The hardest slog in sport

In the late summer of 1944, soon after the liberation of Paris, two media magnates met in an office on the Champs-Elysées. During the occupation, Émilien Amaury’s advertising agency had printed clandestine Resistance newspapers. Now, with the war ending, his fortunes were hitting new heights. A Resistance member had recently cycled to his office and delivered 27 million francs in French banknotes, printed largely in Boston: Amaury, the son of a provincial roadmender, had been assigned the mission of financing the new postwar French media.

By contrast, the high-born magnate visiting Amaury’s office, Jacques Goddet, was in trouble. Goddet’s family newspaper, L’Autorenamed L’Auto-Soldat, had spent the occupation publishing a mix of Nazi propaganda and sport. The incoming French government had vowed to bury collaborating editors “in a common grave of national dishonour”. If Goddet was to stay in the newspaper business, he would need Amaury’s help.

Amaury established the power relationship by immediately borrowing Goddet’s bicycle. He then agreed to lobby the new government on Goddet’s behalf. “In return”, writes Alex Duff in this rolling but unsatisfying history, Amaury “would get a 50 per cent stake in L’Auto’s treasured asset – the Tour de France”. In a quintessentially French outcome, the Amaurys own the race to this day, defying every”anglo-saxon” attempt to buy them out.

The Tour, first raced in 1903, rapidly became a beloved mix of village fête, celebration of la France profonde and what Duff calls “probably the hardest slog in sport … perhaps the equivalent of running a dozen marathons in a month”. Doping was an accepted, even storied part of it from the start. Riders – who also drank a quart of wine for breakfast – ate amphetamines like candy. How else were you going to get up the mountain? The central role occupied in other sports by coaches was played in cycling by soigneurs, or doctors (sometimes horse doctors). It is no coincidence that the famous riders Fausto Coppi and Jacques Anquetil ran off with doctors’ wives. But throughout the twentieth century the doping remained relatively amateurish, brewed according to traditional recipes. Cycling drugs were “magic potion” as much as medicine.

The postwar French Communist Party was the first of many actors to try to grab a piece of the beloved Tour, but Amaury, though never much of a cycling fan, understood he was on to a good thing. His race lost money – the crowds by the roadside didn’t need tickets, and television hadn’t yet got going – but it boosted newspaper sales. During the “trente glorieuses” years of postwar boom, French media thrived, Goddet was rehabilitated and L’Auto was reborn as the popular sports newspaper L’Equipewhich Amaury would eventually take over.

Meanwhile, Amaury’s dubious wartime dealings were forgotten. His ad agency had played both sides during the occupation. He had clandestinely published Charles de Gaulle’s wartime speeches from abroad – cannily, after the war he handed the general a scrapbook of the cuttings – but he had also made money putting out posters and propaganda booklets for Vichy.

In 1956 Amaury and Goddet bought outright control of the Tour from the French state for 20 million francs (then about £20,000). To this day the state continues to oversee this piece of French patrimony: public roads are closed for the race and the president traditionally gives the winner a handmade porcelain bowl on the Champs-Elysées.

When Amaury died in a riding accident in 1977, he left behind only an unsigned, contested will written in green ink. The legal battle between his son and daughter was eventually won by the reclusive son, Philippe, who ran the empire quietly until his death in 2006, after which his widow and children took charge.

Along the way, like most good French things, the Tour had been discovered by the anglo-saxons. The Texan rider Lance Armstrong emerged like an American machine bulldozing French traditions, winning the race seven straight times from 1999 through 2005. Armstrong was a far more discreet and professional doper than his predecessors, but many suspected that he was cheating. The Tour’s new, more global following was less tolerant of doping, and cheats were constantly being exposed, often by L’Equipe. The family’s newspaper was damaging the family’s race, and the conflict of interest was unsustainable. Duff reports Philippe’s widow, Marie-Odile, telling her women in 2008: “I am fed up of doping stories in the paper”. After that the stories tended to be relegated to the back pages. Still, L’Equipe‘s long pursuit of Armstrong eventually helped to bring him down in 2012.

That summer Bradley Wiggins became the first British winner in the Tour’s 109-year history, after which his compatriot and teammate Chris Froome won the race four times. A century late to the starting line, British fans finally bought Lycra and switched on to the race in numbers. There has long been an underlying tension to the Tour – does it belong to France or the world? – and many in French cycling were snooty about the incursion.

Once the anglo-saxons discover something, they tend to try to monetize it. Almost everyone had a go at gaining control of a piece of the Tour: Rothschildof London, BSkyB, a gaggle of Armstrong-venerating venture capitalists in Silicon Valley, and still more exotically, the Chinese billionaire Wang Jianlin. Duff, who covered sports business for years for Bloomberg News, plainly reported on the various bids in real time, and he raids his old notebooks in detail here.

The problem – for both the bidders and for this book – is that the Amaurys wouldn’t even listen to offers. They had no interest in selling. The family appears to share the broader French sense of a national patrimony forever besieged by barbarians. Émilien’s self-effacing grandson Jean-Étienne, who now oversees the race with his sister, tells Duff in a rare interview that the Amaurys consider themselves guardians of the Tour. “The Americans,” he says dismissively, “think everything is for sale.”

There’s that, then there’s also the fact that the family has done very nicely out of the race since 1944. The model of Émilien Amaury’s business has been reversed: now it’s the media properties that lose money, while the Tour has become the family cash cow . The Amaurys have historically paid the riders only the crumbs from their table, often justifying this with grumbles about doping. Even after TV channels worldwide began buying rights to the race, from 1990 to 2010 the winner’s purse rose by less than the French average salary. Today a journeyman rider on the Tour might earn €60,000 a year. The teams rely on small-time sponsors and frequently go bust. They complain about being shut out of the Tour’s riches, but there isn’t much they can do about it: they can hardly boycott or abandon a race that represents as much as 80 per cent of the professional cycling economy.

And so the Tour remains the possession of a typically secretive French family company. The Amauris pay themselves millions a year in dividends and have increased the company’s financial reserves to €142 million. Neither flamboyant nor innovative, they are simply always there. Cycling, in short, has avoided the path of sports such as football, tennis and Formula 1, in which teams and players now practically monopolize TV money.

This makes Le Fric a book of two half. The first half, featuring the rise and rule of the Amaurys, is full of picturesque details plucked from French books and archives, or from Duff’s interviews. But the second half, in which each new bid is built up and then fails, fizzles. Duff spends too many pages pursuing the efforts of moneymen that ultimately came to nothing. The book always remains readable, but goes nowhere because the Tour’s ownership doesn’t.

Meanwhile, Duff underplays cycling’s economic shift from the obsession of a few bits of western Europe (above all, Flanders) to a modest niche sport in countries all over the world. Despite the demise of generations of Frenchmen who watched the race with Michelin guides to France on their laps, the Tour is ticking over nicely. Doping seems to have receded, or at least morphed from the life-threatening and eventually detectable ephedrine (EPO) of the turn of the millennium into safer micro-dosing and blood-doping. The race has recently even reversed its decades-long decline in France, benefiting from its retro appeal (and from the empty days of lockdown). Last summer a record 42 million French people watched at least a minute of their national odyssey. In the endless battle between modernity and French patrimony, the French surprisingly often win.

Simon Kuper is a Financial Times columnist and author of The Happy Traitor2021, Barça: The rise and fall of the club that invented modern football2021, and Chums: How a tiny caste of Oxford Tours took over the UK2022

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