The Tour de France is the biggest spectator sporting event in the world with between 11 and 13 million people lining the roads to watch the race each year. Cycling devotees will declare that its popularity is due to its longevity and place in the French culture, the popularity of cycling in Europe, the length and breadth of the multi stage race as well as the important fact that it can be seen for free.
But there is one thing that doesn’t get discussed when the popularity of Le Tour as a spectator sport is examined. You see not everyone is there to see lycra clad riders whiz by plastered in advertising. There is another drawcard, also plastered in advertising, which really gets the roadside crowds excited – the publicity caravan.
The publicity caravan is a 30 minute fiesta of free stuff. A parade of floats, the caravan is made up of sponsors of Le Tour who travel each stage route two to three hours before the riders and throw sample packs of lollies, chips and washing detergent, key rings, pens, fridge magnets and hats to a fanatical crowd. It is estimated that 11 million items are given away each tour with each member of the publicity caravan throwing 3,000 to 5,000 items a day into the adoring crowd.
The publicity caravan hardly rates a mention on the SBS coverage of the Tour de France. I think this is a shame. Just once I’d love to hear the familiar voice of Phil Liggett expertly commentating the caravan, giving us a bit of history on companies and telling us about the strategies employed to get the most free stuff.
The random assortment of hats, key rings and fridge magnets make unique (and free) souvenirs for the folks back home. But beware collecting free stuff can be a competitive and nasty business. Below are my tips to help you collect the most samples and get out of spending money on souvenirs.
~ Dance, wave and generally behave like a madman
You’ve got to get the attention of the people of the caravan somehow. Jumping up and down waving is the best way to do it. You’ll look like an idiot but take a quick look around you. Everyone else looks like an idiot as well. And as I’ve already mentioned, the caravan doesn’t make it onto TV so who cares?
~ Target what you want
Dance like a madman when the red and white checked Cochonou floats throwing out the mini salamis comes by. Who doesn’t want free salamis?
Turn your back and don’t make eye contact when the mobile phone float comes by. They’re not giving away mobile phones, or even key rings in the shape of mobile phone. They’re just throwing boring pamphlets about mobile phones.
~ Stay away from the kids
Pesky kids, all quick, nibble and cute, making you feel guilty for snatching that snack pack of chips off the road. If you have kids, be all means, use them as chip bait. But if not, keep away from them. They’ll get all the chips and lollies and you’ll be left hungry, clutching a leaflet for a mobile phone.
~ Split up
Hedge your bets by splitting up. The people of the caravan only throw one item at a time so if you are in a group you’ll be competing for the same item against each other as well as others around you. Split up and you’ll double your stash.
~ Don’t bother in Paris
I’m not sure if they weren’t allowed to throw samples in a major city or if, after 21 stages, they’d just run out of spotted hats, cow key rings and packets of Madeleines. But there were no goodies to be had on the streets of Paris.