Friday Feature: Behind the scenes at the Tour de France presentation

Each year, the day following the presentation of the route of the following year’s Tour de France, L’Équipe publishes a map of the route. This map goes on the whiteboard in my office and I start making plans as to which stages I’m going to watch live, days are blocked out in my diary and hotel reservations are made. But not this time, as next year the Tour’s coming to see me on the Cote d’Azur.

I was also fortunate, thanks to my friends at Eurosport, to attend the presentation of the 100th Tour in person. On Wednesday I got up at an ungodly hour, caught the first flight from Nice to Paris and hopped on the bus to Porte Maillot. As the bus chugged its way through the early morning traffic, Parisian landmarks appeared out of the grey pall of pollution.

I was of course way too early. The burly guards don’t let you in to the auditorium at the Palais des Congrès until 11 o’clock, so I grabbed breakfast and watched the crowd grow in size. Among those clutching their invitations were the determined fans who’d arrived with cards, books and bits of paper intent on adding to their autograph collections. There are rich pickings to be had for the uber-observant. I counted any number of ex-professionals and legends from the world of cycling.

A couple of big names – sign here, boys (image courtesy of official race website)

The press pack makes up the bulk of the 4,000-strong crowd but there’s also current riders, team management, representation from the towns hosting the various stages, politicians, UCI, the French Cycling Federation and a bunch of young riders proudly clad in yellow t-shirts over their club cycling shirts. The future’s bright, the future’s yellow?

I managed somehow to avoid being crushed to death in the rush to find a seat. It’s just as well the riders are ushered into the auditorium through another entrance otherwise I’d have feared for their safety. Amazingly we were all seated before the television cameras rolled. The presentation started with a countdown. The schoolchildren excitedly joined in – they knew their role. The 100th edition was introduced by ASO’s president Jean-Etienne Amaury and we were treated to a stirring flashback of images from prior Tours. No sign of Lance Armstrong, who wasn’t mentioned by name, but was most definitely the elephant in the room.

The introductory film segment in particular had a very British feel to it from Bradley Wiggins, first British winner of the Tour de France, opening the London Olympic Games in his yellow jersey, to comments from British fans at the Tour and a running commentary from Phil Liggett and Paul Sherwen.

ASO weren’t going to sweep the current issues under the carpet. Indeed pointed reference was made to 2008 when testing at the Tour was conducted by France’s drug-testing agency (AFLD) and not the UCI. A camera shot of Pat McQuaid in the audience showed him pursing his lips. He must have known he was in for another rough ride. ASO quite rightly reminded everyone that doping wasn’t just about the action of certain misguided individuals – team management had to recognise the key role they too played. The team managers that might have been squirming the most at his admonishment weren’t present.

Christian Prudhomme, the Director of the Tour de France, is a man much more used than Amaury to being in the spotlight and much more adept at toying with his audience. He teased us with highlights of last year’s Tour, turned the spotlight on to some of the Tour’s 12 million roadside spectators and we were treated to glorious shots of France’s rich heritage. He didn’t mince his words either and told us the Tour was bigger than the drug cheats.

Prudhomme turned the floor over to Paul Giacobbi, the man in charge of the region of Corsica, which the Tour de France was visiting for the first time in its history. Giacobbi was at pains to point out the splendours of the island and the warm welcome that would be extended to the Tour despite the recent spate of murders on the island.

In an amusing vignette a number of the riders present were tested on their knowledge of Tour history. The result? Could do better! They were also asked to describe the Tour in three words. I wonder where they got that idea from. [I knew I should have copyrighted it – Ed.]

Christian Prudhomme reveals all (image courtesy of official race website)

Finally after much teasing, and with great aplomb, the route for 2013 was unveiled. Much of the route’s highlights had already been made public on the web and the speculation was pretty much spot on: two stages only in the Pyrenees, a quick excursion up north with a time trial taking in Mont Saint-Michel, a summit finish up Mont Ventoux, three tough and probably decisive days in the Alps including a double ascension of Alpe d’Huez and a historic final evening stage starting in Versailles and finishing in Paris with a circumnavigation of the Arc de Triomphe and concluding fireworks.

ASO put on a slick and stirring show which evoked a real sense of occasion and history, highlighting the greats such as Fausto Coppi, Eddy Merckx and Bernard Hinault. I did catch just a quick flash of Armstrong in the yellow jersey and United States Postal Service kit. Had someone forgotten to delete the image from the show? I do hope no one’s head will roll.

The riders were invited up on stage –  Bradley Wiggins, Mark Cavendish, Cadel Evans, Alberto Contador, Tejay Van Garderen, Philippe Gilbert and Chris Froome  – to share their brief thoughts on the Tour with the audience. Tellingly Andy Schleck, in the audience, wasn’t asked to take to the stage.

In the spotlight. Interesting interpretation of ‘smart’ (image courtesy of official race website)

The show over, it was time for the press corps to quiz the riders in attendance as to what they thought of the route. As usual everyone was quick to name someone else as the favourite for the yellow jersey even though a number have yet to decide on next year’s goals. Inevitably, questions were asked about their views on the Armstrong situation. Worryingly the Spanish were of one mind, puzzled as to how someone who never tested positive could be stripped of his titles on the say-so of others.

My friend who sent me the invitation advised me to dress smartly. I did. I would’ve anyway, but it was obvious that at least 50% of the audience didn’t get the email and only a few of the riders. Bradley must have been boiling in his bright blue reefer jacket but managed to look as cool as a cucumber while Cav looked very daddyish in a knitted sweater. Philippe Gilbert’s shoes positively glowed and could be seen easily in the gods where I was seated. I was tempted to ask Froome if his scarf was a relic from the Leopard-Trek launch in 2011, but I managed to restrain myself.

In summary, if the racing is half as good as ASO’s presentation then we’re in for a treat next July when the Tour, which is not venturing outside of the Hexagone, will be showcasing France and some of its greatest treasures.

Link: 2013 Tour de France route analysis

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