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by Iain Treloar
July 29, 2019
PARIS, France (CT) – Warily, I eyed my adversaries. To my left: a middle-aged Frenchwoman with a deep haul of dish soap. To my right: a four-year-old girl in a polka dot t-shirt.
As I worked at some mental calculations, I arrived at a single, inarguable conclusion: I was not going to walk away from this particular standoff with my dignity intact.
The Tour de France promotional caravan has since 1930 served as a warm-up act for the peloton as it races around the French countryside every July. Through the 2019 Tour de France, it will distribute 15 million ‘gifts’ – although in most cases that term is rather generous – from 160 decorated vehicles and 31 sponsors. Sauce sachets? Promotional keyrings? Sweaty biscuits? Look no further.
Like many warm-up acts, the promotional caravan has its fans. In this particular case, on the Pau plateau next to the cathedral, those fans included my rivals for whatever crap might be dismissively thrown my way.
The lead motorbikes roared past, accompanied by the rude parp of horns and blare of klaxons. Down the road, hazy in the morning sun, a Skoda topped with an enormous smiling lion shimmered into view. Behind it lay a twenty-minute procession of gaudy floats, disinterested promo girls, pounding dance music and single-use plastics.
There’s something to be said for the magic of the caravan’s passage. On the roadside, fans wait patiently for the race to come by – in most cases for several hours, in some cases for several days. The caravan serves an important role as primer for the race, turning 30 seconds of riders whooshing past into an hour of steadily building excitement. It is the Tour de France’s hype man.
After four stages hustling for promo goods, sustaining minor injuries and emotional damage in the process, I’m proud to bring you the single most important story of the Tour de France.
Presenting the hits and (mostly) misses of the 2019 Tour de France promotional caravan:
1. Continental foam hand: A first-day item that I now accept as a rookie move, I snagged this on a very hot, sunny day on the basis that I hoped it could be fashioned into some sort of hat. It could not. Score: 1/10.
2. Skoda hat: Made of the cheapest, nastiest-feeling “100% low cadmium polyester” that I have ever encountered, this was caught with a skilful one-handed grab in Pau on stage 13. I don’t rate it. 2/10.
3. Amora hat: This lovely little number sits in an uncomfortable middle ground, brim-wise, between a baseball cap and a cycling cap. It also sits in an uncomfortable place, fit-wise, between being wearable and squeezing my brains out my ears. 3/10.
4. Amora sauce sachets (5x ketchup, 2x Dijon mayonnaise): At the top of the Tourmalet, deep inside the final 100m, I had my single most French encounter of the entire trip. As the Amora float rolled past, the promo girl looked out her portal, fixed me with a disdainful look, said “Voilà, prenez des sauces” (“Here, take some sauces”) and threw them with a forceful Gallic backhand into the dust at my feet. Item: 1/10. Delivery: 11/10.
5. Le Gaulois chicken magnets (x2): I am big enough to admit that I was much more excited about these when I thought they were stickers that I could deface our rental car with. 2/10.
6. Vittel tote: I’m a practical man with a love of the ludicrous, and as such, will be proud to represent Vittel, France’s least-drinkable bottled water, with this low-end shopping bag when I return home. 5/10.
7. Senseo playing cards (x2): Senseo are the official coffee sponsor of the Tour de France, shilling these weird round coffee bag things that taste like an old ashtray. Early in my caravan-chasing journey, I was happy to accept these Senseo-branded miniature playing cards. With a wiser head now on my shoulders, I would not make the same mistake again. 1/10.
8. Cochonou meat sticks: These tiny withered sausage nuggets are thrown at the crowd by, I’m told, the hardest-partying promo team in the caravan. When I first caught a bag of them, I thought they were dates. For the briefest moment, I was thrilled. Very soon after, I was not. -3/10.
9. Cochonou bucket hat: An iconic Tour de France promo item, I was only able to secure this item by also accepting seven bags of meat sticks from the promo dude. This was a low point, morally speaking, but did net me an unattractive hat that my daughter is very excited about. ¯¯\_(?)_/¯¯ /10.
10. Bic stationery: A welcome acquisition, on the basis of the fact that they actually have a purpose beyond landfill/a cheap punchline. These were collected from a float with an erect yellow biro on top of it, which was driving as fast as it could through Tignes, scattering a wake of mechanical pencils and pens behind it. 8/10.
11. Regional newspaper: As a non-French speaker, I cannot read this. Nonetheless, I have considerable respect for the gusto with which those on the newspaper float launch them at the heads of the crowd. Hard, fast, low and blinding. 11/10.
12. 21st Century real estate keyrings (x2): Allow me to explain these keyrings with an anecdote from Nimes. In the most fierce scrum for promo items I had yet encountered, where people were lifting children onto their shoulders like a kind of sacrificial offering and going properly berserk for flavourless isotonic powder sachets, these keyrings fell to the ground completely unwanted. 0/10.
13. Krys bucket hat: I do not wish to impugn the good people of Krys, an optometrist chain who throw oversized glasses and blue bucket hats from their vehicles. However, I will now impugn them a little bit by saying that on stage 19, they could not have given a single crap, and were throwing entire bags of 20 or 30 hats at people. One bag landed with a dull thud at the feet of the woman next to me. She then charitably passed them around, which is why I now have an unflattering blue hat in my possession. 2/10.
14. Continental buff: I will never wear this. 1.5/10
15. E. Leclerc polka dot t-shirts (x2): For a cheap t-shirt several sizes too large, I’m disproportionately stoked about finally getting one of these from the back of a vehicle halfway up Val Thorens. 7/10.
Anything else pictured: Irrelevant or boring to the point that I cannot be bothered writing about them.
Amidst this handsome haul, there were several items that I hoped for but was unable to secure. I will leave France with a lasting sense of regret about the following:
LCL maillot jaune keyring: This coveted item literally slipped through my fingers in Pau, where it was hungrily pounced upon by the father of a small child. My first miss of the Tour de France, but not my last: as the race progressed, I learned that I would need to be more ruthless in future.
Total Direct Energie hat: The white whale of my time at the Tour. Total Direct Energie’s float was miserly with its distribution: as far as I could tell, it would only throw hats to children and the extremely elderly. That strikes me as a flawed Direct marketing acquisition strategy for an Energy company, but given their team’s near-Total lack of impact in the race this year, we can assume that they have no problem throwing money down the drain.
Regional hat, Pont-du-Gard: At the depart of stage 17, in 40 degree heat, I noticed a lot of people wearing very fetching straw hats. Smitten, I asked a French colleague to acquire one for me. The exchange, I’m told, went something like this:
“Bonjour, where can I get some of these fetching regional hats?”
“We are running low and saving them for our VIPs.”
“But look at my friend; he is such a pale boy.”
“Yes, I agree, but we cannot help you.”
Vittel water: Vittel are at the tail end of the caravan, the final act before the curtain drops. They distribute water in two formats: by a hose with a mist attachment, and by passing it directly into the hands of the crowd as they drive by.
In the space of 20 seconds, I got squirted in the face, hurt my hand quite badly on a fence and fumbled the catch on a bottle of Vittel. This bottle then fell onto the road, was run over by the van’s rear wheel, and exploded extravagantly onto the family standing next to me. Sweet justice.
As the Tour de France started in Brussels, race director Christian Prudhomme found himself fielding some unexpected criticism. Under scrutiny: not the route, nor the race, but the promotional caravan.
About 30 French MPs, led by Francois-Michel Lambert of the French Green Party, had formed an anti-caravan coalition, denouncing it on two main fronts: quantity, and quality. (Fair enough, really). In a paper presented to Prudhomme, the MPs criticised the tacky nature of the gifts, and said that while they were “lovers of the Tour”, they were “even more in love with our countryside, our mountains”.
In response, Prudhomme outlined the steps that were being taken by the race to reduce waste, including removing plastic packaging from the t-shirts handed out along the race route, and banning – and I quote – the “leaflets, leaflets, leaflets, leaflets” that used to litter the roadside after the caravan passed by.
The Tour de France is not a green event. Hundreds of vehicles move with the route every day, transporting the infrastructure of the world’s largest annual sporting event across a country. Any environmental angst over the role of the Tour de France promotional caravan is justified, no matter if the amount of items scattered by the roadside has dropped by 3 million over the last two years. A lot is still a lot.
Even so… Packets of sausage!