A Family Business in the Sun
Finally, this winter of our discontent nears its end. The calendar on the kitchen wall says that, and so does the racing calendar.
All those far-away roads—in Argentina, Colombia, the United Arab Emirates, Australia—barely register in my neighbourhood, even if they do in yours. You may live in Argentina, Colombia, the UAE or Australia, but I don’t. I heart France.
For months, there’s been no going to races here, or even watching them on television, where it’s been a dreary stretch of police procedurals and ancient movies.
Each day has been the same as the day before: glowering skies, cold rain every few hours, the huge plane tree across from my window black, its magpie couple gone.
So it’s been hard to write, even when a passage in Amin Maalouff’s novel Samarkand made me think of a parable about Team Ineos vs. everybody else: “When the armies of Darius confronted those of Alexander the Great, the Greek’s counsellors brought to his attention that the troops of the Persian were much more numerous than his. Alexander kept his poise and shrugged. ‘My men,’ he said, ‘fight to win. The men of Darius fight to die’.”
Dave Brailsford as Alexander? No. Patrick Lefevere of Deceuninck or Eusebio Unzue of Movistar as Darius? Not really.
Enough dithering. On to racing.
If spring began arriving tentatively with minor races in France and Spain, Paris-Nice offers the first true peek at the new season.
That’s one reason for the race, after all. Way back in 1933, Paris-Nice was designed to promote newspapers in both cities and to lure tourists sick of winter to balmy Nice. “The Race to the Sun” it was dubbed by its director in the 1950s, Jean Leulliot.
He bought the race in 1957 and ran it during the next three decades with help from his family. One daughter, Josette, began to direct operations for the eight-day competition; another, Jacqueline, was in charge of publicity, while various spouses and in-laws looked out for accommodations, route safety, and contingencies on the route south.
Even after Leulliot died and Josette took full control in 1982, those were Cro-Magnon days in race management: small budgets, restricted television coverage, fragile sponsorships, and primitive press communications.
Josette was surely the only race owner and director to stroll among spectators at stages and distribute lists of starting riders. Jacqui briefed reporters waiting at the finish with race updates phoned by her sister—“so and so attacked at Kilometre 76 and has a lead of 25 seconds. The pack is dawdling.”
The Paris-Nice budget, never robust, fell to $1 million when sponsors withdrew after the Festina Affair in 1998. “Other races are sponsored by newspapers with lots of money or companies with lots of money,” Jacqui said. “We’re just a family business.”
In 1999, the race was bought by Laurent Fignon. He couldn’t make a go of it and had to sell in 2001 to the Amaury Sport Organization with its deep pockets thanks to ownership of the Tour de France.
The Leulliots, unto the last in-law, are now forgotten. Their race continues under ASO and flourishes. French TV devotes three hours daily to its coverage.
There are reminders of the old days, however.
When seven big teams—Movistar, Ineos, CCC, Mitchelton and Astana among them—withdrew because of the coronavirus epidemic, they were partly replaced by Pro Continental teams. Josette and Jacqui Leulliot would have been accustomed to such obscure entries as B & B Hotels or Circus.
Whatever it takes, they would have said. So, amid dark skies, Paris-Nice has set off once again to seek the sun, to banish winter. It’s about time.