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The Tour de France is unlike almost any other sporting event in the world.
It covers more than 3,000 kilometers every year with thousands of race staff, teams, and media chasing it around France for three weeks. That doesn’t even account for journeys to accommodation, restaurants, and the estimated 12 million spectators that travel to watch on the roadside.
All that helps to keep the Tour on the road for three weeks every summer, but it also has a big impact on the areas it passes through. While it might feature a very eco-friendly activity, the Tour de France has received a lot of heat over the years — and rightly so — about its negative environmental impact.
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The Tour de France cannot ignore the changing world we live in. It has witnessed it first-hand with a July hailstorm effectively deciding the outcome of the 2019 race.
From carbon emissions, clogged up roads, and discarded litter, race organizer ASO has a big task on its hands to tackle its own environmental impact, but it has started to make changes for the good.
“The Tour de France is the third [major] event worldwide,” Karine Bozzacchi, the woman in charge of sustainable development at ASO, told VeloNews. “We have the Olympic Games and the FIFA World Cup before us, but we have a different footprint because we have no stadium. Still, we have to improve and work on ways to reduce our carbon emissions.”
ASO plays its cards close to its chest when it comes to its carbon emissions and it refuses to publish the findings of a 2013 report into it, with Bozzacchi saying that it would serve no purpose to do so.
It’s not alone in keeping its green credentials out of the public eye, and the recent report into the environmental impact of the Flanders world championships was a rarity. It was estimated that the Flanders event produced 2,292 tonnes of CO2 — equivalent to 1,380 return flights between Brussels and New York.
There is some data out there for the Tour de France, but it has been accumulated by outside sources. A study by the University of Cardiff, in the UK, analyzed data for the 2007 grand depart in London. It estimated that 2.85 million fans watched on the roadside, traveling an average of 734 miles (1,181km) to do so.
According to the report, the ecological impact was 2.2 times greater than if they had gone about a normal day.
Fixing the vehicle problem
Changes are afoot at ASO and it has committed itself to improve, signing up to a charter supported by the French Ministry of Sport and the World Wide Fund for Nature along with 12 other French sporting events in 2017.
The first step on its eco push is a swap to alternative fuel for its large vehicle fleet – which means electric, hybrid. or biofuel vehicles — that should be completed in the next two years. However, the length of time it will take to achieve carbon neutrality is not yet known.
“Everybody wants to be neutral, but we have to be realistic on the schedule,” Bozzacchi said. “In 2024 we will have 100 percent of vehicles with alternative fuel, and then we’ll have another period, probably one to four years after, to be carbon neutral. You look at the carbon footprint and the biggest emissions come from transport. We move with cars so it’s difficult to reduce the emissions in a very short time.”
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ASO has already started moving towards alternative fueled vehicles and operated three fully electric cars during the 2021 Tour de France, one of which was race director Christian Prudhomme’s car. While it hardly makes a dent in the hundreds of vehicles in the ASO fleet, running even just three posed some challenges.
With most vehicles still running on more traditional fuels, finding a plug-in spot to charge up an EV is no mean feat. While charging spots can be found in most major cities, the charm of the Tour de France means it visits small towns and villages in rural France.
To deal with the challenge, ASO had a van containing EV charging points drive around with the race. It needed its own engineer as it had to be hooked up to France’s power grid before it was useable. Scaling up the operation to cover an entire fleet would be a huge task, and probably unfeasible at this stage.
In addition to changing power sources, there have long been discussions around reducing the number of support vehicles at a race. While those conversations have been primarily centered around safety concerns, it would also lessen the environmental impact.
One suggestion that has reared its head several times is replacing cameras or the helicopters that help to relay images, with drones. However, Bozzacchi doesn’t believe it would be a good swap and is looking for other methods to achieve ASO’s goals.
“It’s not the same [TV] image with a helicopter and with a drone,” she said. “As it’s not possible for the moment not to have helicopters we’re working with [Hélicoptères de France] to find the greenest fuel. New fuels are arriving for planes and helicopters, so maybe in the next two or three years, we’ll have helicopters working with biofuels. We do this kind of work with everybody. We ask everybody to think about new technology and see how they can reduce their emissions.”
Bazzocchi added that it was unlikely the Tour de France route would be drastically changed to enable more people to attend using public transport. ASO wants to bring the race to as many people as possible as well as creating a dramatic parcours, and effectively eliminating a large number of places would hamper its ability to do that.
“We have to find the good balance because if we just choose towns with a railway station we will be only in big towns and the Tour de France is not that,” she said. “You will see that every three or four years we try to go everywhere in France, so we must have transfers.
“We also have the sporting part. You have suspense in the mountains and when you have wind, but some parts of France are not so good for the sporting part. We have to find a balance between them.”
More garbage, more problems
It’s not just emissions that the Tour de France — and other organizers — needs to address to reduce its environmental impact. The mountains of garbage that come along with an event such as the Tour is mindboggling.
While there are no proper estimates as to how much is produced on a daily basis — local authorities deal with what is left by fans and it’s usually chucked in with the rest of the garbage — Bozzacchi says that about two tonnes are collected from the start and finish each day.
She estimates that 67 percent of the waste collected from each start is recyclable, while it’s about 56 percent from the finish. That’s still a lot that can’t be recycled.
One of the biggest producers of trash is the pre-race caravan. If you’ve never been to watch the Tour de France on the roadside, it is the fleet of sponsor vehicles that drive ahead of each stage, blaring music and throwing goodies out to roadside fans.
This traveling circus has long garnered the ire of environmentalists with an estimated 15 million freebies thrown into the crowds at the 2019 race. That year, a group of 30 French legislators wrote an open letter to ASO asking it to tackle what it called the “Tour du Plastic.”
Many spectators show up just for the caravan and the names on each of the vehicles pay the money needed to keep the race alive, so it is a difficult task for ASO to address. It is making changes, but there will be many that think it is still not far enough.
“We asked the publicity caravan not to use any more plastic. Three years ago we said stop you can’t use plastic anymore for the packaging,” Bazzocchi said. “We’re not against plastic always, sometimes plastic is good. I’m sure you have Tupperware in your house and if you use it for 10 or 15 years it’s good. So, it’s single-use plastic that is forbidden in the publicity caravan.
“Only the brands that have foods can use it. For the bottles, for example, with Vittel we work every year to improve this part with them. The problem is that it’s a brand that only uses bottles and they said that for the quality of the water it must be closed in a bottle when it is taken from the source.”
Other changes have been made to reduce the trash problem with the race’s road book — the guide to everything one needs to know about the Tour de France — now being made available in a digital format, and VIP bracelets have also gone digital.
Many of these changes are being rolled out to ASO’s other events, such as Paris-Nice, the Critérium du Dauphiné, and the one-day Ardennes races.
There is no doubt that the Tour de France is making changes to its habits for the good, but only time will tell if it is doing enough.