You can dissect any part of the Tour de France and inevitably you’ll find it steeped in tradition. The French are a passionate people and they have respect for the way things have always been done. That is part of the reason we still see the phenomenon that is known as the Caravan, well, that and the fact that big money is involved!
The Caravan is the collective name for the horde of publicity floats, cars, trucks and of course, caravans, that roll along the race route each day, before the race comes through. According to the official TdF website, the Caravan begun in 1930 when the then race director, Henri Desgrange, became frustrated with the hold the various cycling brands had on the race. To break their domination he made the cyclists all use the same equipment, and race for national teams, as opposed to corporate sponsored ones. A great idea - but this left the corporates out in the cold, and no sporting event can survive without some sort of support from the fat cats. To get around this Desgrange came up yet another novel idea. Desgrange encouraged cars and bikes and other various types of vehicles covered in marketing messages to drive the route before the race, for a fee of course. And so, the publicity caravan was born.
It was not until the 1960’s that teams were again allowed to be sponsored by companies, but by that time the publicity caravan had become a part of the Tour de France that was just as important as the iconic yellow jersey or the Col de Tormalet. Fans now lined the streets in their tens of thousands not just to see the race, but to see that spectacle that is the Caravan. Children eagerly await the goodies that are thrown from the floats, and adults get a kick from the colourful and imaginative floats that pass by.
And of course there are many tales associated with the publicity caravan, some true, and some are extravagant embellishments of events that may or may not have happened; but all add to the romance of the Tour. For example, there is the tale of the French accordionist, Yvette Horner, who entertained the crowds as she sat atop her Peugeot van and played her typically French café-style music for many years in the 60’s, and who became such an icon that she was given the prestigious responsibility of awarding the yellow jersey at the conclusion of the days racing. And unfortunately there have even been a couple of deaths associated with the caravan, like that of Melvin Pompele, a seven year old boy who was struck by one of the vehicles in the caravan when he ran out onto the road.
Nowadays, the publicity caravan is an integral part of the Tour. The caravan provides an essential revenue stream for the Société du Tour de France, and the spectacle makes the event a more attractive drawcard for tourists, which is beneficial for the French economy.