Christian Prudhomme 2006
In the long term, the years 2005 and 2006 could well come to be seen as a watershed in the evolution of the Tour de France. Most obviously, 2005 marked the end of the Lance Armstrong era, a period which covered seven Tours and culminated with the establishment of a winning record which is unlikely ever to be matched.
Perhaps even more importantly, however, 2005 marked the end of another era; the last Tour directed by Jean-Marie Leblanc, the man who had overseen the race’s development into a 21st century sporting behemoth that now ranks alongside the Olympic Games and World Cup. The process of mondialisation was already under way when Leblanc took over in 1989, but that year, Greg LeMond’s dramatic victory, provided fresh impetus.
At that point, the race was in dire need of proper management due to its rapid growth through the second half of the 1980s. Suddenly, everything seemed to be spiralling out of control, from the size of the field to the number of daily awards and the quantity of cars and “followers” in the caravan. Leblanc was the right man at the right time, with his calls against “gigantisme” – the threat that the race might simply grow too big for itself – and his awareness that the Tour needed to be safeguarded as a sporting event rather than a media circus.
This July, Leblanc will still be on the race, overseeing the smooth transition to his successor, Christian Prudhomme, a 45-year-old who appears as genial and relaxed as Leblanc, even if it is unclear whether he shares his predecessor’s penchant for brown beer and trad jazz. The process of finding the man to succeed Leblanc has not however, been easy. The man initially groomed as the next organiser, the former French Cycling Federation president Daniel Baal, did not fit the bill and left.
Most importantly, like every long-standing Tour organiser before him, Prudhomme is a professional journalist. The race founders, Henri Desgrange and Geo Lefevre, ran the newspaper l’Auto. Desgrange’s successors, Jacques Goddet and Felix Levitan, were the editors of, respectively, l’Equipe and Le Parisien. Leblanc, for his part, was the head of cycling at l’Equipe under Goddet.
“I feel I am following in their footsteps, even if that is a pretentious thing to say. The boss of the Tour has always been a professional journalist, and I’m aware that that counted for something when Jean-Marie and Patrice Clerc made their choice.” There is an important twist, however: all Prudhomme predecessors were print journalists; Prodhomme put in a brief stint at the northern newspaper La Voix du Nord, but he came to the Tour in late 2003 straight from a post commentating on the Tour for France Television.
Sceptics would say that is only appropriate at a time when television has overweening importance for the Tour. Prudhomme would agree, but without the scepticism. “It’s a logical evolution. The written press created the Tour de France and other bike races. Radio made them popular but today the media that has enabled them to grow is television. The Tour de France is not merely a competition but a massive televisual spectacle.”
“My first memory of the Tour as a boy is of a spectacled rider in the middle of the crowds; I didn’t know at the time but it was Jan Janssen winning in 1968 in the final time trial that finished on the Cipale track in Paris. But my father listened to the cycling coverage on the radio – he would listen to everything there was on France Inter – so I have so many memories of the voice of Luc Vhaerens the Belgian commentator. As for me, I listened to everything I could as well as a boy, and I also have a bit of paper from my father, on which he had written down the result of the 1936 Tour.”
Leblanc is celebrated in France as the man who has kept the Tour on an even keel, and there are unlikely to be any dramatic changes. But the Tour organisation’s recent attempts to galvanise the UCI and World Anti-Doping Agency in the fight against doping are a departure, and Prudhomme will keep moving in that direction.
“I’m here because when I was young, cycling racing made me dream. Anything is possible in the Tour, as long as the backbone, the sporting side, is respected. What’s important for me is that young fans can continue to dream. Doping is part of the way sport is, everyone understands today that it’s not limited to cycling. It has to be fought, because for me, cycling with doping has no interest. This is a sport of relative values, where what matters is the combat between the competitors.”
He accepts that the allegations published last summer about Armstrong are unlikely to be resolved. “We knew on August 23 that it could go no further. There has been no satisfactory answer to what was published in l’Equipe. Armstrong is a sporting phenomenon, it’s a complicated matter and he cannot simply be reduced to a walking chemist, but there is a big question mark there which is very frustrating.”
The Tour organisers have come into conflict with cycling’s governing body, the Union Cycliste Internationale, in two areas: anti-doping and the newly formed ProTour series. The ProTour dispute looks set to be settled after an agreement was reached through the intervention of team sponsors.
As for the anti-doping spat, with the UCI annoyed at the Tour’s call for WADA to carry out more random tests, that should die away now that the governing body and the anti-doping agency have buried the hatchet. Prudhomme is keen to make it clear that the Tour’s appeal to WADA was not an attack on current anti-doping measures. “We just hoped the message would be heard, so that there is no doubt surrounding the champions,. Cycling is a sport like any other, and should not be a sport where people think everyone is doped.”
Continuity would appear to be the Prudhomme watchword; he says he is not looking for the status quo, but neither will there be any revolution. “I simply hope the Tour can make people dream, I want us to be able to go where we want, revisit the climbs and mythical places.” And Prudhomme dream for this year? “I want a less calculated race, I hope it will be a bit crazy. There will be a big questionmark at the start and I want it to remain over the race as long as possible.”
This article first appeared in Cycling Plus in 2006