Swans Commentary » swans.com July 27, 2009  



Le Tour De France
Part One: The Avant-Tour


by Graham Lea





[ed. The Tour de France: July 4-26, 2009; 15 million spectators; 2 billion TV viewers in 180 countries; the longest and most famous cycling race in the world; 3,454 kilometers (2,146.22 miles); winner (maillot jaune): Alberto Contador (Spain, age 26); second place: Andy Schleck (Luxemburg, age 24); third place: Lance Armstrong (USA, age 37); it took 85 hours, 58 minutes, and 35 seconds for Contador to complete la Grande Boucle.]


(Swans - July 27, 2009)   Cycling is the third most popular sports event in the world, after the Olympic Games and the football (soccer) "World" Cup (which, unlike the US baseball "World" Series, is a mondial event).

A Paris-Brest-Paris race had been established by Le Vélo (which correctly supported Alfred Dreyfus's innocence concerning the allegation that he spied for Germany). The notion of a Tour de France was not exactly a new idea, since the best selling book in France in the 19th century (apart from the Bible) was Augustine Fouillée's Le Tour de la France par deux enfants. (1) It had sold more than six million copies by 1900, with around 400 reprints. All references to God and religion were removed in the 1906 edition, with a racist statement that favoured the white race over others. A newly set up magazine L'Auto initiated Le Tour de France in 1903 as a competitive move, but because the newspaper collaborated with the occupying Germans in WWII, it was closed. At that point, the rights to the Tour were held by the French government.

The race was eventually taken over by the sports newspaper L'équipe, and then by its parent, the Amaury Sport Organisation (ASO, part of the French media group Éditions Philippe Amaury [EPA]), which has 4,000 employees and organises several other cycle races, as well as the Paris Marathon, the French golf Open, equestrian events, and the Paris-Dakar rally. ASO also publishes the daily newspaper Le Parisien, as well as a number of sports magazines. The president is Jean-Etienne Amaury, son of the EPA founder Philippe Amaury. In pre-broadcasting days the Tour sold newspapers, but now, of course, it is sponsorship and media rights that make the money. The entry of commercially-sponsored teams is by invitation from ASO, although in the early days there were national teams as well as entries from individuals.

Frenchmen have been spectacularly unsuccessful in winning Le Tour: there has not been a French winner since 1985 -- but courage, mes amis! This is rather like the British with the tennis at Wimbledon: one has to go back to Fred Perry in 1935 and 1936, who beat the German Gottfried von Cramm (who was subsequently imprisoned for homosexuality and not allowed to compete in 1939 at Wimbledon on the grounds that he was a convicted criminal. Von Cramm subsequently married Barbara Hutton, the Woolworth heiress.)

President Nicolas Sarkozy (Sarko) launched what Le Canard Enchaîné termed a panégerique, a eulogy, at the 1 July meeting of his council of ministers (no, the French prime minister does not nowadays run the government...). Sarko had been a fan of the Tour since childhood, he explained, and had autographs of riders from when he was 12 years old. Arretez de stigmatiser le Tour de France, la plus grande épreuve cycliste du monde! [Stop stigmatising the Tour, the greatest test of cyclists in the world]. ... Le tour de France, c'est une vraie fête, un vrai événement populaire... Il est victime du dopage et non pas coupable. [Le Tour is a festival, a truly popular event... It is a victim of doping, and not guilty.] ... It's along the route of the Tour that one discovers France... it is more than sport. C'est de la Culture. Look at Armstrong, he overcame cancer, won seven Tours, and is trying again this year. He's truly courageous, like all those who compete at the extreme edge. Le Canard Enchaîné could not resist the parting comment: Peu importe le contenu de la seringue [Never mind what the hypodermic syringe contains].

On juillet quatorze [July 14], Sarko announced that the Tour is un grand moment d'union nationale, although at that particular moment the leading French rider was in 21st place in the general classification. Asked about his favourite, the head of the French state confided he tended to favour the American Lance Armstrong. That's politics for you. Like Sarko, most Frenchmen have given up on the possibility of a French winner, despite there being more participants from France than any other country. There are French stage winners, but it is the total time over all stages that determines the individual winner. This is sometimes rationalised with the belief that the French haven't taken drugs since the scandals of the 1990s, but others do.

The turnover for the race is about 100 million euros, with a profit of around 12 million. A big contract is for broadcasting: the publicly-owned France TV negotiated a five-year contract in 2007, as well as worldwide rights for 140 countries. In China, some 20 million watch the Tour. (2)

The television coverage is mostly brilliant, with topographical delights from helicopter shots, without the noise. It is Constable the movie, misty Monet, and magnificent Gainsborough combined. Magnifique! The race is a modern ballet, with stunning shots of the riders floating through the French countryside and villages. There is informed commentary on the architecture and history of significant buildings. The cameras zoom on storks nesting on the pinnacles of churches; the Cascade of Pissevache (a stream squirting out from the rock face like a cow doing what it has to do); and only in France could three escargots that decided to cross the road just before the arrival of the racers be given television time. The television audience is divided between those who watch it for the scenery, and those who support cycling as a sport, although it does seem that if French riders are not challenging for the lead of a stage, then French attention turns to the scenery.

There are four principal sponsors: a mineral water producer, a bank, a supermarket, and a foreign car manufacturer, along with partners, suppliers, and the French government at the national and departmental level. The route incorporates excursions into adjacent countries, no doubt to raise the profile. The Tour is sometimes referred to as la Grand Boucle. (3) Perhaps to lessen giddiness, one year the Tour runs clockwise, and the following year anti-clockwise, but always ending in Paris on the Champs Elysées. The route can be as strange as the boundaries of US Congressional districts -- there are many compromises with the choice of villes d'étape.

With more than 250 towns applying to begin or (preferably) end a stage, there are incognito visits by ASO officials, rather like the Michelin restaurant inspectors, to assess suitability. For the chosen towns it is a big day for les élus [the elected local politicians], who get to be on the podium to congratulate the winners, but I am not so sure that it really helps the local economy in view of the cost (ASO charges several hundred thousand euros). There are many expenses to be born locally, and the Tour ruined market day in our ville d'arrivée. It may help the feel-good factor for the citizens, but it seems unlikely that tourists will be subsequently attracted to the town as a result.

Of course there is some trickle down of benefit, but not much from the 4,500-person official caravan of organisers, sponsors, officials, support teams, technicians, and journalists who accompany the tour. There is another caravan largely made up of supporters, with many having camper vans. A few constitute an unofficial graffiti brigade, writing messages to their heroes on the road along the route. One year, the Ariège (our département) was an official graffitista, painting its logo on the road, but having the bad luck that there were low clouds on race day so the helicopters could not fly and thereby exhibit their artwork.

The use of performance-enhancement drugs in cycling predates the Tour. In days of yore, their main purpose was to lessen pain and saddle soreness from appalling roads and lack of pneumatic tyres. Nitroglycerine, alcohol, ether, cocaine, strychnine, chloroform, and alcohol all openly played their role. Successive French governments did not face up to the problem of drug use, even when they became performance-enhancing rather than pain-relieving. Drug use, including amphetamines, was effectively accepted in the 1930s by the organiser: the only stipulation in the rule book was that dope would not be provided by the race organiser. Since 1952 there have been more serious efforts to eliminate doping, starting with the urging of Pierre Dumas, the Tour physician until 1969, and then head of drug testing, which had begun with the 1964 Tour. Testing techniques lagged the development of enhancement potions, however. The organiser at the time was concerned that if most riders were drugged, and this was detected, the sport would fall into disrepute.

The Council of Europe (not to be confused with the European Union) turned its attention to doping issues in sport in 1964. By 1989 it had produced an Anti-Doping Convention, but the U.S. would not ratify it, although it was eligible to do so. The Convention prohibited stimulants, narcotic analgesics, anabolic steroids and peptide hormones, beta-blockers, diuretics, blood doping, and the manipulation of samples. Interestingly, alcohol and cannabis were specifically not prohibited, nor were local anaesthetics (except cocaine), nor topical corticosteroids. Despite various efforts, in 2005 cycling recorded more doping cases than baseball or boxing. As a result of an initiative by the International Olympic Committee (which does not exactly have a spotless reputation in running the Games), the World Anti-Doping Agency (WADA) was founded in 1999 and is now headquartered in Montreal. WADA was criticised by the Council of Europe because some of its testing procedures were "incompatible with human rights standards," particularly with respect to privacy. Unesco's legally-binding International Convention against Doping in Sport, which harmonises national codes, entered force in February 2007. The U.S. ratified it in August 2008, but with significant reservations.

In the 1970s, corticoids -- steroids -- were used. Erythropoietin (EPO, a blood booster) and a variant called CERA (Continuous Erythropoiesis Receptor Activator) made its debut, but could not be detected at the time. The abuse was well known, but little action was taken. EPO testing became possible in 2000, but the suspicion lurks that carefully-timed micro doses of EPO may be undetectable. The haematocrit level (red blood cell volume) is measured, which should show a normal level of around 40%, with anything above 50% being regarded as evidence of cheating. It is possible, indeed probable, that alternative boosters are being used undetected. Autologous transfusion (using the rider's own blood to increase oxygen uptake by around 10% and strength by more than 20%) is hard to detect -- but blood removal can be detected. A system of compulsory biological passports containing all testing results in electronic form was launched in 2007, with random tests between and during races. There is now a much greater chance of detecting cheating from statistical abnormalities, such as suspicious changes in baseline levels.

The Union cycliste internationale (UCI, the International Cycling Union) is the world-wide governing body for the sport of cycling, and is based in Switzerland. The UCI organises a Pro Tour, recognises teams, and requires them to participate in its events -- fourteen in 2009. The Tour de France, and some other major races, are not part of the Pro Tour. This has the potential to create antithesis between the organisers of these other events and the UCI, which has a dual role (at least) of being the sport's governing body, and a promoter. Conflicts have also arisen, for example in the 2009 Tour, as to whether the UCI, the organiser ASO, or the French government testing laboratory should be responsible for testing during the race. To its credit, the UCI had anti-doping regulations in 1965, and is responsible for the biological passports. Questions have been raised as to the strength of the UCI anti-doping commitment, for example by Der Spiegel.

The French dope testing laboratory, l'Agence française du lutte contre le dopage (AFLD), has not always acted wisely. Pierre Bordry, the AFLD president, questioned the UCI's protocol, telling Le Figaro that there was a lack of rigour in the work of the UCI testers. French sport minister (and pharmacienne) Roselyne Bachelot, made an extraordinary statement, reported the day before this year's race started: ...Je dis à Lance Armstrong qu'il sera particulièrement, particulièrement, particulièrement surveillé [I warn Lance Armstrong that he will be particularly, particularly, particulary monitored]. Armstrong dismissed Bachelot's comments as being "slightly political," which they were indeed. Such chauvinism is perhaps not surprising. Let us recall that Nicolas Chauvin, a mythical Frenchman, exhibited exaggerated patriotism towards Napoleon Bonaparte, becoming recognised as a caricature of nationalism through a number of plays, such as La Concorde Tricolore, by the brothers Charles and Jean Cogniard in 1831, and The Scarlet Pimpernel by Baroness Emmuska Orczy in 1903. The abusive usage of chauvinism claimed by feminists is therefore unfounded (Now you're condemned by angry femmes / For all that you were not. (4))

The AFLD is widely regarded as being out to get Armstrong. Sarkozy's intervention looks like an assurance that Armstrong will not be unduly harassed. Le Canard Enchaîné claimed that journalists on L'équipe have been instructed by ASO to play down stories about doping. ASO wants the 2014 winter Olympic TV contract for France (it owns L'équipe TV), as well as future Olympic management contracts. It seems as though there may be a covert effort to claim that there was no doping in the 2009 Tour, for the simple reason that it seems that such stories have become bad for the business of sport, and cycling in particular.

The race is still underway as this is written, so I will return to these matters in the second part of this article, after sipping a pastis or two, watching the final stages, scouring the Web -- and sounding-out opinion in the PMU café. (5)

À bientôt....


[ed. Read the second part of Graham Lea's take on the Tour de France, So were the Riders all Heroes?]




1.  Les éditions Belin, 1877. Fouillée wrote as G Bruno, en hommage to the 16th century Italian philosopher who was burnt by the Inquisition.
www.demassieux.fr/TDFWeb/pdf/TDFWeb1877_web.pdf  (back)

2.  The official Web site www.letour.fr is just a beginning. www.bikeraceinfo.com/about-us.html is a US site for statistics and some detailed history. There are of course many blogs, usually exhibiting an air of informed expertise and impartiality, but not quite being able to mask their personal preferences.  (back)

3.  La grande boucle [big loop] is used both as a nickname for the Tour, and for Le Tour cycliste féminin, which is struggling somewhat financially, but takes place in June. The ungallant ASO objected to the use of the trademark Le Tour for the women's race.  (back)

4.  Cited by NYT crossword compiler Eugene Maleska, but without attribution.  (back)

5.  Pari Mutuel Urbain, the French state-controlled sport betting system (the largest in Europe) operates in designated cafes. They tend to attract the low-life...  (back)


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About the Author

Graham Lea is a British writer and journalist, inter alia for the BBC and The Register, where he covered the Microsoft antitrust case. For many years he was a geologist. Apart from London, he has lived in Canada, the USA, and the Netherlands before settling in la France profonde with his Dutch wife. Lea's work for Swans brings another bit of international flair to the coin français.



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Published July 27, 2009