“What are they doing? It’s mad. Standing on the side of the road for five hours, still smiling. The Tour de France route is 3,500 kilometres long, and it’s 3,500 kilometres of smiles and emotion. It’s happiness and insouciance, the sporting dimension, the joy, the scenery, the link between the people. It’s an event unlike the others.”
I am crammed into a basement room with 25 lucky readers of Ouest-France for an audience with the Tour boss. Some nervously clutch strips of paper, bearing questions to ask him. As Christian Prudhomme recounts what struck him most on the Tour as a fledgling journalist, they are hanging on his every word.
Prudhomme focuses on the Tour’s human power. He raves about foreign starts of the past and the future – of Yorkshire 2014 and Düsseldorf next July – yet regularly brings the conversation back to the region.
His staccato sentences drip with positive language. “Extraordinaire”. “Incroyable”. He kindles patriotic pride, talking of “our magnificent France”.
It’s not just what Prudhomme says, but the way that he says it: the rolling cadence of the French, eyes imbued with passion and hands gesturing. This might as well be an evangelical preacher at a lectern.
There is little of the crusty bureaucrat in Prudhomme. He matches a politician’s tact with a TV presenter’s charm and the good looks of a middle-aged rock star, which no doubt plays very well with the Ouest-France readers, most of whom are experienced enough to remember Louison Bobet’s heyday.
“I am in the service of the Tour,” Prudhomme tells them. The race and its power is far bigger than he or the 70-strong permanent Amaury Sports Organisation staff who work on it can conceive.
His official role is director general but as he says, “it’s not a job, it’s a mission.” The buck stops with him on everything from security threats to doping tests and day-to-day organisation. And so, Prudhomme switches between the roles of salesman, diplomat, dream wrangler, PR man, route planner, raconteur and caretaker for sport’s biggest annual event.
Prudhomme reckons he spends 100 days a year away from his Paris home. This mini tour of La Manche is one more on his trail: he has just come from a trip to the central Cantal region to meet dignitaries and see forthcoming Paris-Nice and Tour de France stages. In a few days, he will be off to Düsseldorf, which hosts the 2017 Grand Départ, then the Tour of Qatar.
It’s a reminder that while the Tour is the grand palace in ASO’s portfolio, they are adding new properties across the world rapidly. In recent years, stage races have sprung up in Norway and Yorkshire, and they have just agreed to revive the Deutschland Tour.
It is both about capitalising on passionate hotbeds of cycling and making a tidy profit. Today, La Manche; tomorrow the world.
As we approach the day’s final engagement, Prudhomme leafs through a colour-coded timetable. He is guest of honour at the Trophée des Entrepreneurs, a prize giving celebrating local business achievements. “For three hours, eh? Yes, yes, yes,” he says, with a hint of weariness.
There is no bar, very stiff chairs and little levity as winners’ speeches drag on into the night. This is drier than a three-day old baguette, truly the 90-kilometre hilly individual time-trial of social engagements.
In the spotlight for two hours, Prudhomme excels. He hands out trophies. He works it. Off-stage, he is the maillot jaune of meeting and greeting.
In one-on-one encounters, it appears Prudhomme has the ability of giving everyone – or making it feel like he is giving everyone – his undivided attention.
He knows how certain narratives fit local media needs. In the transforming modern Tour, he is the chameleon who can joke with riders and seduce politicians, talk a good game then deliver one too.
But it is the everyman qualities that struck me most with Prudhomme: his generosity of spirit and an appreciation of the romance of cycling that seem to be at the core of what he does. As you might expect from a former commentator, he seems to have an answer for everything.
The only question that leaves Prudhomme briefly lost for words concerns his hobbies and passions. “Err…” He makes a noise like a computer failing to process something. “The Tour is my life. The Tour is my life.”
Extract from Rouleur issue 63.
Christian Prudhomme will be presenting the route of the 2017 Tour de France at the opening night of the 2016 Rouleur Classic on November 3.
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