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90th Tour de France - July 5-27, 2003

An interview with Daniel Baal

Countdown to the Tour

By Chris Henry

Daniel Baal
Photo: © Peter Geyer
Click for larger image

The halls were buzzing with activity at the offices of the Société du Tour de France Monday, June 30. With just under a week to go until the prologue time trial on July 5, it was in fact "J-3" for the Tour, or three days to go until the activity truly began with the opening of the press center. Cyclingnews had the opportunity to sit down with Daniel Baal, director of cycling for the Amaury Sport Organisation, to discuss the 100th anniversary of the Tour and what might lie ahead as the race enters its second century.

Baal joined the Société du Tour de France in 2001, ostensibly recruited to evnetually take over the post of director when Jean-Marie Leblanc retires. He came from the Fédération Française du Cyclisme, where he served as president, although his professional background lies also in business and banking.

The scale of the celebrations planned for the centenary begged the question of just how long this year's race has been in the making. "We've known for a long time that the Tour would celebrate its 100th birthday, there weren't any concerns there," Baal laughed. "I think the first efforts were made in 2001, but it was after the 2001 Tour that we started to work on things. For us the beginning of the commemoration of the centenary began with presentation of the 2003 Tour in October, 2002."

There are no major changes on an organisational level, and Baal noted that the formula of the race is well established and generally successful. Without question, this year's race has a distinctly national flavour.

"The parcours this year is exclusively French," Baal said, "and we made the choice to pass through the six cities that welcomed the first Tour de France: Lyon, Marseille, Toulouse, Bordeaux, Nantes, Ville d'Avray, and of course the real start of the first stage will be in Montgeron at the Réveil Matin. That's an important point, that 100 years later we will start at exactly the same place, on the same street and in front of the same building."

The 2003 Tour will introduce one new classification, the Grand Prix du Centennaire, which will be based on the results in the historic cities. This new prize carries a bonus of 100,000€ for the general classification.

For Baal and the organisers of the Tour, this year's event is just as much about the future as it is the past. "We feel that we have a duty to remember the rich history of the Tour de France, but just as much it's a stage for the future," he said. "The centenary is at the same time 100 years of history, but also the road towards 100 new years."

New Horizons

The Tour de France has made a tradition of expanding beyond the borders of France, visiting neighbouring European countries with stage starts/finishes and kicking off the "grand départ" outside of France on a regular basis. Last year's Tour began in Luxembourg, while 2004 will see the race start in Liège, Belgium.

This year, not surprisingly given the centenary celebrations, the Tour route is entirely French. Nonetheless, the Amaury Sport Organisation (ASO), which runs the Tour de France, continues to cast its eye farther afield and entertain the numerous requests from around the world for the privilege of hosting the world's biggest cycling race.

"Today, the Tour de France is invited frequently by other countries. London wants a Tour start, we will start in Liège next year, we receive requests from Germany, from the Netherlands... and also from America," Baal explained.

Baal spoke with Cyclingnews just one day after returning from Québec, a perfect opportunity to discuss the possibilities for the Tour's geographic expansion in the coming years. While visits to European countries have become routine, the Tour has never crossed the Atlantic. In recent months, two candidates for a Tour start have been mentioned: Québec and New York City. The question remains, given the size and scope of the Tour, and the logistical challenges involved in moving the people and equipment that make up the Tour, are these murmurs from across the ocean serious?

"Quite formally from Québec, and New York is mentioned somewhat regularly," Baal said of the two cities' efforts to host the Tour. "At this point we have not really looked at the requests. But we're not in a position to say no... keeping in mind that the Tour de France is the Tour de France. It's a three week sporting event, and the idea of traveling far away shouldn't compromise the event's credibility."

Québec's motivation for hosting a Tour start, planned for 2008, is one of historical significance. July 3, 2008 will mark Québec's 400th anniversary, and local officials are eager to compliment the enormous celebrations with a visit from France's greatest sporting event. Time is, for the moment, on Québec's side, as Baal and the Tour de France are not yet ready to commit to the venture. Indeed, an idea for a Tour start in the French department of Guadeloupe was already scrapped due to the logistical hurdles.

"We told the Québec that we are giving ourselves until the beginning of 2005 to study very carefully all of the logistical issues (transportation, stage times, transfers, rest days, etc.), and the sporting considerations," Baal explained. "I think that for the Tour de France, and for cycling, a start for the biggest event on the American continent would be good news. But for now we're not able to say yes or no.

As for New York, plans are considerably less concrete. In addition to the logistical considerations, the question of financing arrises. Normally in France, cities and towns lobby- and pay- for the right to host a Tour stage start and/or finish, whereas a city such as New York might expect compensation of its own for the efforts involved in hosting a major sporting event on public roads. Not to mention the city's current budget crisis and ongoing efforts to host the 2012 summer Olympics.

"In our relationships with the cities, the cities are partners," Baal said. "We have our own partners. We don't believe that if we went to New York we could buy the start of the Tour, and then resell it. That sort of business is not our objective. After that it becomes a question of logistics."

The Cipollini debate

Although the issue has been settled for some time at ASO, and recently upheld by a UCI arbitration panel, the non-selection of Mario Cipollini and Domina Vacanze for the Tour remains a hot topic for many observers. For Baal, however, referneces to Cipollini's 'exclusion' do not sit well.

"For us it is not a matter of exclusion," he insisted. "There was a choice to make; we had the opportunity to choose 22 teams and no more. Of those, 14 teams are imposed on us by the regulations, 14 teams that are considered to be the best teams in the world.

"We can return the question to Cipollini. That is, why is the world champion not a member of one of the top 14 teams in the world? There's a real problem with that, the fact that the world champion is not part of one of the best teams in the world.

As Baal explained, the automatic qualifications meant that there was a already a considerable number of Italian riders in the Tour. Furthermore, the Saeco team was selected as one of the wild card teams. If the Tour were to select another Italian team such as Domina Vacanze, there would have been more Italian riders than French.

"That poses a problem in for the French public, and we don't have the right to dismiss the French public, our number one audience," he said. "Plus, we don't have the right to neglect French cycling, since the Tour de France is the emblematic event of French cyling."

Tour director Jean-Marie Leblanc commented publicly that he was touched by a personal letter written by Cipollini pleading his case for an invitation to the Tour. Daniel Baal also recognises the talents of the world champion, and regrets that the decision was not easier. He made it quite clear as well that Cipollini's track record in the Tour- one of multiple stage wins but never an arrival in Paris- weighed heavily on the decision.

"We would have greatly preferred that Cipollini were a member of a pre-qualified team," he commented. "Unfortunately for Mario Cipollini, he's never finished the race. In recent years, he systematically quit the Tour on the first day in the mountains, and that poses a problem, particularly one of [work] ethic. The spirit of the Tour de France is to finish the race.

"For us, Mario Cipollini is, and always will be, a great champion, but maybe not a great champion of the Tour de France," Baal added. "Cycling is not just about the Tour de France, and Mario Cipollini has proven himself in other arenas, and it's true he has also shown himself in the Tour de France, but I repeat, not in the spirit we would hope for the Tour de France."

Doping: Who's in control?

The Tour de France found itself in the middle of the debate over doping controls in 2002 when Igor Gonzalez de Galdeano (ONCE-Eroski) returned a positive test for Salbutamol. Interpretations differed between the UCI and the French CPLD (Conseil Pour la Lutte contre le Dopage) on whether the result constituted a doping violation, underlining the work that remains to harmonise procedures in the fight against doping.

This year, the World Anti-Doping Agency (WADA) will have observers at the Tour, following all aspects of the doping-control operations and issue a public report after the event, in which they report on whether the doping-control rules have been applied. The potential still exists, however, for disagreements between the various parties.

"This year we're in the same situation as last year, in the sense that the UCI regulations, or the interpretation thereof, is not exactly the same between the UCI and the CPLD in France," Baal explained. "We'll have to live with that again, and until the World Anti-Doping Code is accepted by all of the partners at the latest in 2006."

In the case of Gonzalez de Galdeano, Baal laments the uneven application of sanctions. "Unfortuntely, today, and the Gonzalez de Galdeano case showed this, the UCI decided there was no fault and argued this point, the CPLD felt there was an infraction, and argued this point, and the CPLD decided to prohibit Gonzalez de Galdeano from racing for six months. The problem is that this decision is only valid within France. That's what is completely ridiculous, that a rider could be banned from racing in France, but allowed to race throughout the rest of the world."

"We, as race organisers, hope that the World Anti-Doping Code is adopted as quickly as possible," he concluded, "so we no longer find ourselves in the middle of the experts' disagreements."

Ultimately, Baal explained, the responsibility of the Tour de France organisation is to do everything it can to facilitate the drug testing process, but it is the function of the national and international federations to interpret and apply the rules

Ready for the big show

As the phone continued to ring in Baal's office, the interview came to an end. With just days to go, the number two man at the Tour de France appeared relaxed and ready to kick off the festivities marking 100 years of the greatest bike race in the world. All eyes will be on the Tour this month, and the Tour is ready for the attention. The centenary celebrations will conclude July 27th, but the legacy of the Tour is set to continue.


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