The main threat to the Tour de France, its organizers used to say, was “gigantisme” -- tremendous growth -- a sprawl of people and equipment that overwhelmed the three-week bicycle race, a host of sideshows obscuring the main ring.
That was a decade or two ago, when Tour officials liked to boast that only the Olympic Games drew a larger television audience. Now soccer’s World Cup has moved into the second slot and, battered by doping scandals, the sport of bicycle road racing fights for coverage, team sponsors flee, and long-established races disappear.
How can the Tour de France fight the trend?
Easy: Embrace gigantisme. Make the race better by making it bigger. If the daunting climb to Alpe d’Huez, 1,371 meters (4,498 feet) up in the French Alps around 21 hairpin turns, lures hundreds of thousands of spectators, then they should be given the extra thrill of watching the riders make the climb twice in a day, as is scheduled this year. If the traditional afternoon finish on the Champs-Elysees in Paris is usually watched by half a million fans, stage it at night, as is scheduled this year, in hopes of a bigger turnout. As Oscar Wilde observed, “Nothing succeeds like excess.”
As the biggest, richest and most prestigious bicycle race in the world kicks off this weekend on the island of Corsica, neither the organizers nor the fans seem discouraged by the sport’s many doping scandals.
Most French people long suspected that Lance Armstrong, the American cyclist who won the Tour de France seven consecutive times, used illegal drugs, and that many other riders also did and still do: More than half a dozen riders have been caught this season. The Tour’s record book for the last 15 years is riddled with asterisks for riders who lost their victories (Armstrong, Floyd Landis, Alberto Contador) after it was revealed they had been aided by banned substances.
The Armstrong confession that made so much news in the U.S. had very little traction in Europe and is barely mentioned now. Doping scandals in Belgium, Germany, Italy and Spain in recent years have met with muted indifference. What of it? the average fan asks, why let some bad eggs spoil my good time? This reservoir of support -- or apathy -- fuels the organizers of this year’s race. The show will go on, they say, and it will be bigger than ever.
As they gleefully pointed out, this 100th running of the race (begun in 1903, it was halted by both world wars) will have 4,500 participants -- a number that grows every year. These include officials, news media, commercial partners, “service providers” and a 12-kilometer-long publicity caravan that precedes the race and distributes 14 million trinkets to people waiting for hours along the sides of the roads, only to see the riders go by in a flash.
Almost hidden among the participants will be 198 riders divided into 22 nine-man teams. As they pedal over the race’s 3,404 kilometers (2,115 miles) in 21 daily stages, those 198 will be attended by 300 team officials, mechanics and “soigneurs” or caregivers, whose duties include massages. The athletes will be watched over by 17 officiating commissaires to report violations of the rules. Also in attendance will be 380 employees of the organizer, the Amaury Sport Organization, and 10 doctors and one nurse traveling in six ambulances, two cars and on a motorcycle.
The police will be out, too: 47 motorcyclists, 13 officers on general security and 23,000 officers to block side roads for hours in the 537 French municipalities the race passes through in its clockwise journey around the country. (The Tour de France is a pocket kingdom, with its own police force and air force -- a handful of supersized helicopters to shuttle high-level guests from site to site. It also features the only post office in the country that remains open on the national holiday Bastille Day.)
There was a time, perhaps 30 years ago in the era of typewriters, when the press corps covering the race consisted of several dozen people traveling full time and an equal number of local drop-ins when the Tour passed into their papers’ circulation zone. Now there are 2,000 reporters, photographers and “consultants,” whatever that means. They represent 560 media outlets, including 85 television channels broadcasting to 190 countries. Last year, 3.5 billion people watched the Tour on television, according to the race’s organizers. (The event also has 925,000 fans on Facebook and 150,000 followers on Twitter.) Additionally, about 800,000 Tour applications allowing fans to track the race on their mobile devices have been downloaded.
Finally, there are the spectators who turn out on the side of the road: 12 million showed up last year, a majority of them men. Most waited six hours on flat stages and almost nine hours in the mountains.
By accident and by design, the Tour de France enjoys many advantages: The countryside is gorgeous, the mountains awesome, the weather generally beckoning. Nothing, however, trumps its place on the calendar. So many people are on vacation in July and what better way to spend the day than at a bicycle race, listening to the whir of wheels, watching the splash of colors - - and it’s all free.
The organizers may be right in thinking that bigger is better. The Tour prospers (all profit statements are secret and reportedly hefty) while other races struggle. So, bring on the double ascent of Alpe d’Huez, light up the Champs-Elysees for the finish. Vive le gigantisme!
(Samuel Abt has covered the Tour de France for 32 years for the New York Times and the International Herald Tribune and is the first American to be awarded the Tour Medal for service to the race. He lives in Paris.)
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