The Tour de France has changed a lot since 1997, but one thing has remained constant – the welcoming smile of Nathalie Desmarets.
Desmarets has charted a 24-year journey with the Tour, transitioning from working on the caravan and as a podium hostess to her current role managing the VIPs and sponsors for Trek-Segafredo.
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Cycling runs through the veins of Trek-Segafredo’s hospitality manager. Hailing from a family of racers in Lille, France, and growing up around bikes through the 80s, Desmarets’ two-decade cycling career is as much an inevitability as a conscious choice.
“I grew up in cycling, so my father, my mother, my grandfather were all riders. I grew up in the bike shop – cycling was always in my life,” Desmaret told VeloNews.
“My father was a professional rider with team Bic, and my mother raced before women became professional. I remember nothing but bikes, all my life. It is something special to me – I don’t know life without it.”
Desmarets, 43, forged her way into the Tour’s traveling circus with a role on the back of a truck in the publicity caravan – waving at roadside fans, throwing sponsor tchotchke to expectant families as they lined the roads of the nation.
Pre-COVID, the Tour would draw some of the biggest crowds of any sport as the home nation celebrated what is a three-week festival of all things French. For many, the carnival atmosphere of the caravan was just as big a draw as the peloton following behind.
The adventure and excitement were ideal for a 20-something Desmarets, who was working what was one of the first jobs of her long career inside the Tour de France.
“Getting a role on the back of one of the vehicles in the caravan was really big for me – I knew cycling and it was my passion, but I was just a normal person,” she said.
“Seeing a lot of people on the road was super because the people are there to see the riders for sure but the caravan on the Tour is super important too. And for me, it was perfect.
“I was young, I got to travel and see France in the summer, it was good.”
From podiums to VIPs
Desmarets soon transitioned to working in the Tour’s start and finish villages, a smiling face that circulated among crowds and awarded winning riders on the post-race podium.
Desmarets’ role as a “podium girl” has come under scrutiny in recent years, and the pair of young women handing out winner’s trophies have become a thing of the past. Racers taking to the podium are now congratulated by both a host and a hostess.
At the time, the Tour’s hostesses were just as much a part of the race as the yellow jersey and Champs Élysées. Desmarets said she saw getting the gig as a privilege.
“It was an honor to be a hostess back then, it felt big for me. They don’t judge you only on your physique, you also need to be smart. They choose you on your whole personality and for sure this was an honor to get the role,” she said.
“I didn’t see anything wrong with hostesses. There were always hostesses in every sport, it was normal, it wasn’t seen as sexist.
“But for sure is nice also to have men and women. We are the same, we are there to work and so it’s really important.”
After several years as a hostess, Desmarets transitioned to overseeing guest and sponsor hospitality for the race, setting up hotels, transfers, and entertainment for the attending VIPs and backers. It was a position that led to her also working with the Giro d’Italia, Vuelta a España, and the Rolland Garros tennis tournament.
But cycling and hostessing are where Desmarets’ heart remained during her flirtations working with other sports, and she joined the Trek team in 2013.
For many years, Desmarets worked a similar role with the US-registered squad as she had occupied at the Tour, caring for sponsors and high-profile guests.
“I love the challenge of working in hospitality. I need a challenge in my life,” she said. “And it’s part of my character – I like to look after people and speak with them, make them welcome.”
Changing times, changing circumstances
Desmarets has been forced into a different role at the past two editions of the Tour.
The COVID era has put an end to teams and organizers inviting sponsors and guests to the race, and so Desmarets’ work with high-profile guests has been put on pause.
Instead, she operates in the middle-ground between the team’s protective bubble and the outside world, working with team chefs to ensure fresh produce is available at hotels and picking up the array of wildcard tasks that have become difficult now that the team has to minimize outside contact.
From her early role in the caravan through to life on the podium and managing VIPs, Desmarets’ work has been as ever-changing as the race itself.
Race podium ceremonies are altogether different, budgets are bigger and the stakes are higher. The Tour has pivoted from a wandering party to a multi-media, big-money business vehicle.
Desmarets has witnessed the race’s slow evolution, but also barely noticed it.
“The atmosphere is different for sure but because I get older, maybe I don’t see the difference as much. But for sure it’s more and more about sponsors and more money. But we need the sponsors, and luckily we have them – not just in the team but in general in cycling,” she said.
“But for me, the Tour de France has always been exceptional, something really special. Everything is different now, but I still love my work, I love this great race.”