It is July and the biggest thing in bike world is the Tour de France. Yes, there are Olympic MTB XC qualifying races, BC Ride, yadda yadda yadda. But the Tour de France is, at its beating heart, a mountain bike race.
That they ride rigid 29ers with skinny tires and wear really tight shorts and jerseys doesn’t change the fact that the race is usually won and lost in those big mountain stages. Some of those roads are rougher than your local singletrack. Most of them have steeper gradients. They are all a supreme mother to ride at super-pro speeds. I have ridden many of them and can assure you that they will humble you and future generations of your progeny. Who won last year? Cadel Evans, mountain biker. Ask him if it’s tough. Bob Roll, mountain biker: A member of the first American team to race in the Tour. Ask him.
So with that out of the way, lets talk about the weirdest, wackiest, creepiest part of the Tour. No, not Phil and Paul. Not Bradley Wiggins’ cocker-spaniel sideburns. Not Peter Sagan’s nitrous oxide-induced victory dances.
It is the Publicity Caravan. Most Tour fans know very little about this odd relic of the race, but for the millions of people who actually see the race on the road—and often from their front yards or workplace—the Publicity Caravan is more of the Tour than the race. That’s because on most stages the peloton whizzes by so fast that you can’t tell Tom Danielson from Thomas Voeckler. It is a big, impressive mechanical blur followed by a cacophony of honks and yells emanating from team cars that also whiz past. If you’re really lucky, you might catch a “nature break” and see the riders literally whizzing by the side of the road. Au revoir! See you next July.
Eighty years ago, in their infinite wisdom, the founders of the Tour de France decided there was a big problem that had to be solved if the Tour was to succeed. But to them, the whizzing by was not the problem. The real problem was that they were not generating enough money because the teams financed by bike companies were sucking up all the cash with their corporate sponsorships.
This was all many years ago when there was no TV and even radio was spotty at best. Selling advertising space in the newspaper they owned wasn’t enough, possibly because they called it “Le Auto” instead of “Le Velo.”
So the geniuses of Le Tour came up with an incredible idea, one so brilliant that it seemed stupid: Get rid of the commercially sponsored teams and create national teams. To pay for the scheme, Tour founder Henri Desgrange developed the plan to send autos and other vehicles adorned with advertisements ahead of the race so that waiting spectators, who were bored out of their minds because there was no Facebook or Twitter, would be so thrilled to see anything coming up the road. And to make sure that the good feelings lasted, the people in and on the vehicles would toss out little promotional gifts and treats (sausages, candy, etc.) for the fans to keep as souvenirs of the time the Tour passed through their town. And best of all, the Tour did not have to share the cash with the commercial teams.
The concept of national teams didn’t last but the idea of crazy-looking vehicles tossing out free stuff as an advertising medium was as stunning as the introduction of My Space and Google. It did become like My Space as it grew, drawing famous music stars singing and playing from trucks and cars as they passed through the towns on the route, over the high mountain passes and by all those chateaus and churches that fill up about 34 percent of the screen time on NBC Universal.
The Publicity Caravan, dubbed “The Caravan of Crap” by journalist James Raia in the 20th century, is now becoming a major part of Tour tourism. Organizers of the Tour say a 2012 survey showed that 39 percent of Tour spectators came just to see the Publicity Caravan. That’s on par with Major League Baseball, where 45 percent of the fans come just to drink lousy, expensive beer and eat hot dogs that cost more per ounce than the finest French goose paté.
I have been to seven Tours and have ridden (or walked) my bike up and down most of the hallowed monuments of the race. One of the thrills is getting encouragement from fans on the side of the road who try to give you the most authentic experience possible by standing in your way, dumping beer on you (Dutch Corner), laughing at your weakness or pushing you up the hill while holding the flag of some semi-autonomous region of Spain.
But perhaps the greatest thrill was at the 2000 Tour when I was stuck at the top of the Courcheval ski area (where the stage ended) with no way to get down. Out of the gloom appeared a red-checkered apparition, a strange Cochonou mini-car that pulled over with a beret-wearing driver who asked if I wanted a ride. It was working its way slowly down the mountain. I squeezed in, my knees touching the dashboard. We slowly rolled our way down the road with the other bizarre vehicles, spectral spectators appearing here and there with hands thrust forward, seeking one of the company’s signature tiny sausages. As I hadn’t eaten for most of the day and it was going to be a while before I got back to the press center, I selfishly hogged the pork.
I did stink of Cochonou for the rest of the day until I could find a shower. But when my hotel room became available and the hot stream of soap and water beckoned, I hesitated. This was my first Tour and I had seen Lance Armstrong and Marco Pantani battle up the mountain. And as for me, I smelled like victory!