Popularly known as la Grand Boucle, the Tour de France is a sporting phenomenon like no other. The race takes place over a three-week period in July, when more than 12 million spectators line the route to watch. And for free. Onlookers wait for hours, often only for a glimpse of le peloton as it speeds by. For many though, it is la caravane publicitaire they have come to see. In fact a recent survey found that almost half of the roadside spectators at a stage of the Tour de France are there for the publicity caravan, not the racing. Each day the caravan precedes the race creating a carnival spirit whilst dishing out three quarters of a million of worthless gifts from zanily decorated vehicles advertising products as diverse as butane gas and dried sausages. Children and adults alike scrabble to pick up the cheap advertising souvenirs.
The notion of including a publicity caravan originated in the 1930s with the aim of generating additional funding for the Tour. At that time various brands and services were advertised by cutout sign boards attached to standard vehicles but over time participating companies began to approach coach-builders asking them to create eye-catching customised vehicles; more akin to carnival floats. BIC, famous for the BIC Cristal ballpoint pen, has been involved with the Tour since 1952. In 1953 the company commissioned the architect and product designer Félix Aublet to design a space-age vehicle promoting the ubiquitous product. Built around a Renault 2.5T small truck, the plexiglass and sheet metal superstructure resembled a rocket-powered biro with alarming looking “booster rocket” pointed pens attached to either side of the cab. Nowadays the floats must adhere to stringent safety tests and technical considerations.
The planning and logistics of operating the Tour is immense. Each day roads have to be closed off and towns and villages made inaccessible for a period of time until the Tour entourage has passed by. The publicity caravan sets off each day from the respective starting stage town two hours before the riders. 170 vehicles form the complete cavalcade representing 35 brands, with the 12km convoy taking 45min to pass the excited roadside spectators. In all 600 personnel are associated with the caravan – including drivers, “hostesses”, distributors, and mechanics.
The 2017 Tour de France starts in Düsseldorf on July 1 and ends with the Champs-Élysées stage in Paris on July 23.