After a bit of online research, I was intrigued to discover that the Tour de France was the brainchild of a sports writer at L’Auto newspaper and its editor, Henri Desgrange, as a tactic to boost circulation. And, well it worked… the first race in 1903 captured the imagination of France and L’Auto‘s circulation increased from 25,000 to 65,000 and knocked L’Auto‘s main competitor paper out of business within two years. Circulation continued to grow reaching 250,000 within 5 years, 500,000 after 20 and 854,000 ten years after that. This Tour around France invented bicycle stage racing.
The rules of the race changed many times in the early years. In 1930 when the founder believed the sponsors and manufacturers were undermining the spirit of a Tour de France of individuals, he insisted that competitors ride only yellow no-name-brand plain yellow bicycles that he provided. So, in that year the Tour changed into a competition largely between teams representing their countries rather than their corporate sponsors. Desgrange raised the money needed to cover the costs of supporting the riders by charging advertisers to precede the race, rather than follow it as sponsors had previously done - and we had the birth of Tour de France publicity caravan.
Between 1930 and the mid-1960s, the years before television and television advertising in France, the caravan was at its height. Advertisers competed to attract public attention. Today, the excesses to which advertisers are allowed to go are limited, but at first anything went.
The caravan precedes the riders by an hour and a half during each stage of the race and takes a good 45 minutes to pass through. It is accompanied by Garde Républicaine, the élite of the gendarmerie, and medical staff and mechanical assistance are never far away.
From what I have discovered, today advertisers pay the Société du Tour de France approximately €150,000 to place three vehicles in the caravan. But many have more than that. Clearly the larger the sponsor, the better the position in the caravan. On top of that come the more considerable costs of the commercial samples (a.k.a. schwag) that are thrown to the crowd. The number of items thrown from the vehicles has been estimated at 11 million with each person in the procession giving out 3,000 to 5,000 items a day, some with good aim, others without, as my bruises can attest!
In the early days the Tour was covered only by journalists from L’Auto, the organisers. They had no reason to allow rival publications to profit on this great race. The first time papers other than L’Auto were allowed was 1921, when 15 press cars were allowed for regional and foreign reporters. Today stations use hundreds of staff with four helicopters, many motorcycles with cameras, trucks full of equipment and a large handful of podium cameras.
Desgrange and L’Auto did much more than boost circulation and create jobs for journalists and marketing opportunities for consumer brands and bicycle and bike gear manufacturers for the past 100 years, he instilled a sense of pride in the people of France for their country. The Tour introduced the French people to their own country. It familiarized the nation with its own geography and brought excitement into small towns throughout France. If you live in France and choose not to make the trek to the Tour, chances are good that it will come to you at some point or another. And even if you are far away but manage to tune-in at any point during the race, you will be introduced to France, it’s majestic mountain ranges, fields of sunflowers and awe inspiring historical monuments - you will meet and, like me, probably fall in love with the brand of France.