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Analysis: Tour historian Christopher Thompson reflects on 110 years of French culture

  • By Mark Johnson
  • Published Jan. 11, 2013
Raymond Poulidor was a rider of the people. Photo: Mark Johnson | VeloNews.com

A primitive business model

In his book, Thompson explains that the Tour de France was first televised in 1948, when just the final stage was shown on the first French nightly news program. Television coverage increased in the following years. In 1949 there were only 5,000 TV sets in France, and televising the race was seen as a way to build demand for the newfangled device. As coverage grew, corporations realized that getting their logos on rider jerseys was a way around the French ban on television advertising.

Today, Thompson says the Tour’s economic model is relatively primitive in terms of the impotence of the racers compared to contemporary American professional athletes.

“The model makes perfect economic sense for the organizers who keep most of the profits,” he said.

Thompson says that the fact that the race has not followed the hard-charging, revenue-sharing framework of American sports is ironic, considering that the Tour has otherwise always seen itself as a symbol of forward cultural movement and technological advancement.

“For a race whose generations of different organizers have long prided themselves on how modern the race was, how innovative the race was in terms of sponsorship and economic opportunities, that model is not up to date with regard to certainly most American sports,” said Thompson.

This business model is not much different than when the race was founded in a Paris press room in 1903, and Thompson does not see it changing soon.

“Until the racers organize and there is enough unity amongst the racers, I think the organizers will continue to organize things along these lines,” he said.

As evidence of the riders’ inability to capitalize on their true economic worth, Thompson cites the fact that the greatest rider of all time, Eddy Merckx, needed to launch his own bike line in part to support himself upon retiring from racing. “That would be just simply unheard of for an American athlete of that caliber,” said Thompson.

Turning again to the Tour’s current identity crisis, Thompson mentions that national politicians in France used to eagerly align themselves with the Tour to boost their credentials.

“Even after World War II, there is no question that the Tour, and the heroes who endured all the suffering involved in completing it — these were really positive values,” he said. “The French could really identify with surviving a tremendous amount of suffering and difficulty and obstacles. So there’s no question that many politicians chose to identify with the racers and their struggles.”

He adds that politicians saw appeal in attaching themselves to the Tour train; the race could highlight their campaign positions as defenders of exploited French industrial workers. Through the end of WWII, Thompson contends, “particularly politicians on the communist left, who were trying to make a strong case for more workers’ rights, saw the Tour as a really good example of the bourgeoisie — in other words the race organizers — exploiting poor workers who brought only their courage and their manual labor to the table.”

Today, however, national politicians on both the left and right avoid the Tour and its seemingly annual doping scandals. But while national politicians avoid the Tour like processed cheese, this Tour-toxicity is not the case at the provincial level, where the Grande Boucle can still pump up a mayor’s bona fides.

“Local politicians are clearly interested in the race because if they can get it to go through their community — and more importantly if they can get their community to be a host town for a Tour stage — then the publicity and the revenue is still a very significant deal for them,” said Thompson.

Some riders like Raymond Poulidor, who finished on the Tour podium eight times, but never won it, came to represent not factory laborer exploitation, but a nostalgia for a pre-industrial revolution France.

“His image was not so much the tough industrial worker,” Thompson said of Poulidor, who bridged the eras of giants Jacques Anquetil and Merckx. Instead, he was of the soil, “somebody from the countryside whose parents were farmers or agricultural workers.” According to Thompson, Poulidor’s image harkened back to a simpler time: “Sort of the traditional France of the peasantry of the countryside at a time when France was modernizing rapidly after World War II. It was a way to connect in a very nostalgic way with a France that was in the process of disappearing.”

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Mark Johnson

Mark Johnson

Writer-photographer Mark Johnson's work has been published in titles including VeloNews in the United States, Cycling Weekly in the UK, Vélo in France, and Ride Cycling Review in Australia as well as general-interest publications including The Wall Street Journal and the San Diego Union-Tribune. His book on the Garmin pro team, Argyle Armada, was published by VeloPress in 2012. A Cat. 2 road cyclist, Mark has bicycled across the United States twice and completed an Ironman triathlon. He graduated from UC San Diego and has a Ph.D. in English literature from Boston University. His other passion is surfing, which he does frequently from his home in Del Mar, California. Follow him on Twitter @ironstringmark.

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