mayors and the Paris agricultural fair the three unmissable appointments in the year.

For all the meetings with politicians and technocrats Prudhomme and the Tour are largely apolitical, even if he was a signatory to a letter in 2017 where people in France’s sports sphere cautioned against voting for the far right in the presidential elections. Otherwise there’s a convivial neutrality about the Tour in a country where everything can be politicised. Handing out stage of the Tour de France is not contentious, politicians who don’t want the race don’t apply so there are few losers left with an axe to grind; towns not satisfied by this year’s route often get a nod and a wink it’ll be there time soon.

In July days are spent in the team car, partly to oversee the race but also hosting a VIP, possibly the French president. He can go to two dinners in an evening to satisfy expectant locals. It’s not just the riders who go big on calories this month, the job almost requires a second stomach, a second liver even.

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Another physical requirement is a firm handshake. One Prudhomme quip is that his elbow has a memory of its own because when he goes to greet someone there’s a brief moment where he struggles to recall their name but as his elbow unbends and his hand moves forward for the handshake, suddenly their name emerges on the tip of his tongue.

In the job since 2007 Prudhomme has shaped the race. But has he made the race more TV friendly with never more than two sprint stages in a row, fewer time trials, more mid-mountains and special summit finishes like the Galibier and Granon because he wants this, or is this just what the TV market demands and technology allows? Probably both, the Tour has lent into this more than the Giro, borrowing from its sister race the Vuelta while visits to the Planche des Belles Filles or the Puy-de-Dôme have had a personal touch. Exploring this is for another day.

Until the 1980s a lot of the Société du Tour, as ASO was called then, was staffed by ex-army types, colonels and lieutenants; now it has a large share of ex-pros. But the directeur has come from the media, whether Henri Desgrange, Jacques Goddet or Jean-Marie Leblanc, journalists from the in-house newspaper. Prudhomme was an outsider who came from radio and TV which explains plenty for a job that requires a lot of talking. Is the next candidate going to come from the media? Just as Leblanc picked Prudhomme and had him first as a deputy so he could be introduced to mayors and others before he took over, the same is likely to happen again.

Could Marion Rousse be promoted? Why not. FranceTV’s lead commentator Alexandre Pasteur could step in aged 53, a coincidence or not he is watching today’s stage from Prudhomme’s car.

When Leblanc started looking for a successor two decades ago he had several candidates in mind. He thought the job needed three qualities: you need to know cycling well, you have to like people, and you need have a sense of public interest and duty. These probably still hold if you want to polish your CV.

12 thoughts on “The Top Job”

  1. Frankly I would love to see Marion Rousse handling both the ladies’ and men’s Tours. She is an ex pro and at the same time seems to be the kind of political person that this job requires.

    Nothing would say it better that the women’ and men’s cycling is making strides towards equality than having the same woman chairing the biggest two races in the world.

    I don’t hold too much hope though.

    • I absolutely agree with you here. She has the natural charisma and political nous the job requires. If it’s a question of promoting the most qualified person, she’s it.

  2. Mr. INRNG himself satisfies all three needed qualities, so I nominate him. It would be a pity to lose this blog, but it’s for the greater good!

  3. I would happily throw my hat in the ring but:
    I don’t like people
    I have no sense of public duty &
    I don’t know much about cycling (which is why I read these offerings to educate myself).
    Marion Rousse would seem to be an excellent choice but maybe not until Juju retires. Not a good look to be choosing the route when you’re partner is a current rider.

  4. I’ve read that one of the drawbacks to being directeur is a requirement to attend several dinners at each stage finish,resulting in months of dieting and alcohol free nights.For that reason only,I’m out.

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