Tour de France caravan: The longest parade

The longest parade

Inside the Tour de France caravan

Photos by Iri Greco | Brakethrough Media

Words by Caley Fretz

A set of harnesses keeps four bankers from falling out of an open-air float as it twists through deep canyons on the southern edge of France’s Massif Central, rolling past swaths of screaming fans with their arms raised in pleading frenzy.

The bankers, employees of Cofidis here at the Tour as a sort of bonus, are dressed in bright red hats and bright red shirts, sunglasses perched on noses and gobs of sunscreen slathered on tan shoulders, standing over boxes of trinkets and gizmos and cheap hats. The boxes must be empty by end of this stage, the 13th of the 2015 Tour de France.

This is not the their normal attire; this isn’t their normal job. There’s very little that is normal about the Tour de France caravan.

Those who have not seen the Tour caravan in person may find it difficult to understand the allure. It’s just a parade, right?

It is, but on a scale untouched by anything else on earth. It’s a parade that covers 3,360 kilometers, every last meter of the Tour de France route, passing by millions of fans, throwing 14 million tiny trinkets and gifts; a parade that represents, directly and indirectly, a significant portion of Tour organizer ASO’s revenue.

The caravan is a 45-minute string of vehicles, each modified and decorated by advertisers, that rolls ahead of the Tour peloton. It was founded in 1930, conjured up by Tour founder Henri Desgrange, conceived originally as a way to pay for the organizer-supplied bicycles riders had to use at the time. Its commercial success was immediate, and has never waned. It is mostly a parade of young people, paid a nominal sum to smile and wave and throw keychains and hats. Most of the floats are manned by high-schoolers and university students. The workers on this Cofidis float aren’t on summer break, though. All are employees of the French bank. For one week, they get to step out of their suits, onto a float, and in front of the Tour.

The job is not difficult, but it is strenuous. The days are long, under hot sun and cold rain and even a bit of stinging hail this year. The caravan does not stop for weather; it barely stops for the call of nature. This float has no roof. There is no escape. All four of the workers on the back develop a deep tan, the sort that was surely sunburn a few days ago.

Days begin early. Every inch of every float must be cleaned and polished. The boxes and boxes of gifts the bankers will throw to fans, which are trucked into the caravan’s morning meeting place every day, must be loaded onto the floats and prepared for dispersal.

Personal preparation is taken seriously. Bandanas are wrapped around foreheads, tied tight, as if their wearer is headed into some sort of pop-infused battlefield. A jazzercise routine begins, growing organically as the workers of various floats wander over and join in. Everyone knows the moves as the group limbers up to the melodies of Katy Perry.

Then, rollout. Usually about two and a half hours before the racers set off. The caravan builds the start-town crowds into a frenzy, blasting out the summer’s catchiest anthems as it rolls through the city spraying hats and keychains in every direction.

The schedule is tight. The caravan must move fast enough to avoid being caught by the peloton — that would be disastrous — but slow enough to keep roadside fans happy. The pace is relatively consistent except for the unavoidable bottlenecks on climbs and in small towns.

The music is repetitive. The same song, or few songs, played on a loop, summer anthems booming out of massive speakers. Everyone wears ear plugs but there is no real escape. Every fan gets a smile and a wave and a dance, so the workers are smiling, waving, dancing for 200 kilometers every day.

When at full steam, the caravan is 12 kilometers long and takes 35 minutes to pass by. Over 600 people fill 160 floats and 13 motorcycle cops provide security.

The floats vary from conservative to absurd. Most are elaborately decorated truck beds, the sort Americans are used to seeing at Fourth of July parades, only built to a slightly more robust standard to handle the 3,400-kilometer journey.

There is a fleet of Citroen 2CVs (how they get over the Alps and Pyrenees is a recurring mystery) that throws, on average, one package of Cochonou saucisson every seven meters over the entire route. There is the iconic LCL lion, mounted on a glorified go-kart and driven by a man in a motorcycle helmet situated in the big cat’s crotch. There are the Vittel water bottles, complete with caravan workers wielding enormous misters they aim at sun-soaked crowds.

Fans have favorites. A navigator, sitting in the main cabin, calls out over the radio when a Cofidis fan is spotted on the side of the road. Their loyalty is rewarded with a barrage of keychains.

When polled, 47 percent of fans on the roadside of the Tour de France said they came to see the caravan. Based on the Tour’s own fan figures, that’s somewhere between five and 10 million people lining France’s roadways for the parade, not the peloton.

For the roadside fans who sit for hours under the hot French sun for just a few seconds of racing, the caravan is as much a part of the experience as the race itself. The caravan certainly lasts longer. It sends fans home with something from the Tour, a free souvenir for which crowds jostle and elbow as if the cheap one-size-fits-all cap or branded keychain were a home run baseball. In their hands is a piece of the Tour de France, a piece of the spectacle.