2017-07-07 00:58:03
When the Tour de France Comes to Town

00:58, July 07 267 0

NUITS-SAINT-GEORGES, France — The women were crouched on the sidewalk early Monday morning, their eyes narrowed in concentration. The four of them, retirees with salt-and-pepper hair, worked quickly, pulling colorful T-shirt shapes from shopping bags and stringing them along the metal railing that lined the street.

Each mock shirt had been crafted of brightly colored yarn to resemble one of the iconic jerseys of the Tour de France: yellow, green, white and even one with red polka dots. The women have made more than 400 of them since January, and now, with a stage of the famed cycling race set to finish in their town Friday afternoon, it was finally time to put them on display.

“We’re proud of our work,” said Jocelyn Finck, 62, a retired nurse. Finck had organized the “yarn-bombing” project as the head of the Renewal Club, a social group in this small village just south of the eastern city of Dijon. “We’re proud of ourselves.”

About 250 cities and towns, most in France but some abroad, raise their hands each year for the opportunity to welcome a stage of the three-week, 2,200-mile Tour de France. Following an idiosyncratic and largely secretive planning process, the Amaury Sport Organization (A.S.O.), which owns and operates the race, selects around 40 of them for the task every year.

Some cities and villages are regulars; the Tour finishes in Paris every year, and Pau, strategically located in the Pyrenees, and Alpe d’Huez, an iconic climb, are mainstays. But a few, like Nuits-Saint-Georges, have never been on the route, and for these locales, the honor of inclusion on the exclusive list offers short- and long-term benefits thought to be well worth the considerable expense and prodigious effort required to secure and accommodate the race.

The Tour, which has been staged since 1903, features 10 first-time cities and towns this year. One of the first on the route is Nuits-Saint-Georges, about 100 miles north of Lyon, and closer to Switzerland’s capital, Bern, than it is to France’s. Its 5,600 or so inhabitants reside at the foot of a tree-dotted span of hills whose rich soil produces some of the world’s most delicious wines.

The Tour’s seventh stage, a mostly flat trip from Troyes, will end here. So over the last week, the town’s picturesque streets underwent a festive metamorphosis, as local government officials, business owners and enthusiastic residents came together to prepare for the tens of thousands of guests expected to arrive on Friday. As they saw it, they had one day to leave a lasting, positive impression, to maximize their rare moment in the international spotlight.

To that end, the sexagenarian yarn-bombers worked diligently on Monday under an increasingly hot sun. Midway through the morning, a Peugeot minivan swerved to the curb and slowed for a moment. The driver poked his head out the window. It was the town’s mayor, Alain Cartron.

“Oh, this is very pretty,” Cartron said. “Nice job, ladies.”

For Cartron, who was born in Nuits-Saint-Georges and became its mayor in 2008 after a 34-year career in the French army, the arrival of the race will signal the conclusion of a process that, in his view, began more than six years ago.

On March 8, 2011, Nuits-Saint-Georges played host to a stage of the Paris-Nice, a shorter race also managed by A.S.O. That night, Cartron, members of the town council, and prominent local business owners descended to the cellar beneath the mayor’s office for a dinner with A.S.O. officials. For several hours, the group luxuriated over classic Burgundian plates and bottles of local pinot noir and chardonnay. The atmosphere was jovial: At one point, Philippe Gavignet, a council member and winemaker, stood before the group to introduce one of his own bottles. “My wine, it’s like me: round,” he declared as he cradled his belly.

Amid the merriment, the locals sensed an opportunity to plant the seeds for something bigger. Yvan Dufouleur, 52, a prominent local winemaker, was seated at the same table as Christian Prudhomme, the general director of A.S.O. since 2007. As they chatted, Dufouleur, an avid cyclist, mentioned to Prudhomme that he wished the Tour de France could come through Nuits-Saint-Georges one day.

“We need to study this on our end, and I promise we’ll do what we can,” Prudhomme replied, according to Dufouleur. “If you do all you can on your end, I promise that you’ll get this.”

The men shook hands, but there was a long way to go.

Prudhomme, 56, makes the final decision on the route personally each year, with input from his organization’s sports officials. Aside from a few certainties — climbing stages in the Alps and the Pyrenees and the finish in Paris — the race’s structure allows for considerable flexibility. In an email, Prudhomme said his broad aims were to visit each region of France at least once every five years and to chart a course that is aesthetically pleasing but also physically and intellectually challenging, so that teams feel encouraged to employ interesting tactics.

Officials from A.S.O. are famously secretive as they move around France evaluating potential sites. In the years after the group dinner in 2011, Cartron kept his eye out for clues that Nuits-Saint-George might be under consideration. He convinced himself, for instance, that every stranger in town driving a Skoda — a car company that sponsors the race — was a Tour official on a clandestine scouting assignment.

But Cartron also gently worked on Prudhomme, giving him periodic calls, writing him official proposal letters and sending him Christmas cards with pictures of the town. Finally, last spring, Cartron received a call from Prudhomme, who asked if he was still interested in having the Tour. Cartron said yes, and to his surprise, Prudhomme told him there was an A.S.O. official already waiting in town, ready to discuss the project.

Prudhomme said the factors in picking Nuits-Saint-Georges included the local officials’ enthusiasm, the town’s accessibility to roadways, and the existing brand recognition from the local wine industry.

“The name of the city, world famous, lent the Tour a certain grandeur,” he said.

Towns pay fees to A.S.O. for the opportunity to host — 60,000 euros (about $68,000) for a start and €110,000 for a finish, according to Prudhomme — but they commonly expect to make back around three to six times their investment. Cartron said the total outlay for the Nuits-Saint-Georges project this year has been 180,000 euros — just over $200,000. Much of the money came from the regional government.

Arguably more important than the immediate economic bump is the global marketing potential. Television viewership over the three-week race numbers in the billions — with glamorous footage from the ground and air broadcast to 190 countries worldwide — and hundreds of journalists follow the race from stage to stage, and town to town.

“Having a tour stage is probably the best publicity you can do for a small town,” said Andy Schleck, a former Tour de France winner whose hometown, Mondorf-les-Bains, Luxembourg, was another first-time host this year, handling the start of the fourth stage earlier this week. (Incidentally, Schleck said that the riders might be the only people involved who are utterly indifferent, or oblivious, to the host locales. He recently watched footage from the 2011 race. “All that beautiful scenery,” he said. “I don’t remember seeing any of that.”)

Down in Nuits-Saint-Georges, the yarn-bombing ladies took Tuesday off — they had plans, they said, to meet for wine and frog legs — but were back at work Wednesday decorating signposts, trash bins and trees around town.

Each day brought some new decorative flourish: colorful wreaths, painted storefronts, bicycles artistically draped in flowers or hung from apartment windows. An intern at the town’s tourism office spent a full day blowing up balloons as she attended to visitors.

The outlook from local businesses ranged from skeptical to cautiously hopeful; either way, they prepared to seize the opportunity. The bakers at Boulangerie Pâtisserie Saint Georges planned to start baguette production at 1 a.m. on Friday. Nathalie Meyers, 52, the owner of the Ascott Pub, said she would open her bar at 8 a.m., nine hours earlier than usual, and guessed she could make a little less than half her normal monthly revenue in the one day.

The mayor’s office asked the wineries to keep their tasting rooms open late into the night.

“We get publicity for the town, it gets publicity for the region, and of course, for the Nuits-Saint-Georges brand,” said Dufouleur, who noted, too, that fans of cycling were not necessarily connoisseurs of wine.

The pieces of the infrastructural puzzle were being fitted together up to the last minute.

Earlier this year, the town repaved the road on the route’s final straightaway and renovated some of the subterranean waterworks. With terrorist attacks recently in the news, Cartron, the mayor, attended regional security briefings every few weeks over the last year. Nuits-Saint-Georges, like other stage hosts, planned to have increased safeguards, like stone traffic barricades for its plazas.

The final steps — the installation of fencing, the erection of the finish line and podiums, the wiring for the media center — were to be completed around dawn on Friday. Hours later, the race and its accompanying horde would transform the town’s little streets. Nuits-Saint-George has been preparing for this moment for years — and hopes it will benefit the town for years to come.

“It’s not good if they come just one day for the Tour de France,” Cartron said. “They have to want to come back.”