Madame de Pompadour was one of several official mistresses to Louis XV. Being a lover of the sexually voracious king was clearly an exhausting occupation: she died of tuberculosis in 1764 at the age of 42. The Madame was, however, key to the development of the porcelain factory in Sèvres, on the banks of the Seine 13km south-west of central Paris, where the Tour winner’s trophy is manufactured.
A high-profile patron of the arts, the woman born Jeanne Antoinette Poisson also lent her name to a hairstyle. Think early Elvis. That’s a variation on the pompadour he’s sporting so elegantly. But it is the Manufacture de Sèvres and its stunning decorative ceramics for which Pompadour is best remembered.
“She protected artists and was the protector of this place,” says our guide Sylvie Perrin, press officer for this beautiful and tranquil 18th century building – which could easily be mistaken for a palace itself – that houses both a museum and 120 ceramicists among a staff of 200. Around a quarter of the output goes to state organisations, with the remainder being sold to the public.
It is, of course, state-owned. It’s hard to imagine many countries where such an opulent operation devoted singly to the manufacture of extravagant pottery could exist, but France clings defiantly to its history and culture in a way much of Europe has abandoned. It is an admirably bullish standpoint. Whether it is sustainable remains to be seen…
Perrin leads us to a spacious sunlit workshop where a young woman, who has undergone the three-year in-house ceramicist training, is patiently burnishing the gold rim of the very trophy that will be held aloft on the podium in the Champs-Elysées. She will spend the next seven hours rubbing with absolute precision, using precious stone to produce the highly-polished sparkle of the finished article.
All that glitters is not gold. And even gold sometimes needs a helping hand, apparently: “We use gold powder,” Perrin explains, “which is not shiny.” Hence the all-day session of burnishing going on here. “It is very expensive. It may only be 24 carat, but there is a lot used.”
Known as the Coupe Omnisports, renowned illustrator and engraver Roger Vieillard designed the trophy in 1971. It is now awarded to Tour de France winners on an annual basis. This was not always the case.
Commissioned by president Valéry Giscard d’Estaing, the porcelain trophy is presented to a variety of sportspeople, not just those who triumph at the Tour. That it took until 1975 before a cyclist got his hands on one could be for one of two reasons. It was the first year that the Tour finished on the Champs-Elysées, so Giscard d’Estaing deemed it a suitably fitting and celebratory occasion to make the short trip from his official palace round the corner.
Alternatively, Bernard Thévenet finally ended an eight-year French Tour-winning drought stretching back to Roger Pingeon in ’67. I’m leaning towards the latter. Either way, all Tour champions now receive the Coupe except, you may recall, Chris Froome in 2013, although you may not remember seeing anything of the kind. It being the centenary edition of the race, a larger alternative design was handed to Froome on the podium in celebration of the big birthday.
Unfortunately, so were several other items, so the glorious deep blue with gold interior handiwork of Sèvres’s craftsmen and women remained at the Sky rider’s feet during the photo opportunity. No such problem the preceding year, when Bradley Wiggins made probably the funniest Tour-winner’s speech of all time and posed for the assembled cameras with the obligatory footballers’ favourite of kissing the cup. Or kissing the Coupe, in this instance.
As we gather in the workshop where the two halves of the trophy are joined together with a precisely cut length of metal rod (the integrated seatpost maxim applies equally here: measure twice, cut once), it becomes clear that the trophy we witnessed being lovingly burnished is not alone. A trio of Vieillard’s designs of identical size to the one seen earlier await assembly, alongside half-a- dozen smaller versions. “The ministry of culture and the president need a stock of trophies, so we create them a few months in advance,” Perrin explains of an upcoming busy summer of sport in France.
They are beautiful objects, without doubt, no matter how many are in existence. Lance Armstrong has seven of them dotted around his home. Tour titles can be taken off him, but there’s no chance of the Texan handing those back any time soon.
Keep your eyes peeled and it may even be possible to purchase your very own Coupe. One of the full-size versions, originally awarded to powerboat racer Robert Spalding in 1985, went for a paltry £168 at auction in 2010. An absolute bargain. Also an absolute insult to the fine craftsmen and women of Sèvres. Long may they continue to produce their sumptuous wares.
This is an extract from Rouleur #55.