Opinion: Tour de France: the sporting event that comes closest to promoting environmentalism and sustainability, but not close enough


Tour de France 2

Photo credit: EPA / Ian Langsdon.


By Anders Lorenzen

Cycling is arguably one of the prime alternatives to reducing CO2 emissions from transportation, and thus dealing with climate change, at least in cities. Each year the iconic cycling race, Tour de France, encourages a huge number of people to take up cycling. If we care about tackling climate change, that is a good thing.

There is also no other sport which, in my opinion, displays the beauty of the natural world and biodiversity efforts, the transition to a green economy, challenging weather conditions, and where climate activism can have a real impact. However, the sporting event could and should do even more. I will come to that later.

Tour de France promoting nature

First of all, I want to touch on the impact of the landscape and nature, which is powerful and important. I believe no other sport comes close to that. On small narrow country roads, the riders cycle past stunning nature reserves, rivers, lakes, forests, mountain ranges and so on. The panoramic filming of the route from helicopters displays the great natural beauty and variety of the French countryside. Each year I watch it a Tour de France holiday appeals to me. A low carbon cycling holiday, perhaps combined with a bit of hiking in the mountains, enjoying the local food and wine, and thus investing in the local economy and enabling the local people to protect their beautiful countryside.

Since my early teen years, I have been glued to the TV screen during the Tour de France, and in my adult life, I have continued the interest. Perhaps because I think it is much more than a cycling race. As an environmentalist, I feel inspired when I watch it, and I instantly want to jump on my bike and cycle to France. I know I’m not the only one, and it is very significant that such a sporting event can inspire such desire.

A TV broadcast of a stage of the race can take anything from 3 to 6 hours, and so there are long periods when there is not a lot going on. Here TV commentators have their opportunity to talk about other things explaining the scenery, history and culture of the area the cyclists are speeding through.


Cycling - The 104th Tour de France cycling race

The Tour de France riders pass a sunflower field. Photo credit: Reuters.


For instance, when they pass a wind farm or a solar farm, or even a nuclear plant, they might talk about France’s energy strategy, or about the opposition to nuclear power plants. While from time to time environmental activists stage protests along the route, this again highlights important issues which the commentators can pick up, and so contribute to debate and awareness of environmental and climate change issues.

People watching might also, as I do, get inspiration to have a low carbon cycling or hiking holiday.

Each year the Tour organisers work with the EU conservation organisation, Natura 2000 , and the French government to highlight what biodiversity and conservation efforts should be focused upon, and at each stage, a Natura 2000 site is highlighted.

The team sponsors also have a huge impact, as their logos are plastered on the riders` shirts and therefore are constantly in view. Avid Tour de France viewers will undoubtedly remember the succession of years of the British cycling team, Team Sky (last year’s winner Chris Froome’s team) partnered with the World Wildlife Fund (WWF). Therefore their logo was on the screen much of the time. And this year one of the team sponsors is an energy company providing clean energy solutions.

Tour de France and the waste image

However, there are problems too. I know the organisers of Le Tour are committed to sustainability, but not enough is being done. There are real problems with one of the images it presents, especially to the younger generation. That is riders throwing rubbish, including plastic, out to the side of the roads and sometimes into the fields. Quite often it is picked up by spectators and I know the organisers are doing the best they can to clean up. But even if all of it is being cleaned up, it sends a signal to the world that it is OK to discard rubbish when cycling. Even the organisers acknowledge it is a problem

On the official tour website, they state: “riders throwing waste along the route is a problem. As well as harming the environment – when we know that an aluminium can will take 500 years before it decomposes – this image, shown live to around 14 million TV viewers all over the world, is simply intolerable. They go on to urge riders to respect specific collection zones which have been set up, and not just discard anywhere they please.

The carbon footprint and electric mobility

The organisers also claim they’re committed to sustainable transport. But surely if that’s the case they should demand that the whole Tour de France car fleet is electric. A host of cars are present at the tour from sponsors and official cars. Each team has several cars and trucks, while several motorbikes film the race and weave in among the riders. But on the issue of sustainable transport the organisers do not even mention electric cars, trucks or motorbikes: ‘the Tour tries, as far as possible, to use alternative modes of transport to move spectators, the staff itself or journalists on site: ski lifts/cable cars in mountainous areas, electric shuttles in towns, bicycles at Grand Départ sites, etc.’

The Tour de France organisers deserve praise for shining a light on a series of environmental issues, for creating awareness campaigns, and for being frank about what is needed. But across their Sustainable Development section, not once is climate change mentioned and there’s nothing about their carbon footprint. We don’t know how big it is or whether it is increasing or decreasing.

Bring the focus of climate change into the race

So here is what I think is needed. The Tour must each year publish their entire carbon footprint and set targets to reduce it. It should also be required that each team participating should not only list their carbon footprint but have a plan to shrink it. And there should be a target for when the whole Tour fleet should be fully electric. This is of course just a starter, and much more should follow.

I believe that Le Tour and the whole of the cycling industry are influencing the transition of many people towards cycling. They are thus making a valuable contribution to the sustainability debate. But we must not forget that much more can be and should be done, and the challenge of climate change should be strongly respected.  


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