Yellow jersey wearer Andy Schleck dropped his chain on the Port de Balès, Alberto Contador attacked and wrested the maillot jaune from the Luxembourger’s shoulders, and the debate surrounding race etiquette raged over the following days. Leaving town the next morning, I considered myself lucky to have witnessed such a memorable stage in person, one that put this Pyrenean climb on the history map.
Something else struck me as we drove to the top of the glorious Port de Balès and approached the empty plateau that had thronged with thousands of spectators the day before. The place was a complete and utter tip. Rubbish blew across the gorse and grass as far as the eye could see. Drinks cans and discarded publicity caravan material stayed resolutely in place beside the road, piled high in some places, thoughtlessly tossed away in others.
Environmental issues may be a relatively new concern for race organisers, but this was a horror show – shameful behaviour in one of the most stunning locations in Europe. Cyclists are supposed to appreciate the countryside, right? What was the Tour doing to the planet?
We returned in 2018, not to the same climb, but to the nearby Tourmalet and Col du Portet, in search of rubbish. This is the story of how there was none to be found – not so much as a carelessly discarded crisp packet, Coke can, or punctured thunderstick (those intensely irritating inflatable noise-clacker things) was in evidence. What happened here? And when?
Karine Bozzacchi from ASO is tasked with environmental strategy on the Tour, working with a team of nine to co-ordinate the colossal amount of refuse generated over the three weeks. My experience in 2010 seemingly coincided with the beginning of the race organiser’s efforts to clean up their act.
“We’re happy you can see the difference on the route, so it’s really nice,” she says of our observations. “In 2008, we started working on this part of the rubbish management. Ten years ago, the behaviour of the public was different, so we’ve needed to work on raising awareness, putting in place certain systems. And over the course of, let’s say eight years, it’s really borne fruit.”
On the Portet last year, barely half an hour after Nairo Quintana had stormed by, followed by dribs and drabs of the peloton, with Mitchelton-Scott’s Michael Hepburn bringing up the rear, we walked back down the mountain to assess the situation. Bin bags on metal stakes, placed at regular intervals on the narrow switchback road to the summit, were half-full, to be collected soon after. The grass verges and surrounding meadows were spotless as nature intended. Thousands of race fans had departed without leaving a mark, many taking their rubbish with them. The awareness-raising done by Bozzacchi and her team was clearly having an effect.
“We try to educate a lot more than before,” she says. “And thus, when you have the facilities in place and the people aware of them, it works well. So it’s a lot tidier than it was on the roads of the Tour.”
ASO work with individual départements on the route whose responsibility it is to ensure refuse collection and recycling on their turf. Start and finish towns receive extra attention, with thousands of rubbish sacks provided by the race organisation. Mechanics are always cited as working the longest hours on cycling teams, but the last to leave a stage finish town will be Bozzacchi’s crew, “to make sure it’s been left clean and tidy after the passage of the Tour”.
One impact we didn’t get to witness at Portet was the publicity caravan, parked at the ski station below us due to the narrow snaking switchbacks of the newly-surfaced climb. What about those stupid thundersticks or whatever they’re called? Bozzacchi is one step ahead of us.
“There was one year we had a company giving out les clap-claps,” she says, using the rather endearing French label, “those inflatable batons that make a noise when you put them together, and they were plastic. And at a certain moment, when they deflated, the public left them on the ground and they stayed there. So the next year, we banned this kind of product on the Tour.”
Excellent news for environmentalists and curmudgeons alike. But surely there is a multitude of other plastic packaging thrown to the roadside as the caravan wends its way around France? A work in progress, Bozzacchi tells us, with advertisers being persuaded to use recyclable packaging when possible, and ensuring the message gets across to the general public.
“It’s all a work of education that starts already at the Grand Départ because we have a representative in almost all the meetings around it, informing people to respect the environment, the rubbish charter that we’ve put in place – how to behave on the roadside of the Tour. So it already starts through our teams raising awareness and has evolved; we see full well that the public behave so much better now than ten years ago.”
The peloton, of course, has its own part to play. TV images of bidons and gel wrappers being tossed willy-nilly into hedgerows do the sport’s image no good whatsoever. The Tour introduced zones de collecte seven years ago, positioned following feed zones, to lessen the impact of the passing racers and their discarded detritus. The forward-thinking, recently-retired FDJ rider Jérémy Royplayed a partintheir introduction. Team cars are also provided with bin bags and riders are encouraged to leave their trash back with the support vehicle. Bottles, of course, are not so much of an issue.
“It’s true that we’d rather they throw them where there are spectators, as it’s a trophy for them: one taken from a Tour de France rider will never sit at the side of the road. People fight each other to grab them. So we’re not worried about them being left. But when you’re in the mountains and chuck it into a ravine, no spectator’s going to be going after that.So we try to make them aware.”
Finally, carbon footprint, offsetting, reducing vehicle emissions – three big subjects that require urgent attention. A study of the 2007 Grand Départ from London to Kent by Cardiff University estimated attendees travelled a total of 870 million miles, with 59 per cent of them arriving by air, expending a total of 100 million kilowatts of energy on their accommodation – scary numbers. And that was just the first two days of a three-week race. A 2013 estimate put the Tour’s total carbon imprint at 341,000 tonnes. There is clearly a long way to go. How does ASO intend to tackle these problems in the coming years?
Bozzacchi tells us they have been working with the Centre National de la Propriété Forestière [CNPF] on carbon offsetting at Mont Ventoux, for starters. Carpooling is being promoted to “reduce the gigantism of the Tour”. Skoda hope to have an electric car suitable for Tour usage in the next few years, while the publicity caravan is gradually moving over to hybrid vehicles.
All steps in the right direction, then. As ever, more could be done, and quicker, but these are good initiatives with solid intentions. Following years will show how serious ASO are about greening the Tour. A work in progress.