I recently made the pilgrimage to Southwest France to follow the Tour de France. As a keen fan for several years now, I appreciated the Tour de France as the world’s most famous multi-day bike race and the most fervently supported and anticipated sporting event in France. But now that I have experienced it firsthand, I have an even greater respect for le Tour. It is much more than a bike race. It is a three week marketing and branding Tour de Force.

What initially struck me was the brand of Tour de France. This is a 100+ year old brand that is deeply embraced by the French and recognized around the world. It represents France and all that is French. For three weeks every July television viewers around the world take a virtual tour through mountain ranges, towns and monuments all over France and are introduced to French culture, brands and people. And with 22 teams of 9 riders each sporting shirts and shorts covered in logos, this is a 21-stage race between 198 walking (or riding) billboards and endless chances for marketable moments for sponsors.

My adventure included 7 race stages, 900km of driving through umpteen charming French towns, 400km of cycling including four grueling mountain summits and exhilarating (more like terrifying) descents, 20 plus hours shivering or sweltering on the side lines and several bottles of shared wine with fellow spectators. In addition to firmer thighs, a hoarse voice from screaming “allez, allez” and some incredible memories, I’ve returned with a camera full of great shots of the riders whizzing by in their sponsor-laden jersey’s and their equally decorated support vehicles and ½ a suitcase full of sponsor schwag: hats, magnets, bags and food samples. Visions of yellow LCL Bank rain ponchos, Vittel water bottle-shaped-mobiles, Carrefour polka dotted hats, Haribo candy samples and Cochonou sausages being pelted in my direction by college students on sponsor floats continue to fill my head. This was beyond anything I had experienced, including the months I worked with the last Winter Olympic and Paralympic Games in Vancouver. This was the ultimate marketing extravaganza cum travelling block party.

With the world’s largest viewing figures for an annual sports event and the third highest figures for any sports event behind only the Olympic Games and World Cup football, (each held only every four years remember) the Tour de France offers sponsors an attractive opportunity for brand exposure both in France and internationally, and all at a fraction of the cost of entry for Olympic sponsorship. In 2010 the Tour was broadcast in nearly 190 countries (60 of which transmit live coverage) by 121 TV and 72 radio channels. Something like 400 newspapers and press agencies and another 50 plus (I stopped counting) websites cover the tour. More than 2000 journalists devote 3 weeks of their time to covering it annually and the official website alone gets more than 10 million unique visitors each year. Not bad!

But wait, then there are the 12 to 15 million spectators (estimated to be 80% from France and 20% from outside France, me and my 6 Canadian/American friends included) who travel an average of 130 km to get there and then spend an average of 6 hours on the roadside to witness the cyclists blast by in what can seem like a nanosecond. But that’s not all they get. I read a statistic in a cycling magazine that suggested 30% of spectators make the trek and endure the wait primarily for the schwag! And, well it is a schwag fest. Approximately 1.5 hours before the arrival of the lead cyclists, the sponsor caravan kicks off the festivities each day. The caravan is a 20km long procession of at least 250 decorated sponsored vehicles. Added as a regular feature of the race in 1930 the caravan makes its way through the towns and villages along the race route, whipping up enthusiasm over loud speakers and throwing free gifts to hungry, cheering crowds. Each vehicle tries to outdo the others and promote their own brand. I came across estimates the more than a million items are distributed by each sponsor. And le Tour takes this caravan to towns all over France with a different route plotted each year, so no French person can escape it. Brilliant!

As I positioned myself on the roadside for optimal schwag collecting day after day, I started to think about the opportunity this annual event is for the sponsor brands and for France itself. And, I started to wonder, did the creators of le Tour de France envision creating such a brand Tour de Force? What was the original purpose for this multi-day 3000km grueling physical challenge?