It’s always dangerous to assume another nation subscribes to the same sporting anxieties as your own. Does the ’29 years of hurt’ mentality really sit well with a nation famed for the Gallic shrug and who tune in to their home Tour to celebrate a notion of Frenchness bound up in geography and history as much as sporting achievement? Well, yes and no. There is handwringing, certainly, and excuses for lack of success – not least the crackdown by French doping authorities post-Festina that failed to be replicated elsewhere, the ‘peloton a deux vitesses’. Bernard Hinault, the last Frenchman to wear the Yellow Jersey in Paris, regularly decries his compatriots will to win – their lack of focus and dedication, training habits and motivation, overinflated salaries, their lack of hunger. Dauncy and Hare may be right when they refer to the French attitude to the Tour as a ‘pre modern contest in a post modern context.’ But now the ‘Anglo Saxon’ virtues of meticulous preparation and physical effort have smashed straight into the French ideas of flair and panache and dragged the race kicking and screaming into that post modern world.
In 1982, Jacques Goddet, inspired by the Football World Cup, set out his views on a ‘globalised’ Tour de France in an open letter to the race:
“The Tour is absolutely ready, from the broadcasting point of view, to be globalised at this point when the bicycle has conquered the world and the sport of cycling has plunged its roots deep into every continent and is followed by passionate fans.”
Goddet and Levitan’s ‘World Cup of Cycling’ would happen every 4 years and be disputed by 9 teams from the ‘traditional’ nations – Germany, Belgium, Spain, France, Britain, Holland, Italy, Scandinavia and Switzerland – and 9 from Eastern Europe and the new cycling nations such as Africa, Canada, Colombia, USA, Poland, Portugal and Russia. The parcours would visit as many countries as possible with the heart – and the finish on the Champs Elysees – remaining in France.
It was an ambitious plan and hasn’t flown in quite the way Goddet outlined – at least not yet, possibly never if race director Christian Prudhomme is to be believed “Nowadays, there are trade teams that resemble national ones. For me, going back to national teams is a bit of an old chestnut. It was great at the time but I’m not convinced that it’s a solution for the future.” But ‘globalisation’ is top of the UCI agenda and more now than ever before cycling fans are being encouraged to identify with a particular team rather than with individual riders. Teams, in their turn – and despite their multinational rosters – are selling an idea of national identity to their fans. It’s no surprise that new ‘Anglo-Saxon’ superteams like Sky and Orica GreenEdge have been particularly successful at getting the Union Jack and the Boxing Kangaroo flying on the roadsides of France.
Of course the Tour de France has been ridden by national teams before – in an effort to break the dominance of the mighty Alcyon team and their string of successes with Belgian riders, Henri Degranges decreed that the race be ridden by national teams and so it was between 1930-1962 (by which time Alcyon were dead as a commercial force). National teams are the reason the race has its much loved publicity caravan – when costs previously covered by the trade teams fell to the Tour the money had to come from somewhere. And there have been trade teams that have been, to all intents and purposes, national teams – step forward Rabobank (Holland) and Euskaltel (Basque Country). And now the Federation Francaise Cyclisme (FFC) are eager to get a piece of that pie.
The details of the ‘Team Sky a la Francaise‘ project are all over the press – even though this is 8 month old news – a project to deliver the next French winner of the national Tour in the same way that Team Sky made good on their promise to deliver a British winner with time to spare. The old caveats about a mechanistic approach are to be swept aside in favour of a slavish duplication of the British team’s route to success. French flair is to be stamped out in favour of delivering a big winner. How ironic that the French, heartland of cycling, are taking their lead from the British.
Well, not exactly. David Lappartient, the FFC President, has been floating the ‘Team Sky a la Francaise’ idea for At least a year now, even going so far as to propose the restructuring of the Tour around national teams – an idea resolutely rejected by Christian Prudhomme. Whilst ‘Team Sky a la Francaise‘ makes a neat headline for those eager to trumpet the current domination of the Tour by a nominally British team – the Rosbifs kicking the Froggy’s butt on home turf is always good copy – it doesn’t begin to give the full picture of an ambitious scheme that aims to revolutionise French cycling not just professionally but domestically as part of a wider federal project ‘Together for Cycling’. In terms of its scope and diversity it moves far beyond the male dominated, road focussed Team Sky model to create a fully integrated men’s and women’s team across all cycling disciplines. La Course, the newly announced women’s race on the Champs Elysees, could be an excellent showcase for the French superteam in 2015.
Underpinning ‘Together for Cycling’ and the new velodrome at St Quentin – a legacy from the Parisian Olympic bid that also encompasses training facilities for BMX and road cycling – is the renewal of a partnership between the FFC and ASO that guarantees financial support for youth development. It’s main objective will be “unearthing the champions of tomorrow throughout France by reinforcing and assisting the Challenge Nationaux Juniors & Espoirs youth events”. The FFC are hoping to extend its scope to developing women’s cycling. With Team Sky still showing no inclination to develop a women’s team, the FFC project is a genuine trailblazer for the women’s sport – if words are translated into deeds.
There’s no doubt that Lappartient, a committed moderniser (part of the federal plan is whole scale reform of the FFC to make it more democratic and professional) , is playing catch up on the lottery funded might of British Cycling. The oldest cycling federation in the world, the FFC has rested on its laurels for too long now – gone are the glory days of Hinault and Fignon, even of France ruling the piste in the velodrome. When he replaced 76 year old Jean Pitalier in April 2009, 36 year old young gun Lappartient was already talking about the necessity for the FFC to create a professional team, when Team Sky were yet to turn a pedal in anger and still a long way from dominating the Tour de France. But cycling is wilfully amnesiac, preferring to forget that the US Postal team involved a similar tie up between a trade team and a national federation or that Britain’s track dominance – on which Team Sky was built – was modelled on the Australian Institute of Sport (which in turn was modelled on INESP the French InstitutNational du Sport, de l’Expertise et de la Performance – what goes around comes around).
Where things will get truly interesting is when the focus moves beyond the glittering prizes of Gold and Yellow and onto the Classics. French riders had a more than decent Monuments campaign in 2013, placing two riders in the top 10 at Flanders and Roubaix, two in the top 15 at La Doyenne and 3 in the top 20 at Giro de Lombardia. Add in Chavanel just missing the podium at La Primavera and French cycling looks like it has something to shout about – particularly compared to another dismal Classics season from Sky. This may be where French ‘flair’ when harnessed to an FFC backed superteam will deliver early results – the ability to improvise, to react to what happens on the road. Saying which, the new Coca Cola/Qatari/Vittel/Insert Sponsor Name Here team will have their work cut out to challenge the well drilled squads of the likes of Lotto and OPQS. It will be fascinating to see where a French superteam’s real strengths lie. After all, even with a proven Froome beater and home Grand Tour winner, the Italians have recently bemoaned that they are now below the French in terms of their cycling profile. Sometimes Yellow – or Pink – are not enough.
There is one other story here – FFC are partnering with SportFive to deliver sponsorship for the superteam project. SportFive are a subsidiary of the sporting and publishing giant Lagardere Unlimited. Which is where it gets interesting. SportFive is the world’s leading football agency negotiating rights for a raft of teams and competitions. They’re a powerful partner to have on board and there are some fascinating implications for the ongoing rights sharing debate in the sport. But it’s the figure of Arnaud Lagardere and his potential role in a Tour de France winning team that is fascinating.
Lagardere it was who famously tried to buy out the Veuve Amaury and then stomped off in a huff when she rebuffed his advances. ASO bought back his 25% stake in April 2013, then announced the Tour was up for sale in September. The favourites to buy? The Qataris, who’ve been quietly building a tasty portfolio of holdings in French sport. Coincidentally, Qatar Sports Investment (who now own Paris St. Germain) also hold a 10% stake in Lagardere Unlimited…
Lagardere has his fingers in a lot of sporting pies including a couple of cycling races but they’re small potatoes compared to the ASO portfolio. But here’s a what if – what if instead of owning the Tour de France he controls it in another way? Like another businessman obsessed with ASO, what if Lagardere attempts to ‘own’ the Tour by delivering a French winner, rather as Tapie did with his La Vie Claire team? And if you own the company that delivered the sponsors who might just own the Tour de France?
SportFive have partnered with the FFC’s own marketing agency In Yellow – it should be interesting to see the impact a truly integrated team will have on the sport and whether it stands or falls on putting a man in Yellow on the Champs Elysees.