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Tour de France: Is it time to ditch the final day procession?

Cyclist’s Robyn Davidson asks if we should break with tradition and welcome actual racing on the final stage of the Tour

Robyn Davidson
23 Jul 2022

Death. Taxes. A final day processional stage at the Tour de France.

As intrinsically woven into the fabric of the Tour as threads in the yellow jersey, you can be sure Sunday will see the battered and bruised roll into Paris, shedding the anguish of the last three weeks like a butterfly emerging from a chrysalis.

Teammates will pose for photos and spray one another with champagne, basking in the glory of graduating with honours from cycling’s most prestigious event.

Yet something is missing. Save for the sprint finale on the Champs-Élysées, the final stage of the Tour de France is typically devoid of the high-octane racing that has gone before.

So is it time to shake things up?



The weight of tradition

Photo: Chris Graythen / Staff via Getty

The Tour has always been steeped in tradition. It always, always finishes in Paris, and in nearly 120 years and two World Wars, the finish venue has changed just three times.

For its first edition in 1903, the six-stage race finished in the western Paris suburb of Ville-d’Avray.

From 1904 to 1967 the race concluded at the Parc des Princes Velodrome, then from 1968 it headed east to the Vélodrome de la Cipale, where it stayed until 1974. From 1975 the final day came to rest at the Tour’s now spiritual home, the boulevard of the Champs-Élysées.

In that time rarely has the Tour’s final day impacted the race. But when it does, it is magical. It becomes legend.

Just consider 1989: Greg LeMond trails race leader Laurent Fignon by 50 seconds going into the final stage. The finish line is in Paris, on the Champs-Élysées of course, but this year there is something very different: Tour organisers have made Stage 21 an individual time-trial.

And what happens? In a performance that left Fignon ashen and France in tears (I gather, I wasn't born yet), LeMond put 58 seconds into the Frenchman and took the Tour by the closest winning margin in history.

That is drama.

That is what happens when you break from tradition.

Embrace modernity

Alain Meslet crosses the line on the Champs Elysées on Stage 22 of the 1977 Tour. Photo: AFP contributor via Getty

But there is drama in the last stage I hear you cry. OK, it’s not GC-upset drama, but there are times when breakaways stick and heroes are made. But really, how often does this happen?

By my reckoning in the Tour’s entire back catalogue on the Champs-Élysées, only six riders have ever made a breakaway stick.

Alain Meslet in 1977. Bernard Hinault in 1979. Eddy Seigneur in 1994. Gerrie Knetemann in 1978. Jeff Pierce in 1987. Alexander Vinokourov in 2005.

Six thrills in 47 years of champagne and Parisian cobbles.

A whole 17 long years since Vinokourov became the last man to successfully 'break away' on the final stage (going against the grain, Vino? Never...) to gain bonus seconds and leapfrog Levi Leipheimer to fifth in GC.

Ill-fated attacks always happen on the bone-shaking cobbles, teams eager to get their last bit of sponsor-pleasing in in front of the cameras, but such is the stage and such is the tradition that all attacks are invariably snuffed out.

The fleeing bodies are inevitably engulfed by the speeding sprint trains of the peloton long before the final lap. And that’s just how the play is written. But why?

Well surely it’s just the nature of bike racing, isn’t it? No. We only need to look at other Grand Tours to see that isn’t true.

Since 2008 the Giro d’Italia has culminated in an individual time-trial two thirds of the time. Flat stages did dominate 2013 to 2016, but it appears they’re being phased out.

The last time a flat stage made a Giro curtain-dropper was with a Sam Bennett victory in 2018.

Fast forward two years to 2020 and Jai Hindley and Tao Geoghegan Hart are joint first going into the Giro’s last day – an individual time trial. And again, what happens?

The doors are flung wide for an electrifying denouement. Geoghegan Hart betters his rival by 39 seconds to secure pink, a nation cheers, impartial fans rejoice.

The verdict

I don’t wish for us to ditch the Tour’s final day procession because in some sense it's the break from normality that enables us to savour the special moments. The riders deserve a ‘last day of term’ for the effort they’ve put in, too.

It's also just not feasible to make every last day a time-trial.

But every now and again, as a treat, I would love a last-day breakaway to stick. Yet for that it needs more than just luck, it needs permission from cycling. 

Photo: Alex Broadway/Alamy Live News via Godingimages

Consider yellow-jersey-wearing Jonas Vingegaard waiting when Tadej Pogačar crashed on Stage 18 this year. Now contrast that with Alberto Contador attacking yellow-jersey-wearer Andy Schleck when Schleck dropped a chain on Stage 15 in 2010. (Contador ended up being stripped of his win for doping and Schleck was retrospectively awarded the win years later).

True, Contador stole yellow with that move while Vingegaard already had a commanding lead. But the point is cycling tradition runs strong and it can govern outcomes of races.

Vinegaard and Pogačar held hands immediately after and pundits and social media went into raptures. (Wasn’t it wonderfully ironic when TV pundits asked Contador for his reaction to Vingegaard during Stage 18?)

Race-changing breakaways simply aren’t ‘allowed’ on the Champs because race tradition doesn’t allow, and can you imagine the public fallout with some people if it happened?

But I can still dream. And should the second-placed rider in GC try and launch a surprise attack with a realistic chance of the maillot jaune, well…

…well I think that would be pretty exciting.

But let's be honest, if anyone can based on this year's Tour de France, Wout van Aert probably can.


Main image: Tim de Waele / Staff via Getty

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