Greed is good. So said Gordon Gecko. But this is a small French village, not Wall St. So what makes people elbow each other in the ribs just to get a free keyring or tasteless yellow cap? When the Tour caravan comes into sight every man, woman and child leaps to their feet and steps into the road. It’s game-time.
The Tour de France has always been a commercial affair. Whatever the supposedly noble motives Henri Desgrange later attached to his sporting contest, the fundamental reason for creating the Tour was to sell newspapers, and subsequently Desgrange was constantly looking for ways to improve the race as a business. In 1930 he devised the publicity caravan as a way to generate revenue, and it was an instant success.
Naturally the advertising deals the ASO strikes with its commercial partners are confidential, but for any company wanting to reach a broad swathe of the French population, plus a load of tourists, it’s an attractive proposition. A few vehicles, a few freebies (well, about 15 million in total) and your brand will be seen by millions of people. The classic model for a caravan vehicle is to build a giant fibreglass version of the product you’re promoting – let’s say McCain’s oven chips – and mount it on the back of a truck. Then employ some good-looking French boys and girls to stand on a platform at the back, waving and throwing freebies to the crowd. We could spend pages and pages discussing the merits of a plastic keyring versus a tiny bag of Haribo versus a polka dot cap…
But what of the greed that grips us when the caravan approaches? Normally calm people become near-hysterical. Grown men, who could afford to buy a hundred cheap key-rings if they so wished, push and shove to get one lobbed down by a pretty girl in a silly outfit. The reason is that the caravan is the first real manifestation of the Tour on the road. After the lethargy of waiting on some anonymous strip of road, this is when the scene comes alive. And every freebie is a physical connection to the Tour. It may be a cheap key-ring you’ll never use, but it has that special Tour de France aura. You’ll treasure it, until next July.