At the Palais de Congrès in Paris on Wednesday morning, Christian Prudhomme will reveal the route of the 2015 Tour de France, and, as per tradition, the race director will also deliver something of a state of the nation address, casting an eye over the twelve months gone by and looking forward to the challenges of the year to come.
Ahead of Wednesday’s route presentation, Cyclingnews spoke to Prudhomme about some of the issues facing the Tour, including Oleg Tinkov’s “Grand Tour Challenge,” ASO’s responsibilities in France and abroad, and the recent spate of positive tests at the Astana team of reigning Tour champion Vincenzo Nibali.
Cyclingnews: The UCI has recently announced that its Licence Commission will investigate Astana and they could potentially lose their WorldTour place as a result of the recent doping cases. The situation seems quite serious. What is your position on the matter?
Christian Prudhomme: I have no comment to make on that until the UCI carries out its work. I can’t make a comment on the matter until the people looking into the case have completed their work.
CN: If Astana is eventually given a licence, would there still be scope for ASO to take action of its own? In 2008, for instance, ASO didn’t invite Astana [the team of defending champion Alberto Contador – ed.] to the Tour, although the circumstances were different as the race wasn’t part of the UCI ProTour at the time…
CP: It seems to me that it’s a good thing that the UCI is looking to shed as much light on it as possible but I can’t say anything more than that. I can’t say anything pertinent about it right now, not until the situation has been clarified by those looking into it.
CN: The other big story in the news in recent days has been Oleg Tinkov’s proposed “Grand Tour Challenge.” What do you think of his proposal?
CP: For me, it’s important that the biggest riders are in the biggest races but that doesn’t necessarily mean the three Grand Tours. It means the big rendezvous throughout the season, which in other eras the likes of Eddy Merckx and Bernard Hinault used to take part in. We want the best riders in the world there from the start of the year to the end, so that there’s a real narrative with all of the champions together throughout the season from one race to the next. That’s the most important thing, and more important than having them ride the three Grand Tours in one year.
CN: In L’Équipe on Friday morning, Tinkov raised the idea of reducing the Tour to 3,000 kilometres to facilitate the challenge…
CP: The short answer is that there’s no possibility that the Tour will be shortened or reduced.
CN: The UCI is trying to enact changes to the calendar and the structures of cycling by 2017. For instance, it seems as though Paris-Nice and Tirreno-Adriatico won’t clash anymore. Do you welcome such alterations and how are the talks with stakeholders progressing?
CP: There are discussions that are ongoing and there have been meetings, but what really counts is that the narrative of cycling is the most beautiful possible and that the leading names are there all year around, especially at the big rendezvous. Beyond that, of course, it’s simply good sense not to have races of the same level running concurrently. But fundamentally, the important thing is that the big riders are there throughout the year, and not just on the three Grand Tours.
CN: This year’s Tour saw the first French podium finishers since 1997 and the emergence of potential future French winners of the race. How important is that for the Tour as a whole?
CP: Of course, it’s important for a race or any sporting event to have champions from its own country. For the Tour it’s good to have French contenders, and it’s also essential that there are champions from the historic countries of cycling in general.
On the other hand, it’s also formidable and necessary to have champions from new cycling countries. I’m thinking about Australia in 2011 with Cadel Evans. Even if the first Australian yellow jersey had been 30 years previously with Phil Anderson, it was still something new and important. We then had the impact of the first two British winners of the Tour, Bradley Wiggins and Chris Froome, and then we had an exceptional, extraordinary – humongous! – Grand Départ in Yorkshire. So that’s very important too.
But in cycling it’s all a question of balance – you need champions from the traditional countries too, from Italy, Spain, the Netherlands, Belgium and France.
CN: Because of its history and its place in culture, the Tour will always retain a certain level of popularity in France regardless of who the contenders are, but having French stars can only increase it. The situation seems a little like tennis and Wimbledon, where the emergence of realistic British contenders in the late 1990s reinforced the relevance of the event in its own country…
CP: Yes, seeing French riders like Péraud, Pinot and Bardet in the battle for the podium and the general classification, and others winning stages and Ag2r winning the teams classification – all of that brings a certain fascination and a level of interest with it. If you take the example of swimming in France before Laure Manadou [Olympic 400m freestyle champion in 2004 – ed.], it had barely any coverage anymore beyond the Olympic Games. Now the French championships are on television, the Worlds are on television and a lot of other meets throughout the year too. When you have a champion, there’s an influx, people row in behind them and the passion returns.
And it’s the same thing for cycling, of course, with these French riders who are emerging. So naturally, the French came back to the Tour again this year thanks to the performances of their champions.
CN: Will their performances have a knock-on effect for French cycling and the other French events that ASO organise, like the Dauphiné or Paris-Tours?
CP: Without a doubt. Paris-Tours is particularly emblematic because we also have the Kilometre de Paris-Tours for under-16 riders and juniors, Paris-Tours espoirs and the elite race itself. The fact that we had an emblematic champion like Thomas Voeckler in the front group for the whole race [he eventually finished second behind Jelle Wallays – ed.] this year helped to generate even more interest in the race than normal. The television audience was the best we’ve had for ten years, and that’s impressive when you consider that television audiences are more dispersed now because there are more and more channels on offer. So the numbers from Paris-Tours on television – around 700,000 people watched the finish – are important. In races like that, more so than in the Tour de France, the quality of the home riders is of capital importance.
CN: Some people in France are critical of the how ASO is increasingly active in organising races abroad – there’s the Saitama Criterium and the new Tour de Yorkshire, for instance – while some smaller French races are struggling. Is there a tension between ASO’s responsibilities to French cycling and its obligations as a business?
CP: There’s no tension although maybe from some people there’s sometimes a bit of concern. It seems to me that all of our activities in the last few years have been designed towards the development of cycling in general, the development of our business and also to support French cycling.
We know well that French cycling is important for the Tour de France, there’s no doubt about that. But without ASO, Paris-Nice wouldn’t exist anymore. Without ASO, the Dauphiné wouldn’t exist anymore. And that’s true in Belgium too with Liège-Bastogne-Liège and Flèche Wallonne – these are races that have made the history of cycling, we know very well just how important they are.
When we go abroad with the Tour de France, what we’re looking for first of all is passion. And I think in France, too, people understand that we found great passion for cycling when we went to Great Britain last year, and we’ll find it next summer too when we go to Utrecht for the start of the 2015 Tour. We don’t say ourselves, ‘let’s go and look for money.’ We go looking for passion and enthusiasm for the race. And we ask ourselves – ‘Is there a race here? Are there champions?’ Afterwards, of course, where there is a lot of enthusiasm and a lot of people, that naturally transforms into business too, but the point of departure is always passion.
CN: That passion seems to be returning in Germany, which is a huge market. Marcel Kittel and John Degenkolb’s Giant team will have a German co-sponsor [Alpecin -ed.] in 2015, for instance. You visited the Münsterland Giro recently and that’s sparked rumours that the Tour might start there in 2017…
CP: In the world today, you have a lot of rumours that quickly become news. As a former journalist, I know that only too well! Yes, there are murmurings in Germany. It’s the first time in several years that German mayors have sought to host a stage of the Tour de France. It’s not a secret, I went to the race, I spoke with them and I’ll reflect on it.
Whether it’s next year or later on, I don’t know, but it is certain that Germany is emerging from this period where it had fallen out of love with cycling. There was a period of crazy love, of amour fou, in Germany and that was then followed by a period of désamour fou. Now we’re in a new era that’s a little bit between those two sentiments.
When I had just arrived in the Tour organisation, there were several stages with finishes in Germany and it was spectacular in terms of the turn-out on the roadsides. It’s true that in an ideal world, returning to Germany would be important because in Europe and in sport, Germany counts. Germany counts in cycling, too. There was a record number of stage wins by German riders in the Tour 2014 with André Greipel, Tony Martin and Kittel. The time has arrived to make a return to Germany. Whether it’s in 2015 or later, I don’t know, but there’s a new era dawning and Germany is ready to consider cycling differently, without getting back to the crazy love of ten years ago or the désamour fou of more recent times.
CN: The establishment of La Course was an important development for women’s cycling and it will return once again in 2015, but what are the chances of it eventually developing into a stage race or even a resurrection of the old Tour Féminin?
CP: We're organising La Course once again in Paris, offering the incredible backdrop of the Champs-Élysées, and it’s broadcast around the world on television. But we can’t organise another Tour de France at the same time. In the past, yes, there were attempts to have the Tour Féminin in conjunction with the Tour, but the situation back then was not the same as now. Nowadays, the infrastructure required by the Tour de France is enormous and we wouldn’t be able to organise another race at the same time. However, do we have other plans for women’s cycling? Yes, certainly. Why not replicate events like La Course at other races, maybe even the Vuelta? That’s the kind of formula we’re likely to develop.
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Barry Ryan is Head of Features at Cyclingnews. He has covered professional cycling since 2010, reporting from the Tour de France, Giro d’Italia and events from Argentina to Japan. His writing has appeared in The Independent, Procycling and Cycling Plus. He is the author of The Ascent: Sean Kelly, Stephen Roche and the Rise of Irish Cycling’s Golden Generation (opens in new tab), published by Gill Books.