Term Paper

Term Paper

‘We close towns for a living’: spatial transformation and the Tour de France

Catherine Palmer School of Applied Social Sciences, Durham University, Durham DH1 3HN, UK,


This paper explores the ways in which the passage of the Tour de France bicycle race through France produces a distinctive cultural cartography or social map of France. Drawing on Lefebvre’s (1991) conceptual triad of spatial practice, representations of space and representational spaces, the paper argues that the Tour de France both represents and is a space that is annually reordered and structured by very particular cultural practices. Through an analysis of the process (and politics) of route selection, the incorporation of iconic landscape and the transformation of civic space as the race moves across the country, the paper foregrounds the socially constructed nature of map making and the role of human intervention in producing and reproducing key cultural cartographies of France through the Tour de France.

Key words: Tour de France, cartographies, spatial transformation, Lefebvre, national identity.


Since its inception in 1903, the Tour de France

has long been invested with a range of social

meanings and interpretations. A bicycle race

that annually circumnavigates France (and

ventures into neighbouring countries on

occasion), covering 3,500 km in the process,

provides a unique opportunity through which

to examine the production of a cultural

cartography or social map of France. To do

this, I begin by introducing some preliminary

details about the Tour de France and how the

race has become the object of ‘map work’.

I then discuss the politics and pragmatics of

selecting the itinerary of the race each year,

before documenting the spatial transform-

ation of the towns and villages the Tour de

France visits. Drawing on Lefebvre’s (1991)

conceptual triad of ‘spatial practice’, ‘rep-

resentations of space’ and ‘representational

spaces’, my concern throughout is to fore-

ground the socially constructed nature of

route making and the role of human interven-

tion in producing and reproducing key

cultural cartographies of France through the

Tour de France.

The paper draws on two periods of

ethnographic fieldwork I undertook in France;

one in the mid-1990s, the other in late 2007

Social & Cultural Geography, Vol. 11, No. 8, December 2010

ISSN 1464-9365 print/ISSN 1470-1197 online/10/080865-17 q 2010 Taylor & Francis

DOI: 10.1080/14649365.2010.523841

where my concern was to examine the social

construction of the Tour de France as a means

of negotiating identity at a local, regional and

national level (Palmer 1996, 1998a, 1998b,

2001). I draw particularly on a series of

interviews I conducted with members of La

Société du Tour de France—the organisation

charged with orchestrating the Tour de

France—as well as ethnographic observations

of the movement of the riders and their

entourage across France.

Broad themes emerged from the detailed

field notes I took through the observations

which were then triangulated through the

eight, in-depth interviews I undertook with La

Société du Tour de France. The spatial

transformation of landscape, and the role of

the Tour in reproducing particular under-

standings of ‘Frenchness’, were among the key

themes that emerged through both these

interviews and my observations of the Tour

in motion.

To supplement the interview and observa-

tional data, the paper also draws on an

analysis of secondary and archival sources.

Journalists and other commentators have

covered the Tour for more than a century,

which provides a rich repository of written

and photographic records from which to

document the development of particular

maps—both real and imagined—of France by

the Tour de France.

The two periods of ethnographic fieldwork,

conducted nearly a decade part, enable a

number of reflections on the changing nature

of the Tour. In 2007, the race was increasingly

global (the peloton was far more international,

a greater range of transnational companies,

were sponsoring the teams), the forms of

media coverage had expanded to include new

technologies such as live internet streaming

and podcasts, as well as the traditional press,

television and radio coverage, and there was

an increased interest in towns and countries

outside of France to host a stage start or

finish.1 In 2007, the spectre of doping had also

cast its shadow over the Tour in ways that

were largely absent from the Tour in the mid-


While important to contextualise the Tour

as an event that is far from static, elaborating

these shifts are, however, beyond the scope of

this paper, with its focus on the role of human

intervention and agency in producing and

reproducing key cultural cartographies of

France through the Tour de France. Indeed,

despite these shifts, the consistent theme to

emerge in both periods of fieldwork was the

spatial transformation of urban and rural

spaces by the Tour de France, and the ways in

which the Tour produces particular narratives

and images of ‘Frenchness’ that are both

reproduced and, in some cases, contested at

one and the same time.

Sport, space and place

The study of sport has much to offer human

geography and a cultural sociology of space

and place that ‘takes its departure point from

an understanding of socio-spatial relations as

both a question of material constraint and

enabling capacities, as well as a realm of

symbolic meanings and re-presentations at

spatial scales from the body to the global’

(Richardson and Jensen 2003: 8). Since the

early 1990s, geographers such as John Bale

(1988, 1990, 1994, 2001) have detailed the

symbolic capacity of stadia, courts, pitches,

gymnasiums and ovals to advance our knowl-

edge about the ways in which people invest

sporting spaces and places with meanings and

interpretations (Bale and Vertinsky 2004;

Wagner 1981). Sports stadia also play key

roles in constructing and conferring club-based

866 Catherine Palmer

identities through demarcating space for club

supporters or providing the focal point for

pilgrimages and other displays of place-based

loyalties and affiliation to a locale or region

(Fulton and Bairner 2007; Tangen 2004).

In what Soja (2003) has described as an

interdisciplinary ‘spatial turn’, sociologists,

anthropologists and others with an interest in

the cultural meanings of sport have begun to

examine the role of sporting spaces in the

production of forms of identity such as class

(Eichberg 1998), gender (Andrews, Sudwell

and Sparkes 2005; McSorley 1999; Waitt

2008) and sexuality (Costello and Hodge

1999; Skeggs 1998; van Ingen 2003; Waitt

2003), particularly the inequalities that are

embedded or ‘emplaced’ within (Lobao,

Hooks and Tickamyer 2007; Tickamyer

2000). Soja’s interdisciplinary spatial turn

has also seen the social sciences examine the

role of sport in civic image making (Waitt

2000) and in facilitating a spatially con-

structed imagined unity (Palmer 2001,

2002)—two concepts to which I will return.

Sport also plays a role in ‘place-making’.

McGuirk and Rowe (2001; Rowe and

McGuirk 1999), for example, demonstrate

the connections between place identity and

celebration rituals in relation to Rugby League

in the Australian town of Newcastle, while

Bairner (2008) considers the importance of

place in the construction of a ‘national’ sports

stadium in Belfast against a backdrop of

collective memory and cultural division.

Increasingly, scholars are paying attention

to resistant or alternative readings of sport and

leisure spaces through analyses of sports

where movements are regarded as alternative

spatial practice. Here, research has primarily

been concerned to document the ways in

which leisure activities such as snowboarding,

parkour, geocacheing, ultimate frisbee and

skateboarding appropriate urban and rural

spaces in ways that confront the preferred uses

of these spaces (Borden 2001; Daskalaki, Stara

and Imas 2008; Griggs 2009; Humphreys

1997; Nolan 2003; Saville 2008; Stratford


The rhythm and movement of cycling also

draws attention to a growing body of

literature on ‘mobilities’. Much of this,

however, is about how people articulate their

own experiences of cycling, rather than

watching the movement of cyclists as specta-

tors. Jones (2005), for example, writes about

his personal experiences of cycle commuting in

a major British city, Fincham (2006) explores

the risks and pleasures of being a bicycle

courier, while Spinney (2007) takes a broad

overview of cycling in urban environments.

Cycle touring and recreational cycling have

been analysed by Pesses (2010) and Spinney

(2006), while Albert (1990, 1991) provides an

account of the norms and dynamics of

competitive cycling. In the case of the Tour

de France, much of the enjoyment of the Tour

as a sporting spectacle is how the riders move

through space together, a point to which

I return.

What is implicit in this body of research is

an acknowledgement that the space of sport is

the product of human intervention and

accomplishment. That is, the particular mean-

ings that develop in relation to a sports event,

site or locality do not occur ‘naturally’, but are

the product of considerable cultural work by

the producers and users of these sporting

spaces. As van Ingen notes, sporting spaces are

‘inexorably linked to the social construction of

dominant ideologies and the politics of

identity’ (2003: 209–210).

Such notions of the social construction and

production of ‘sporting space’ resonate with

the influential ideas of Henri Lefebvre (1991).

For Lefebvre, space is where social relation-

ships are expressed; space is ‘nothing’ until it is

Spatial transformation and the Tour de France 867

made visible through the social relations that

occur within sites, places, localities, borders

and margins. As Lefebvre writes:

social relations, which are concrete abstractions,

have no real existence save in and through space.

Their underpinning is spatial. In each particular

case the connection between this underpinning and

the relations it supports call for further analysis.

(1991: 404)

Lefebvre goes on to identify three types of

spatial relations that can usefully inform the

following discussion of the Tour de France: (1)

spatial practice, (2) representations of space

and (3) representational spaces. Spatial prac-

tice, for Lefebvre, refers to the production and

reproduction of spatial relations between

objects and products in ways that maintain

continuity and coherence within a given social

order. As Lefebvre writes: ‘in terms of social

space and of each member of a given society’s

relationship to that space, this cohesion

implies a guaranteed level of competence and

a specific level of performance’ (1991: 33).

Representations of space, by contrast, are ‘tied

to the relations of production and to the

“order” which those relations impose, and

hence to knowledge, to signs, to codes, and to

“frontal” relations’ (Lefebvre 1991: 33). They

also refer to a ‘conceptualised space, the space

of scientists, planners, urbanist technocratic

subdividers and social engineers, as of a

certain type of artist with a scientific bent—

all of whom identify what is lived and what is

perceived and with what is conceived’

(Lefebvre 1991: 38). Finally, representational

spaces refer to spaces that are ‘“lived” directly

through its associated images and symbols and

hence the space of inhabitants and users’

(Lefebvre 1991: 39).

In the case of the Tour de France, spatial

practice refers to the social and spatial

relations that are produced and reproduced

through a cultural and literal map of France

that is generated by a series of key cultural

brokers in selecting the route the race follows.

Representational space refers to how urban

space is re-ordered as ‘Tour space’ with the

arrival of the Tour de France, and its attendant

images, icons and symbols. Spaces of rep-

resentation refer to the particular narratives of

regionality and nationhood expressed and

embellished through the annual return of the

Tour de France. Borrowing from Lefebvre,

I argue that the Tour de France is a product of

on-going spatial relations; it both represents

and is a space that is ordered and structured by

very particular cultural practices that are

brought into being and progressively elabo-

rated by its annual return.

Mapping France

Since its inception, the Tour de France has

embodied what Vigarello describes as ‘the

image of a France united by its earth’ (2003:

67). From the outset, the race provided a

mechanism through which people could come

to know and understand the culture and

geography of France. As part of their daily

coverage of the Tour de France, journalists on

the newspaper L’Auto (the original sponsor of

the Tour de France) provided information

about the people, food and lifestyle of the

departèments the Tour would visit as it moved

across the country. As Thompson writes, ‘the

paper turned the race’s itinerary into an annual

lesson in French geography, featuring maps,

topographical profiles, and detailed schedules

of the racers’ expected times of arrival in

communities along the itinerary’ (2006: 64).

Far more recently, technological innovations

such as Google Street View, live internet

streaming from the race and interactive

868 Catherine Palmer

websites featuring route profiles among other

things have radically changed the ways in

which the geography of France is commu-

nicated to the global audience who follow the

Tour de France.

This coupling of culture and geography has

become the leitmotif par excellence of the

Tour de France. Described in the 1930s as ‘a

month-long parade of adorable skies, wonder-

ful countrysides, provincial costumes; it’s the

music of accents, patois, colours’ (L’Auto, 5

July 1934), such discursive constructions

continue to dominate representations of the

Tour de France. As Vigarello describes it, the

Tour is a ‘kind of mythic journey through

ancient provinces, littered with sacred ruins,

the bones of Saints, great mountain ranges and

scenes of former battles’ (1992: 886). The

varied geographical and cultural landscape

traversed by the Tour de France offers an

‘itinerary that is dotted with historic sites,

settings and locations that evoke important

moments or figures in the nation’s life’

(Thompson 2006: 52).

Of course, such narrative constructions of

culture made visible through geography do not

occur naturally. The map(s) of France pro-

duced by the Tour de France are the product of

human intervention and accomplishment. As

de Certeau notes, ‘any map is a manipulation

of space’ (1984: 119), and the meanings that

have developed in relation to France and the

Tour de France are the result of considerable

cultural work by the producers and consumers

of the spectacle that is the Tour. To elaborate

this, I begin by sketching the process of route

selection before turning to the social map of

France that is produced by the passage of the

race along this route, and a discussion of the

transformation of civic space that the passage

of the race effects.

Agents of spatial practice: the politics and pragmatics of selection

To return to Lefebvre’s conceptual triad, the

first ‘point’ to make up the social relations of

space is what Lefebvre (1991) defines as

‘spatial practice’, or what people ‘do’ in space;

how people produce and also consume the

spaces they visit or inhabit. In the case of the

Tour de France, spatial practice is particularly

evident in the way in which the race route is

created and generated by key social actors or

what I call ‘agents of spatial practice’ through

their selection of the cities, towns and villages

that the Tour will visit.

As I have addressed elsewhere, these agents

of spatial practice are ‘cultural brokers’

(Palmer 2000). Consisting of media personnel,

local officials, corporate promoters, publicists,

team managers and team sponsors, among

others, the role of the broker is to present a

series of creative and well-chosen images and

ideas about the Tour de France for broader,

public consumption. Of these cultural brokers,

the core group of La Société du Tour de France

plays a key role. With strategic and oper-

ational oversight over the running of the Tour,

La Société decides, among other things, which

teams will contest the Tour, where the riders

will sleep at night and which media organis-

ations will broadcast the unfolding events of

the race.

La Société du Tour de France also decide the

itinerary for the Tour each year, although this

is not without certain limitations. Concerns

for rider welfare have limited the overall

length of the race to a maximum of 3,500 km

spread over 21 days (including two compul-

sory rest days), during which a maximum

daily distance of 225 km cannot be exceeded

more than twice. In an interview with the

former Tour Director, Jean-Marie Leblanc,

Spatial transformation and the Tour de France 869

Marchetti (2003: 32) notes the parameters for

deciding the route are further limited by the

demands placed on the media to rapidly

disseminate the results of each day’s stage.

Stages normally finish no later than 5.30 pm to

enable journalists to make their copy dead-

lines. In such instances of spatial practice,

particular forms of social relations and

regulation impact upon the construction of

the race route and the consequent map of

France that the Tour produces.

To develop this point more fully, the more

nuanced work of determining the actual route

of the Tour takes place against a backdrop of a

number of key questions that underscore the

strategic and political nature of place-making

(Lefebvre 1991). Which sites and locations are

to be celebrated (and which ones overlooked)

as the race moves across the country? Which

images of ‘the French’ are to be presented as

authentic, and which ones dismissed as

inauthentic? While I will return to such

questions of authenticity and identity shortly,

the point to note here is that selecting the

itinerary each year requires a number of

strategic decisions and choices on the part of

the agents of spatial practice charged with

running the Tour de France. Indeed, the

politics of selection—as an embodiment of

spatial practice—highlight the socially con-

structed nature of map making and the role of

human intervention in producing and repro-

ducing particular cultural cartographies of

France through the Tour de France.

Moving bollards: the pragmatics of route selection

Given the global media attention the race

attracts, hosting a stage start or finish is

enormously appealing for towns and villages.

The riders, their entourage, media, sponsors,

officials and other Tour personnel (as well as

spectating tourists) require food and accom-

modation and they spend money in bars and

on souvenirs, in doing so, injecting income

into the local economy.2 Not surprisingly,

bidding for the right to host a stage of the Tour

de France is fierce. In 2008, 252 towns applied

to host a stage start or finish. Of these, forty

towns were chosen for inclusion in the race

itinerary in 2010 (Le Tour 2010). The grounds

for selection are a combination of the town’s

geographical location—public expectations

demand the regular inclusion of certain

localities such as the final stage being held

along the Champs Elysées and stages that

traverse the high mountain passes in the

French Alps and the Pyrénées—as well as its

capacity to accommodate the huge physical

infrastructure and personnel that accompany

the race each day.

As the bids are received from prospective

host towns, La Société du Tour de France

begins to plot out a potential race route.

Despite the technological sophistication that

surrounds the governance and performance of

much of professional cycling, this process is

remarkably low-tech. Using a wall map of

France and a box of coloured drawing pins, La

Société starts to plan the itinerary that the race

will follow some two or three years later. Once

a potential route has been drafted, a prelimi-

nary reconnaissance is then undertaken by the

general commissioners of La Société du Tour

de France. Here, the logistics of accommodat-

ing a landing pad for an air ambulance,

parking spaces for hundreds of VIPs and

dignitaries and a race entourage in excess of

4,000 people are assessed, along with the

accuracy of distances, elevation and so forth,

and the conditions that the riders will

encounter when arriving—at great speed—

into a town, with due regard for public safety.

870 Catherine Palmer

Once a town is deemed suitable for inclusion

as a stage village, it is then given twelve

months’ notice to plan for the arrival of the

Tour. Municipal authorities must prepare their

town in strict accordance with the specifica-

tions issued by La Société du Tour de France.

La Société provides each stage village with a

detailed report on what is required, including

how many tables and chairs, telephone lines

and flower bouquets, among other things, they

will need. During my first fieldwork period in

the mid-1990s, the alpine town of Moûtiers,

which hosted a stage in 1994, was ordered to

roughen the surface of the cobblestones in the

finishing straight to provide the necessary

grip on a road that was deemed hazardous for

the riders. In the same year, the town of

Montluçon was ordered to take up fifteen

traffic islands and roundabouts to enable the

safe passage of the riders through its town


The enormity of the Tour de France, both as

a global mega-event and a cultural institution,

means that such requests for spatial trans-

formation are rarely challenged. In an inter-

view with the popular English-language

cycling magazine Cycle Sport, Jean-Marie

Leblanc recognises that:

We are lucky because we take advantage of the Tour

de France’s media influence and economic weight.

If I say to a mayor, ‘to have the Tour de France you

must take up those three roundabouts and alter

those two’ he will do it. If you ask him to do the

same thing for the Classique des Alpes or the Tour

de l’Oise he won’t do it. (July 1996: 32)

Although rider and public safety is paramount

in route selection, the mapping of the Tour is

also done with an eye for particular images

that will allow for a visual representation (and

subsequent narrative embellishment) of an

iconic France. Once the route is decided, the

producer for France Télévision then traces the

route looking for images and visual icono-

graphy that will showcase the rich and diverse

landscape and history of France. As Jean-

Marie Leblanc recounts in his interview with


The producer aims to show not only the Tour de

France but also the tour of France as a country. He

reconnoitres the race route for weeks before the

Tour—he follows the road and takes notes of a

château to the right, here a bridge, there a cathedral

on the left—everything is noted down and given to

the cameramen so that they know all the time what

they should be showing in addition to the race in

order to direct it and put it in its context. We are

lucky to live in a country which is extremely diverse,

which has a history and a culture, all kinds of

attractions, and that, also, for me is another of the

keys to the success of the Tour. (2003: 45)

Such comments return us to the questions of

identity and authenticity posed earlier, and

indeed, the strategic and political nature of

place making (Lefebvre 1991). As Leblanc’s

comments suggest, selecting the itinerary each

year requires a number of decisions and

choices about what to include and omit by

the agents of spatial practice. As agents of

spatial practice or cultural brokers, the media

are largely responsible for the selection and

reproduction of a bundle of narrative themes

that emphasise very particular versions of

‘French-ness’, and it is to these that I now turn.

Imagining France: representational spaces

As noted earlier, Lefebvre’s notion of ‘rep-

resentational spaces’ refers to spaces that are

‘“lived” through images and symbols’ (1991:

39). In the case of the Tour de France, this is

taken to be the ways in which people

Spatial transformation and the Tour de France 871

experience the Tour de France as a source of

iconic representations of France. As I elabor-

ate in this section, the route of the Tour de

France has long traced the physical boundaries

of the Ancien Régime in ways that resonate

with historic notions of national identity, unity

and regionality to produce an iconic reading of

a ‘quintessential’ France.4

Despite unrest in the banlieux of Paris, riots

among second- and third-generation immi-

grants, and political and public debates that

promote a number of exclusionary discourses

within France,5 the idea of the nation as one is

the dominant narrative device of the Tour de

France. Popular sentiment particularly reflects

the ability of the Tour de France to unite

the nation as one: Jean-Luc,6 a rider in the

department of Isère where I conducted my first

period of fieldwork, maintains: ‘it is a race that

we all have in common. It is a communion

between us that has lasted since the time of

Maurice Garin [the winner of the first Tour de

France]’. Whether watching the race from a

vantage point along the route, reading about it

in the newspaper or discussing it in a bar or a

café, the annual return of the Tour connects

people in ways that resonate with a highly

imagined sense of national unity. As Vigarello

writes, ‘the triumph of the Tour de France is

the image of a France unified by the soil,

stronger, without a doubt, than the France

unified by language or morals’ (1989: 163).

The Tour is, in other words, a spatially

constructed imagined unity or what Silk

(2004: 349) refers to as a ‘spatial imagination’

that is infused with social and historical


Key to the narrative construction of the Tour

de France and the social map it both traces and

produces is the promotion of regional diversity.

In mapping France, the Tour both exploits the

geographical features of individual regions and

links each with France as a whole. That is,

national identity is mediated by local experi-

ences to construct the nation as one. Described

by Vigarello as a ‘valorization, above all, of the

landscape’ (1989: 163), the Tour de France is

the perfect showcase for regional difference.

The tranquillity of the Alps stands in opposi-

tion to the urban landscape of Paris (Figures 1

and 2), the dramatic coast line of Brittany is

most pronounced when compared to the

lapping shores of the Mediterranean, and the

single-storey whitewashed villas of Rousillon

are distinctive in opposition to the gaudy hi-

rise complexes that line the Côte d’Azur. As it

moves across the countryside, the Tour high-

lights the contrasting landscapes of France; it

constructs a variety of ‘Frances’ for popular


The geographical diversity of France is, of

course, made most visible by the media. As the

Tour unfolds, a range of new archetypal

images is highlighted, the cumulative effect

producing an enduring pattern of ‘French-

ness’. For example, every morning throughout

the three weeks of the race, the television

program Autour du Tour features a segment

entitled ‘La Découverte de la Ville de sa

Région’ which provides an overview of the

towns and regions which will come under the

Tour spotlight. By mentioning its food,

produce and notable historic sites, each region

is elevated to a state of pre-eminence (albeit

briefly) as the Tour moves across France.

The analytical point to emphasise is that

while the Tour de France is emblematic of

national character, its iconic status as the

‘guardian of [French] cultural memory’

(Thompson 2006) can only ever be enhanced

and articulated at the local level, particularly

in light of its forays into neighbouring

countries. It is the piecing together of various

local and regional images that together

produce a sense of a nation as one. The

resources, however, through which local

872 Catherine Palmer

identities can be articulated are numerous:

commemorative bottles of wine, T-shirts,

coffee mugs, cigarette lighters, cuff-links,

refrigerator magnets and postcards, among

other things, are used to highlight the

geographical and cultural distinctiveness of

the individual regions that the race passes

through. Food occupies a key place in such

regional imagery. In Livarot for example, a

town the race passed through in 2007, a

gigantic wheel of cheese, prominently dis-

played alongside the finish line, drew attention

to Normandy’s dairy industry, while in the

Rhône Alps, bottles of wine from the Côtes du

Rhône region featured on flags and banners

welcoming the Tour into the region. Indeed,

the annual return of the Tour de France opens

up a number of spaces of representation

through which local regions can articulate

their identity vis-à-vis the national.

The tourist industry particularly picks up on

these gastronomic impressions of regional

identity, incorporating them into brochures

and pamphlets (Figure 3). The various leaflets,Figure 2 The Tour in the French Alps.

Figure 1 The Tour in Paris.

Spatial transformation and the Tour de France 873

newsletters and magazines that detail the

Tour’s itinerary contribute to this cultural

cartography of France. Through such rep-

resentations, we discover that perdreau (par-

tridge) and pineau (a brandy fortified wine)

are delicacies of the Limousin region, and that

Pau, at the foot of the Pyrénées, is the centre of

the Armagnac industry. Other pamphleteering

advises that ‘while in Perigord, one must

sample the regional delicacies of foie gras and

foie d’oie’, and ‘while waiting for the riders,

perhaps one could spend the morning search-

ing for the elusive “black diamonds” [truffles]

of the region’ (Les Evénements du Limousin,

summer 2007: 1). When the Tour travelled

through Beaujolais in both 1993 and 1994, the

local vignobles seized upon the opportunity to

contribute to this culinary cartography of

France. A general brochure announcing road

closures, accommodation listings and the

names of local restaurants was put out by the

wine makers from the Côtes du Rhône under

the heading: ‘wines here are like the ambi-

ence—light and sunny—but are best enjoyed

in their native environment, so raise a glass to

the passing peloton’.

As such accounts make clear, the Tour de

France literally traces out a map of France that

is both topographical and cultural. Of course,

the Tour de France itself cannot do this—it is,

after all, a bike race. I have discussed

elsewhere the socially constructed and

‘fetishised’ nature of the Tour de France

(Palmer 1996): the point to note here is that

the map of France is produced, in the first

instance by the agents of spatial practice that is

then repeatedly worked upon by the producers

and consumers of this very public event so as

to yield a range of narratives, images and

symbols that are brought into being and

progressively elaborated by the passage of the

Tour across France.

Such points underscore the socially con-

structed nature of map making and the role of

human intervention in producing and reprodu-

cing cultural cartographies of France through

the kinds of spaces of representation I have

discussed here. Through the passage of the

Tour de France, the landscape of France

becomes an ‘ethnoscape’; ‘a landscape

of persons’ (Appadurai 1991: 198) through

which social relations help to define its

geographic characteristics. Like all nations,

countries, regions and cities, France as a

territory cannot exist without human agency,

and the return of the Tour de France serves to

make this maximally visible.

‘We close towns for a living’: representations of space

To turn now to Lefebvre’s third point in his

conceptual triad of the production of space,

representations of space are crucially tied to

the ‘order’ which relations of spatial pro-

duction impose. In the case of the Tour de

Figure 3 Regional images of the Tour, food

and wine.

874 Catherine Palmer

France, representations of space are taken to

be the ways in which the civic space of the

stage villages is transformed and recast as the

space of the Tour de France in ways that are

largely uncontested. In recasting civic space as

‘Tour space’, the aforementioned agents of

spatial practice and the spaces of represen-

tation come together; representations of space

occupy a middle ground between the pro-

duction and consumption of sporting spaces,

in doing so, highlighting the socially produced

and constructed nature of space that I am

centrally concerned with here.

The physical transformation of urban space

by the Tour de France is striking as entire host

towns become engulfed by the race. Common

garden areas and public spaces metamorphose

to become the Village Départ (where the riders

gather prior to the race start each morning),

car and furniture show rooms become the

media centre, and soccer pitches and rugby

grounds are turned into landing pads for

helicopters and the air ambulance, as well as

impromptu camping grounds for the influx of

tourists following the race. A veritable army of

workers busy themselves by erecting scaffold-

ing, placing port-a-loos and installing tiers of

seating in anticipation of the swell of people

that will wash over the stage village with the

arrival of the race. Streets are closed off, traffic

is diverted and barricades are erected, marking

the route of the riders through the town

(Figure 4). An apposite comment from Jean-

Marie Leblanc, the former director of the

Tour, provides the title for this paper: ‘we close

towns for a living’. For one stage finish in

2007, the church in the ski resort of Alpe

d’Huez had been converted into the media

centre. Nôtre Dame des Neiges was probably

the only church where, for one day of the year

at least, there were ashtrays in the nave, a bar

in the vestry and where, as local rumour had it,

an organist was asked to leave because he was

disturbing the journalists’ concentration.

Alongside these transformations to much of

the physical infrastructure of a stage village, a

range of sites of popular culture are also

introduced as part of the Tour’s arrival in a

stage village. In addition to permanent bars

and cafés, temporary food and drink stalls are

set up selling over-priced beer and soft drinks,

and merchandise stalls sell T-shirts, wind-

breakers, pullovers, posters, mini bicycles,

maps of the route, videos and DVDs, bottles of

commemorative wine and copies of team

jerseys, including the maillot jaune (Figure 5).

Elsewhere, pubs and clubs offer Tour pro-

motions such as cheap drinks and half-priced

entry passes. After dark activities include

street parties, fireworks displays and concerts

by prominent French and international bands.

Figure 4 Route sign through towns.

Spatial transformation and the Tour de France 875

In short, an entire town is recast as ‘Tour

space’. Indeed, the restructuring of a stage

village to accommodate not only vast numbers

of personnel, but also an enormous physical

infrastructure that includes sound systems,

lighting rigs, stage scaffolding and fireworks

detonators, among other things, brings to each

stage village a complex web of interlinked

social relations in which the agents of spatial

practice and the spaces of representation come

together to create a new representation of

(Tour) space.

Of course, key amongst the agents of spatial

practice are the riders themselves. Much of the

enjoyment of the Tour as a sporting spectacle

is how the riders move through space together;

how they organise their tactics on the road,

how they jostle against one another in the

high-speed sprints to the finish line; how they

struggle against the terrain through the high

mountain passes of the Alps and the Pyrénées.

In many ways, the removal of street signs, the

takeover of hotels and restaurants, and the

restructuring of civic space that accompanies

the Tour is a prelude to the arrival of the riders

themselves. As the prime performers, the

riders get the biggest reaction when they

descend upon a stage village. The repeated cry

of ‘allez! allez!’ echoes throughout the stage

town as the riders race towards the finish line.

When they appear in the finishing straight, the

thousands of fans pressed into this section of

roadway beat their hands against the barri-

cades that keep them from spilling into the

road. The din is deafening and crescendic,

climaxing in an explosive roar of approval and

applause as the jostling sprinters surge across

the finish line. In the unfolding ‘spatial

imagination’ of the Tour de France, the riders

are elevated to a position of symbolic pre-

eminence. Immediately following the stage,

interviews with the winning riders and the key

players in the day’s racing become the main

focus, with television and radio commentaries

being presented from the finishing straight, the

commentator often appearing breathless and

windblown, as if to simulate the frenetic pace

of the race itself. Indeed, the Tour has

a building momentum that culminates with

the arrival of the riders themselves.

While the spatial transformation of urban

landscape brings about what Belanger (2000)

has referred to as the ‘spectacularisation’ of

urban landscapes, whereby cities are taken

over by casinos, megaplexes, cinemas, themed

restaurants, stadia and sporting complexes, an

important distinction in the case of the Tour de

France is that these do not outlast the staging

of the event itself (Carter 2006). In the case of

the Tour de France, the transformation is

temporary, reflecting the postmodern maxim

that ‘culture is no longer built to last’

(Baudrillard 1990). In the days immediately

following the departure of the Tour from a

stage village, civic space is once more

reconstituted and reordered. Barricades and

scaffolding are dismantled, and the start and

finish areas, the television commentary boxes,

the race jury headquarters, the medical centre

and portable toilets are all removed. Even the

row of Fiat logos stencilled on to the finishing

Figure 5 Tour souvenir shop.

876 Catherine Palmer

straight is blasted off with a high-pressure

water hose so that the space of a town as it is

customarily imagined is reinstalled.

It is this constant tension between disrupting

space to accommodate the arrival of a global

mega-event and the re-constitution of ‘normal’

space that makes the Tour de France a unique

site for the study of the social meanings that are

made and expressed through particular uses or

representations of space. As such accounts

make clear, this re-ordering of civic space is

dependent on the interrelationship between

agents of spatial practice and spaces of

representation to negotiate the production of

a particular kind of spatial imagination

through the spatial modalities that are

embedded in the Tour de France.

Counter cartographies

While the staging of the Tour de France is

largely unchallenged in dominant discourses

and readings of the race, it also provides an

opportunity for the production of resistant or

counter cartographies of the Tour that offer a

counter or resistant cartography to the

‘official’ map of France produced by the race

organisers, host towns and villages, commer-

cial sponsors and media organisations alike.

Its use of public roads and the extensive media

coverage it receives means the Tour is

vulnerable to various protest groups.7 As

I document elsewhere (Palmer 2001), this is

particularly the case when the Tour travels

into the Basque region on the French and

Spanish border. Here, road invasions by pro-

Basque supporters are common. The Basque

flag is painted on the road the race travels over,

and spectators wearing Basque hats and

waving Basque flags are among the iconogra-

phy of Basque separatism seen when the Tour

enters the region.

On the whole, however, the temporary

nature of the Tour—it is in and out of a stage

village within twenty-four hours, and many of

the towns and villages it visits experience little

more than a blur of carbon fibre and colour as

the cyclists speed through—means that it is

met with very little resistance by residents,

with subversive behaviour extending to the

occasional theft (usually by tourists keen for a

souvenir) of route signs such as that featured

in Figure 4.


In this paper, I have been concerned with the

ways in which the Tour de France produces a

social map of France and transforms the civic

spaces it encounters in the process. My

analysis has been informed by Lefebvre’s

(1991) conceptual triad of ‘spatial practice’,

‘representations of space’ and ‘represen-

tational spaces’. From the material presented,

several analytical themes emerge.

First and foremost is the role of human

intervention in map making and the pro-

duction of topographical and cultural carto-

graphies of a country, in this case France. The

agents of spatial practice or cultural brokers

who are instrumental to the strategic and

operational running of the Tour de France

decide where the race route goes and what the

Tour-produced map of France looks like, in

doing so, highlighting the strategic nature of

map making. Indeed, the selection of stage

villages, and the inclusion of key localities

such as the final stage along the Champs

Elysées or stages that traverse the high

mountain passes in the French Alps and the

Pyrénées are not arbitrary decisions but the

product of cultural work on the part of these

agents of spatial practice that speak to

Hobsbawm and Ranger’s (1992) notion of

Spatial transformation and the Tour de France 877

the invention of tradition or Anderson’s

imagined community (1986).

Following on from this, the inclusion of

particular sites and locations highlights the

importance of regionality in constructing the

dominant narrative of the Tour de France as a

nation as one. As I have argued here, the

expression of national identity through the

Tour de France is done at the local and regional

level. It is the piecing together of various local

and regional images that together produce a

sense of a unified France that has much cultural

currency in discursive constructions and

representations of the Tour de France.

As a particular space of sport, the Tour de

France provides a useful point of entry into

considering the social meanings of landscape

and territory in ways that reflect both the

complex and contradictory nature of contem-

porary France as well as the symbolic

capacities of sporting mega-events to articu-

late the socially constructed nature of space.

As I have argued here, the annual return of the

Tour de France provides a particularly

compelling account of the ways in which the

spatial landscape of France is constructed by

social relations.


I would like to thank the three anonymous

reviewers for their helpful reading of an earlier

version of this paper.


1 In 2004, the Tour visited Belgium, while in 2007, the

race started in London. 2 In a related vein, the perceived capacity of sporting

events to inject investment into local, regional and

national economies through large-scale urban regen-

eration projects has been a dominant discursive

construction in studies of the social and spatial

impacts of sport since the Barcelona Olympics in 1992

(Chalkley and Essex 1998; Dickinson and Shipway

2007; Eisinger 2000; Essex and Chalkley 1999;

Friedman, Andrews and Silk 2004; Ohmann, Jones

and Wilkes 2006; Thornley 2002). 3 The costs of these preparations are normally met by La

Société du Tour de France or a region’s development

authority, however, the stage town may also invest in

these preparations. 4 The Ancien Régime refers to the French social and

political system prior to the Revolution of 1789. The

Ancien Régime covered a territory of around 200,000

square miles and supported about 20 million people. 5 I am thinking here of recent debates about the wearing

of conspicuous religious symbols in schools that are

considered by many to specifically target the wearing

of headscarves by Muslim women. 6 All names used are pseudonyms. 7 Palmer (2001) and Polo (2003) both provide accounts

of other incidences of protest and sabotage at the Tour

de France.


Albert, E. (1990) Constructing the order of finish in the

sport of bicycle racing, Journal of Popular Culture

23(4): 145–155.

Albert, E. (1991) Riding a line: competition and co-

operation in the sport of bicycle racing, Sociology of

Sport 8: 341–361.

Anderson, B. (1986) Imagined Communities: Reflections

on the Origins and Spread of Nationalism. London:


Andrews, G., Sudwell, M. and Sparkes, A. (2005)

Towards a geography of fitness: an ethnographic case

study of the gym in British bodybuilding culture, Social

Science & Medicine 60: 877–891.

Appadurai, A. (1991) Global ethnoscapes: notes and

queries for a transnational anthropology, in Fox, R.

(ed.) Recapturing Anthropology: Working in the

Present. Santa Fe: School of American Research Press,

pp. 191–210.

Bairner, A. (2008) The cultural politics of remembrance:

sport, place and memory in Belfast and Berlin,

International Journal of Cultural Policy 14: 417–430.

Bale, J. (1988) The place of place in cultural studies of

sport, Progress in Human Geography 12: 507–524.

Bale, J. (1990) In the shadow of the stadium: football

grounds as urban nuisances, Geography 75: 325–334.

878 Catherine Palmer

Bale, J. (1994) Landscapes of Modern Sport. Leicester:

Leicester University Press.

Bale, J. (2001) Sport, Space and the City. Caldwell, NJ:


Bale, J. and Vertinsky, P. (2004) Sites of Sport: Space,

Place, Experience. London: Routledge.

Baudrillard, J. (1990) Revenge of the Crystal. Leichardt:

Pluto Press.

Belanger, A. (2000) Sport venues and the spectaculariza-

tion of urban spaces in North America: the case of the

Molson centre in Montreal, International Review for

the Sociology of Sport 35: 378–397.

Borden, I. (2001) Skateboarding, Space and the City:

Architecture and the Body. Berg: Oxford.

Carter, T. (2006) Introduction: The sport of cities:

spectacle and the economy of appearances, City &

Society XVIII(2): 151–158.

Chalkley, B. and Essex, S. (1998) Urban development

through hosting international events: a history of the

Olympic Games, Planning Perspectives 14: 369–394.

Costello, L. and Hodge, S. (1999) Queer/clear/here:

destabilising sexualities and spaces, in E. Stratford

(ed.) Australian Cultural Geographies. Melbourne:

Oxford University Press, pp. 131–152.

Daskalaki, M., Stara, A. and Imas, M. (2008) The parkour

organisation: inhabitation of corporate spaces, Culture

and Organization 14(1): 49–64.

de Certeau, M. (1984) The Practice of Everyday Life.

Berkeley: University of California Press.

Dickinson, J. and Shipway, R. (2007) The Impact of

Events: A Resource Guide on the Impacts of Events.

Oxford: HLST, Higher Education Academy.


Eichberg, H. (1998) Body Cultures: Essays on Sport,

Space and Identity. London: Routledge.

Eisinger, P. (2000) The politics of bread and circuses:

building the city for the visitor class, Urban Affairs

Review 35: 316–333.

Essex, S. and Chalkley, B. (1999) Olympic Games: catalyst

of urban change, Leisure Studies 17: 187–206.

Fincham, B. (2006) Bicycle messengers and the road to

freedom, Sociological Review 54: 208–222.

Friedman, M., Andrews, D. and Silk, M. (2004) Sport and

the façade of redevelopment in the postindustrial city,

Sociology of Sport Journal 21(2): 119–139.

Fulton, G. and Barnier, A. (2007) Sport, space and

national identity in Ireland: the GAA, Croke Park and

Rule 42, Space and Polity 11(1): 55–74.

Griggs, G. (2009) ‘Just a sport made up in a car park?’: the

‘soft’ landscape of Ultimate Frisbee’, Social & Cultural

Geography 10: 757–770.

Hobsbawm, E. and Ranger, T. (1992) The Invention of

Tradition. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Humphreys, D. (1997) Shredders go mainstream?

Snowboarding and alternative youth, International

Review for the Sociology of Sport 32: 147–160.

Jones, P. (2005) Performing the city: a body and a bicycle

take on Birmingham UK, Social & Cultural Geography

6: 813–830.

Lefebvre, H. (1991) The Production of Space. Oxford:

Basil Blackwell.

Lobao, L., Hooks, G. and Tickamyer, A. (eds) (2007) The

Sociology of Spatial Inequality. Albany: State University

of New York.

Marchetti, D. (2003) The changing organization of the

Tour de France and its media coverage—an interview

with Jean-Marie Leblanc, International Journal of the

History of Sport 20(2): 33–56.

McGuirk, P. and Rowe, D. (2001) Defining moments

and refining myths in the making of place identity:

the Newcastle Knights and the Australian Rugby

League grand final, Australian Geographical Studies

39: 52–66.

McSorley, T. (1999) Of time and space and hockey, in

Luven, L. and Walton, P. (eds) Pop Can: Popular

Culture in Canada. Scarborough, ON: Prentice-Hall.

Nolan, N. (2003) The ins and outs of skateboarding and

transgression in public space in Newcastle, Australia,

Australian Geographer 34: 311–332.

Ohmann, S., Jones, I. and Wilkes, K. (2006) The perceived

social impacts of the 2006 Football World Cup on

Munich residents, Journal of Sport and Tourism 11:


Palmer, C. (1996) A life of its own: the social construction

of the Tour de France, PhD thesis, Department of

Anthropology, University of Adelaide.

Palmer, C. (1998a) Reflexivity in global popular culture:

the case of the Tour de France, Anthropological Forum

VII(1/2): 29–48.

Palmer, C. (1998b) Le Tour du Monde: towards an

anthropology of the global mega-event, The Australian

Journal of Anthropology 9: 168–175.

Palmer, C. (2000) Spin doctors and sports brokers:

researching elites in contemporary sport—a research

note on the Tour de France, International Review for the

Sociology of Sport 35: 385–398.

Spatial transformation and the Tour de France 879

Palmer, C. (2001) Outside the imagined community:

Basque terrorism, political activism and the Tour de

France, Sociology of Sport Journal 18(2): 143–161.

Palmer, C. (2002) Wheels of fortune: nation, culture and

the Tour de France, in Jenkins, H., McPherson, T. and

Shattuc, J. (eds) Hop on Pop: The Pleasure and Politics

of Popular Culture. Durham, NC: Duke University

Press, pp. 499–604.

Pesses, M.W. (2010) Automobility, vélomobility,

American mobility: an exploration of the bicycle tour,

Mobilities 5(1): 1–24.

Polo, J.F. (2003) A cóté du Tour: ambushing the tour for

political and social causes, International Journal of the

History of Sport 20: 246–266.

Richardson, T. and Jensen, O. (2003) Linking discourse

and space: towards a cultural sociology of space in

analyzing spatial policy discourses, Urban Studies 40:


Rowe, D. and McGuirk, P. (1999) Drunk for three weeks:

sporting success and the city image, International

Review for the Sociology of Sport 34: 125–142.

Saville, S. (2008) Playing with fear: parkour and the

mobility of emotion, Social & Cultural Geography 9:


Silk, M. (2004) A tale of two cities: the social production

of sterile sporting space, Journal of Sport and Social

Issues 28: 349–378.

Skeggs, B. (1998) Matter out of place: visibility and

sexualities in leisure spaces, Leisure Studies 18:


Soja, E. (2003) Writing the city spatially, City 7: 269–280.

Spinney, J. (2006) A place of sense: a kinaesthetic

ethnography of cyclists on Mont Ventoux, Environment

and Planning D: Society and Space 24: 709–732.

Spinney, J. (2007) Cycling the city: non-place and the

sensory construction of meaning in a mobile practice, in

Horton, D., Cox, P. and Rosen, P. (eds) Cycling and

Society. Aldershot: Ashgate, pp. 25–45.

Stratford, E. (2002) On the edge: a tale of skaters and

urban governance, Social & Cultural Geography 3:


Tangen, J. (2004) Making the space: a sociological

perspective on sport and its facilities, Sport in Society

7(1): 25–48.

Thompson, C. (2006) The Tour de France. Berkeley:

University of California Press.

Thornley, A. (2002) Urban regeneration and sports stadia,

European Planning Studies 10: 813–817.

Tickamyer, A. (2000) Space matters! Spatial inequality in

future sociology, Contemporary Sociology 29:


van Ingen, C. (2003) Geographies of gender, sexuality and

race: reframing the focus on space in sport sociology,

International Review for the Sociology of Sport 38:


Vigarello, G. (1989) Le Tour de France, una passion

nationale, Sport Histoire 4: 163.

Vigarello, G. (1992) Le Tour de France, in Nora, P. (ed.)

Les Lieux de Mémoire. Paris: Gallimard, pp. 887–920.

Vigarello, G. (2003) L’image d’une France unifiée par le

sol, in Boeuf, J.-L. and Léonard, Y. (eds) Le Tour de

France, La République du Tour de France. Paris: Seuil,

p. 67.

Wagner, P. (1981) Sport: culture and geography, in Pred, A.

(ed.) Space and Time in Geography: Essays Dedicated to

Torsten Hägerstrand. Gleerup: Lund, pp. 85–108.

Waitt, G. (2000) Playing games with Sydney: marketing

Sydney for the 2000 Olympics, Urban Studies 36:


Waitt, G. (2003) Gay Games: performing ‘community’ out

from the closet of the locker room, Social & Cultural

Geography 4: 167–183.

Waitt, G. (2008) ‘Killing waves’: surfing, space and gender,

Social & Cultural Geography 9: 75–94.

Abstract translations

‘Nous fermons des villes pour gagner nos vies’: la transformation spatiale et le Tour de France

L’article explore les moyens dont la traversée de la course cycliste du Tour de France dans la France produit une cartographie distinctive culturelle ou une carte sociale de la France. En utilisant la triade conceptuelle de Lefebvre (1991) de la pratique spatiale, des représentations de l’espace et des espaces représentationnels, cet article soutient que le Tour de France représente et est aussi un espace qui est reordonné et structuré annuellement par des pratiques très particulières et culturelles. Au travers d’une analyse du processus (et des politiques) de la sélection des routes, l’incorporation du paysage iconique et la transformation d’espace civique pendant que la course traverse le pays, l’article met en relief la nature socialement construite de la cartographie et le rôle de l’intervention humaine dans la production et la reproduction des

880 Catherine Palmer

cartographies clés et culturelles de la France grâce au Tour de France.

Mots-clefs: Tour de France, cartographies, trans- formation spatiale, Lefebvre, identité nationale.

‘Nos dedicamos a cerrar pueblos’: transformación espacial y el Tour de Francia

Este articulo se explora las formas en que el viaje del Tour de Francia carrera de bicicletas se produce una cartografı́a cultural o mapa social distintivo de Francia. Utlilizando la triada conceptual de practica espacial de Lefebvre (1991), representaciones de espacio y espacios figurativos, el articulo se discute

que el Tour de Francia ambos representa y es un

espacio que se reordena y estructura anualmente

por practicas culturales muy particulares. A través

de un análisis del proceso (y polı́tica) de la selección

de rutas, la incorporación de paisajes icónicas y la

transformación de espacio civil mientras la carrera

se mueve a través el paı́s, el articulo se enfatiza el

carácter socialmente construido del cartografı́a y el

papel de la intervención humano en producir y

reproducir cartografı́as culturales claves de Francia

a través el Tour de Francia.

Palabras claves: Tour de Francia, cartografı́as,

transformación espacial, Lefebvre, dentidad nacio-


Spatial transformation and the Tour de France 881

Copyright of Social & Cultural Geography is the property of Routledge and its content may not be copied or

emailed to multiple sites or posted to a listserv without the copyright holder’s express written permission.

However, users may print, download, or email articles for individual use.

Comments are closed.