Now we know the power of the Wiggo effect. Back in 2012 when the Wigan wonder was riding high on his Tour de France and London 2012 wins, there was no question that we would ever back out of the chance to host a grand depart. Fast forward three years, Sir Bradley Wiggins is retired, and despite him also being British it’s safe to say that Chris Froome has failed to capture the imagination of the nation in exactly the same way.
Again we have had the chance to host a grand depart, only this time instead of before when the powers that be would have moved heaven and earth for the privilege, we’ve turned it down. Wiggo’s star has faded and taken the cycling sparkle with it.
Compared to Yorkshire, London’s enthusiasm for hosting its stage of the 2014 grand depart of the Tour de France was lacking to say the least. The build-up amounted to sending some poor bloke off around the spring classic races with a penny farthing and a pith helmet. Up north they were dying sheep yellow, painting pubs with polka dots and promoting the hell out of the event in the months leading up to it. If anyone had Tour fever, it was Yorkshire.
In terms of spectators, the efforts of the Yorkshire Tourist Board paid off. An estimated three million travelled to the hills and dales to get a glimpse of the action. Nothing of the like has been seen before or since.
The thing with cycle road racing is that it is by its very nature a free-to-watch event. You can’t charge people to pull up on grass verges and fold out a couple of deckchairs. The best you can do is hope they will buy their tea from a licensed vending wagon. This is what has made cycling a truly accessible sport - there is no other that will allow you to come within stroking distance of your heroes and then re-enact their efforts on the very same roads they have just travelled. To a football fan it would be like having a kickabout in the middle of the pitch at Wembley after the final whistle. Something that would have you stuffed in the back of a meatwagon before you could yell “foul!”
But people pay good money to watch football, they pay by the wheelbarrow full to watch rugby, tennis, in fact any other sport. Except cycling, unless they’ve forked out for the comfort of the hospitality area.
This is how, despite the vast numbers of people who visited Yorkshire in July 2014, hosting the grand depart still resulted in an estimated £1 million loss for Welcome to Yorkshire, the tourist board - £750,000 of that in unsold merchandise.
Welcome to Yorkshire warned of a deficit of more than £1m in 2014/15 “predominantly due to the unrecovered cost of delivering the Tour de France”. WtY said the costs came from promotional activity, TV coverage and the 100 day cultural festival, the latter of which you could in hindsight consider a bit excessive. Ten days might have been a bit more appropriate.
That loss was just for the organisers of the grand depart. Numerous others who foresaw a licence to print money ended up with their fingers burnt. It turned out people weren’t that bothered about forking out £50 to stay in a campsite serviced by a few speciality pork pie stalls. Spinoff festivals were under-attended, headline acts cancelled, losses stretched into thousands.
Which is at odds with other estimates of economic benefits surrounding the event. A report called Three Inspirational Dayspublished by Transport for London last December claimed that the grand depart generated more than £128 million of economic benefit for the host areas - £102 million for Yorkshire and £30 million for Cambridgeshire, Essex and London. In London alone the benefit was said to be £19.5 million. But when you scratch beneath the surface, you discover this survey was, as surveys sometimes are, conducted among 4,000 spectators and 8,000 volunteer tourmakers, and then extrapolated. There was also a survey of 700 businesses on the economic impact of the three days. With the best will in the world the results amounted to little more than an educated guess. And here’s the rub. This is a TfL survey, and it is the TfL which has just turned down the chance to host 2017, which is as good an indication as any that all this talk of a massive revenue generator doesn’t actually bear out in reality.
You could of course say that maybe they shouldn’t have spent so much on merchandise, and it is true that someone has some serious questions to answer on that score - it might be the biggest cycling event in the world but I know of no-one who would happily wear a Tour de France baseball cap or t-shirt or even cycle in a Tour de France jersey. The event might be wonderful but the brand is, essentially, a bit naff. I suppose I might find it a little nostalgic to drink my tea from a TdF mug, if I really felt the urge, but not at a tenner a pop. Oddly, the one thing that would have sold - a TdF cycling cap - was nowhere to be found.
So it really is no surprise there are warehouses filled with £750,000 of this stuff. Don’t overestimate a cycling fan’s fondness for toot. If they are the sorts prepared to stand by the side of a road for hours to see a peloton flash by in the blink of an eye, I’d wager they’re not the sorts to buy a souvenir hat, even if they could find their way to the merchandise stall at the local fanzone.
It is a shame that London turned down the chance to host the event, especially given the fantastic job they did at staging the Tour of Britain only a couple of weeks back, when the whole of the West End was closed to traffic and became in essence an enormous racing circuit. And lest we forget the 2007 grand depart. Granted it wasn’t the four-day carnival of excess they are these days, but four million spectators still turned out for it. London went mad for those events and does for other cycle events regularly run in the capital, and it would go equally mad for the Tour.
It’s also very bad form to win the chance to host the event and then turn it down at the eleventh hour. It could even be unprecedented. Aside from the fact that that Manchester and Edinburgh both lost out in the bidding fight leading up to London’s win, it leaves the capital on shaky footing for being awarded the event in future.
But with no chance of earning direct revenue from spectators you’re relying on them spending it in local shops. There is of course a tourism budget, money spent encouraging foot traffic to London, but perhaps the estimated £30 million it would cost to bring the TdF to London, most of which goes to the ASO, was considered a little steep. That’s the trouble with a free-to-view spectator sport, there are no gate receipts to offset the costs. Great for the public, not great for the host city or the budget it has to justify, especially when everyone seems keen on a garden bridge.
I am a cycling fan and a cyclist but I found London’s half-hearted efforts at stoking Tour fever last time round a little bit embarrassing compared to what was going on up the road.
In the absence of the Wiggo effect to eschew political sensibilities, there was never much chance of London hosting the grand depart again. And in all honesty, this time at least, we’re better off leaving it to Germany.
At least they can afford it.
This column first appeared on www.thetimes.co.uk/onyourbike on October 2 2015