The logistical miracle that is the Tour de France, run by XPO Logistics

TV Truck2.jpg

In the world of sport, there are three major events the world tunes into en masse: the Olympic Games, the FIFA World Cup, and the 105-year old Tour de France. Only the latter occurs annually, making it a logistical feat of unsurpassed complexity. To give you a sense of how big the event is, an estimated 3.5 billion people from 190 countries, or close to half the world’s population, will watch parts of the 21-day race.

If you’re a sporting fan and ever wondered how the largest bike race on the global calendar magically moves seamlessly from stage to stage every day, then look no further than North America’s largest logistics company, XPO Logistics. Following the $3.53b acquisition of France-based 3PL Norbert Dentressangle in 2015, XPO assumed the role of logistics provider for Amaury Sport Organization (ASO),  which owns, designs and organizes top international sporting events including the Tour de France.

The Norbert Dentressangle acquisition expanded XPO’s global footprint with an additional 44,000 employees, 8,000 company-owned trucks plus an extensive network of 3,200 owner-operators and 12,000 independent carriers. The ongoing race in 2018 is XPO’s 38th consecutive year partnering with the Tour de France, transporting approximately 350 tonnes of race equipment over 167,000 miles with a dedicated sporting event team of 55 drivers who operate 46 trucks. According to XPO Logistics in Lyon, France, the XPO team is made up of mostly the same drivers each year (one driver is marking his 20th tour) and spends about five to six months preparing for the event. XPO hauls materials such as the race start and finish villages, safety barriers, podiums, gates, furniture, sound and video equipment and merchandise from sponsors. The needs of the race are so humongous that XPO has one truck assigned just to haul the paint used in the design of the race finish line.

“The Tour de France is a thrilling challenge for our team, and we’re proud to once again serve as the event’s official transport provider,” Luis Gomez, managing director–transport, XPO Logistics Europe, said. “We have been supporting this event for decades, and every year the excitement is palpable. Our role behind the scenes is vital to making the Tour a success and ensuring that the athletes can give it their best.”

In addition to the 176 riders, 44 team cars, 22 mobile bike workshops and team motorcoaches, seven ambulances, six aircraft, two helicopters and one radiology truck, the 46-truck XPO fleet is accompanied by an additional 100 trucks that haul the production village adjacent to the finish line each day. This mobile village of catering trailers, outside broadcast trucks, generators, TV edit vans and mobile studios takes up approximately 10 acres of space.

Of the 4,500 people who work behind the scenes marking the course, providing security, building the start and finish lines and managing TV broadcasts, there about 1,500 technicians running an estimated 37 miles of cable for the mobile TV screens and broadcast trailers for race commentators. If you look closely at the finish line, you’ll see a row of 40’ white pop-up trailers which transform into studios for the 90 commentators who call the race live on 68 radio networks and 94 TV channels. Look even closer as riders fly under banners during each stage, such as the green sprint or king of the mountains sections, and you’ll see either a red or white XPO truck and/or trailer parked right next to it. XPO drivers are also responsible for the setting up and breaking down of various signs within each stage.

This entire village, plus numerous race signs enroute, must be broken down after each stage and then transported overnight to the next location. That could be as far as 140 miles away on winding rural French roads.

For the truck drivers and their support crew, their day begins around 5 a.m. when they start to build everything, including the arrival zone and technical zone for the day’s race. Every day, about 30 people are tasked with setting up fences that run to around 2,000 and 3,000 feet at the finish line, and then they take them down at approximately 5:30 p.m. when the race is over, between which they try catching up with some long overdue rest. For the caravan workers, their days are grueling and begin early with float cleaning and polishing before each stage. They are also responsible for loading their floats with boxes of XPO-supplied merchandise handed out every stage.

As soon as the race concludes there is a scurry of activity for four to five hours where all trucks are loaded before their scheduled departure at around 9:30 p.m. as they haul the freight to the finish line of the next stage. The night-shift drivers usually arrive by 1 AM, which gives the support crew an opportunity to sleep before quickly unpacking trailers and building a new finish line and production village. This process is repeated over the course of 23 days with only two rest days, with XPO playing a central role in ensuring that hundreds of extremely tight delivery times are met over weeks of intense activity.

For the 29,000 police officers and firefighters who line the route, and the 10 to 12 million fans who spend on average 6 hours 30 minutes waiting patiently for just a 20-second glimpse of riders as they fly by at speeds up to 35mph, there is another side to the race that involves big business, sponsorship, marketing, and entertainment.

According to the Tour’s official website, 47% of race fans come primarily to see the “Publicity Caravan” which precedes the race at each stage by about 3 hours. It’s a 45-minute parade involving 160 festive vehicles representing 33 well-known brands. It spans between 9 and 12 miles, winding its way through every mile of 2,200-mile event.  As fans wait for the race to arrive, the 600-strong group of entertainers and sponsor employees blast music and toss into the crowd some 16 million promotional items: hats, t-shirts, key rings, food, toys and lots of other things. It’s not a place for the faint-hearted as fans jostle to grab trinkets and assorted freebies.

According to ASO, caravan sponsorship packages range from $17,000 to around $1.2 million, with the big money reserved for Tour partners. In 2018, global partner companies include Kawasaki, PowerBar, BIC, Tissot, and Continental who spend anywhere up to $4 million for the event. In addition to revenue from Tour merchandising and licensing, television rights account for the largest revenue stream, with sponsorship ranking second overall.

The Tour’s official website letour.fr provides additional exposure for sponsors, with close to 40 million unique visitors each year. There are also another 6.4 million social media followers on Facebook, Instagram, and Twitter.  

In a country that loves its cycling and where one-sixth of the population line the roads of the 105-year old Tour de France for three weeks every July, it truly is a case study in entertainment, marketing and human endurance. But it’s also a study in logistics and supply chain management.