The Tour De France Pedals Harder

Its promoters have global ambitions, but so far, few big sponsors

The advertising trucks come first. Covered with logos and slogans, they roar down Rue de la Republique in the handsome Normandy city of Rouen for more than an hour. Hucksters toss out thousands of free samples, from packets of coffee to bicycle caps. Finally, the 198 cyclists competing in the three-week, 3,800-kilometer Tour de France pass in a blur. They're gone so fast that spectator Jean Thiery says: "The best thing about the Tour isn't the bicycling. It's the publicity caravan."

Ever since the newspaper L'Auto Journal launched the Tour de France back in 1903 to boost circulation, marketing has powered the world's premier cycling race. But as recently as the 1980s, most of the sponsors and racers were French, and the company that organized the event was near bankruptcy. Now, the Tour's handlers are pedaling furiously to enter the big leagues of global sports. This year, foreigners financed 15 out of the 22 teams competing for about $1 million in prize money, and the event's trademark yellow jersey will sport the Nike Swoosh. "The future for us is international," says Jean-Claude Blanc, director general of Amaury Sports, the Tour's owner.

Turning the bike race into a major global media event will be uphill work. Although cycling remains a big draw in Europe, the sport by nature lacks the concentrated competition of tennis, golf, or soccer. And it has few superstars. "There's no Michael Jordan or Tiger Woods yet in this sport," admits Dirk-Jan van Hameren, cycling manager of Nike Europe, which signed on last year as the Tour's official supplier of T-shirt and caps.

That's why the Tour still doesn't draw the fat sponsorships other sports do. For example, while Nike has signed a $40 million deal to sponsor Brazil's national soccer squad, it's not considering paying the $6 million-plus it costs to finance a nine-person Tour team for a year.

The dearth of celebrity athletes is only one of the Tour's commercial hurdles. Although the race attracts 15 million live spectators, it takes place on public roads, so charging admission is almost impossible. The daily stages finish in the afternoon, not during evening-TV prime time. And despite their desire to go global, the tour organizers are unwilling to change the small-town formula of the popular publicity caravan, which remains dominated by small French companies. Says Blanc: "We want to keep the Tour's atmosphere."

CHAOTIC JUMBLE. Nevertheless, its organizers also want to buff up the Tour's image. In 1992, Amaury hired ski idol Jean-Claude Killy as chairman. Killy had just finished organizing that year's French winter Olympics, and he brought along his Olympic management team, including Blanc. They took back the race's TV rights--controlled until then by staid, state-run France Television--and jazzed up the coverage, producing a daily half-hour of highlights. They also beefed up TV ad sales. "We began selling the rights everywhere, even in China," says Blanc. The race now is televised in 163 countries and is the world's most widely aired annual sporting event.

Tour marketers also have tried, with limited success, to cut down the chaotic jumble of sponsors and to strengthen ties with a small number of global giants. Instead of two- or three-year contracts, Coca-Cola Co. and a few other multinationals have agreed to multimillion-dollar commitments through at least 2003. Such "official sponsors" get choice exposure on TV and at the finish line, along with the right to exploit the Tour de France brand.

Now the Tour's organizers want to try their formula with other sports events. In recent years, Amaury Sports has begun managing other traditional French cycling events, such as the Liege-Bastogne race, and has created new ones, such as a mountain bike Tour de France. Amaury Sports has branched out into motor sports, managing the 10,000-kilometer Paris-Dakar Rally, and it hosted last month's Gaz de France track-and-field meet. The Tour de France is combining provincial French charm with slick promotion, but it still faces hilly terrain.

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