Title: Le Fric – Family, Power and Money: The Beautiful Business of the Tour de France
Author: Alex Duff
What it is: A (financial) history of the Tour de France with an emphasis on the attempts to form a breakaway league a decade ago
Strengths: Breezes along at a breathless pace
Weaknesses: Strip out the by now overly familiar racing anecdotes and it’s pretty thin gruel, revealing little new despite the hyperbolic claims of its author and publisher
As the second world war drew to a close, France was in rebuilding mode, physically and psychologically. The country had to get to grips with an Occupation that had seen many collaborate with the invading German forces. One consequence of this was that media outlets that had continued to operate during the Occupation were closed, their assets seized by the state.
From the ashes, some former media operators rose like phoenixes, such as Jacques Goddet, who created the sports newspaper L’Équipe from the embers of L’Auto. Goddet had been Henri Desgrange’s heir apparent at L’Auto before the war, the younger son of Desgrange’s business partner, Victor Goddet.
Others rose more like the oligarchs who got rich after the collapse of the Soviet Union, such as Émilien Amaury. From the ashes of Le Petit Parisien – the newspaper in which, in 1924, Albert Londres did not call the riders in the Tour de France forçats de la route – Amaury created Le Parisien Libéré, which became the cornerstone of a family empire that is today into its third generation. The Amaury empire no longer includes Le Parisien, the jewel in its crown today being the Tour de France, once owned by L’Auto.
As everyone by now knows, the Tour de France was dreamed into being in 1902 by a failing newspaper edited by Henri Desgrange. L’Auto had been founded two years earlier by the allegedly antisemitic Jules-Albert de Dion (of Dion-Bouton Cycles & Automobiles) along with Gustave Adolphe Clément (of Clément Cycles & Automobiles) and a handful of other French industrialists. Between them De Dion and Clément owned more than 60% of the shares in the new venture. How we got from De Dion and Clément owning L’Auto and the bicycle race it created to Jacques Goddet laying claim to both at the end of the war is a story worth examining.
Alex Duff’s Le Fric – Family, Power and Money: The Beautiful Business of the Tour de France is described by its publisher as “the unknown story of the Tour de France’s ever-changing relationship with money and power.” Rather than beginning at the beginning it ignores all that went before and leaps into the story more than four decades after the Tour’s creation, with Jacques Goddet turning to Émilien Amaury for assistance in laying claim to L’Auto and the Tour at the end of the Occupation.
Amaury’s story is rarely told in the English-language Tour de France books churned out by the usual suspects. The fabulist Pierre Chany didn’t bother with it in any of his histoires fabuleuse and so the army of duff historians for whom translating bits from Chany counts as research have little to work from. That doesn’t mean it’s an untold story. More than a decade ago I wrote a series of articles for a now defunct website looking at how the Amaury family came to control the Tour. It wasn’t a very difficult subject to research, there being a biography of Amaury Snr, written by Guy Vadepied, which has become a key source for many French articles on the Amaurys. It has also become a key source for the stories Duff tells about the founder of the Amaury empire.
The story of Amaury Snr is a typical rags to riches affair. Born in Étampes in 1909 he washed up in Paris in his early teens seeking if not fame and fortune then certainly a better living than the one that was in store for him at home. He got work in a restaurant kitchen, washing dishes and being a general dogsbody. He fell in with one of the eatery’s customers who took him under his wing and introduced him to the world of publishing. After completing his compulsory military service he returned to Paris and within a few years had started a small advertising agency, producing ads that appeared in various periodicals.
As the thirties drew to a close and the spectre of war grew Amaury was recalled to the army. When the Germans invaded he saw action in the Ardennes. Come the Occupation he got involved with the Vichy government of Philippe Pétain, producing posters and pamphlets advising the populace on things such as growing their own vegetables. Amaury also got involved with the résistance movement, procuring newsprint and access to printing presses on which clandestine news bulletins and other propaganda was produced.
At the end of the Occupation Amaury’s resistance background, along with his media and political connections, saw him ideally placed to exploit the opportunities in front of him. When Jacques Goddet approached him seeking assistance in creating L’Équipe and regaining control of the Tour de France Amaury was only too happy to help. At a price. When the Tour returned in 1947 it did so with Amaury owning 50% of the race.
There’s a great story to be told about the return of the Tour in 1947, about the struggle between Goddet/Amaury on one side and two other journals – Ce Soir and Sport – on the other. This fight was a microcosm of the greater fight that was then ongoing for the soul of France itself: it was a fight between the left and the right. Ce Soir and Sport were papers of the left. Amaury was a Gaullist while Goddet was, if not quite a Gaullist, firmly of the right. The struggle also neatly foreshadows events in recent years with attempts by the teams and various private equity carpetbaggers to wrest effective control of the sport from the Amaury empire.
That story is not really told in Le Fric, the whole affair wrapped up in a couple of paragraphs. Duff is too interested in trying to breeze through the story at a pace that would leave Dan Brown gasping for breath, has no time for detail. Since much of the story of how the Amaury empire has grown over the last eight decades involves a lot of detail, Duff is left padding Le Fric out with a lot of colour that is barely even peripherally related to the actual story being told.
So, for instance, we get a page or so on the very colourful story of the French boxer Marcel Cerdan and his affair with the singer Edith Piaf. Or we get several pages telling us the story of how Jean Robic whipped the maillot jaune off the back of Pierre Brambilla on the last stage of the 1947 Tour. Throughout Le Fric, whenever Duff feels the story might be flagging, he ditches the detail and turns instead to anecdotes familiar from the more than one hundred other books that detail the racing history of the Tour.
Le Fric is not the first book to consider the financial side of the Tour. Ignoring the likes of Daam van Reeth’s academic The Economics of Professional Road Cycling and Oliver Duggan’s Rapha Roadmap, which are more about the broken record of cycling’s economic model, there is Eric Reed’s Selling the Yellow Jersey which does a lot more to shine a light on the story of the Tour’s relationship with money and power than Duff does here.
It’s not that Duff isn’t trying. He’s interviewed a lot of people and he’s read a lot of books and he’s watched a few videos. But few of his interviewees add much that wasn’t already known. It’s really only when he gets into recent history and the failed attempts to form breakaway leagues that Duff’s research adds anything. Which, for a book the publishers are pushing as being “fastidiously researched” as well as telling “the unknown story of the Tour de France’s ever-changing relationship with money and power” is more than a little disappointing.
As for the fastidiousness of his research … well in truth it’s not all that. That’s just a line the publishers want to press in the hope that others will repeat it (as several Amazon reviewers already have: “Exceptionally well researched, in my limited knowledge,” claims one; “Amazingly well researched,” proclaims another).
How untrue is the claim the book is “fastidiously researched”? Well, talking about the 1976 edition of Paris-Roubaix – the one filmed by Jørgen Leth and disrupted by striking print workers from Le Parisien Libéré – Duff notes that the winner “received a mounted cobblestone as a prize.” That would be the mounted cobblestone that was only introduced the following year. Other claims are equally temporally challenged, such as ASO owning the Critérium du Dauphiné Libéré in 2008 (it wasn’t acquired until 2010). These are trivial little errors and had the publisher not tried to get people to shout about the brilliance of the book’s research I wouldn’t have felt the need to give it a karmic kicking. It’s the book’s typos that worried me more than its duff history. Fastidiously researched, shoddily proofread.
Of more import than either of those are the things left out in Duff’s breathless rush through the story. Take the period between 1987 and 1989. The eighteen months that followed the firing of Félix Lévitan was one of the rockiest periods in the Tour’s history, with three different men taking charge of the race in the space of a year and a half. For reasons best known to himself Duff chooses to only mention one of those men, totally ignoring the other two, one of whom was the man responsible for the creation of ASO and its expansion into the wider world of sport.
Or consider important detail such as where the Tour fits within the Amaury sporting empire. In 2022 ASO organised 30 cycling events including its own races for men and women; races it organises for others such as the Volta a Catalunya and Eschborn–Frankfurt; sportifs such as the Étape du Tour; and exhibition races such as the Saitama Criterium. In motorsports it has the Dakar Rally and a few other races. It has a couple of golf events and several mass-participation events such as the Paris marathon. In all, ASO claims to organise 250 days of competition spread across 90 events in 30 countries. Little or nothing of that is explained by Duff who can barely be minded to mention in passing the Dakar Rally and the Paris marathon as well as Paris-Nice and the Critérium du Dauphiné. For him ASO is the Tour, the Tour is ASO.
There’s even less detail on where ASO fits within the overall Amaury empire, with Duff claiming at one point that ASO is “the family’s news holding company.” I guess he didn’t see the clue in the full name: Amaury Sport Organisation.
And then there’s the financial numbers. Given that this is a story about “family, power and money” (one day I’m going to compile a complete list of all the cycling books that go for a three noun grouping in their subtitles) you kind of have to get into the financial numbers at some point, no matter how breathlessly you want to breeze through the story. But Duff doesn’t. The few he does mention are next to meaningless.
In one of the book’s two cold opens he tosses out a claim that the Tour’s television and race sponsorship money is “said to approach $100 million a year” (those two little words, said to, are doing a lot of heavy lifting there). At the other end of the book he echoes that claim by saying the Tour has estimated annual revenue of €100 million (again, the joists supporting the word estimated are under a lot of strain – the simple fact is that the Amaurys are very guarded when it comes to their finances, leaving people plucking numbers out of thin air).
Elsewhere we learn that in the wake of the Festina affaire Credit Lyonnais – who provide those cuddly lions given out at the end of each stage of the Tour – considered pulling 35 million francs in funding. That’s a number that’s just let sit out there, not translated into euros or dollars (it’s a little over €5 million), nor matched to the various ASO events the bank supported at that time.
More worrying are the claims that ASO paid the Amaury family dividends of €30 million across a three year period at the turn of the millennium. Later in the book that becomes €20 million per year since 1999. Ignoring the difference between the two claims, ASO is a wholly owned subsidiary of the Amaury group. Any dividend it pays out goes back up the food chain where it mixes with profits and losses made in other parts of the group. It is the dividend paid out by the ultimate parent company that actually matters.
Also, at the turn of the millennium the Amaurys only owned 75% of the Amaury group, Philippe Amaury having sold 25% of the business after spending six years challenging his father’s will in the courts. Up until 2013 – when the Amaurys paid €91 million to buy-out their minority shareholder – a quarter of all dividends paid out by the group did not go to the family. That 25% minority holding, by the way, was held by the Lagardère family, owners of Hachette, the publishers of Le Fric. Duff only mentions the family twice, without mentioning Lagardère’s attempts to buy the Tour.
Does Duff consider how much income ASO pulls in each year, where in the grand scheme of things the Tour’s alleged annual revenue of $100/€100 million fits? Of course not, that’d be detail and he’d rather be spending three pages wanging on about Simon Mottram – the founder of Rapha, now an employee of the Wallmart kids – who I don’t believe has joined the growing list of IMG’s Mark McCormack, Arnaud Lagardère, Wanda group’s Wang Jianlin and the others who have politely inquired if the race was for sale. But he does make exceedingly expensive clothing.
Having wrapped up Émilien Amaury’s 30-year story in just over 80 pages, Philippe Amaury’s three decades at, or trying to seize, the helm of the family business are out of the way inside of another hundred pages. The final hundred-plus pages deal with the last decade-and-a-half. Imagine if Channel 4 were to make a programme looking at the greatest comedy shows of the last 75 years and more than a third of them were made in the last decade-and-a-half.
Duff goes into great detail on a Lance Armstrong backed group of Silicon Valley entrepreneurs who tried to put together a consortium to buy the Tour (even having read Le Fric I’m still unsure as to whether this much talked about story ever amounted to an actual offer ever being made). That’s followed by Wouter Vandenhoute’s CVC-backed attempt to form a breakaway league (which was happening at the same time as Armstrong’s putative takeover attempt). And then there’s the Rothschild-backed World Series Cycling breakaway league that spent much of 2011 through 2013 chasing potatoes.
At this point I should probably note that Duff’s day job during this time was at the sports desk in Bloomberg news, which became a key propaganda outlet for Jonathan Vaughters when it came to convincing us that the Amaurys need to be toppled from their throne atop the sport (one of my favourites is the story in which Duff credulously repeated Vaughters’ claim that “ASO may get as much as $200 million from TV rights, while the 22 Tour de France teams typically have an annual budget of $10 million each from sponsorships”).
None of these schemes ever came off but that doesn’t mean they didn’t amount to anything. While the Armstrong-backed one appears to have been just vapourware and the Rothschild-backed scheme morphed into the ineffectual Velon group of teams once the bankers rode away, Vandenhoute’s scheme turned into Flanders Classics, the rising star of the race organising game, an upstart group of big-C classics that has been showing ASO how the game should be played, especially when it comes to expanding the arena of women’s racing. Sadly, Duff has little to say about Flanders Classics and the impact they have been having on the business of cycling and especially the impact they have been having on ASO (it is doubtful we would today have Paris-Roubaix femmes without Flanders Classic shaming ASO into getting with the programme).
Too much of Le Fric is a somewhat superficial take on the story, high on colour and lower on content than it should be. That said, if you don’t know how the Amaurys came to be the powerful family they are today then this is at least a start. And if you want to relive the gory glory of the breakaway years it’s got detail aplenty on that. I’ll just have to imagine the book it could have been had Duff not filled so many pages with irrelevant stories like Chris Froome bonking on Alpe d’Huez and instead found something new to say about the family that’s supposed to be at the heart of the book.