Despite the challenges that the Tour de France faced in 2018, there are signs that the race is stronger than at any point in its history. The race’s media footprint still reaches across the globe. Its value has enabled parent company ASO to consolidate its power in cycling. And many of the sport’s biggest sponsors cue up for an opportunity to participate in the event. “Thirty years ago, the Tour was a very big French race in France,” said longtime journalist Francois Thomazeau, who’s covered nearly 30 Tours. “Since then, it has truly become a global event that draws in millions of people every day.”
The 2018 Tour de France may be remembered for the controversy which swirled around Team Sky, and for the smaller crowds and dip in TV ratings. But by nearly every metric — from those same TV ratings and crowds, to sponsor engagement and the quality of the field — the Tour still towers above every other cycling race on the calendar.
Jonathan Vaughters, who has long fought to change cycling’s business model, said that when he pitches potential sponsors, he promotes his team’s media metrics from the Tour de France.
“From a media impressions standpoint, the Tour dwarfs everything by a huge order of magnitude,” Vaughters said. “[Other races] are not even close. The Giro is only 10 to 20 percent bigger from a media impression standpoint than we get with Paris-Nice or the Dauphiné.”
That almost monopolistic stranglehold on the sport’s center of gravity has been an ongoing and sometimes bitter debate for generations.
Teams still grumble about the Tour’s dominion over the sport and unwillingness to share in the riches it generates from television revenue. Critics say as popular and profitable as the Tour is now, it could be even more so if ASO embraced a more integrated business arrangement with the larger cycling community.
Until Madame Marie-Odile, widow of ASO founder Émilien Amaury, decides to sell the privately held media company, that likely won’t change.
And ASO has adopted an aggressive strategy for expanding its reach, thanks to the Tour’s success. Over the past decade, ASO has purchased — and saved — such races as Paris-Nice, the Critérium du Dauphiné, and the Vuelta a España. ASO holds marketing agreements with the Santos Tour Down Under and the Amgen Tour of California. It also has expanded into profitable new markets with Britain’s Tour of Yorkshire and the Arctic Race of Norway.
This summer ASO also revived the Tour of Germany in an effort to tap into cycling’s biggest European market. The acquisitions are made possible by ASO’s revenues from the Tour de France.
Within the pro peloton, the Tour still reigns supreme. Success or failure at the race makes or breaks a rider’s season. It’s so important, in fact, that teams now regularly choose either a sprinter or a general classification rider, where in years past teams often brought both.
“The Tour is our big global event in cycling,” said Mitchelton-Scott sport director Matt White. “The Tour has a different feel than other races. The Tour is the event that put cycling on the map. Of course, every team or organization wants to win the Tour.”
The allure of the Tour even helped BMC Racing survive. When longtime manager Jim Ochowicz, who previously ran 7-Eleven and Motorola, faced sponsorship woes at the end of the 2018 season, he leveraged his most powerful asset: A ticket to the Tour de France.
With his WorldTour license in hand — a guaranteed entry to the Tour — Ochowicz struck a deal with Polish shoemaker Dariusz Milek, who has bankrolled the CCC-branded team for nearly two decades. Despite racing the Giro d’Italia and other major races, Milek never got an invite to the Tour. Ochowicz’s WorldTour license and its invaluable access to the Tour sealed the agreement.
“Sponsors want to be in the Tour de France,” Ochowicz said. “They wanted to go with a WorldTour team. There are only 18 of them. [The license] helped close the deal.”
The inspired Tour founder Henri Desgrange might have been lucky that he thought of the grand tour formula first. Beyond chance, though, the Tour de France is still the race that fuels professional cycling and defines what stage racing is all about.