How sustainable is the Tour de France?

The Tour de France is the biggest race in the world, and it is still getting bigger. Rouleur asks if its growth, along with international cycling in general, is sustainable or even healthy in a changing world

Cycling, we all know, is going to help save the world, but only if professional cycling doesn’t ruin it first. The Tour de France, and professional cycling, is so bad for the environment that comparing it to the important and beneficial movement of encouraging cycling and active travel in our cities is like looking at two completely different things.

The list of contradictions is long, and obvious: fleets of vehicles following races: 150 in the Tour’s publicity caravan alone, each of which jettisons thousands of items of plastic tat at fans and on to the roadside; the sport flies thousands of people from place to place, week in and week out for nine months of the year, sometimes even twice in the same race.

At least F1 only has 22 races; the men’s WorldTour alone has 35. The sixth Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change warned in August 2021 that we must act immediately and radically to move to a low-carbon economy; even then, the IPCC states, it is almost inevitable that we are going to cross the threshold of having heated the planet to 1.5 degrees celsius above pre-industrial levels. 1.5 degrees sounds like nothing – to us it might be the difference between wearing a t-shirt and thinking about putting on a long-sleeved top. But globally, the IPCC projected that with 1.5 degrees of warming, there will be a four-fold increase in extreme weather events by 2100.

Millions of people will be exposed to deadly heat stress. The data is absolutely clear: human activity is adding huge amounts of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere, and that carbon dioxide is contributing to a global rise in temperature that will increase extreme weather events, make parts of the world uninhabitable and cause crop failures and food shortages which at best will drive up costs and at worst will induce serious famines. And in between the data, there are anecdotes and impressions which only add to the sense that things are changing.

2022 was the hottest Tour de France I can remember, hotter even than the mini-heatwave which hit the second rest day of the 2019 race in Nîmes, when I had to go back to my hotel room to have a cold shower, the only possible relief from the burning, burning heat (I love hot weather and can generally tolerate it well, but Nîmes was like an oven that year). That was only a few days, bookended by a rainy stage in the Pyrenees and then the tempestuous Alpine storms which set off landslides on the stage to Tignes.

Last year, the heat started as soon as the race left Denmark, and followed it pretty much all the way round France. In 2022, even the ski stations at altitude were hot; the stages in the Massif Central and especially the Languedoc and Dordogne, were torrid.

In Foix, with the press room set up in a metal-roofed sports centre, journalists set up tables outside in the shade, to avoid cooking in the oven-like interior; some, your correspondent included, went and found swimming shorts and gratefully submerged themselves in the cooling waters of the Ariège river nearby.

I’m still not sure if I dreamed it, but water tankers were deployed to douse the baking roads of the south of France to cool them enough for the riders to race on – not even the equivalent of a sticking plaster on a broken neck. If there had been any wind, the Tour organisers could have been accused of pissing into it, but there was hardly a breath – only a stifling, oppressive, roiling heat that did not let up for the whole three weeks and continued to roast France long after the Tour finished.

At the time, the television pundit Gary Imlach described the 2019 Tour de France, dramatically affected by weather conditions that profoundly changed the course of the race, as the first climate change Tour. Of course, weather affects every bike race – rain, wind and heat change the racing conditions and tactics in subtle or more obvious ways. However, the force of the Alpine deluges in the 2019 Tour unleashed landslides that significantly truncated the two biggest Alpine stages – the final showdown, in fact – when the race until that point had been finely poised, unpredictable and closely-fought. There has been no repeat of the landslides at the Tour, though the 2022 summer heatwave was followed in August by torrential rain and floods in the Pyrenees, so it would take a confident individual to predict that 2019 was a one-off.  

The Tour is a victim of climate change, but it is also a cause. Here’s a back-of-an-envelope calculation of the impact of an individual from the UK following the 2022 race from start to finish. Flights from London to Copenhagen, for the Grand Départ, from Denmark to Lille for the first long transfer and from Paris back to London at the end of the race would emit approximately 0.65 tonnes of CO2 equivalent (tCO2e, the measure of the carbon impact of travel).

Conservatively, accompanying the race using a car would cover at least 4,000km – this includes using the horscourse itinerary (the designated route from the stage start to the finish mostly avoiding the race parcours), the shorter transfers (for example from Calais to Lille, Longwy to Tomblaine etc – still an hour or more of driving), and a lowball average of 35km a day to and from hotels. There’s also the final 545km from the Rocamadour time trial to Paris. There are a few mitigating factors. Apart from the transfer from Denmark to France and that final day of driving to Paris, the 2022 route was actually fairly compact in comparison to many Tours, with most stages starting close to the previous stage’s finish. The longest horscourse route was 255km, between Rodez and Carcassonne and then Castelnau-Magnoac to Cahors, but most were fairly short.

The Tour encourages car-sharing, and has been in the process of transforming its own fleet into electric cars, and the organisers ASO claim on their website, “For almost 10 years, the Tour de France has been fully invested in an endeavour to make its organisation more environmentally responsible.” That’s the good news. The bad is that there are thousands in the Tour’s entourage.

The teams count riders, managers, chefs, soigneurs, mechanics and more, and often bring sponsors and guests out to the race, all travelling in a large fleet of vehicles, from the team cars to the mechanics’ trucks and team buses. The Tour itself has a small army of staff, marketeers, security, logistics, roadies and more. The press pack counts many hundreds, plus many hundreds more support staff, technicians etc. 

In and around all that, tens of thousands of tourists travel to watch the race. Some can walk down the road to get there; others fly around the world for their hit of roadside action.

The infrastructure of the Tour – the start village, thousands of barriers, the finish area and all that television equipment – needs to be schlepped around those 4,000+km. And the television aeroplane and helicopters spend the entire stages up in the air. This is all without even getting started on the plastics – the Tour’s nod to making the press room more environmentally friendly has been to go from small bottles of complementary water to large ones, the peloton still has not mastered the art of reusing bidons and the publicity caravan is buying and giving away junk that will biodegrade by some time in the 2500s. The Tour, in short, is catastrophically bad for the environment. So, therefore, are the Giro d'Italia and Vuelta a España.

Perhaps with fewer people following the races, and without the publicity caravan, they are less damaging than the Tour, but they still involve moving thousands of people thousands of kilometres. The Vuelta in particular came in for criticism for its huge transfers this year – one from the Netherlands back to Spain (about a quarter of a tonne tCO2e for the flight) and then a long internal transfer from the north Atlantic coast of the country all the way down to the southern Mediterranean resort of Alicante (about 900km by car) at the end of the first week.

The 2022 Giro held its start in Hungary, a two-hour flight (or 2,000km drive) from Sicily, from where it continued. The smaller stage races tend to take place in more geographically specific regions and involve a lot less distance travelled (though Paris-Nice covers quite a lot of ground) so their impact is less, though not by a huge amount, because people still need to get there. And even the one-day races aren’t off the hook – many of the spring Classics are held within a small area of Belgium and northern Europe and are therefore among the least environmentally damaging bike races, but the WorldTour does go all the way to Canada for just two events – the GPs de Québec and Montréal.

The Tour talks a good fight about reducing its impact. However, its actions are less impressive. A group of protesters from Dernière Rénovation (a French equivalent of Insulate Britain, who are putting pressure on politicians to make every home in France energy efficient) chained themselves together and occupied the road as stage 10 made its way to Megève. For their efforts, they were manhandled off the road by police and ASO staff, and Christian Prudhomme gave the protesters short shrift on television that evening. Ironically, the Tour’s message exactly chimes with the protesters; however, their actions did not.

The solutions that society needs to come up with for the climate crisis are going to involve radical and far-ranging changes to habits and attitudes. A sport is no different. Cycling is no different.  

The most common objection to suggestions of change involve whataboutery and fatalism. It’s true that aviation accounts for about 2.5 per cent of global carbon emissions (and 3.5 per cent of global warming). Therefore one person travelling by train instead of plane to the Tour de France makes an infinitesimally small reduction. Even if everybody going to the Tour de France travelled by train, or even by bike, to the race, aviation would still contribute about 2.5 per cent of global carbon emissions because in the wider scheme of things, the Tour de France’s contribution to that figure is a rounding error.

However, there is not one single thing that everybody can do to solve the climate crisis. It really is going to have to involve everybody doing quite a lot of things very differently, and each of these tiny percentage drops in carbon emissions will add up. It’s the only way, instead of pointing the finger in a different direction, at a larger and probably less surmountable problem.

Cycling is still going to have to make radical changes, and these will have to go beyond electrifying race vehicles and planting trees. The sport itself has been locked in an ongoing and largely fruitless discussion about the structure of the calendar for many years, for all the wrong reasons. But the bigger discussion has ignored the point that it would be sensible, possible and make a big difference if the number of stops on the professional circuit was vastly reduced. Races will have to be geographically sorted so that travel is minmised, instead of criss-crossing Europe and the world. (One irony of the Tour’s impact on the environment is that while ASO currently refuses to countenance moving its calendar slot from its coveted position in July, if the summers keep on getting hotter, it will have to move anyway.)  

This might all necessarily involve a reduction in the size of the sport and the races.  The sport has followed the modern capitalist tenet that growth is good, and that  growth can continue indefinitely. Whatever your opinions on that tenet, either in life or in sport, reality is going to intervene soon. A smaller Tour would, of course, on the  surface of it look less exciting than its current iteration. However, we can also start  a discussion about what a smaller sport would look like, how to incorporate parity between the women’s and men’s sides of cycling into that, how it can maintain its sporting intrigue and how it can sustain itself financially and ecologically.

The Dernière Rénovation protesters wore t-shirts proclaiming, ‘We have 978 days left’, an indication of how soon they consider radical action needs to be taken. The Tour and cycling may have a similar amount of time before making their own necessary changes.

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