Between 2005 and 2007 I worked for Transport for London’s Special Projects Team on ‘Project Yellow’. Whilst that might sound a little mysterious, some of the experiences I had during those 3 years seemed downright bizarre, even for the events industry…
- Driving around the Prologue route of the 2006 Tour de France in Strasbourg at breakneck speed with Bernard Hinault at the Wheel
- Watching the launch of the 2007 Tour route at Paris’s Palais des Congrés with a pre-superstar stage and seemingly very shy Bradley Wiggins sat next to me
- Enjoying a pleasant al-fresco dinner on the roof of the Amaury Sports Organisation HQ in Issy-Les-Moulineaux sandwiched between outgoing and incoming Directors of the Tour – Jean-Marie Leblanc and Christian Prudhomme
- Meeting and shaking the hand of The Cannibal himself Édouard Louis Joseph Merckx, better known simply as Eddie Merckx
- Exploring the high up hidden spaces and balconies of London’s Tower Bridge looking for camera positions for the depart fictif of Stage 1 of the 2007 Tour (a ceremonial start prior to the actual race start)
- Handing out gifts of Jeff Banks designed neck ties to Tour riders as they signed on for Stage 1 of the 2007 Tour (a Credit Agricole rider omitted to take one, he dashed back later on only to miss the start, fortunately it was a long neutralised zone!)
- Talking to Lance Armstrong’s mechanic prior to Stage 1 of the 2005 Tour (a time trial) from Fromentine to Noirmoutier-en-l’lle and getting to rummage through all of Lance’s carbon fibre exotica in the back of his van
- Feeling the traffic percolate away around Trafalgar Square and Whitehall on 6th July 2007 as distant road closures went in for the Tour’s opening ceremony – knowing this was the start of the culmination of 3 years work
- Being driven up and down the Champs-Elysées in an old London Routemaster bus by Transport for London Commissioner Peter Hendy as part of the spectacular Tour publicity caravan prior to the final stage of the 2007 Tour
So there we are, some fond memories randomly plucked from many during my time working on ‘Project Yellow’.
‘Project Yellow’ then was the codename for London’s successful bid to host the 2007 Grand Depart of the Tour de France; the Grand Depart being the start of the Tour, in this case comprising an opening ceremony and Prologue time trial in London and Stage 1 from London to Canterbury. But why the need for secrecy? Well, the owners of the Tour (the Amaury Sport Organisation – ASO) make it a condition in hosting agreements (the contracts regions, towns and cities enter into to host the Tour) that absolute secrecy is maintained, with route announcements choreographed by the ASO to its set timetable. There was a concern at TfL that, should London be revealed prematurely as the host of the 2007 Grand Depart, that in fact ASO would reverse it’s decision. With hindsight this feels like paranoia, but it was a genuine worry at the time. Therefore, TfL needed to maintain a level of secrecy about the bid even within it’s own walls.
So how does an event on the scale of the Tour de France in a place as complex as London come together? Well the first point to make, perhaps an obvious one, is that the team at ASO know what they are doing, after all, they’ve had 100+ years practice.
There were half a dozen strategic meetings between TfL’s team and the ASO during the planning phase of the Grand Depart where ASO checked progress and we agreed high level plans and schedules. There were also numerous smaller meetings both sides of the Channel focusing on specific aspects and details. On top of that there were probably a few thousand emails.
Included as an appendix to the host city contract TfL signed with the ASO was a cahier de charges, effectively a specification, with separate requirements for the Prologue, Stage 1 start and Stage 1 finish. The cashier de charges set out what equipment and facilities were needed, such as:
- Basic event infrastructure – barriers, fencing, power etc
- People – stewards, security, police, first aiders
- Race HQ and media facilities – comprising 30 or so rooms with specified minimum dimensions and quantities for tables, chairs, telephones, screens, no. of ISDN lines
- Medical equipment (all riders need to pass a medical check before they are permitted to start the Tour)
- Helicopter drop zones (security, liaison with CAA, fire services)
Whilst the cahier des charge was comprehensive it was not London specific and as such it really just served as a guide, with lots of the details needing to be worked through and tailored to London’s and the ASO’s requirements as they evolved.
So when it comes to planning and delivering the Tour, how is responsibility divided up between the ASO and the Tour’s temporary hosts? In essence, the ASO are responsible for the ‘travelling circus’, all the components that need to move each and every day from one location to another from Stage 1 to the final stage in Paris. Hosts provide everything else; the stuff that can’t move (like roads!), or doesn’t have to move (equipment or resource that’s readily sourced locally), or is a specific requirement relevant to a particular stage. For the London Grand Depart that meant:
ASO delivered the ‘race’ comprising:
- Teams and riders
- Race organisation and officials
- Accommodation for all the above
- Convoy vehicles including race moto escorts from the Gendarmerie National
- Race comms for the convoy (radio Tour)
- The majority of the technical zone infrastructure (the area immediately adjacent to the finish)
- A few hundred metres of finish barriers and finish gantry
- Inflatable arches / technical signage for km markers, sprint points etc
- Signing on and finish podiums
- Race hospitality (at the stage start, finish and at a mid stage village)
- A big screen and PA
- Publicity caravan
- Host TV broadcaster
London (TfL) was responsible for delivering:
- The opening ceremony (rider presentation)
- The ‘Permanence’ (home to the media centre and temporary HQ for Tour personnel)
- The race route (a good road surface, free from obstructions and traffic)
- Police and civilian (NEG) motos
- Crowd management and security (personnel and infrastructure)
- Traffic management (personnel and infrastructure)
- First aid
- Toilets (x 1,500)
- Temporary pedestrian bridges (x 6)
- Radio communications including relays to cover London to Canterbury
- Signage (event, pedestrian and traffic)
- Entertainment (including 18 big screens)
- Route dressing (art installations, lampost banners, floral arrangements etc)
- Hospitality (5 sites around the race route)
- Probably some other stuff aswell, it’s been 10 years!
I recall that at one point we tried to add up how many people were deployed across the organising team, crowd and traffic management teams and our small army of volunteers. It would have been around 3,500. An astonishing number.
TfL is in the business of operating transport services, something it does incredibly well on the whole. Delivering the largest annual sporting event in the world wasn’t core business. We therefore engaged an event management company to help us plan and deliver the Grand Depart. Will Glendinning who worked for innovision at the time took the overall lead. The innovision management team was bolstered by the addition of Mick Bennett and colleagues from Sweetspot who contributed their unrivalled technical expertise and knowledge of bike racing.
Behind the scenes, planning and delivery of the Grand Depart went pretty much like clockwork. The most challenging aspects were around how many spectators would turn up to watch, and a related issue, the ever present risk of budget creep.
Crowd estimates at free to view public events are obviously critical as they dictate to an extent what infrastructure and human resource you have to deploy to ensure a safe event – crowd barriers, crowd management stewards, temporary bridges, signage, toilets, even big screens (which we used to create live sites to spread people out). But it’s more complicated than that. With events on this scale the usual rules and precedents of X no. of spectators = Y no. of toilets or X no. of spectators = Y no. of crowd stewards don’t really apply. You don’t want to massively over provide; yellow vests outnumbering spectators is never a good look, plus it adds expense to an already costly event (for a Grand Depart in a major city you’re already looking at north of £15m in todays money, without any whistles or bells). Neither can you afford to under provide, you have to spend what is necessary to ensure a safe event. After much discussion and hand wringing we landed on half a million spectators for the Prologue as being a sensible assumption. In the end the sun came out for the Grand Depart (after weeks of rain) and 3 million spectators watched in London and Kent over the weekend. But was it a success?
TfL’s objectives were to:
- Promote cycling in the capital
- Market London on a world stage
- Demonstrate London could bid for and win major sporting events
Over half of those who watched the Grand Depart said they would cycle more as a result. The Grand Depart helped create a buzz about cycling and paved the way for future events like RideLondon and the Yorkshire Grand Depart (2014) which brought the Tour back to London for a stage finish. The Grand Depart put cycling on the front pages of national newspapers (generating an estimated £35m of free publicity for cycling) and persuaded people to get their bikes out of the shed. The economic benefit of the weekends events was also significant, estimated at £73m with a significant number of spectators coming from outside London (50%) and overseas (10%).
So yes, by any measure the Grand Depart was a huge success. It was also enormous fun to work on and remains something I’m proud to have been involved in even 10 years on.