You’ll never see Peyton Manning triumphantly holding up a Mickey Mouse doll after winning the Super Bowl. Or Lebron James cuddling a teddy bear after winning the NBA Finals. No. Those dudes hold up trophies. Big-ass, sterling silver trophies.
So what’s the deal with giving cutesy stuffed lions to Tour de France stage winners? What do the cyclists do with them? Cut the heads off and mount them like hunting trophies? Stick them in a glass case so they won’t get mixed up with their kids’ Beanie Boos? Snuggle with them for good luck?
What gives, cycling? What’s the deal with the weirdly infantile tradition that will surely play out again at this year’s Tour?
Turns out plenty of cycling forum users have their own theories. Perhaps ergogenic drugs are delivered inside the lion, right under the WADA officials’ noses. Or, as Nigel-YZ1 wrote on cyclechat.net, cyclists get the toy “to hold in front of themselves to avoid the more revealing pics of them in lycra making a scandal in the tabloids."
Plausible theories, cycling enthusiasts. But the lion was actually the mascot of longtime Tour de France title sponsor Crédit Lyonnais. According to French sports magazine L’Équipe, the bank has been handing out the fluffy lions at the Tour since 1987. Forty-five of the little guys attend the Tour each year, with one distributed to each day’s winner and the rest closely guarded to avoid loss or (zut alors!) theft.
A few years ago, L’Équipe writes, marketing execs at the bank decided the lions were outdated and thought about replacing them with a more traditional big-ass trophy—particularly becuase the lion is no longer the bank’s mascot. (“It was a bit aggressive,” Crédit Lyonnais PR man Arnaud Loubier told PEZ Cycling News.) But common sense prevailed (“le bon sens a prévalu”) and the officials stuck with the stuffed prizes.
Crédit Lyonnais sponsorship exec Sophie Moressee-Pichot says you shouldn’t see cyclists at any other race holding up the stuffed lion, even though the bank sponsors several other events that Le Tour’s production company—the ASO—puts on, including Paris-Nice, Criterium International, Paris-Roubaix, Tour de Picardie, Tour de Languedoc-Roussillon, Tour de L’Avenir, and Tour of Burkina Faso. The bank only uses the lion at the Tour de France.
With Crédit Lyonnais signed on through 2018 as a TdF sponsor, expect to see more champion cyclists holding up stuffed lions for years to come.