Words by William Fotheringham | Photos by CorVos/SWpix.com
On September 8 last year, there was a bombshell at the Tour de France. The race director, Christian Prudhomme, tested positive for the Covid-19 virus, and had to spend a week away from the race in isolation.
Given the whole existence of the race was built around strict Covid precautions, the hype was justified. As Peter Cossins wrote: “where were you on the day the Tour director tested positive? I’ve got to type that again to let it sink in.”
But there’s a twist. It was a false alarm. Prudhomme’s was a false positive, the director tells me. It’s one of several eyebrow-raisers in a zoom call which has to also cover the most disrupted year cycling has seen since the last world war, and which includes confirmation of the most significant move the Tour organisers will make in the sport in recent years.
The cycling world was shocked that the director of its biggest event had tested positive for the virus mid-race, and Prudhomme was pretty surprised as well. “I had the text at 6.45 in the morning, ‘you are positive’. The text came from the head doctor, Florence Pomméry, I was so surprised that I just sent the reply: ‘Pommery?’” He adds: “I had no symptoms, I was never ill and I never had any antibodies. I had no luck. I was taken out of the Tour because the doctor said I had tested positive even though the next day I might be negative.”
He then spent a week at home, intervening in live television broadcasts when he felt there was a point to be made, and smiling “from ear to ear” as he watched his deputy Francois Lemarchand running the race in his stead. “Luckily I wasn’t in the bubble that included the riders, I didn’t want to be in it. Because [as director] you see different people all the time, so you are liable to catch something.” He eventually came down with the virus in November, this time for real, “I was really unwell, nothing super serious, but properly ill.”
Prudhomme’s positive-but-not-positive test was just one moment in a truly bizarre cycling season. Nothing comparable had been seen in the sport since the lights began going out all over Europe in 1940. “In France, the shut down began on the Saturday when Paris-Nice finished,” recalled Prudhomme. “We were in a restaurant as you are every evening on a race, we heard the Prime Minister say lockdown began the next day, and the next morning we were in Place Masséna in Nice, next to the Promenade des Anglais where the Tour was supposed to start. We sat on a bench, ate a sandwich we’d bought in a little shop; it was mind bending. Everything was shut by Tuesday lunchtime. Afterwards I was at home like everyone else for 10 weeks, which wasn’t a bad thing; being director of the Tour de France isn’t good for your health.”
ASO were instrumental in ensuring last year’s rejigged season took place, because the postponed Tour de France was the key to the calendar around which all the other races would turn. The decision to relaunch the season was a rapid one. “When we were initially asked to move the Tour, the reaction was ‘it’s not possible’ but in mid-April between a speech by the French president on Monday evening and a meeting with the UCI on Wednesday morning, so 36 hours, I spoke to about 75-80 people on the Tuesday. As you know, some you get at once, some you don’t, and when you’re explaining that the Tour de France is changing date it’s not two minutes, it was six or seven minutes, but we were lucky, because everyone said yes. The last one was the Mayor of Paris, Anne Hidalgo, who left me a message at 22.30.”
“What struck me, what I honestly liked, was that compared to other sports, the people involved in cycling worked together – the teams, the UCI, the riders’ representatives, and us, together with the state, although we’re used to talking to Ministry of the Interior, which is the body that allows us to use the roads. We kept talking to Interior, Santé [Health], and Sport, meeting after meeting, about bringing back big sports events. To prepare a Tour de France each year involves 250 external meetings – in addition to the ones inside ASO – I’ve lost count, but we probably had to add on 80 or 90, to make sure that there was a match between cycling’s protocols and the rules of the French state.”
While the consequences of the pandemic at amateur level are incalculable and yet to be seen, and while the male elite calendar scraped through, Covid cost elite women’s bike racing dearly. Half the 2020 WorldTour calendar disappeared, the planned launch of Paris-Roubaix femmes has had to be postponed twice, and ASO had to put back their plan to run a women’s Tour de France by a year, due to the clash this year with the Tokyo Olympics.
Given the rumours that had been swirling around the race, and given its immense significance for the future of the sport, I wanted clear answers to two questions – would there be a race in 2022, and when would it be – plus a more general idea of what kind of race we will see.
“It’s certain [that the race will happen], and it would have been this year if there hadn’t been the pandemic, and the Olympic Games this year after the Tour, because the best riders will be [in Tokyo]. But the decision has been taken, there will be a women’s Tour de France in 2022, and it will happen after the men’s Tour de France.” Prudhomme adds that the details will be known in October, about the same time as the men’s Tour, and is not saying more, partly because the French elections in June will impact on the route. As for length, it’s pretty clear that the UCI’s current 6-day limit for women’s stage races carries little weight – if the Tour de l’Ardeche can run to seven days and the Giro Rosa to 10 – so there’s no reason to assume ASO will stick to it.
“We have to wait for the results of the régional and départemental elections which happen on the 20 and 27 June. From those elections, the people who are put in place will be the ones who make the decisions about next year’s races. There are lot of things that will come out of that.” The chances are, given how ASO work, that there will be horsetrading: have a stage start or finish in this race, add another one in another race. The Women’s Tour de France will be part of that equation. It will also, Prudhomme says, be a race with its own identity, not a mere imitation of the men’s event. “But there will be links with the history of the men’s Tour – there will be the places from the past, the places of today, and perhaps the places of tomorrow as well.”
There’s another factor in devising the route. In Prudhomme’s view, the women’s peloton is more disparate than the men’s, in spite of the extremely high quality of the riders at the top; in men’s elite racing, there is far less difference between those at the top and bottom of the ladder. “That makes life difficult for an organiser [of a men’s race] because you have to go and seek out steeper climbs all the time, different cols because otherwise there’s no selection. Take the Côte de Bonsecours, which allowed Jean Robic to win the first post-war Tour; [the men today would] all be on the big ring, no one dropped. The same story going over the Tourmalet into Pau. With women’s cycling, it’s a very fine elite but not the same density [of riders] at the highest level.”
What that means is that a women’s Tour de France won’t necessarily seek out the extreme ascents which organisers feel are essential to rip the men’s peloton apart. “You don’t have to go and find 50 cols or climbs which are hyper-steep in order to have a good [women’s] race. You know that the racing will happen more naturally, you will have a race that ebbs and flows and that there will be time gaps. Women’s racing is far less susceptible to being shut down [by the teams] than men’s.” It’s an approach which exactly mirrors that taken by the Women’s Tour in the UK, which has less extreme stage routes compared to the men’s equivalent, but where the racing is just as good.
Prudhomme is adamant that ASO’s new race must make an impact. “I was very struck when we created La Course by le Tour [in 2014], we had a dialogue with Marianne Vos. She was talking to us about the media profile of the event, and she said it wasn’t just a matter of wanting us to put on a race, but of wanting us to make sure that it had a high profile. To make young people dream we need to talk about champions. There needs to be this huge echo chamber, in the same way that radio and written press created the men’s Tour. It won’t be enough just to organise a race. We will need the media to follow it so that it grows.
“I remember at the Grand Départ of the Tour [in 2014], and the Tour de Yorkshire, the popularity of Lizzie Armitstead. I was hyper-impressionné; who could compete with her in terms of popularity and profile? Bradley Wiggins, Mark Cavendish… And Lizzie Armitstead. It was unbelievable. The challenge is right there: make the balance sheet add up, and make sure above all that the race gets more media coverage. That’s why we want this race to happen in the period just after the men’s Tour de France, so that from the get-go the majority of the channels that transmit the men’s race take the women’s race too.” With that in mind, La Course should already have made the Tour’s broadcasters aware that women’s bike racing has an audience, and taught them how to cater for that audience.
Prudhomme is well aware that the Société du Tour de France got their fingers burned in the 1980s, when they ran an 18-day women’s Tour alongside the men’s event from 1984 to 1989. Looking back at those Tours, I can’t help feeling that part of the issue was that the organisation was not sure how to make the race work. They didn’t know what they wanted: the format chopped and changed, the quality of the entrants fluctuated, and stage distances seemed to have little rhyme or reason.
“There has already been a Tour de France Féminin, even if it only lasted six years,” says the Tour organiser, who characterises next year’s race as “a relaunch”. “In my view, you need to put on one side the question of equality. [He doesn’t elucidate, but I take this to mean the idea of a race based on the same parcours as the men’s, with the same stage finishes, run at the same time.] Because that existed a long time ago, in the 1980s. And why didn’t it continue? Because the numbers didn’t add up. And this is the key. We want to create a race which is perennial, which has a long-term future. And there needs to be a way of running it which means that the race doesn’t lose money. Today, all the women’s races that we organise lose money.”
Prudhomme clearly believes that financial viability is the key to a strong women’s event, in contrast with the 1980s, when the Société du Tour de France attempted something that looked like equality but didn’t make it work economically. Indeed, there is another cautionary episode from the 1980s: the radical but unsuccessful Tour des Amériques, which ended the career of one of Prudhomme’s predecessors, Félix Lévitan.
“The key to it is to organise a race that doesn’t lose money. If it makes money, that’s great, but it’s important that it doesn’t lose money, because if it does it will end up like the Tour Féminin in the 1980s: it will die. If the numbers had added up [in the 1980s], we’d now be on the 35th edition. There’s a huge amount of goodwill around [the relaunch], everyone is in complete agreement around it, but for the moment, the numbers don’t add up. So the battle, the challenge, is to have a race where the numbers work, and as a result, one which will last for 100 years. That’s the goal, not just to run a race.”
Prudhomme’s comments about the financial side raised eyebrows when a briefer version of this interview was published in the Guardian. You can call it pragmatism, conservatism, or just a way of doing business. ASO have a long history of jettisoning men’s races where the balance sheet doesn’t work for whatever reason, and there is no strategic reason to run the race: Critérium International, the Grand Prix des Nations, Tour de l’Oise and so on. The finances for individual races are not usually made public but to provide some comparison, a while back the website inrng.com reported that the Critérium du Dauphiné – one of ASO’s flagship stage races – made meagre profits between 2013 and 2016, netting around €11,000 on a budget of €2.29million in 2016. This would imply that a “break even and don’t lose money approach” is not restricted to the Tour de France Feminin.
ASO has expanded rapidly in recent years by taking over struggling races such as Paris-Nice and the Dauphiné, and by running races with local partners, such as the Tour de Yorkshire or the Tour de Qatar, both of which involved women’s races alongside men’s. But they don’t often launch stage races from scratch without a local partner.
Guy Elliott, who used to work at British organisers Sweetspot, and who was heavily involved in launching the UK Women’s Tour in 2014, says, “Setting up a new event is challenging, but as an established organiser much of the infrastructure and expertise is in place and the costs are covered by other races. If you look at the ‘on’ cost”– ie the expenses around items that are exclusive to the new race, such as hotels, police etc – “and aim to recover that at a minimum, that’s a very achievable aspiration. The big prize, however, is to not just run a race, but create something new.”
We have time for one question about the 2021 men’s Tour de France. To what degree will spectators be permitted? Will it be open to the roadside viewer, or held behind closed doors? “The race side, the system of bubbles, with all those accredited within them will be pretty much the same as last year – PCR tests, people walking around with hand gel etc. I’m not sure at the moment how it will be for the public, but it won’t be huis clos. I don’t know at the moment how the various regions will be, whether it will be same every day. In France from 30 June the measures will change; we are starting on June 26 from Finistère, which is the only region that has always been green. [it depends on] the progress of vaccination, the reduction of the number of people in hospital… we will find out what the state of things will be two weeks before the Tour.”