2012 Tour de France – The Caravan

The LCL Yellow Jersey Car, signifying the start of the caravan.

A prominent part of the Tour de France tradition is the “caravan”: a steady stream of vehicles from Tour sponsors that drives the entire course to vomit handfuls of promotional gifts to the eager fans. After several hours of waiting on the side of the road, it’s a welcome shot of energy. Plus, you get free stuff, like keychains, neck pillows, baked goods, and laundry detergent.

According to the official Tour de France website, nearly half (46%) of attendees are there to watch the caravan of promotional vehicles; not unlike the Super Bowl where 55% of viewers (including 46% of male viewers) are on the couch as much or more for the commercials as for the game.

There were 46 minutes worth of ads in the 2011 Super Bowl, and it took about as long for the 320+ vehicle caravan to drive past, including at least 191 cars, 45 vans, 28 motorcycles, and 11 team vehicles. In addition, there were 45 vehicles that defied classification beyond having four wheels and a driver, e.g. motorized versions of a rubber ducky, hot-air balloon, and disposable water bottle, to name a few.

If the size of the caravan seems excessive, consider the fact that they drive the entire distance of the Tour−often over one hundred miles a day. It’s ironic that the largest international competition for a human-powered (and therefore carbon neutral) sport would have such a staggering footprint. But what do I care: I have enough key chains now to outfit a Japanese high school.

The Tour website states that each company invests about 200,000-500,000 euros into their presence in the caravan, which means multiple modified cars, promotional giveaways, attractive people to distribute said giveaways, and, I’d imagine, a crap-ton of gas. Remember that gas costs around $8 a gallon in France, and 15’ high stuffed lions aren’t known to excel in wind tunnel tests.

Most memorable vehicle? The Xtra detergent truck, modified to include an oversized aquarium containing Chippendales dancers wearing nothing more than very short shorts and safety harnesses (perhaps targeting housewives with bondage fetishes?).

Xtra Detergent Dancer

All promotional materials were well-received, from floppy hats to oversized polka dot jerseys. Least favorite was Teisseire who, in an attempt to market their line of fruity syrups, failed to find packaging that can withstand hitting the curb at 25 miles an hour.

There are no rules in claiming the free shwag and fans are notoriously audacious in their quest to increase their pile. Tom and I watched a young boy grab a keychain straight from the hand of an elderly woman after she leaned down to pick it up and, when the woman tightened her grip, the toddler continued to tug aggressively while looking his opponent directly in her eyes. The deadlock only stopped when the mother noticed about 10 seconds later, scoring a point for geriatrics everywhere. In an astounding act of magnanimousness, the woman politely gave the keychain back to the young boy, and any lesson the boy could have learned flew out the window.

Shortly thereafter, a man sprinted from five feet away to grab a promotional coupon that literally landed between my feet. Most courts of law would have recognized this coupon as mine based merely on proximity, but I also showed intent to take full possession as I was in the middle of swinging by expensive camera on to my shoulder while hunching over to pick the piece of paper up. Tom and mine’s jaw dropped as he victoriously rushed back to his family: clearly setting a great example to his young children. I dream of having the foresight to step on that coupon, with his fingers around it.

Take a look at the gallery below to see the volume and diversity of this vehicular spectacle (taking mostly at the Stage 17 as they approached the summit of Port de Bales, with a couple from the following flat Stage 18 in Castelsarrasin).