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Selling the Yellow Jersey, by Eric Reed

A cultural and commercial history of the Tour de France

Selling the Yellow Jersey - The Tour de France in the Global Era, by Eric Reed
Selling the Yellow Jersey - The Tour de France in the Global Era, by Eric Reed

Selling the Yellow Jersey, by Eric Reed Title: Selling the Yellow Jersey - The Tour de France in the Global Era
Eric Reed
The University of Chicago Press
The University of Chicago Press
What it is:
A cultural and commercial history of the Tour de France
Reed's commercial focus is particularly pertinent at a time when cycling's financing model is being challenged by so many
Not everything that is credited to the Tour really belongs to the Tour, there being a world beyond the race which is too much neglected when people turn to talking about the Tour

In the 1980s, the Tour de France embraced globalisation. In 1981 the race had welcomed its first American rider, Jock Boyer, and for the first time witnessed an Australian rider, Phil Anderson, wear the maillot jaune. In 1982 Tour director Jacques Goddet proposed un Tour mondailisé, a quadrennial event that would travel the globe while keeping France at its heart. In 1983 the doors of the Tour were flung open to an amateur team of Colombian riders. In 1984 a women's Tour was inaugurated, it being able to reach parts of the globe - China in particular - that the men were unable to.

Globalisation, though, did not begin in the 1980s. Before the attempts to use the women's Tour to reach out beyond the borders of cycling's traditional heartland, and beyond the hand of friendship extended to the Colombians, there had been the Tour de l'Avenir, which had been created in 1961 partly in response to the Peace Race and partly as a way of bringing amateur riders from the Americas and the Soviet Union into the Tour de France. Even that was not the beginning of globalisation at the Tour. Take the Australian duo of Don Kirkham and Ivor Munro who turned up at the 1914 Tour and the Aussies Ernest Bainbridge, Hubert Opperman and Percy Osborne who, along with the Kiwi Harry Watson, competed in the 1928 Tour.

Those Antipodean Tour riders had discovered the Tour through local newspapers which, as early as the first Tour in 1903, had carried stories about the race. Likewise, newspapers in the United States carried news of the Tour from early on in the race's history. In 1912 the New York Times carried a story about a "duel" between Tour founder Henri Desgrange and Alcyon boss Edmond Gentil (the duel took the form of a three-lap foot race around the Bois de Bologne, with Desgrange emerging as the victor). After the first World War - when at least some of the Americans sent to France would have learned something of the Tour - coverage of the race in US newspapers expanded, offering not just the results of the race but commentary on its cultural significance.

As well as being exported around the world by newspapers, the Tour was also offering others the model for races of their own. The Giro d'Italia was an unabashed copy of the Tour that arrived in 1909 but even before then others had aped the Tour, the Belgians launching a week-long stage race, while others - Paris-Brussels, Milano-Bologna-Milano - served up races with just two stages. In 1933 - when the Tour was stretching to just shy of 4,400 kilometres and the Giro was a thousand kilometres shorter - an attempt was made to get a 6,900 kilometre race off the ground in North America, taking in Vancouver, Chicago and Montréal. Like the Vuelta Ciclista a España of 1913, this North American Tour failed, though unlike the Spanish race it did get off the drawing board, 69 cyclists being signed up to take part in the 33-day endeavour, but the whole thing collapsing with just a third done.

These are just some of the issues Eric Reed addresses when considering the Tour's global footprint in Selling the Yellow Jersey: The Tour de France in the Global Era, a cultural and commercial history of the Tour de France that is of a kind with Christopher S Thompson's The Tour de France: A Cultural History (in which the dissertation Reed's book is based upon is cited by Thompson). It is also of a kind with Hugh Dauncey's French Cycling: A Social and Cultural History, along with the collection of essays Dauncey edited with Geoffrey Hare, The Tour De France, 1903-2003: A Century of Sporting Structures (Reed there contributing an essay on the post-1930 economics of the Tour) as well as Benjo Maso's Sweat of the Gods.

Reed approaches the cultural and commercial history of the Tour by breaking his history of the race down into three distinct sections. The first looks at the Tour and globalization in general, the impact of the Tour beyond France's borders as well as the impact upon the Tour of its growing internationalisation. The second section looks at the role of small communities in a global society, the impact of the Tour on the towns and cities that hosted the race along with the impact they fed back into the Tour itself. The final section looks at the Tour and its stars, what the race's French stars mean at home and abroad and what the race's international stars have contributed to the Tour's international commercial expansion.

Reed is at his best when looking at the local and national impact of the Tour, offering a case study of the interactions between the Tour and two host towns, Brest and Pau, which developed long-lasting relationships with the Tour. The two were, in many degrees, opposites of each other: initially, the Tour needed Brest more than Brest needed the Tour, while the opposite was true of Pau's early relationship with the Tour. Between these two towns - Brest being a fixture in the Tour between 1906 and 1931, Pau between 1931 and modern times - Reed is able to touch upon the Tour's relationship with host towns throughout most all of the race's existence. A brief summary of what he says about Brest will help give a taste for the point being made by Reed.

Brest first became a part of the Tour's itinerary in 1906 as Henri Desgrange sought to use the race to map the contours of l'Hexagone and inculcate the belief that France was a nation united. At that time, though, Brest's département - Finistère - was a world apart, with 80 per cent of its children in 1902 beginning primary school without being able to speak French. More importantly, Bretons in general held separatist ideals and resisted assimilation and acculturation. When it came to the Tour de France, rather than allowing themselves to be shaped by it, they forced their own narrative onto the race, developing a myth of a specifically Breton sporting identity which valued "the brusque, no-nonsense orgueil (pride) and stubborn stoicism that were understood as the stereotypical personality traits of natives of the region."

Between 1906 and 1931, Brest was a fixture in the Tour's annual pilgrimage. But as the Tour entered a new era in the 1930s, with the race organisers having to foot a massively increased bill as the grande boucle turned its back on the trade teams and rebuilt the race around national and regional squads, the Tour and Brest fell out of love with one and other. As the cost of hosting the Tour shot up - in 1927 Caen paid 1,500 francs, in 1928 and again in 1929 Strasbourg contributed just 560 francs, in 1930 Pau paid 5,500 francs and by 1935 the Tour was costing Pau 10,000 francs - the relationship between the Tour and Brest became more and more disputatious. The straw that broke the camel's back appears to have been a dispute over who owned the gate receipts from punters paying to enter the Kérabécam vélodrome to watch the stage finish. After 1931, it was 1939 before the Tour returned to Brest, one member of the race's administration saying that, within the Tour, Brittany in general was viewed as a "land of chouans," a reference to the region's counter-revolutionaries during the Revolution, when Brittany, formerly a semi-independent province, was split into five départements (it is perhaps appropriate that, in the 1924 Tour, the peloton was en route to Brest when the Pélissier brothers withdrew to a café in Coutances where Albert Londres eventually caught up with them and crafted a report for Le Petit Parisien that has become a staple of Tour history). The Bretons responded to their ostracization from the Tour by creating the Circuit de l'Ouest, their own Tour-inspired stage race. In 1939, after the Tour finally returned to Brest, the Circuit de l'Ouest became the Tour de l'Ouest.

During the Second World War Brest was destroyed twice, by the Allies and by the Germans, Jacques Prévert's rain "de fer / De feu d'acier de sang" pouring down upon the city as first the Allies bombed the German submarine base there - with the rest of the city suffering collateral damage - and then the Germans set about destroying what was left standing in an attempt to deny their enemy the advantage of an important logistical base following the D-Day landings. After the Liberation, the city fathers set about rebuilding it all. In 1952 they sought to use the Tour de France to show the rest of the country - and the world - what they were doing and how much they had achieved, by hosting the grand départ of the race. Maurice Piquemal - the civil engineer driving the city's rebirth - declared that the "departure of the Tour de France from Brest is a measuring stick and stepping stone on the path to [Brest's] rebirth. It furnishes, in effect, an opportunity to show to our visitors, French and foreign, the results of our communal efforts."

The cost of hosting the Tour in 1952 was not cheap, a fee of three million francs having to be paid to the Tour's organisers (l'Alpe d'Huez, which was making its Tour de France début in 1952, had to stump up two million francs for the privilege) and another million and a half spent renovating the the Halles St-Louis - an indoor market in downtown Brest - so that it could serve as race headquarters. Another million francs went on a ten-day commercial exposition and other festivities showcasing Breton commerce and culture. The Tour at this time was entering the TV age - cameras would capture Fausto Coppi's ascent of l'Alpe d'Huez later in the race - and Brest wanted to show itself off. But despite the best efforts of RTF to showcase all that had been achieved in the handful of years since the Liberation, there was no hiding the fact that the city was still a building site, as Reed notes in Selling the Yellow Jersey:

"No matter how RTF producers positioned their cameras, empty and damaged buildings and enormous construction cranes could be seen in the background of most images of the downtown. Old, new, and gutted buildings cohabited in many of the street scenes; the footage of riders pedaling past new apartments segued immediately into images of the peloton climbing out of the downtown area past a burned-out church, its stone steeple the only structure of the building remaining."

Logistically, Brest's hosting of the Tour's grand départ was a success, race organiser Jacques Goddet being particularly impressed with the Halle St-Louis and asking the city's fathers for blueprints, which could be used by other host towns and cities. Commercially, it was a failure, with Brest seeing no major increase in tourism following the race.

Over the next decade Brest served as a staging post in the Tour on three more occasions before once again being spurned, this time a dozen years passing before the Tour returned, once again for the grand départ. This time - 1974 - a local farming co-operative wanted to feel the Tour's magic pixie dust rain down upon it and its recently created ferry link across la Manche allowing French artichokes and other vegetables to be sold into the British market. Brest itself was to host the prologue, the first stage went to the town of Saint-Pol-de-Léon (which happened to be home to the president of the co-operative) and then the recently created Roscoff-Plymouth ferry service carried the Tour across the Channel to the south-west of England and a race up and down a recently opened section of dual carriageway (where the stage winner, the unheralded Henk Poppe, was presented with a bouquet of artichokes to celebrate his victory). The race then returned to Brittany for a stage taking the riders from Morlaix to Saint-Malo before leaving Brittany and heading north up through Normandy and into Belgium.

For this, the Tour extracted 600,000 francs (60,000,000 old francs, the currency having undergone a 100-for-1 revaluation in 1960) from the coffers of the Bretons, with Brest ponying up 150,000 of that (this at a time when Pau was paying 65,000 francs to host a stage) and Plymouth spending £80,000 (per the Times, but £40,000 per the Guardian, with neither clear on how much went to the Tour and how much was spent on road closures, policing and other costs of hosting the stage. In 1974 £40,000 equalled just shy of 450,000 francs). The commercial success of the whole endeavour was questionable, with the Tour failing to turn the British into a nation of artichoke eaters and Brittany itself receiving some adverse publicity in the rest of France when the artichoke farmers hijacked their own event in a dispute with the French government over the amount of subsidies they received.

Three decades passed before Brest and the Tour could be reunited and, for a third time, Brest hosted the grand départ. This time - 2008 - the expectations were lowered, with Brest looking only to attract a modest 30,000 to 50,000 visitors during the event, which itself was serving as a warm-up act for the locally organised Les Fêtes Maritimes de Brest, a sailing festival which was costing about €900,000 to organise but expected to bring in about a million visitors. For the Brestois in 2008, the Tour was no longer about selling hotel bed-nights to visitors or vegetables to foreigners, nor was it about differentiating themselves from the rest of the country, rather it was simply their way of participating in the cultural life of the nation.

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There are obvious cross-overs between Reed's Selling the Yellow Jersey and Christopher Thompson's The Tour de France, insofar as both offer cultural histories of the Tour de France (fans of Thompson could consider this to be an unofficial sequel). Reed, though, puts more focus on the commercial history of the Tour, telling stories about, say, how Crédit Lyonnais came to be involved with the race (they were Félix Lévitan's bankers and he gave them an opportunity to become involved with the Société du Tour de France (STF) in the early 1980s, sponsoring a Super Prestige Pernod-like season-long competition, Les Challenges d'Or du Crédit Lyonnais, that was restricted to performances in eight STF-organised races, with that eventually leading to them taking on the sponsorship of the maillot jaune). This commercial focus is particularly useful when Reed discusses the Tour and the media - an important topic in our current age when the role of the media is changing once again - he offering a broader history than was offered by Thompson.

One criticism I would make of Reed's arguments - and this holds true of Thompson's too, and of others - is that just because something happened at the Tour, it does not mean that it happened at the Tour first. Take the Antipodean reporting of the Tour mentioned earlier: this fit perfectly with the world as it was at that time, those same newspapers only a few years before carrying reports of the Six Day races in America that inspired the Tour, or reports of other races in Europe, and some of the stars of those races were enticed to travel to Australia by dint of generous appearance fees. Cycling was a globalised sport before the Tour came along - both in the reporting of it and in the fact that there was a transfer of riders between America, Europe and Australia - so how much the Tour served as an agent of change in this regard is open to question. A similar complaint can be made of some of the media advancements attributed to the Tour: the Tour was not the only race being televised and some consideration of the influence of other races - both in France and beyond - is surely merited before crediting the Tour with advances that rightfully belong to others?

Reed's commercial focus makes Selling the Yellow Jersey a particularly pertinent Tour history given the on-going revenue sharing debate. Understanding of what is happening today can only be enhanced by understanding those parts of the past that relate to the present. Even without that motive, though, Selling the Yellow Jersey is a worthwhile read, Reed's history being full of choice titbits of Tour history and - despite its average of three or four footnotes per page - a brisk read, especially by the standards of scholarly texts. If you've already read and enjoyed any of the books by Maso, Dauncey and Thompson, you'll want to read Reed. And if you haven't yet tried this genre of Tour histories, Selling the Yellow Jersey is a good place to start.