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A day in the life of the Tour de France finish line

Josh Nicholls
7 Jul 2016

The logistical effort of transporting the Tour de France finish gantry between stages is a herculean task befitting of the race it hosts.

This summer it will be 28 years since a Dutchman last won a stage victory on the Champs-Élysées in Paris. Jean-Paul van Poppel took the win on the final leg of the 1988 Tour de France, and although his compatriot Dylan Groenewegen (Lotto-Jumbo) will endeavour to repeat the feat, it seems unlikely that the podium will witness a Dutch winner in 2016. But whoever crosses the line first in Paris, there is still a group of 30 Dutch people who will be celebrating as hard as anyone.

That’s because Dutch company Movico provides the iconic Tour de France finish gantry as well as various parts of the infrastructure behind the finish line. It is responsible for 26 facilities at every stage’s finish zone including commentary boxes, media offices, timing offices, grandstands and ceremony platforms.

Setting all this up means that on an average day at the Tour, work starts at 5:30am for the Movico team. Commercial director Stefan Aspers believes the task is as gruelling as the Tour itself.

‘It’s a hell of job,’ he says. ‘I always say to the team and everybody else that we ride our own Tour de France, although we do it with trucks. 

‘When we finally reach Paris without any serious damage or any accidents to our team, just like the cycling teams when they get to Paris with all the riders in good shape, we are happy.’ 

Movico also provides the same facilities at the Giro d’Italia, the Tour of Turkey, the Tour of Britain and the Tour of Poland. You’d think they would be so well drilled that erecting the finish zone would be a breeze, but Aspers says that the unpredictability of the Tour means the team faces a new test each day. ‘Every stage in the Tour de France is very different and so we are improvising every day,’ he says. 

Setting up at mountain stages often takes longer than on a flat finish because the gantries are assembled using a hydraulic system, which is trickier up a mountain due to the structures having to be levelled on uneven roads. But when pushed to recollect one particularly difficult day, Aspers utters the inevitable and now infamous word sequence: ‘Orica’, ‘Greenedge’, ‘Bus’. 

Last summer’s calamity in Corsica, where the hapless driver of the Australian team’s bus missed the cut-off time for passing the finish line and consequently became wedged beneath the gantry, still sends a cold shiver down the spines of Aspers and his colleagues.

Luckily the design of the finish gantry, which can rise to a height of 4.6m with a width of 12m, meant that the problem could be rectified, albeit after much confusion. At first the race organisers hastily brought the finish forward by 3km, only for them to then change their minds and revert to the original location.

See related: Tour de France roundup so far

‘The panel system with all the branding [directly above the finish line] which was damaged by the Greenedge bus is a flexible system,’ Aspers explains. ‘So actually we were lucky to have constructed it that way because it meant the complete gantry didn’t have to be moved, but only the panel system. I don’t know what would have happened if we hadn’t been able to remove the bus.’

Anyone present at ‘busgate’ can recall the chaos that ensued. Thomas Santraine, event project manager for Doublet, which sets up barriers, brackets, flags, pull-up banners and road markings at the finish, has vivid memories.

‘We were shocked at what happened, just like everyone there,’ says Santraine. ‘We quickly had to protect the area because we didn’t want the journalists to come too close to the bus, but it was a surprise to us just as it was for everybody else.’

Santraine works with around 70 staff during the Tour and the challenge of their task is hard to exaggerate. Doublet transports more than 50 tonnes of equipment to every stage of the event. This includes 2,730 square metres of floor graphics, 450 advertising barriers and more than 100 safety barriers used to section off the VIP and press areas at the finish.

A typical day for Doublet involves the staff splitting into teams with one team putting the 100m marker posts in place over the final kilometre of the stage as well as displaying the official Tour and sponsor logos at the finish line. Its aim is to display the logos so that they can be seen clearly by the camera behind the finish line and by the helicopters covering the race overhead. These logos are positioned differently depending on whether the stage is a mountain or sprint finish and are either painted onto the road or come in the form of giant stickers that are rolled onto the road by staff. Either way, the logos are removed from the road by Doublet at the end of each race. 

Another team is entrusted to find the best places aesthetically to display advertising barriers and banners over the final 30km, although fundamentally they must be positioned in places that can’t threaten rider safety. An additional team will set up the safety barriers for VIP and media areas behind the finish line, while the remaining team members will install advertising barriers stretching 500m on either side of the finish line. 

Every day for Team Doublet is a race against the clock. The finish area must be fully functional by 1.30pm, and on mountain stages this means work begins as early as 4am. 

‘Some of the most challenging stages are the mountain stages,’ says Santraine, ‘because they are made up of small roads with a lot of people on them, in very small spaces.’ 

But time-trials, although not as logistically challenging, are perhaps the ‘most difficult’ according to Santraine as Doublet must have everything in place an hour prior to the first rider’s arrival, which is usually between 10am and 10.30am. However, any problems that are caused by the characteristics of a particular stage finish pale into insignificance when Mother Nature is in a sour mood.

‘When it’s raining it is very hard for the staff because it gives us technical problems, especially with painting,’ Santraine explains. ‘Painting the sponsor logos on to the road in the rain is very hard. We have to protect the road, dry the road and then we paint the road. So it makes the work very hard and very long.’

Santraine recalls painful memories of working through incessant rainfall from midnight until the end of the race at the stage finish of the Pornic to Nantes time-trial back in 2003. 

Equally problematic for Doublet and indeed Stefan Aspers and his colleagues at Movico was the stage finish at Mont Ventoux in 2009 where gale force winds caused havoc as staff tried to prepare the area. 

‘The barriers were just blown across the road by the wind,’ Santraine says, ‘so the race directors decided not to install all the barriers and there were no advertising banners at that stage because of the conditions. The winds were maybe 90kmh to 100kmh, it was incredible.’

In more normal conditions, preparing the finish line still takes the Doublet team seven hours, while packing everything away after the post-stage niceties takes a more modest four. ‘It is like anything,’ Santraine says. ‘When you prepare your wedding day it takes a long time but cleaning everything up is quicker.’

Once their work is done, the Doublet staff returns to the coach where a catering team provides sustenance before they depart to the finish point of the next stage.

Aspers and his colleagues at Movico travel in the same way, only they get off relatively easily in comparison to Doublet, as they are usually ready to depart for the next stage within two hours of the last rider crossing the line. The finish gantry itself is deconstructed before being transported via truck to the next location and is the only one of its kind. Good job the Orica Greenedge bus didn’t do more damage, then.

Like any global sporting event, the Tour has a vast list of rules and regulations and Santraine spends much of his time ensuring all parties involved at the finish are satisfied and all safety regulations are met.

‘Part of my job is to provide sponsors with good visibility so I have people from marketing to check that all the logos are in place and a good distance from the camera,’ he says, shortly before going on to stress the importance of stopping distances for the riders at the finish. ‘On a flat stage – the kind when Cavendish wins for example – the stopping distance is 200 metres minimum.’ 

Santraine admits the work his staff takes on is strenuous, but in spite of the unforgiving nature of the weather, stage landscapes and work deadlines, not to mention the various rules Doublet must conform to, he insists morale among the staff is always good.

‘The work is really hard and physical but there is a big brotherhood between the staff. Most of them are young men between 20 and 23. Some of them become friends for years and years after the Tour de France. So it’s very nice to see guys working hard together in harmony.’

‘I really like this job,’ Santraine adds. ‘I tell my friends, “That’s my finish line.” It makes me very proud and very happy to see nice finish lines and nice places and I’m very proud to be involved in the Tour de France. For me it’s a job but maybe it is more than a job.’

Although the 2014 race will be the 11th Tour Santraine has worked on, he’s still very much in awe of the world’s biggest spectator event. 

‘Last year at Mont Ventoux it was just incredible,’ he says. ‘There were hundreds of thousands of people. Every day there are 10,000 people and everybody wants to be here. There are young men, old men, women, French people, people from Europe, Australians, people come from everywhere and it’s just incredible. That’s the magic of the Tour de France.’

It may be the Tour’s undeniable mystique that attracts the crowds, but without the often unheralded work of people like Santraine, Aspers and their colleagues, the great stories that unfold at the Tour de France would fail to have such a satisfying conclusion.  

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