PARIS – The Tour de France is not only a French monument, but also the economic heartbeat of professional cycling itself, and analysts fear heavy consequences if the coronavirus crisis forces its cancellation this year.
An announcement is expected this week on either a postponement or an outright cancellation of the 21-day extravaganza that is currently scheduled to start in Nice, France, on June 27.
The "Grande Boucle," as the Tour is known in France, is the central economic pillar supporting the 22 professional teams scheduled to compete in 2020.
"Cancellation opens the door to a possible economic meltdown in the cycling sector," says Jean-Francois Mignot of the French National Centre for Scientific Research and author of the book "A History of the Tour de France."
Maintaining the original dates looks almost impossible following French President Emmanuel Macron's announcement on Monday that public events with large crowds were banned until at least the middle of July.
France has been under lockdown since March 17, and nearly 15,000 people in the country have died from COVID-19.
Up 12 million fans usually line the roads as the Tour makes its way through the French countryside, with the finish line in Paris, for three weeks every summer.
"It's as simple as this. If the Tour does not take place, teams could disappear, riders and staff alike would find themselves unemployed," said Marc Madiot, head of the French team Groupama-FDJ.
His team budget is estimated at €20 million ($21.8 million) per year and is bankrolled by the state lottery and an insurance company.
Amaury Sport Organisation, the Tour de France organizer, paid €2.3 million in total prize money for the 2019 edition, won by Colombian rider Egan Bernal, a member of the Ineos team, who picked up a check for €500,000.
The Tour rakes in revenue but the giant cost of staging the event, featuring logistics that are as spectacular as any mountainside showdown on two wheels, eat into the margins of all road races.
Sponsors are paying for the daily hours-long television coverage and even the smallest teams can get involved in a breakaway and hence command screen time.
There are ceremonies every day of the Tour for all kinds of prizes — sprinting, climbing, attacking, young riders — where the names of sponsors are prominently featured.
"Most sponsors are in cycling for this reason alone, the whole thing is centered around the Tour de France," Mignot claimed. "If these sponsors invest money it is because television viewers recognize the team jerseys, it is the only cycling race watched by such a vast audience."
Bruno Bianzina, the general manager of the agency Sport Market, said the Tour is a unique event in many ways.
"There are very few other sports with so much riding on one event," Bianzina said.
Mignot estimated ASO's Tour revenue has climbed from €5 million in the 1980s to €50 million today.
Another group, Sporsora, put the turnover for the 2019 Tour de France at €130 million.
Some 40-50 percent comes from sponsors, television rights make up around half, and host regions of the race also contribute around 5 percent.
"The Tour de France props up the whole of cycling, but the Tour needs the rest of the cycling calendar too," says Madiot, a two-time winner of the Paris-Roubaix one-day race.
Even the smallest sponsor pays €250,000 euros to ASO while it is estimated that the yellow jersey sponsor, the LCL bank, pay €10 million euros.
"But it goes much deeper than that because the Tour de France is also a huge advert for France and French tourism," Bianzina says.