Tuesday, April 6, 2010

The Business of Bikes - Selling the Tour

If you have even the slightest curiosity about the Tour de France beyond who Lance Armstrong is and what he is likely to tweet next, it's likely you know this thumbnail history:

In 1903 Henri Desgrange, editor of L'Auto (ancestor to today's l'Equipe, owned by ASO, who owns the Tour), was desperate to win a circulation war with competing sports newspaper Le Vélo. and insure his papers survival. The Tour de France was suggested to Desgrange as a sales promotion, yes, to sell stuff, mainly bike advertising to bike makers. The new race was to be like the hugely popular Six-Day races (the Madison), only on the "roads" ringing France - so more people would buy more papers. The sporting gimmick was a huge success. L'Auto's circulation quadrupled, competitor Le Vélo 'bonked' into obscurity (although they did give us a century of Bordeaux-Paris) and Desgrange went down in history as the father of the greatest sporting event in the world.
Okay, so did you catch that little line - "to sell stuff"? Ever wonder why cyclists look like rolling billboards? From its outset bike racing and especially the Tour was about marketing, merchandising and sales. To twist an old saying,... while in the middle of sale, a bicycle race broke out... this one they called le Tour de France.

In the Tourmalet sized mountain of facts, figures and fiction I have been digging through while researching my book on the Lanterne Rouge there has been an interesting side track (that won't have much place in this book) about the business of the Tour. As the lights in the Tour history begin to shine more brightly I have begun to see so much of why the big picture Tour de France is what it is - simple stuff like why teams, why some of the archaic rules, but also why the sport has taken some of its left and right turns, why cheating, especially doping, has had a love affair with the Tour, and why the sports media we have today, influencing all sports, has such deep roots in the countryside and Cols of France. Desgrange's little newspaper
L'Auto also enjoyed windfall advertising profits. It's actually amazing that today we don't call it Le Peugeot de France. Although today's mega-sponsors, or officially Club du Tour, are comprised of Goliaths - including Nike, Crédit Lyonnais, and Coca-Cola - and they have their influence.

For example (just one example), from a look at the Top 10 in GC in 1914, last Tour before the first World War would forever change the face of this and many other events, it's clear bike maker Peugeot-Wolber, known as the "Goliath" of the French bike manufacturing business at the time, wanted to clearly establish that they were not only the choice of professionals in the the Tour de France, but on some level, they were the Tour de France. The public as a result bought Peugeot's bikes hook, line and sprocket.

General Classification
1st: Philippe Thys, (Belgium), Peugeot-Wolber, 5405km in 200h 28' 48" (27.028km/h)
2nd: Henri Pélissier, (France), Peugeot-Wolber, @ 1' 50"
3rd: Jean Alavoine, (France), Peugeot-Wolber, @ 36' 53"
4th: Jean Rossius, (Belgium), Alcyon-Soly, @ 1h 57' 05"
5th: Gustave Garrigou, (France), Peugeot-Wolber, @ 3h 00' 21"
6th: Alfons Spiessens, (Belgium), J.B. Louvet-Continental, @ 3h 53' 55"
7th: Emile Georget, (Belgium), Peugeot-Wolber, @ 4h 20' 59"
8th: Firmin Lambot, (Belgium), Peugeot-Wolber, @ 5h 08' 44"
9th: François Faber, (Luxembourg), Peugeot-Wolber, @ 6h 15' 53"
10th: Louis Heusghem, (Belgium), Peugeot-Wolber, @ 7h 49' 02"

(54th: Henri Leclerc, (France), "Isole", @ 99h 04' 45" that year's Lanterne Rouge for perspective. Isole btw are individuals, or soloists not associated with teams, an opportunity open until 1914. No Isole ever won the Tour, Ernest Paul in 1909 finish 6th on GC, the best every Isole.)

(A remarkable footnote to that year's TdF - All living Tour winners from 1905 through 1923 (Louis Trousselier, Lucien Petit-Breton, François Faber, Octave Lapize, Gustave Garrigou, Odile Defray, Philippe Thys, Firmin Lambot, Leon Scieur and Henri Pélissier) start the 1914 Tour de France as well as 1926 winner Lucien Buysse.)

One of the things you have to marvel at studying the TdF is the adaptability of its sometime-maniacal genius/founder/director Henri Degrange. It was his race, and he ruled it with an iron fist, every year tweaking and turning up the torture screws on the riders, but he was also never so self-consumed to constrict his beloved Tour's success. One of the great pieces of Degrange's marketing genius is the publicity caravan, created in 1930, it will celebrate its 80th birthday in this year's Tour de France. If you have never seen the Tour live this "little" piece of the Grand Boucle is lost - and according to 39% of the people lining the road, you have missed the Tour. If you are feeling a bit empty about now, cheated by Versus, then the folks at ASO have created a nice bit of youtube to buffer the pain - the music is half the hype:

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