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A Grand Plan: Creating the perfect Tour de France route

Felix Lowe
25 Oct 2018

Creating the perfect Tour de France route can be a complex and controversial business, as Cyclist discovers

If you could design the route of the Tour de France, where would it go? Should it stay entirely within France’s borders or visit other countries? Would you have more mountains or more sprints? Would you include all the classic cols or look for new, undiscovered venues

How many time-trials should there be? How long should the Tour be? How hard? Which direction? How many transfers between stages?  

Perhaps more importantly, the question should be: who are you creating the Tour for? The fans? The riders? The sponsors? The shareholders?

It’s a daunting task, and given the geographical, financial, logistical and technical constraints, is it remotely possible to come up with a Tour route that will please everyone?

Tour guides

Amaury Sport Organisation, better known as ASO, owns and organises the Tour de France, but it has to work within guidelines set by the UCI.

By the 1990s the sport’s governing body had codified the modern outline of Grand Tours, most notably regarding length (15-23 days; 3,500km maximum; 240km max per stage), time-trials (none exceeding 60km), split stages (forbidden – unlike the 1970s when they were rampant) and rest days (two).

Unbelievable as it sounds, just two men carry the aces when it comes to choosing the roads tackled by the world’s biggest bike race.

Christian Prudhomme needs no introduction, having been head honcho at ASO and the Tour’s director since 2007, but you’ll be forgiven if you don’t recall race director Thierry Gouvenou from his middling palmarès as a former pro: seven Tours ridden; zero stage wins; highest finish 59th.

‘We work on several consecutive routes at the same time. The only dogma I have is that there are no dogmas,’ says Prudhomme, a former journalist who appreciates the value of a catchy soundbite.

‘I draw up an outline with some of the showpiece climbs and a certain tempo to proceedings before Thierry does a reconnaissance to magnify the course.’ 

Working in tandem with Prudhomme, Gouvenou blends personal knowledge with GPS, Google Earth and even Strava to flesh out a route between each start and finish town.

Approval comes from a third man, Stéphane Boury – known as Monsieur Arrivée – whose main job is to confirm the feasibility of the final few kilometres.

While Boury applies a series of checks and balances, Prudhomme boasts that he has ‘difficulty taking no for an answer’.

‘A “no” from the technical and logistics people won’t stop us,’ Prudhomme says, ‘but a “no” from an ex-rider like Thierry I would accept immediately.’

He cites the Galibier summit finish in 2011, the 2015 stage finish at Mûr-de-Bretagne, plus the 2012 Grand Départ in Corsica – initially deemed ‘impossible’ by Boury’s predecessor – as eventualities that may not have taken place had ‘creative solutions’ not been found.

Prudhomme is keen to stress that the Tour is a mere tenant – locataire – of the towns and countryside it passes through. ‘We can’t simply go wherever we want,’ he says. ‘We are just leaseholders and need acceptance by local officials, without whose participation we are nothing.’

But it’s a curious transaction that sees these well-heeled renters charging their own landlords for squatting rights.

After all, the Tour is big business: there are around 250 applications per year from towns willing to pay north of €50,000 to host a stage start and €80,000 for a finish.

For this reason Prudhomme rarely solicits riders about the route: ‘In my contacts list I have a handful of riders but around 600 politicians. I have departmental presidents, three-quarters of other regional representatives and 300 mayors on speed dial.’

Prudhomme proudly declares that ‘where there’s a will there’s a way – even if this way is badly tarmacked and only two metres wide.’

Yet he’s also quick to stress that, when it comes to plotting a Tour route, ‘it’s not simply the will of the organisers’.

Choosing the Grand Départ

Occasional foreign Grand Départs inject novelty to the Tour while swelling ASO’s coffers. But location aside, should the race begin with a road stage or a prologue?

Since first appearing in 1967, prologues (8km or less against the clock) or short time-trials ran through to 2007.

That they have featured just four times since then suggests a shift towards road stages as the Tour’s curtain-raiser of choice – giving the sprinters an early chance to don yellow. Yet many all-rounders welcome the sudden release of stress that a prologue supplies. 

‘It really shakes up the GC and there’s a bit more of a defined hierarchy out on the road on day one so it makes it more tidy. Honestly, there’s no better way to start the race,’ says BMC’s Richie Porte.

From here, the route largely depends on who’s paid the estimated €2 million fee to host the Grand Départ.

‘The geography of France plays a considerable role. At the very least, we know where the race cannot visit,’ says Prudhomme.

He admits that every French region must feature at least once every five years, not least the hotbeds of Brittany and Normandy: ‘We have to go there regularly for they are responsible for the biggest stars in French cycling: Hinault and Anquetil.’

Be that as it may, these regions are also located farthest from what Prudhomme describes as the ‘must-have fixture’ of all Tours since 1910: the mountains.

Choosing the mountains

‘The ideal Tour would have Alpe d’Huez in it – there’s no doubt,’ says author Peter Cossins.

That’s hardly a surprising view from a man who recently published a book dedicated to those famous 21 hairpins, but his assertion that you can’t omit the ‘iconic’ Alpe because of its ‘unique atmosphere’ isn’t shared by all his contemporaries.

Daniel Freibe, cycling journalist and author of Mountain High, admits the crowds make Alpe d’Huez special but describes the climb as ‘meh’, while Michael Hutchinson, author of Faster and Re:Cyclists, considers the ‘easy’ ascent of Alpe d’Huez as ‘Box Hill – but longer’.

What brings the Tour back so often to the Alpe’s sinuous switchbacks is tradition and expectation.

But it’s also a travesty, if you believe a chap going by the name of Will, a Canadian amateur cyclist living in France and whose popular cycling-challenge.com blog includes a feature entitled ‘100 Climbs Better Than Alpe d’Huez’. 

‘I try to highlight how many great roads never appear in the Tour while others appear seemingly almost every year,’ Will tells Cyclist.

He believes that, historically, the Tour has ‘got the mix wrong’ when it comes to climbs. ‘The problem is that people like familiarity,’ he says.

‘Alpe d’Huez isn’t the most famous climb in the world because it’s that great. It’s famous because it’s a zoo on race day – a familiar zoo.’ 

It’s certain that there are more beautiful climbs than Alpe d’Huez that have never featured on the Tour’s route, such as the magnificent Gorges du Verdon via the Col de Vaumale (Will’s ‘most perfect ride’) or the otherworldly Route des Lacs (higher than the nearby Tourmalet and a ‘beyond words’ favourite of the Col Collective’s Michael Cotty).

So why are they left out of the mix?

First, many of these neglected roads are found in national parks where strict regulations, not to mention narrow tunnels, make no allowances for the Tour, its attendant infrastructure and cohorts of fans.

On the Col de Sarenne, near Alpe d’Huez, the resident population of marmots takes precedence over the moveable circus. 

Money talks

Then there’s the question of money. Being one of Europe’s prime ski resorts, Alpe d’Huez can easily pay its way.

Yet supposing ecological dispensation was granted, for the Route des Lacs to host a stage finish the sleepy nearby resort of Saint Lary-Soulan would have to stump up the cash – as Serre Chevalier did for the Galibier in 2011. 

Even if the money could be found, the task of setting up the Tour’s sprawling technical zone beside an isolated dead-end road would remain.

Such logistical issues are precisely why the race can no longer ascend Ventoux from Malaucène, only from Bédoin. It’s also why Prudhomme has so far failed in his ‘dream’ to reinstate the Massif Central’s mythical Puy-de-Dôme – last climbed in 1988.

Beyond the simple choice of climbs there’s a snowballing notion that too many mountaintop showdowns are the hallmarks of bad route planning.

‘Summit finishes have generally disappointed since pro cycling became obsessed with them,’ claims Friebe. Note that the race’s first ever summit finishes, in 1952, were one-sided affairs, with Fausto Coppi winning at Alpe d’Huez, Sestriere and Puy-de-Dôme.

Friebe’s beef with summit finishes is that the GC favourites ride conservatively for most of the race, saving their energy for the big climbs: ‘Everything is funneled towards a particular tactic, outcome and denouement, and everyone rides like zombies towards that scenario.’ 

Choosing the time-trials

Perhaps more than any other discipline, time-trials divide opinion among race fans. Even Michael Hutchinson, a time-triallist by trade, admits that the routes of the 1980s – boasting an average of 5.2 time-trials and 212.5km per Tour – were excessive.

It meant that success at the Tour became dependent on ability against the clock, yet in the past decade only two Tours have included more than 100km of time-trials.

This has reached its nadir at the 2017 Tour, which includes a paltry 36km of time-trial, and the reason would appear to be that TTs are box-office suicide.

As Prudhomme says, ‘It’s certainly not by chance that there are fewer fans for TTs than for mountain stages.’

But despite being a turn-off for many cycling fans, there’s still an argument for keeping TTs as part of the Grand Tour make-up.

Hutchinson claims the ‘Cinderella discipline’ is an ‘invaluable skill’ that can rearrange the GC and create a bit of uncertainty.

Even chrono phobe Friebe admits that a rider who has lost time in a TT is ‘more likely to try something radical the next day – so you get a better race’.

By the same token, Prudhomme is fully aware of the ‘immense gaps’ that can be inflicted. ‘Even over 30km, they can completely ransack the race,’ he says.

Regulations mean that the days of the 139km individual time-trial – the longest in Tour history from 1947 – are long gone, but shorter tests over a variety of terrain seem to be the way forward, such as last year’s Megève TT, described by Hutchinson as ‘a real Rubix cube of a time-trial’.

As for team time-trials, it’s hard to believe that, as recently as 1978, the Tour witnessed one clocking 153km.

Even more bizarre was the experiment conducted in 1927 and 1928, which saw most of the race conducted in team time-trial format to prevent the tedious procession of the peloton on long flat stages.

The idea was soon dropped, and although the TTT is rarely the highlight of a Tour it’s still ‘one of the disciplines of our sport’ and therefore has a valuable place, according to Porte’s BMC manager Jim Ochowicz.

But then he would say that. BMC are double World Champions at the team time-trial.

Choosing the finish

Ochowicz, too, is not alone in lauding the Tour’s iconic finale in Paris – held on the Champs-Élysées since 1975.

But while he stresses ‘never take Paris away’, and Hutchinson admits the race ‘wouldn’t be the same without it’, the traditional parade is not to everyone’s taste. 

‘I feel the Tour gets lost in such a big city. It’s a bit sterile and the race feels divorced from the public,’ says Friebe, citing the Vuelta and Giro’s tendency to finish in a variety of towns and cities.

The key issue with Paris being the final stage is the necessity for a long transfer on the penultimate day.

Gone are the days when the Tour was raced point-to-point. The first 150km train transfer in 1960 opened the floodgates, which peaked with more than 2,000km of non-pedalling in 1982.

Nowadays it’s rare for a stage to start where the previous one ended. It happened just twice in 2016.

Why? Appearance fees, shorter stages and the need to cram in those châteaux, cols and cliches.

The relative affluence of the Alps over the Pyrenees – and its superior trophy-climb count – means the Tour has even forgotten its previous tendency to alternate between clockwise and anticlockwise routes.

This year marks the third consecutive Tour culminating in the Alps, ASO’s zenith of choice. ‘It’s falling into a pattern,’ says Hutchinson. ‘I’m curious if they’ll ever do another clockwise Tour.’

Future Tours

Is Hutchinson’s suggestion of predictability fair? If things got a bit formulaic in the Jean-Marie Leblanc years (1989-2005), with stage after stage that favoured the sprinters, then Prudhomme has clearly injected a bit of oomph. He’s aware that routes cannot follow a script.

This July’s 104th edition of the Tour kicks off in Düsseldorf and continues the recent trend of cutting down on flat transition stages, out-and-out sprint stages and time-trials (all of which generate poorer viewing figures).

Despite featuring just three summit finishes, the race visits all five of France’s mountain ranges and includes a cluster of new climbs, an unprecedented finish on the Col d’Izoard and an uphill showdown as early as Stage 5.

It’s the first Tour since the Second World War not to feature at least one of Alpe d’Huez, the Tourmalet and Aubisque.

‘I think Prudhomme has the balance right,’ says Cossins. ‘He’s trying to open up the race to more riders and get the GC riders to be more aggressive from the off.’

For his part, the Tour director talks of respecting the great traditions of the race while evolving and entertaining.

‘Prudhomme and Gouvenou are quite innovative, but only by the standards of the Tour, and the Tour, like the public, is very conservative,’ says Friebe.

‘They favour glacial change – there’s very rarely a radical shift.’ Nevertheless, there’s talk that the 2018 Tour will include the ribinoù dirt tracks of Brittany – a move Cossins calls ‘important’.

It’s hard not to expect this year’s decision to broadcast each stage live to affect future route planning. If recent experiments have taught us anything it’s that shorter stages are more exciting and therefore more profitable.

Then what of the epic test of endurance for which Tour founder Henri Desgrange sought but one solitary finisher? 

‘Maybe one day all stages will be 60km because that’s the best racing, but that obviously divorces the Tour from its own heritage and founding principles,’ warns Friebe.

Keeping the balance

Prudhomme is quick to suggest that he’s in no hurry to rip up the traditional format. ‘While changing nothing is madness, changing everything is equally mad,’ he says, before going on to point out that his route planning is not necessarily the main determinant of how the Tour pans out.

It’s the riders who make the race.

For example, last year Chris Froome gained most ground in crosswinds and going downhill. ‘There’s too much of an assumption that it’s the route that makes the race, which it isn’t,’ says Hutchinson.

‘I’d like to see the exact same route two years running – I’m convinced
you’d get a completely different race the second time.’

When Cyclist suggests this to Prudhomme, the Tour director is amused: ‘It’s an idea that has never occurred to me,’ he says, before talking of funds and political mandates.

After all, the Tour exists to make money. He has a product to sell and must keep it fresh and exciting.

This conflict between tradition and modernity means there may never be a ‘perfect’ Tour, but then perhaps it’s the flaws and failures that make it so compelling.

After all, if the plan was too good, there would be no need to rip it up the following year. And that would never do.

Illustrations: Steve Millington

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