The man in charge of the Tour de France tells Cyclist about logistical headaches, the Yorkshire Depart, and his vision for protecting the ‘heart’ of the world’s greatest race
In a building overlooking the Seine river in Issy-les-Moulineaux, south-west Paris, there is a room filled with model figurines, toy cars, stuffed animals and colourful posters. If it weren’t for the presence of document folders, a meeting table and a plastic cup of thick French coffee, this den could easily pass for the bedroom of a young boy. But the clues to the room’s occupier lie in the details. The figurines are hunched over bikes and sporting familiar yellow, green and polka dot jerseys. The model vehicles include an old-fashioned voiture balai (broom wagon) and an iconic L’Équipe-sponsored red car. Amongst the stuffed animals lurks a famous lion, whose furry brethren have been held in the raised hands of Sir Bradley Wiggins, Chris Froome, Vincenzo Nibali and umpteen others. And one poster depicts a black squiggle weaving drunkenly across yellow terrain, all the way from Yorkshire to Paris. This is the office of Christian Prudhomme, the general director of the Tour de France, the guardian of a 111-year-old sporting institution, and a self-confessed cycling romantic since he was seven years old.
‘The first image I ever saw on TV was of the last day of the Tour de France in 1968,’ recalls Prudhomme, 54, whose office is located within the headquarters of the Amaury Sports Organisation (ASO) that runs the Tour as well as the Vuelta a Espana and Classics such as Paris-Roubaix and Liège-Bastogne-Liège. ‘I can just remember the image of a guy with glasses, Jan Janssen [the Dutch winner of the 1968 Tour], who had many journalists surrounding him. I didn’t know who it was but that scene is what I remember. I don’t remember the drama of when Raymond Poulidor fell [he was hit by a motorbike on stage 15 and forced to abandon] or the suspense of the last time-trial [Janssen overcame a 16-second margin to claim victory from the Belgian Herman Van Springel on the final stage], I just remember that one picture.’
Intrigued by the glory of the victor and the razzmatazz of the occasion, Prudhomme was hooked. ‘The next year I went on holiday with my family near Lac Léman on the French side of Geneva and on the Col du Cou I saw Eddy Merckx. I wanted to see Raymond Poulidor too, but I couldn’t. Then I went to the Champs-Élysées for the first time [in 1975] and at the Place de la Concorde I saw Eddy Merckx in his rainbow jersey and Bernard Thévenet in his yellow jersey. It was unbelievable. So really from 1968 I have always been watching, listening and reading about the Tour. I can remember fighting with my brother over who would buy the newspaper each morning. We would race to
the shop to buy it so we could see what was happening.’
Today, as the guy in the suit whose job it is to oversee the organisation of a race beamed to a claimed global television audience of 3.5 billion people in 190 different countries, Prudhomme has a more complex appreciation of the race. But given the obstacles facing professional cycling in the modern era, it is reassuring to know that the man responsible for organising the world’s biggest bike race harbours a passion for the sport that has been nurtured since childhood.
The Yorkshire decision
‘The only thing I really want is the world to have the same passion and love for cycling as I had when I was a little kid watching Eddy in black and white on my parents’ TV in the 1960s and 1970s,’ Prudhomme says. ‘When we are looking at a Tour de France we are thinking obviously about sport, and about the outstanding landscape and scenery. That is the balance. People say we have rules: that one year the Tour goes from the Pyrenees to the Alps and then the next year it goes the other way. That’s just not true – it can be three years in a row if we want. The only dogma is that there is no dogma. Everything is possible.’
The proof of that mantra is hidden behind him in the top left-hand corner of an impressive library of cycling books. Among the titles on Marco Pantani, Octave Lapize, Laurent Fignon and Bernard Thévenet sit some more improbable volumes: Yorkshire From The Air by Ian Hay and Yorkshire Dales Landscapes by Dave Coates. In offering the race start to Yorkshire, Prudhomme created the most northern Grand Départ in the history of the event and, in his opinion, ‘the grandest Grand Départ’.
‘The French people were for the first time ever watching live TV from Yorkshire and saying, “wow.” When we plan the Tour it is not only about wonderful lands, but the first question must be: is there passion for cycling? We saw so many people, huge crowds, and the Royal Family were at the start and finish. When Kate gave the first yellow jersey to Marcel Kittel on the podium in Harrogate, he didn’t talk about his victory, he talked about that moment. He told me his legs were shaking. He was smiling because of Prince William, Kate and Prince Harry. When I think of great Tour de France moments, what gives me… [Prudhomme points to his skin, indicating goose bumps]… is Yorkshire.’
Despite the success of the 2014 Grand Départ, Prudhomme admits he had many doubts about Yorkshire at the start of the bidding process. As Gary Verity, chief executive of Welcome to Yorkshire, told Cyclist this year, Prudhomme was not sure if Yorkshire was ‘sexy’ enough. ‘That is true,’ says Prudhomme, chuckling. ‘It was not just about Yorkshire. It was also because we were one year after the 100th edition of the Tour, and one year after Corsica which is, as we call it, “L’Île de Beauté” [The Island of Beauty]. When I have lots of text messages during a stage it means something – and that depends on the landscapes. After Corsica, I had tons of messages, but I was happy to have the same texts after Yorkshire.’
Prudhomme reveals that the Tour’s diversion to Yorkshire owes a lot to Sir Bradley Wiggins, whose historic victory in 2012 accelerated the Tour’s return to Britain after its previous visits in 1974, 1994 and 2007. ‘If the Grand Départ was in Yorkshire in 2014 that is thanks to the first British rider to win the Tour,’ he says. ‘Florence was involved in the bidding too. The Mayor of Florence is now the Prime Minister of Italy. It is not easy to say no to a guy like that. But Yorkshire won because of the beauty of the landscape, the strength of Gary and his team, and the first win by a British rider.
‘In March 2012 I thought the 2014 Grand Départ would be in Florence. After Wiggins won Paris-Nice, the Tour de Romandie, the Dauphiné and the Tour, people around the world saw on television Bradley Wiggins standing in the Olympic Stadium [in London], wearing a yellow jersey – the first British guy to win the Tour de France. The choice was made. It was simple: “We have to go to Yorkshire.”’
Ingredients for a Tour
Organising a sporting event that takes place not within an enclosed stadium but across 3,500km of roads, in changeable mountain climates, with an entourage of 4,500 riders, journalists, staff and sponsors is a complex process. Preparations begin two years before each edition of the Tour. Prudhomme and his team liaise with a vast network of mayors, regional councils, tourism boards and police officials. ‘We depend on 24,000 gendarmes, you know?’ says Prudhomme. ‘Without confirming with the French Interior Minister and his team each year we wouldn’t even have a Tour de France.’
ASO employs a team of seven former riders – Jean-François Pescheux, Thierry Gouvenou, François Lemarchand, Gilles Maignan, Cédric Coutouly, Franck Perque and Jean-Michel Monin – whose job is to ensure the course suits the needs of the riders. Despite rumours to the contrary, Prudhomme does not adapt the course to showcase the talents of the most popular riders each year by, for example, upping the quota of time-trial, sprint or mountain stages. ‘You cannot draw the route of the Tour according to one or other guy, although many journalists think it is true,’ he says. ‘The truth is that most of the course is done almost 15 months before the start of the race.’
Since his first Tour as director in 2007, Prudhomme has been credited with injecting a fresh spirit into the race, with mountaintop finishes on the Tourmalet in 2010 and the Galibier in 2011, and an appreciation of telegenic scenery, with the coastal stages from Abbeville to Rouen in 2012 and Porto Vecchio to Bastia in 2013. Plus the Tour has made debut visits to Corsica and Yorkshire in the last two years.
‘It is change in order for it not to change,’ he says. ‘You must know what is the heart of the Tour and you want the same thing in ten years too. However, around the heart, it can’t be the same. It is like this: you can’t be 30 years old all your life. You have to do things differently: drink less coffee or less wine, do more sport. What is important is looking after the heart. So we keep the core and change things around it. The Tour in 2014 had to be different from the Tour in 2008 and it will be different in 2025.’
As director of the Tour de France, Prudhomme enjoys a unique perspective on the event – quite literally, given that he watches the race from the red Skoda at the front of the peloton. He also suffers plenty of headaches. Like on the morning of the Tourmalet finish in 2010 when his team was forced to set up the finish at 5.30am in 30cm of wet mud and thick fog. Or when he needed Bernard Hinault – a five-time Tour champion and former farmer – to placate a team of disgruntled farmers in the Pyrenees who were contemplating sabotage.
‘I am sometimes worried, of course, but I am such a lucky man,’ he says.
Certainly times were simpler when Prudhomme covered the Tour as a journalist. From the era of Tour director Henri Desgrange in 1903 to that of Prudhomme today, Tour chiefs have often been journalists who instinctively understand the race’s need to excite and inspire the mass public. During his time working in the media, Prudhomme worked for radio stations such as RTL, RFO (now ROM) and Europe 1 and the television channel La Cinq, covering cycling, rugby, athletics and skiing. In 1998 he joined L’Équipe TV where he became editor-in-chief and he later moved to France Télévisions where he commentated on the Tour alongside Bernard Thévenet.
‘It is completely different and completely the same,’ he says of his time covering the Tour as a journalist. ‘The passion is the same. But when you are a journalist you see only the riders. As the organiser you see everything around the riders, like their security and safety, and the people around the riders, like the father, the mother and their kids. You think: are they taking their child’s hand or not? It is not the same pressure as a journalist.’
Life after Lance
Undoubtedly the biggest pressure faced by Prudhomme during his tenure has come from the flood of doping revelations made by former athletes. When asked if he thinks it would ever be possible for a modern team to repeat the schemes of Lance Armstrong and US Postal, Prudhomme puffs out his cheeks. ‘I use the sentence of Roger LeGeay, president of the MPCC [Mouvement Pour un Cyclisme Crédible]: “You must keep the light on.” It is very, very different now, but because we have this past, this history, so we must always keep the light on.’
Prudhomme remains adamant that no named winners should be entered in the record books for the period 1999-2005. He believes it serves an important purpose: ‘Cycling has changed so much but as one of your kings in England said: “Remember.”’
Tours to come
The 2015 Tour de France will once again commence outside the country of its birth with a time-trial in Utrecht, Holland, and Prudhomme is confident that the next race will be special. ‘For sure, it will be exciting. Vincenzo Nibali is a great winner. It is very important that for the first time in 30 years we had two Frenchmen on the podium [in 2014]. We will have the riders who fell, Chris Froome and Alberto Contador, and maybe Nairo Quintana, so I am thrilled. I am already waiting. I know the Grand Départ is 299 days from today [the date of this interview] so, yes, I am stoked!’
The slightly incongruous use of the word ‘stoked’ may well be the result of Prudhomme’s recent visit to Australia, where he told press Down Under that only lengthy flight times are stopping the Tour visiting Australia. There have also been whispers about the Tour de France venturing to such far-flung territories as Qatar or the United States, but Prudhomme insists any future moves must be the result of both passion and pragmatism. ‘For me, it must be natural,’ he says. ‘The first thing to ask is not “is it possible or not?”, but “is there passion or not?” Then we look at what is possible. What I always ask is the same: we want iconic stages with sport, scenery, history and geography. Sometimes in France we say, “Ah, it is no more the Tour de France,” but the first Grand Départ abroad was 60 years ago in 1954 [in Holland].’
I ask if Prudhomme would like to see an American rider win the Tour de France soon, to help restore the faith of American cycling fans disillusioned by the whole Armstrong affair. ‘I would rather say that I would like the Tour de France to be more internationalised,’ he says. ‘The Tour is a national race with a global scale. The bicycle is universal but competitive cycling is not. The Tour de France needs to be the tool that makes the link between the two. It is already being broadcast in 190 countries but there are new borders to cross. This year was one, with the first Chinese rider ever to participate in the race in more than 100 years. Why not an African winner in the future? This development is very important to me, as well as respecting the roots of the Tour de France and its historic countries.’
Despite the logistical headaches, the scrutiny and the responsibilities, Prudhomme knows that his position in charge of the world’s greatest cycling race gives him great privileges and the chance to witness the creation of history first-hand. ‘As an organiser I think most often about a stage in 2011,’ he reflects. ‘It was a tough stage in the Alps and I was on the Col d’Izoard at the Casse Deserte, laying flowers at the memorial to Fausto Coppi and Louison Bobet, with Eddy Merckx and Bernard Hinault.
‘ At this moment, Andy Schleck attacked and he passed ahead of us. We were just spectators then. He won the stage but Cadel Evans did what was necessary to catch him up and set himself up to win the Tour. It was as a dream. When you draw the Tour on paper you hope it is like this. Not just two great riders, but this scenario: a long escape, great climbers, a winner taking yellow days later, riders who want to say, “I am the boss.” For a race organiser that is what we call a fantastic stage.’