Town hopes to spin Tour profit

Small towns along the Tour de France, which ends Sunday in Paris, pay big money to host a stage.

Nobody anywhere focuses on the Tour de France so singlemindedly as Lance Armstrong, the American rider expected to win for the fourth year in a row when the race finishes on the Champs-Élysées Sunday.

But Paul Cinquint is almost as obsessed. When the tour starts its penultimate stage from this tiny winemaking village on Saturday morning, it will mark the fulfillment of an eight-year campaign to put his hometown on the map.

And while Mr. Armstrong is chasing a $340,000 winner's purse, along with the glory, Régnié-Durette has its hopes pinned on even more valuable earnings: the economic impact of unprecedented publicity for its little-known Beaujolais red wine, the source of the village's wealth.

Publicity is the Tour de France's middle name. The three-week race is the third-most-popular sporting event in Europe, after the Olympic Games and the soccer World Cup. French TV and radio give the race blanket, start-to-finish coverage. On Saturday, race organizers estimate, half a million spectators will line the 31-mile route of the time trial that begins in Régnié-Durette.

"This is going to be out of this world," says Mr. Cinquint, a winemaker himself since he retired from cycle racing. "There are so many new wines in the world, we get lost. We need as much media coverage as we can get."

The 2,100-mile Tour de France is more than the most grueling test of human endurance on the international sporting calendar. It is also a money machine.

"The Tour de France is our most profitable event of the year," says Philippe Sudres, spokesman for Amaury Sports Organization, the company that owns the tour and which also runs other major events such as the Paris Marathon and the Paris-Dakar car and motorcycle rally.

The annual race around France, a summer landmark here, earns more than half of the company's $65 million turnover on cycling events, according to Mr. Sudres.

Nearly half of that money comes from selling TV rights to the 75 stations around the world that broadcast the race. Another 45 percent comes from sponsorship deals that have allowed the tour to flourish.

A leading French bank, Credit Lyonnais, sponsors the yellow jersey that the overall tour leader wears each day. A big supermarket chain sponsors the red-spotted jersey worn by the leading mountain climber. Fiat, the Italian automaker, ensures that its logo is painted on the road at each finish line.

Those companies, and many others, also are allowed to drive their brightly painted cars, vans, and floats in a massive advertising "caravan" that precedes the cyclists along the tour's route each day, handing out hundreds of thousands of logo-laden pens, hats, sweets, and other goodies to spectators lining the road.

Fifteen million people – a quarter of the French population – turn out to see the tour each year, offering advertisers a vast ready-made and attentive audience.

"We see this as an opportunity to reach all the categories of our clientele," says Daniel Isaac, head of sponsorship for Credit Lyonnais, which has just signed a contract to sponsor the yellow jersey for another five years, at a cost of $4.6 million a year. "To be associated with an event like the Tour de France is very useful to us."

Ordinary Credit Lyonnais customers have to be satisfied with a Biro pen or a racing cap. Top corporate clients get better treatment. Each day, the bank flies in a dozen or so VIPs to watch the race from the comfort of a hospitality tent erected in the tour village near the starting line. On hand to help explain the subtleties of the race is Roland Poulidor, a veteran star cyclist who raced in the tour in the 1970s.

The US Postal Service, which sponsors Lance Armstrong, spent an estimated $25 million this year on a contract to sponsor his team for another four years.

And wherever the tour goes, it brings money in its wake. "It's amazing how many people come to watch," says Michel Audard, who owns the village grocery store in Régnié-Durette. "This is going to mean good business for the shops in town, and we are all on a war footing." Making the most of its moment in the publicity sun, the village – population 933 – has decked out its one street with flags, hung bicycles of vari- ous vintages out of windows, and planted the main square with red and white flowers in the shape of a cycling jersey.

Régnié-Durette has submitted applications to host a stage of the race since 1995, but geography and the town's small size – which enables it only to host a time trial – hurt its chances. This year, however, intense lobbying by Mr. Cinquint, a friend of tour director Jean-Marie Leblanc, finally paid off.

The honor of hosting the Tour de France comes at a cost, however. Régnié-Durette paid $46,000 to the tour organizers for the privilege, and has spent another $200,000 on boosting the village's electricity supply, installing new water sources, arranging several days of festivities, and advertising the event.

Most of the costs have been met by regional government bodies and by the local association of winemakers, who first had the idea of inviting the tour to the village eight years ago. "But making an investment like this means we have had to put off other projects such as road repairs," says village mayor Françoise Coquillion. "It was a choice we made."

It is a choice villagers do not think they will regret. "The biggest impact we expect is in future tourism," says Ms. Coquillion, who would like to see someone open a hotel in Régnié-Durette. Hosting the tour "costs a lot, but it's still cheaper than paying for straightforward advertising."

"We'll earn all the money back, I'm sure," adds Patrick Pechard, president of the Régnié winemakers' association. "When you think of all the journalists who are ringing me up now, you know, it's hard to communicate better than through the Tour de France."

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