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The Tour’s First Lady: Meet Marie-Odile Amaury

In-depth
12 Jul 2021
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Tour de France owner ASO is the most powerful private body in cycling. Boss Marie-Odile Amaury grants Cyclist a rare audience

Words: Maria David Photography: Antoine Doyen

Marie-Odile Amaury’s gaze casts significantly further than the view over the River Seine on the doorstep of her offices.

As head of the €450 million family business that bears her name, Groupe Amaury, Marie-Odile presides not just over newspaper L’Equipe but over Amaury Sports Organisation in its entirety – owner of the Critérium du Dauphiné, Paris-Roubaix, Paris-Nice, La Vuelta a España, Liège-Bastogne-Liège, La Flèche Wallone and the Tour de Yorkshire. And, of course, the Tour de France.

It’s a considerable remit for the businesswoman, especially given that she took the helm later in life after the passing of her husband Philippe from cancer in 2006. But with a degree in journalism from Strasbourg University followed by an executive career at Young and Rubicam advertising agency (now VMLY&R), Amaury was well positioned to take it all in her stride, with a little help from the family.

While Marie-Odile is chairwoman, her children Aurore and Jean-Etienne head up the main branches of Groupe Amaury – sports media and sports events, the latter stretching beyond cycling to encompass the Paris Marathon, Dakar Rally and events in golf and sailing too.

So while she isn’t exactly in the business of deciding how many times riders will climb Mont Ventoux (twice this year on Stage 11), Amaury monitors how events are developing.

Thus when the threat of last year’s pandemic raised the prospect of the Tour being postponed for the first time since the Second World War, Marie-Odile and the ASO weren’t going down without a fight.

Safeguarding the spectacle

First held in 1903 and managed since 1965 by the Amaury family, the Tour de France is firmly embedded in the French psyche, so as Marie-Odile explains, postponing the race in 2020 was simply not an option she could countenance.

‘For us the Tour going ahead was something very important for France as a whole. It was also important for sport – to show that a big event can still take place safely. And this was a big success for ASO. The managers did an extraordinary amount of work and they completely reconstructed the event so that the athletes could live and travel safely around France for three weeks.’

The race had to be completely revised and reorganised by the ASO team. Stage towns were reassessed and new measures were put in place to ensure rider safety, from curbing crowds to strict team bubbles to multiple tests across the three weeks: two strikes within a camp, even among soigneurs, and a team was out.

Mercifully this didn’t happen and La Grande Boucle beat a highly successful 3,484km journey around France in its rescheduled September running last year, providing one of the most entertaining editions in years as it went.

But with race guests being kept to a minimum, Amaury, who usually watches several stages, was only able to be at the Tour on a single day.

‘I visited just one of the stages because we had to avoid too many people mingling together, so I was at the stage at Île de Ré,’ she says. ‘It was really, really beautiful. We were lucky that the weather was glorious and sunny for practically the whole of the three weeks, and when I was there on Île de Ré off the Atlantic coast it was such a wonderful moment for me and for the Tour.’

Such moments have been numerous over the years, each imbued with its own special memories. However, for all the sweat-soaked time-trials, misty summit finishes and pretty island backdrops, it is the atmosphere around the stages, in particular the Grand Départs, that Amaury relishes the most.

‘I love the sight of smiles on people’s faces and the collective joy as they line the roads. You see whole families who live through the Tour de France with passion, and I think it is these moments that touch me the most.

‘We will always remember the Grand Départ in London, which was absolutely incredible. We also enjoyed the Grand Départ in Corsica, which was extraordinary, and the one that left from Brussels two years ago – it was a great moment to be leaving from a big cycling country. Absolutely extraordinary. It is those moments of enthusiasm and collective joy that I remember the most.’

Of course the Tour hasn’t always been chateaus and sunflowers, there have been darker clouds too. But of those periods, Amaury remains philosophical.

‘The tragedy is those who deserved to win during those years did not get the just reward for their efforts.’

Over 107 editions and counting, the Tour de France has produced some unforgettable moments from some golden riders. So as a paid-up fan, who and what have impressed Amaury the most over the years?

‘I will always remember watching Miguel Indurain descend at 100kmh, and I loved watching Marco Pantani, a magnificent climber. He was an excellent cyclist who illustrated the beauty of this sport – that’s to say, someone light with a compact frame while being very strong. The way he passed away was very sad.’

From the current crop of cyclists, Amaury is a big fan of Peter Sagan and admires his ability to animate a race. And perhaps strangely for a French cycling fan, she also holds out hope that Chris Froome will rediscover his best form and perhaps even make it into the illustrious group of five-time champions alongside Jacques Anquetil, Eddy Merckx, Bernard Hinault and Indurain.

‘I find Chris really courageous. He is very human, open and approachable outside of the race. I wish him the best for this season, as I think he deserves a bit of success in this late stage of his career.’

Like any French fan, Amaury is still waiting patiently to see bleu-blanc-rouge draped over the top step of the podium on the Champs-Élysées. While she roots for today’s crop of French riders such as Romain Bardet and Julian Alaphilippe, she remembers fondly the bygone era of Laurent Fignon and Bernard Hinault, the latter a personal favourite.

‘I was very proud of the achievements of Hinault but not just because he was a great champion. He was also a great leader; the best cyclist of his time and the boss of the peloton.’

The women’s share

In recent years cycling’s spotlight has finally begun to shine brighter on women’s cycling, in part due to efforts by organisations such as ASO. However there is still much work to be done, and Amaury is keen to keep women’s racing advancing.

‘The sporting world was masculine originally, though in some sports women have found their place quicker than in other sports. In tennis, for example, women have been recognised as elite athletes for many years.

‘At ASO we were a forerunner and have been organising women’s cycling races since 1998 with Flèche Wallonne, and Liège-Bastogne-Liège women’s editions running since 2017.

‘We also have regularly organised a one-day women’s race at the Tour de France [La Course by Le Tour de France]. By racing on the course before the men, they benefit from the crowds, the television coverage and all the infrastructure already there.

‘We have done that for Paris-Roubaix, and for a number of other races including the Tour de Yorkshire.’

An Amaury women’s Tour de France did actually take place between 1984 and 1989, with ten stages held on selected days over the three-week period.

After the first edition won by American Marianne Martin the race was dominated by France’s Jeannie Longo and Italy’s Maria Canins, with British racers Mandy Jones and Denise Burton also competing. However the race was ultimately deemed financially unviable, as Marie-Odile recalls.

‘Those races couldn’t use the infrastructure of the men’s Tour de France. We didn’t have the financial means to put that in place. If it had been successful we would have continued. I think the problem was that we wanted to go big with it immediately.

‘With La Course by Le Tour de France, we started from a more positive, sustainable base, where we could grow the event little by little. We are working on a women’s stage race and we hope to implement it in 2022.

‘Women’s cycling has made enormous progress in terms of the equipment, coaching and the number of teams. I really enjoy watching women’s racing and I think the riders are amazing.’

There is often a debate as to whether women’s cycling should mirror the men’s calendar, or whether women should have a completely independent racing calendar separate from the men’s schedule.

While Amaury is positive about the current races that ASO stages for women, she also believes that women’s racing needs to develop its own identity.

‘Women should try to create their own cycling world in order to develop cycling with their own rules and systems,’ she says.

As a woman who has cut her teeth in the corporate world over decades, Amaury has learned a few things about how to succeed in what has been a predominantly male world, and she finds parallels with the world of competitive sport.

She believes it’s important for changes to occur incrementally rather than trying immediately to mirror men’s cycling, and key to achieving this objective is to examine how the differences between men and women can actually complement each other.

‘I am convinced that women should be thinking in terms of men and women,’ says Amaury. ‘Men and women have different qualities, and we can reach the same place by working with our different qualities.

‘I believe very much in the agility of a woman’s mindset. Society is based more and more around service industries where imagination and agility prevail. Women can therefore contribute towards this.

‘Many women hold key positions in our company. We have many women journalists at L’Équipe and in many other functions.

‘In many sectors sometimes women create situations for themselves to reach executive positions, but they must bring their own assets. If everyone has exactly the same profile, that’s not fun. If you see a play at the theatre and everyone has exactly the same character there is no plot.

‘So in the world of work and sport there needs to be people with different attributes that complement each other. That’s what makes life interesting.’

To that end, for women wanting to succeed in business, Amaury offers the following advice: ‘Follow your own path and your ambition in a determined way, and don’t allow yourself to be dismissed by anyone.’

Golf, deserts and Paris

Away from corporate life you’ll typically find Amaury in the south of France, teeing off on a golf course. Or if it’s January, she’ll be watching exploits at the Dakar Rally, whose competitors she admires as they race up to 900km a day across the Saudi desert.

However when Cyclist meets her, it is the eve of the 108th Tour de France and her sole focus once again is cycling, her big anticipation centred on the Grand Départ from Brest.

‘My excitement for the Tour de France is just the same as ever. I really look forward to these three weeks crossing through France with its beautiful landscape in the valleys and in the mountains.

‘I love the cries of joy and encouragement from the spectators along the route as we celebrate the efforts of the racers, still hoping for a French winner on the Champs-Élysées.’

Read all about it

The rise of Groupe Amaury and the Amaury dynasty

1903: The first Tour de France  
1944: Editions Émilien Amaury is formed by Émilien Amaury, with a focus on print media  
1965: Editions Émilien Amaury buys L’Équipe, which includes ownership of the Tour de France  
1969: Marie-Odile Kuhn marries Philippe Amaury  
1977: Philippe Amaury becomes head of Groupe Amaury on the death of father Émilien  
1991: Amaury Sports Organisation sports events management company is formed and becomes Tour organiser  
1998: L’Équipe TV established  
2000: L’Équipe website launched  
2006: Marie-Odile Amaury becomes head of Groupe Amaury on the death of husband Philippe  
2015: ASO stages first Tour de Yorkshire  
2020: Marie-Odile’s daughter, Aurore Amaury, becomes CEO of Amaury Group and President of L’Équipe  
2020: Marie-Odile’s son, Jean-Étienne Amaury, becomes CEO of Amaury Group and President of ASO  
2020: ASO announces staging of first women’s Paris-Roubaix (postponed due to Covid)  
2021: ASO announces staging of Le Tour de France Femmes, a women’s stage race around France  

Origin stories

How a French army captain’s injustice sparked the Tour de France

At the turn of the 20th century, Alfred Dreyfus, a Jewish French Army captain from Alsace, wallowed in prison having been convicted of selling secrets to the Germans, despite new evidence of his innocence emerging.

A fight for his freedom ensued, and French society became transfixed by what became known as L’Affaire, with pro-republican ‘Dreyfusards’ on one side and pro-Catholic, pro-Army ‘Anti-Dreyfusards’ on the other.

When editor of Le Vélo, Pierre Giffard, published an article calling for Dreyfus’s release, it so enraged his anti-Dreyfusard advertisers that a large group left to set up their own newspaper, L’Auto-Vélo.

Giffard sued for copyright, forcing the new paper to become L’Auto. Either way, its recently installed editor was young cycling journalist Henri Desgrange.

With legal costs and dwindling sales leaving L’Auto on the precipice, Desgrange took up a notion suggested by sports writer Georges Lefèvre to set up ‘a cycling Tour of France’ – and sales duly exploded.

In 1940 another legal wrangle erupted; this time L’Auto was ordered to close in name, and L’Equipe sprang up in its place.

L’Equipe and its Tour de France assets were bought by the Amaury family in 1965. Alfred Dreyfus, meanwhile, was exonerated in 1906.