x Abu Dhabi, UAEFriday 19 January 2018

France to peddle its delights as world's greatest free show saddles up

Despite recent doping scandals that have rocked the sport, the Tour de France remains as popular as ever.

Bradley Wiggins, winner of the 2012 Tour de France cycling race kisses the trophy on the podium of the the Tour de France cycling race in Paris on uly 22, 2012. AP Photo / Jerome Prevost
Bradley Wiggins, winner of the 2012 Tour de France cycling race kisses the trophy on the podium of the the Tour de France cycling race in Paris on uly 22, 2012. AP Photo / Jerome Prevost

The world's most famous cycle race, the Tour de France, celebrates its 100th event, starting on Saturday, on the beautiful but volatile Mediterranean island that is the only part of metropolitan France its routes have never previously included.

Despite a growing trend to hold stages in other countries, this year's race will be the first since the event began in 1903 to visit Corsica, the birthplace of the 18th French emperor Napoleon that lies between the French and Italian rivieras and the coast of northern Tunisia.

On the basis of estimates in the English county of Yorkshire, where next year's race will start, the potential boost to the local economy from hosting the first three legs of this year's event can be measured in tens of millions of euros.

It is a slice of good news the island urgently needs. Corsica, with its history of bloodshed linked to nationalistic agitation and criminal feuds, hopes its important tourism industry will reap huge benefits.

The Tour de France organisers, the Amaury Sport Organisation (ASO), would be satisfied, too, if spectacular television footage as the cyclists make their way north and across country from the southern town of Porto-Vecchio, setting for Le Grand Depart, encouraged viewers to forget a rotten year for the race's reputation.

Since Sir Bradley Wiggins became the first Briton to win the tour a year ago, the American cyclist Lance Armstrong, the race winner for seven years running, has been stripped of all the titles and banned for life for organising what is alleged to have been "the most sophisticated, professionalised and successful doping programme that sport has ever seen".

The response from sponsors could have been catastrophic. But the race has drawn on its remarkable, perhaps unshakeable popularity - along with respect earned for a determined campaign to eliminate cheating - to remain, as Daniel Benson, managing editor of the online magazine www.cyclingnews.com puts it, "the biggest race on Earth".

"Newspapers created the Tour de France, radio made it popular, television made it rich" said Christian Prudhomme, the director of the Tour de France, in 2010. But how rich?

The main television contract is with France 2, which reportedly paid €120 million (Dh576.46 million) for a five-year deal that expires this year.

Another cycling website (www.cyclismas.com) put the figure for this year at €24.9m, €1m up on 2011 in line with the terms of the agreement, but stressed that all the quoted sums include the rights to broadcast a number of other ASO-run events.

On its own calculations for 2011, Cyclismas estimated total Tour de France revenue from broadcasting rights, including other TV contracts, at between €40m and €50m. This represents, on the organisers' own assessment, 60 per cent of total income, the rest coming from sponsors (30 per cent) and fees from host towns along the route.

The amounts seemed at odds with a comment attributed by Bloomberg to the Association International des Groupes Cyclistes Professionels, a French-based body representing professional cycling teams: "ASO may get as much as $200m from TV rights, while the 22 Tour de France teams typically have an annual budget of $10m each from sponsorships."

The statement was intended to support three teams - Garmin-Cervélo, HTC-Highroad and RadioShack - in a battle to limit television access to their vehicles during the race unless their packages were improved.

A glance at the Tour de France website (www.letour.fr), or even more strikingly at the astonishing procession of cars that accompanies the cyclists' peleton on its 21-day odyssey, reveals the range of commercial involvement.

The sponsors are France 2 and 3, the European Broadcasting Union, LCL bank, Vittel, Skoda and Carrefour. LCL has sponsored the yellow jersey, worn by the race leader, for 26 years. The list of official partners, supporters and suppliers is much longer.

Among them, the state betting system Pari Mutuel Urbain sponsors the green jersey won by points classification leaders while the sportswear makers Le Coq Sportif, which has an association with the race dating from 1951, has a five-year contract to supply official kit.

"The racing is expensive and teams can't sell tickets to their events," writes a correspondent for the Australian Financial Review. "For that reason, sponsors are wooed in a fashion that would make a football team blush."

At www.cyclingnews.com, Mr Benson agrees. "It is just one massive, cash-creating convoy," he says.

He believes the energy put into efforts by cities, towns and villages when bidding to have the race pass through their streets tells its own story.

Even his own site experiences an explosion of interest during the race's three weeks, causing the monthly readership to rocket from 20 million to 30 million to 60 million to 70 million page views.

"For Corsica, it will be all about tourism, showing off the fantastic aspects of the island," he says. "Corsica has successfully staged the Critérium International. It is only a two-day race but showed the island was capable of hosting a much bigger event."

And events do not come much bigger than the Tour de France, which will this year cover 21 stages and 3,479km before the finale at the Champs-Elysées after several circuits of the heart of Paris on both banks of the Seine.

A look at footage from any year's race reveals the strong allure of the sport, whether it is the crowds are nosing forward dangerously for a better view on narrow, winding roads high in mountainous regions or standing several deep along the Rue de Rivoli in Paris.

"The real star of the show is France and the great interior known as la France profonde," says Pete Sixsmith in a UK online account of why the Tour de France has him transfixed.

"The race takes you through empty flatlands, sleepy towns and dozing villages and field after field of 10-foot high sunflowers.

"Then, it smacks you in the face with the mountain stages in the Alps and the Pyrénées. As one spectacular mountain pass is succeeded by another, you begin to have an understanding of how big and how magnificent France really is."

He takes comfort in the belief that the event appears to have "chased out the drug cheats, blood dopers and steroid junkies and what we see now is a combination of strength, courage and tactical acumen".

But he wrote that before the full scale of past cheating became clear. When Armstrong made his long-awaited confession on Oprah Winfrey's prime-time US talk show in January, the ESPN sports website remarked: "A story that seemed too good to be true - cancer survivor returns to win one of sport's most gruelling events seven times in a row - was revealed to be just that."

For Daniel Benson, the Tour de France can rise above its scandal-ridden recent past. "Cycling does more than most sports to clean itself up but you'll always have negative aspects because you will catch people if you look for cheating. That said, it is probably cleaner than it has been for a long time."

And, for the world of finance, it will continue to generate the level of corporate investment that makes it the third-biggest occasion on the sporting calendar after the World Cup and the Olympics, both of which occur only once every four years.

It may be the ultimate paradox of the Tour de France that it is both an aggressively commercial, self-financing event and, as it says itself in acknowledgement of the free public access, "the greatest free show on the planet".