A Brief History of Access
Forty or so years ago, in a time as distant as the typewriter and rotary telephone, there was no Tour de France press corps. Instead of the hundreds of reporters who track the race nowadays, there was the Tour de France press platoon: perhaps a dozen men (certainly no women) from l’Equipe, the daily sports newspaper, and other national papers like Le Figaro and l’Humanite, organ of the Communist Party, augmented by reporters from whatever part of the country the race was passing through.
When it headed far south from Brittany, for example, the man from Ouest France went home, leaving further coverage to the wire service Agence France-Presse, and his place was taken by somebody from the Midi Libre. Off and on, the International Herald Tribune, based in Paris, and The New York Times, both of them amused by the thought of covering a three-week bicycle race, would send a man (your humble servant) to detail the doings, as long as they didn’t become technical (no mention of gears, seat heights, or failed derailleurs) or, even worse, foreign. “No more writing about anybody from Belgium who spells his name with CKX,” one editor ordained. “Our readers can’t handle it.” He referred, of course, to Eddy Merckx, then on his way to another of five Tour victories.
It would have been so easy to write more about Merckx or any other rider. Need a one-on-one interview? Just go to his room at the team hotel, pull up a chair, and begin asking questions. Too lazy to trek to the hotel? Debrief another reporter or two who interviewed him over breakfast. Still too much like work? Waylay your man at the stage sign-in amid all the fans getting his autograph.
Access! Nobody used that word or thought of that concept. In that time of rare television coverage, it was simply the way we all worked.
Nothing changed in the 1980s, the Greg LeMond era. Open and friendly, LeMond welcomed the press, sometimes so busy being interviewed that he was late for a sign-in. His teammates followed his lead.
Then came the 1990s and a closing of the door. First, the Amaury Sport Organization took control of the race and decided that, to expand its international reputation, it would issue press credentials wholesale. A horde descended: Anybody with even a mimeograph machine handy was eligible for the green press pass.
One favorite for years in the midst of the peloton was the clunker car of Tele Z, a cheap French compendium of television movies, whose occupants spent their annual vacation on the road with the race, never writing a line about it. They were just fans.
Another favorite was the woman from Marblehead, Mass., the hometown of Tyler Hamilton, when he was a Tour idol early in the 2000s. Her credentials identified her as a correspondent for the high school newspaper at home. She admitted that she was simply on vacation and wanted to see the race up close. Whatever, she was included in the Tour owner’s press count.
Second was the advent of the team bus. No longer did riders have to drift down near the start on their bicycles and be swarmed by fans. Now, like Quasimodo bolting into Notre Dame Cathedral and bellowing “Sanctuary,” they had a refuge. Those smoked one-way windows kept everybody at bay.
Third was Lance Armstrong, a master of access, including bodyguards, one of them friendly to reporters, the other not at all. If somebody wanted to talk to Armstrong away from a crowd, it was always on his terms.
They could be harsh. More than once, he threatened to end access because an article had displeased him, especially a comparison to LeMond. Armstrong and his team media director, probably the first in the sport and another buffer against access, were always on guard.
Finally, it became laughable. When he was talking in 2008 about a return to the Tour, he granted an interview in which he talked (lied) into my tape recorder while his directeur sportif, Johan Bruyneel, sat beside us and recorded us both.
We were there because Armstrong had phoned me the day before and set up the meeting at Orly Airport near Paris. He would arrive after talking with Tour officials about his return from a short retirement, he said. There were some technical problems relating to his retirement but he brushed them off.
“We’ll have some big news,” he promised.
“How did your meeting go?” I asked when we began.
“With the Tour people.”
“Who met with Tour people? Where did you get that idea?” He fixed me with his steely stare.
“But, but…” I started.
“Never happened,” he continued. “Never planned. I’m just here on my way to Nice,” where he had a home in the hills. “Got my plane,” a private jet, “waiting for me now. But no rush; it won’t leave until I’m ready.”
Obviously, the talks had gone badly or Armstrong had decided to give his news to somebody else.
With no word about his return, what was there to talk about? The weather in Nice, for one, his children, for another. His next vacation, for a third.
Half an hour later, the exclusive interview was over. Bruyneel headed to a commercial flight (Air France), Armstrong to his jet (Air Lance) and I to my office to write that he was looking forward to seeing his children and hoped it wasn’t raining in Nice.
My editor was not impressed. “With all that access, you didn’t get much,” he said.
“Access,” I replied, “can be overrated.”
Cover photo: Cor Vos