If you’ve never been able to attend the Tour de France in person it’s very likely you’ve never heard of the “caravan” that is a big part of the daily events, especially for children. On each stage of the tour a huge convoy of trucks and cars, all decorated and branded by the sponsors of the tour, come rolling through town about one to two hours ahead of the cyclists. In every town and village locals line up along the roads in anticipation of the treats, trinkets, samples and promotional items which are thrown from the moving vehicles. The crowds go crazy as the caravan moves through and everyone jumps, dives and runs for the little goodies that soar through the air. It’s a lot of fun, though to be honest, most of items are pretty useless. Still, it’s a traditional part of the Tour de France and I’ve been to at least one stage where there were more people waiting for the caravan than the actual tour itself. In fact, a study in 2013 revealed that 47% of the spectators came mostly to see the caravan, not the tour.
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A Little History
We probably have the tire manufacturer Wolber to thank for the Tour de France caravan. During the 1924 tour they began to offer the public postcards with advertising on each of them. This is the first known instance of a company using the tour for advertising purposes. By 1929 Lion Noir shoe polish, Bayard alarm clocks and Menier chocolates were also getting into the game using unofficial vehicles to market their wares and services to the fans lined up along the roads.
It was in 1930 that advertising really began to find an official foothold in the tour. Henri Desgrange, one of the creators of the tour and the director for over thirty years had always resisted the idea of advertising within the tour during the early years. However, seriously in need of funding, he finally agreed to allow advertising vehicles in the 1930 edition of the race. That year Menier distributed over half a million chocolate bars to fans and even cups of hot chocolate in the mountain stages.
In 1937 Joséphine Baker promoted French bananas along the roads of the tour and in 1948 Ricard made caps, ashtrays and other items to give away. In 1935 25 vehicles participated in the “caravan.” By 1977 that number had grown to 107 and in 1979 to 155. In 2004 the caravan was up to twenty kilometers in length, taking over 45 minutes to pass through each town and village. It was estimated that over eleven million “gifts” were distributed from 42 different brands. Despite the enormous popularity of the caravan (some people follow the tour from one stage to the next just for the caravan) for safety reasons the management of the tour decided to reduce the number of vehicles from a peak of 219 in 2006 to 180 in 2013.
The 2020 Caravan
This year I was able to experience the caravan three times: in Aspremont, Saint-Martin-Vésubie and here in my hometown of Vence. Each time was a lot of fun, but the one in Saint-Martin-Vésubie was by far the best.
On the first day of the tour I stationed myself in Aspremont. This was an unusual stage and the peloton was going to make three loops through the hills behind Nice. I wanted a spot where I could see it come through each of the three times and Aspremont seemed like a great place. It’s a wonderful little village that I have been to often on my bike. Because of the unusual nature of this stage (the loops) the caravan did not come before the tour as it usually does, it came in-between the second and third loop. Screaming and cheering crowds lined the road as the vehicles came around a sharp turn. I spent my time taking photos and didn’t really pay much attention to what was being thrown from the cars and trucks but I’m here to tell you that the spectators certainly did. They take this very seriously and everyone was scrambling for every little tidbit flying through the sky.
On the second day of the tour I was in one of my very favorite villages of France, Saint-Martin-Vésubie in the mountains at the edge of the Mercantour National Park. I was there very early because the roads were closed over five hours before the tour was scheduled to come through. Early in the morning a couple of trucks from Cochonou, a famous French brand of sausages set up camp at the center of town right next to the road the cyclists would be coming through on. These guys promptly started handing out samples to everyone passing by. About a half an hour before the caravan was due to come through (and everyone knew exactly when that was going to be) people started lining up next to the barricades along the street to get into a good position. Two Cochonou employees went into the street with bags of samples and started to whip the crowd into a frenzy. They started with sausage samples encouraging everyone to make as much noise as possible and rewarding those who did with the treats. The kids were having a blast screaming and chanting, “Cochonou, Cochonou, Cochonou” at the top of their lungs. Soon they moved on to passing out hats and that really got everyone going. Teasing the spectators with the hats they managed to get the entire village shouting, waving their arms and generally behaving as if they were about to receive large sums of money. When the caravan came through shortly after this the crowd was at its peak and they made a LOT of noise with the passing of each vehicle. It really was a lot of fun.
On stage three of the tour the route came right through our home town of Vence. By now, I knew exactly what to expect and Carole and I invited some of our friends who were tour “virgins” to come with us to see the caravan before the tour. We had a blast. We had a great spot along the road and tons of stuff was thrown our way. Carole and I got bags, candy, sausages, pencils, luggage tags, hats, magnets, cookies, cashews, keychains, crackers and more. But, my favorite was a very nice Tour de France branded mask that I was able to score. It really is amazing how excited people get when you offer them anything for free! Most of these little items aren’t worth a damn and if they were lying in the street most people would probably pass them by. But, hey, tell them they are free and make it so that only some of the people are going to be lucky enough to get them and people will go nuts.
If you’re lucky enough to attend a stage of the the Tour de France make sure to get there early enough to experience the caravan. You won’t regret it. There’s just no telling what wonderful items you might walk away with.
The caravan precedes every stage of the tour. It usually arrives about one to two hours before the cyclists. You can find detailed information about the estimated arrival in every village along the route on the official Tour de France website. Look under “Route” and then under “Time Schedule” on each of the stages.