Jean-Paul Ollivier: The voice of the Tour de France
For 41 years Jean-Paul Ollivier guided TV viewers along the byways of France, tracking the peloton of the famous race. Here, he tells Jane Hanks all about it
For 41 years, Jean-Paul Ollivier was the voice of the Tour de France, as the sports commentator for the television station France 2. He was nicknamed Paulo la science as he was famous for his encyclopaedic knowledge of the sport.
He also became well known for describing the history and landscape of the towns and villages the Tour passed through, together with details of the race.
He retired from his life behind the mic in 2014 and now, aged 75 he is a prolific writer and has produced numerous books on his beloved Brittany, where he comes from and still lives, on cycling, football and 12 on Charles de Gaulle. One of his latest books is a thick volume detailing the history and cycling anecdotes of nearly 800 villages and towns visited by the Tour de France.
How did you become a TV cycling commentator?
I always wanted to be a journalist and above all a sports journalist. In particular, I was passionate about cycling. As a young boy, I followed all the races and I knew a great deal about the cycling world. I lived for it.
On one occasion I met two cyclists at a small race in Brittany and I was able to tell them all the details of their wins and prizes and they wanted to know how I knew all that. I was 14 years old.
I did become a journalist when I was very young, aged 17-and-a-half. I did very few formal studies but I learnt a great deal by myself.
Did you start in television?
No, I started on a national newspaper called Vélo Journal, with a print run of 40,000 and I was the Brittany correspondent.
I moved to the capital fairly quickly and worked in a Parisian regional newspaper and from then went to work at L’Aurore, which was an important national newspaper at the time like Le Figaro.
Then I was lucky. I had to do my military service, and I applied for a technical post. I was given the job of working as a radio journalist for the ORTF, the French public radio and television service at Djibouti in Eastern Africa, which was a French colony.
I worked as a general news journalist and covered many different subjects and at the end of my military service they asked me to stay on because they were happy with my work. In 1974, the ORTF was disbanded and split up into seven different companies and I was sent to work at the television station, Antenne 2 (which later became France 2).
In 1974 I reported on my first Tour de France.
Why have you always been so passionate about cycling?
I don’t really know. Perhaps because I am Breton and in Brittany cycling has always been a favourite sport, along with football. We have always been fans and had our own Tour de France winners in the past like Lucien Petit-Breton (1907, 1908), Louison Bobet (1953, 1954, 1955) and Bernard Hinault (1978, 1979, 1981, 1982, 1985) and other great champions. There were lots of races in Brittany.
After every village festival there was always at least one cycle race. We also had a mini Tour de France in Brittany called the Tour de l’Ouest, with nine stages, run by the regional newspaper, Ouest France. The Tour de France was the high point of the cycling calendar and we followed it avidly. I grew up in this atmosphere and so it was natural I would love this sport.
Were the Julys you spent with the Tour the best part of the year?
Yes, it was my big moment. I could talk about my passion to others. I was immersed in the cycling world as I commentated on other races during the year.
As well as the sporting phenomenon, the Tour was a chance to discover France.
I was also passionate about history and geography and so the Tour de France united my three greatest passions.
Is that the secret of the success of the Tour de France, because we travel and discover France at the same time as watching a huge sporting event?
That is absolutely right. It was not just the race. It was also the fact that it went through this town or that villages and there was always something to say about them.
For my first 20 or so Tours de France I did the commentary from a motorbike.
As we passed in front of a chateau, I would include it in my commentary. I could not see what the viewer was seeing as I didn’t have a screen with me, so when I talked about the chateau it did not correspond with what the viewer saw.
One day, my TV channel’s controller said to me, “Jean-Paul you must include those details because the viewers will love to hear your descriptions, but from now on you must do your commentary from a fixed position so you can see a screen.” And that is how I changed the way the Tour de France was looked at.”
So it is because of you that we learn about both the race and the French countryside while watching the Tour de France?
I can’t take all the glory, but I was there at the right time and that is how it started. But it was absolutely marvellous to be able to do that.
The producer and the assistant already knew the Tour by heart before the event because they had driven the whole length and they knew exactly what the viewer would see and the movements of the helicopters. This made it easier for me because I knew in advance what I would have to describe. It was fantastic.
I always tried to decide which stories about the cathedral or village or chateau we could see would be most interesting to French viewers. There are so many things to say I had to decide which facts would be the most captivating.
Did you have to do lots of research?
I did a lot of research myself and so did the producer’s assistant, so before the starting point I had a huge amount of information about the history and the geography of the region. People love stories and there are a lot of beautiful stories to tell about France.
I looked up the Dordogne, where I live, in your book and was immediately struck by the entry for Port-de-Couze. Can you tell me what happened there?
It was one of the greatest tragedies of the Tour de France. It was in 1964. The cyclists had to cross a bridge at Port-deCouze. Before the bridge there is a very sharp bend. A lorry carrying fuel which was ahead of the race, drove too fast into the bend, lost control and ran into the crowd waiting to see the cyclists.
Around 40 people were thrown into the water. Eleven died. A three-year old child lost his father, mother and older sister. The cyclists arrived and dismounted immediately. It was terrible. When they got back on their bikes they continued, but it was not the same. They rode like automatons, the shock of what they had seen was so terrible.
Can you give me an example of more pleasant occasions?
There are so many it is impossible to choose. I will tell you about my visits to the UK. I have such great memories of those visits. There were huge crowds. Nearly the double of those in France, in the towns and the villages.
They were very enthusiastic. It was terrific. I didn’t feel I was in England, but in France. I was a little surprised to see the English reacting in this way because it seemed it was almost the show of the year! I also witnessed the massive progress in English cycling.
The first time that the Tour de France accepted the participation of a British team was in 1955. There was a team made up of 10 cyclists who had taken part in a few races in France but they did not know enough about the Tour de France as it is very particular with its 22 stages, and so they were disorientated.
They lost a man from their team every day. At the end there were only two left in the race, Brian Robinson who was a very good racing cyclist and Tony Hoar who was in last place. But he did well to finish. He knew how to manage his race and he was a very intelligent man.
But, after that, the progress was astounding. We saw British names such as Tom Simpson [one of Britain’s most successful professional cyclists who rode in the 1960s but died, aged 29, during the ascent of Mont Ventoux in 1967] and Barry Hoban [who rode in the late 1960s and early 1970s].
And then much later there were all the great names we are familiar with today. So I always followed the British team with great interest.
Has the Tour changed a great deal in 41 years?
It has changed, of course, because the Tour de France has followed the evolution of the modern world.
For example, the roads have improved, to the benefit of the cyclists. The Tour has never been overtaken by events but has always kept up and adapted.
So we have a Tour de France, that I would say, has never become outdated. We all still follow it with the same passion I enjoyed when I was young.
It was held in September last year instead of August because of Coronavirus restrictions. Was this a drawback?
Last year was a great Tour. The weather was so beautiful it could easily have been July.
People said to me that it would not be the same, that it was a shame, but I said you are wrong. You will see a wonderful Tour de France because the French are looking forward to having a Tour de France despite the difficulties.
It is a social event so people really wanted it to go ahead. People were pessimistic but I always said it would be one that would enter the history books.
There were, however, fewer people by the roadside.
But that was not because fewer people wanted to watch it, but because of the health restrictions. There would have been far more if there had not been these difficult conditions.
There were fewer by the roadside, but there were far more than usual watching it on the television. It was a very happy occasion for me, because, of course, I remain a big supporter of the Tour.
You list so many places the Tour has been to, but is there anywhere it has never been?
Not really. The Tour has now been through every department.
The last two were Creuse, in 2004, because up until then it did not have the necessary hotel infrastructure and Corsica, in 2013, which had not been visited before because of the logistics of getting everybody there.
But the Tour overcame these problems and I have happy memories of the trip. It was a superb experience because Corsica is beautiful and the journalists travelled between stages by boat.
The Tour managed to overcome all the technical problems to make it happen.
What was it like being a journalist on the Tour?
The ambience was really great in the press room. The television journalists were a little bit apart because our commentary took place in special cabins.
But I always used to go and see everyone in the press room because I wanted to see my newspaper colleagues from time to time as I have always been faithful to the written word. That is why I write so many books now.
What makes the Tour so special?
I find it difficult to define why I love it so much. I think it is because it is a mix of a number of elements. It is a great party, a beautiful sport, there are mountains, there are plains, there is everything.
It is France in action, sport in France, leisure, tourism, the history of France, the geography. All of that in a melting pot to come up with something special.
Le Tour de France des Villes et Villages by Jean-Paul Ollivier, published by Mareuil €22.
The 2021 Tour de France will depart from Brest, Brittany. The event has been moved forward by a week – it was originally due to start on July 2, but will now begin on June 26, to ensure that it arrives in Paris by July 18.