The Ultimate Job: the madness of the publicity caravan

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The journey through France continues for our Ultimate Job winners, Matt McCullough and Stefano Ferro. On day five the pair headed to the start of stage 15 to take in all the excitement and atmosphere in the town of Tallard.

Tallard is a small village so while the start area was awash with fans, everything being relative, we had easy chances to see the riders up close and moving slowly as they rode up to sign in.

They’re all toothpick arms and whippet-thin as you’d expect, but it gave us a moment to reflect on how all athletes are formed by their pursuit over years of focused dedication. It was as if many of them had come out of the same mould.

No doubt they’re all competent and able off the bike at a variety of other tasks but the phrase “wouldn’t survive in the wild” came to mind … unless the wild included acres of tarmac and some form of pedalled transport. Yes, I am just jealous.

Our route to the start area took us through the carpark where the whole publicity caravan was firing up for another day on the road ahead of the peloton. The Tour is, of course, a business. This has always been the case as it has its roots being a marketing vehicle for the newspaper L’Auto at the beginning of last century.

The beginnings of things matter — those threads form the warp and weft, influencing its development at every turn and so it is with the Tour. If it had not been so blindingly successful at selling papers it may have never lasted. The feats of the cyclists could be written about in highly dramatic prose, playing out an epic serial over the course of the race resulting in huge sales and an enduring history.

Over the decades its founders and controllers have been open and unapologetic about changing the race rules and conditions for reasons purely based around economics and marketing reach, often influenced by the changing media landscape as radio and the television developed.

So, given it’s a business, selling access to the hundreds of thousands of fans along the race route is not surprising. What is surprising, at least the first time you encounter it, is how much a part of watching the race the publicity caravan is and how much passion it stirs.

Hours before the riders arrive the caravan will pass through the race route, blaring music, throwing merchandise and animating the thousands of fans who have been waiting hours, or days. Those fans will go to desperate measures to secure any of the material being hurled into the crowds.

I’m new to this but Grace from Bikestyle Tours gave us a quick run down on the more coveted gear you can claim. Top of the list is a big green hand — check the footage as you’re watching the Tour and you’ll see them everywhere — it’s a thing.

The promotional floats come in as many flavours as there are brands being promoted – everything from Vittel trucks spraying water to the Amstel watch ‘car’ – I didn’t see any watches being thrown, it has to be said.

It’s all spectacle and fluff and madness and completely impossible not to get swept up in it, leaping for small plastic trinkets or questionable snack choices like your life depended on it.

The Tour demands surrender not cynicism. It’s too big, too deep and too old — if you want to experience you do so by soaking in it. Commercialism is a part of the fibre of the event so jump for those lollies, distract that small child from the goodies nearby and risk everything to get a green hand — if you’re not at the race for a green jersey.

More from Matt & Stefano

– Day 0: The Ultimate Job begins!
– Day 1: Conquering Alpe d’Huez
– Day 2: Having a moment on the Col du Glandon
– Day 3: An interview with pro photographer Mark Gunter
– Day 4: First contact with the race and climbing the Col d’Izoard

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