My father was a huge cycling fan. At our home in Paris, it was on the television, on the radio, and in the many publications we had scattered around the house. One of my first memories, though, wasn’t of the Tour de France but the Ardennes Classics and, in particular, Luc Varenne, a legend of Belgian radio.
As a family, we would listen to the finales of races and every time I heard Varenne’s voice I would run towards the radio. I would get as close as I could. It wasn’t so much his words but his voice, his tone, his enthusiasm, his passion. It drew me in like a spell. It was everything.
He would have this incredible way of exaggerating the climbs of Liège-Bastogne-Liège. He made the race sound like a fairytale to a young boy, the climbs like giants that these heroes on bikes had to conquer.
When I think back to childhood memories of cycling, some things are more vivid than others. For some reason, I can remember Jan Janssen’s face when he reached the Parc des Princes - the old Parc des Princes. I didn’t follow the Tour back then but the image of him stood out: a guy in sunglasses, lifted up on shoulders, waving to the crowds and surrounded by cameras and journalists. We watched live on TV - those grainy black and white images - and I remember asking, ‘Who is this guy?’
But it was only later that I found out that he was the first Dutch winner of the Tour. It wasn’t until the next year, and the summer of 1969, that I properly followed the Tour for the first time. The winner, of course, was Eddy Merckx, who was honoured at the Grand Départ. I fell deeply in love with cycling - with Merckx, Luis Ocaña, Bernard Thévenet, Bernard Hinault, Raymond Poulidor, always Raymond Poulidor .
It’s thanks to the Tour de France that I wanted to be a journalist. It was my dream. I worked hard and I commentated on the race, twice on radio and once on TV. Then in April 2001, at the GP Demane, Jean-Marie Leblanc came to me. At the time, I was working for France Télévisions and it was my first year as a commentator. Jean-Marie came to me in the press room and asked to speak to me. He took me to one side and said: “I would have liked you to take over from me, to be the director of the Tour.” Before I could even respond, he added: “But Christian, it won’t be you because we have someone who is perfect.” I didn’t know whether to laugh or cry.
I thought that was the end of the matter but three years later, on April 12 in 2003, just before Paris-Roubaix, Jean-Marie returned and, under the stage where the riders await the teams’ presentation, told me that Daniel Baal would not carry on at ASO and invited me to join the Tour organisation. That day, April 12, is an important one in my life. It holds significance not just because of the conversation that I had with Jean Marie but because on the same day in 1992, La Cinq went bankrupt and 800 people were let go. I was one of them.
I’m often asked if it was a tough call to leave journalism and join ASO. After all, journalism was the job of my life. 56,337. That’s the number on my press card that now gathers dust in a lonely draw at home, but those digits will forever be ingrained in my mind. Becoming a journalist was one of the proudest moments of my life and I can still remember the day I traveled back from Lille to Paris after passing my written exams and knowing that I would be a journalist.
Those years in the press room defined me but it’s because of the Tour de France that I became a journalist and it’s thanks to the Tour that I’m here now. On that day in April 2003, as the teams gathered for Paris-Roubaix, Jean-Marie told me that he would stay on for a few more years and that was crucial in creating a stronger link between our eras. Without that, I don’t think I could have learned how to be the director of the Tour de France that I am today. Jean-Marie took me to every meeting, every lunch, every dinner and he taught me about the importance of the race - how it served as a link between communities and everyone in France.
In the first year under his tutelage, I did very little but Jean-Marie ensured that I learned everything that I could. He told me to get up at 5am to see how the race was put together, and stay up until midnight to see how it was all taken down and moved to the next town. It gave me a greater appreciation for the soul of the race and those that commit to its legacy.
In 2006 I was the ‘new guy’. It was intense, with everything that went on and, of course, I was still seen as a journalist by many. I knew everyone in the press room and at times Jean-Marie and I would have to escape press centers through special exits. And then I remember 2007, the riders applauding the huge crowds on Tower Bridge, and then how the mood suddenly changed a few weeks later when Patrick Sinkewitz was revealed as a positive test in Marseille from a control that was taken before the Tour. It was a baptism of fire.
What gets you through times like that is the knowledge that the Tour keeps moving forward. I’d have extremely tense and difficult conversations with individuals about doping, 10 centimeters from each other, and I would have to tell them that cycling didn’t need them. In those moments you’re trying to protect something. Doping was and is the enemy of sport and the love for the Tour goes deep.
I still have the same love, the same passion for cycling that I did when I was a young boy, listening with my father to the radio and Varenne’s voice. When I think back to those times I remember what it is I’m protecting and what it means to be part of the Tour de France. It’s the greatest race of them all, it’s the beauty of our country, linked together by every single roadside smile and excited child. Once upon a time, I was that child. Maybe I still am.