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Keeper of the finish

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For Jean-Louis Pagès, home is somewhere between 135 trucks, 60 kilometers of cables and 3 kilometers of crowd barriers. For more than 30 years, he has served as the guardian of the Tour de France finish line. And each day, for each stage, he oversees the setting up and breaking down of the entire technical zone that surrounds the finish line, an area that stretches over 7 hectares (about 17 acres).

Words/image: James Startt

“There is just one team for the finish line. Three hours after the finish, the entire finish-line zone has been broken down and we leave for the next finish line,” says Pagès. “At 5 the next morning we start setting up the finish line and by noon it is ready to go.”

Clearly one prerequisite for this job is the ability to endure weeks of sleep deprivation. And Pagès admits, “I don’t sleep much, even in my real life.” But then in real life, Pagès spends most of his time—up to 200 days a year—on the road for the Tour, establishing the exact race route once specific starts and finishes of each stage have been identified.

“I began with the Tour in 1984,” he says. “But for me it was just a summer job between semesters teaching history and geography in junior high and high school.”

As a result, Pagès has witnessed the metamorphosis of the Tour de France into one of the world’s most mediatized sporting events. “When I started, the Tour de France existed, but not everything around it. There was no VIP start village for example, and the zone technique around the finish line was much smaller. Today the Tour de France is 4,500 people and 2,400 vehicles. Fortunately I was able to grow with the Tour.”

According to Pagès, the Tour has reached its summit in terms of size. If anything, he maintains, the actual size of the race may even decrease as technology becomes more compact. But while much has changed in the Tour over the years, one thing hasn’t. He starts planning each finish line with sketches into a traditional school notebook. “It’s still the best way to get a good idea of how a finish-line zone will fit into a town. And it comes in handy if we return there in the following years.”

Pagès, who ironically is not a cycling fan, is clearly passionate about his work on the Tour. “What I like about this job though is that I am in contact with everyone—the organization, the teams, the press and the police. And my job is to make everyone happy. You’ve got to be generous and humble. I’m like a groundskeeper in a football stadium. I must get the grass ready for the match, but when the players come out, I have to sit back. I’m not the star.”

Few things excite Pagès as much as an unprecedented finish, and he was the one that authored the historic finishes on the summits of the legendary Col de Tourmalet in 2010 and Col du Galibier in 2011.

According to Pagès, he visited both sites with Tour de France director Christian Prudhomme. “I remember Christian was hesitant to go all the way to the top. I said, ‘Christian, if you are going to go up the Galibier, you have to finish on the top!’ He asked me if it was possible and I said, ‘Yes it’s possible.’ And we did it! But that’s what I do, I’m the playmaker. I don’t score the goals, but I help set them up.”

Pagès, now 60, was overseeing his final Tour, because he announced that he is retiring at the end of this year. He will be replaced by Stéphane Boury, who has worked under his wings for the past decade. “Jean-Louis has been invaluable,” Boury says. “There is no schooling for this job, no job training. Everything here is learned on the road.”