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The Tour de France 21st Stage: we'll always have Paris

Jeremy Whittle
25 Jan 2018

The 2018 Tour will feature a procession into Paris on Stage 21, but is it time to break with tradition?

Paris: it’s the city of dreams, the city of lights, the host city for both the 2018 Ryder Cup and the 2024 Olympic Games. For some, it’s also the city of oh-so-predictable finales to the Tour de France.

Next year’s final stage, we now know, will follow the tried-and-tested  formula, namely a suburban stage start, some champagne-guzzling on the approach to the boulevards, a photo op with the classification winners lined across the road, and eventually a frenzied hour of racing climaxing with the twilight sprint on the Parisian cobblestones.

Every year since 1975 the Tour peloton has wheeled to a halt on the Champs-Élysées in a frenetic ending to the three-week race.

The Paris finish is now so tightly woven into the fabric of the Tour that it’s apparently cast in stone.

Depending on your viewpoint, the final stage of the Tour is either the most spectacular and grandiose ending to cycling’s biggest race or it’s a repetitive and tedious anti-climax that does more for the Paris tourist board than it does for cycling.

The Vuelta a España follows suit, with its circuit race in Madrid, but the Giro d’Italia – which unlike its Spanish counterpart is not yet owned by the Tour’s parent company, ASO – occasionally bucks that Grand Tour trend and most recently did so to stunning effect.

Who will ever forget the memorable, cliff-hanging climax to the 2017 Giro when Tom Dumoulin swatted aside his rivals and managed his nerves on the climactic time-trial into Milan to clinch overall success?

Yet the Tour’s Paris showcase stage – complete with that suburban start, champagne flutes and traffic cone wearing – is now so entrenched in the tradition of the Tour, so unavoidable, that it appears almost impossible to dislodge.

But why? The Grand Départ is different every year, Alpe d’Huez isn’t on the Tour route every year, nor is the Col du Tourmalet, Mont Ventoux, a stage finish in Montpellier or a time-trial in Marseille.

So why is this one stage always the same? And if it is always the same, isn’t it really just an exhibition race?

And, given that all the overall positions are supposedly already cemented, other than the 15 minutes or so preceding that final, highly coveted and gut-busting sprint, does it really mean anything?

Also, what happens, for example, if the Tour is too close to call? What happens if the time gaps are so small as the peloton arrives in Paris that overall victory is still up for grabs? What is the etiquette? Who decides whether the contenders can carry on slugging it out? 

Hypothetically speaking

Standing in the stifling and oppressive heat of the Marseille time-trial start village at the 2017 Tour de France, watching team leader Rigoberto Uran warm up, Cannondale-Drapac boss Jonathan Vaughters mulls over the what-ifs in the event of the Colombian closing the gap on race leader Chris Froome.

The next day the peloton arrives in Paris, but what would Cannondale-Drapac do if Froome’s overall lead has been cut to only a handful of seconds?

‘If it’s three, four seconds…?’ Vaughters says rhetorically. ‘Hmmmm. That’s an interesting one.’

We ask Vaughters whether there is a specific time gap when you say, ‘OK, we accept you have won the Tour?

‘I don’t know,’ he replies. ‘I mean, what if it was to rain in Paris and get slippery on the cobbles when the race is on? But then every single time there has been a tight gap at the finish in Paris there’s been a time-trial.

‘There was Greg LeMond in 1989 and Jan Janssen in 1968, but both those Tours finished with a time-trial. So if the gap was three or four seconds between Froome and Uran? Tell you the truth, I really don’t know…’

He thinks for a moment and continues, ‘Realistically, if the gap is less than ten seconds, then maybe there’s a chance you get a split in the peloton. But if it’s bigger than ten seconds, I think the likelihood of anyone taking it on is minimal.’

If, hypothetically, Uran did attempt to win the Tour on the Champs-Élysées, would there be fallout?

‘Well, that stage is kinda sacrosanct,’ Vaughters says. ‘We have to work with all of these people for 250 days a year, so sometimes it’s good to be a gentleman.’ 

Trial by time

A sprint finish on the Champs-Élysées may be sacrosanct but as we’ve just mentioned, two of the most memorable Tour de France finishes – 1968 and 1989 – were shaped by cliff-hanging time-trials on the final day.

There’s little doubt as to which was the more thrilling, and it’s commonly regarded as the most exciting Tour de France finish in history – the Paris time-trial in which American Greg LeMond overhauled Frenchman Laurent Fignon to win the race in 1989.

Those images, of a wide-eyed, disbelieving and jubilant LeMond jumping for joy, and of Fignon collapsed in tears on the cobblestones after letting what would have been a third victory slip through his fingers, have passed into Tour folklore.

LeMond, who won by the narrowest margin – a mere eight seconds – after reversing his deficit to Fignon in that 24.5km time-trial, believes that it’s time for a change.

‘I think they should finish with a time-trial every once in a while,’ LeMond tells us. ‘Have a stage when you can lose the race on the final day.

‘I’ve never liked the “parade” on the Champs-Élysées, where you’re just hoping you don’t crash before you reach the finish line. OK, I know they like to have it, but every now and then they should mix it up.’

With the bigger WorldTour teams now planning their Grand Tour campaigns down to ever more forensic details, helped by budgets that enable them to hire the best riders and then orchestrate tactics through radio earpieces, LeMond is in favour of more dynamic and volatile routes in a bid to make the racing less formulaic.

‘I think it’s good to change the rhythm of the race, the structure of the race. It shouldn’t be cast in stone. The 2017 Tour before the time-trial in Marseille – that was pretty close.

‘But with radios, riders racing to data, being politically correct and not attacking rivals when they have a problem or make a mistake – we need more stages that separate it out. With me and Fignon it was very close, but now there can be three or four guys who are usually that close.’

The days of Tours dotted with long time-trial stages – such as those that characterised Bradley Wiggins’ 2012 Tour win – have seemingly gone, so any climactic time-trial has to ramp up the tension even further, especially now that every Tour stage is broadcast live.

Rumour also has it that Tour director Christian Prudhomme is less than enamoured with racing against the clock anyway and prefers punchier and more dynamic road stages, something that is reflected in the structure of the 2018 Tour route.

Asked if the lack of time-trialling kilometres in the 2018 Tour reflected the relative frailty of French riders such as Romain Bardet, Thibaut Pinot and Warren Barguil in the discipline, Prudhomme denies that is the case.

‘There’s no link with that decision and French hopes – it’s more to avoid having a stagnant race,’ Prudhomme says. ‘You can get a bigger gap in the time-trials than you can in the mountains.

‘I dream of a scenario like Jacques Anquetil against Federico Bahamontes, when a rouleur was able to limit his losses in the mountains, and the climbers went on the attack to regain
lost time, but it’s not like that these days.

‘That’s why there are fewer time-trialling kilometres. It’s essential that the climbers don’t fall two, three minutes behind in the time-trials, because these days that’s impossible to make up.’

Prudhomme knows too that he is also under a degree of pressure to design a course that, if not anti-Froome, is at least pro-Bardet. Before the 2018 Tour route was revealed, Bardet’s directeur sportif Julien Jardie said, ‘If they want a Frenchman to win then they need to adapt the course a little.

‘I’m not saying get rid of time-trials altogether, but maybe they could be shorter and hillier? Four time-trials, all 5km long, three of them hilly – no problem!’

That all sounds good, but it might also help if Bardet, known for his reluctance to spend time in wind-tunnels, developed a greater mastery of racing against the clock.

‘Three hilly time-trials, all absurdly short, just to ensure a home win? Even then, smart money says Bardet – his TT bike gathering dust as you read this – still loses if he doesn’t improve his aerodynamics.

Paris 2017

It’s early on the morning of 23rd July 2017. The city of lights is just waking up. On the Champs-Élysées, preparations for the final stage of the Tour, or the ‘parade,’ as Greg LeMond calls it,
are now under way.

The cafes on the Champs-Élysées are opening up, setting out their pavement tables, ready for the steady stream of tourists who have made the pilgrimage to see the famous race.

‘It’s a big party,’ Alain, one of the waiters in the Café Richard says. ‘All the world’s here – every country comes to the Champs-Élysées for the end of the Tour. The road closures aren’t a problem because Paris has so many huge events.’

Morning coffee at the pavement tables rolls on into Sunday afternoon. The Tour’s bleary-eyed road gangs put the last touches to the finishing line. Sniffer dogs and armed police
in bullet-proof vests patrol the crowd barriers and finish area.

After the recent series of terrorist attacks, it’s an anxious day for French security forces. In the Grand Palais restaurant, maître’d Nicolas shrugs his shoulders when asked about the ever-tighter security that now characterises French public events.

‘I don’t get worried about the crowds or about security,’ he says. ‘There are more police here on Bastille Day for the celebrations – I think that’s more of a security concern, more of a target than the Tour.

‘It’s good be working here today because so many people come to see the race finish in Paris. The Tour is so big now that I can’t see the race ending somewhere else,’ he adds.

No matter how many times foreign riders wear yellow in Paris, you still cannot escape the French fixation with the Tour, the laps of the Champs-Élysées and its place in French tradition. Paris is good for the Tour, and the Tour, it seems, is good for Paris.

‘The finish in Paris is the perfect way to end the Tour,’ Nicolas says firmly. ‘Paris is the best place, because it’s the only place in France that is really international.’

But there is one other unspoken reason, of course. Sprinting to success in Paris is perhaps the most coveted of stage wins for the world’s top sprinters. It’s the single biggest reason, or in many cases the only reason, they hang on and suffer through the Alps and Pyrenees.

Take a look at the 2018 Tour route, its first act dominated by a series of stages that could be described as semi-Classics, and which climaxes with a cobbled stage to Roubaix. Then study the mountainous extremes of the second phase.

If you took the Champs-Élysées sprint out of the 2018 Tour, most of the top sprinters probably wouldn’t even bother to get on the plane to the Alps after the stage over the pavé.

Already under fire from the Greipels, Cavendishes and Kittels of this world for including too few sprints, Prudhomme needs the Champs-Élysées finale to keep them all keen. That’s never truer than in the 2018 route, when, after the transfer south, the Tour will become a suffer-fest for non-climbers.

As the competition ramps up between the three Grand Tours to find the most gruelling climbs and toughest roads, Prudhomme knows he can placate them by saying, ‘Ah, but we’ll always have Paris…’

Three occasions the Tour didn't finish with a Paris procession

1903

Invented by a French newspaper to boost flagging circulation, it was inevitable that the Tour de France would want to finish in the nation’s capital city.

The inaugural Tour’s final stage, from Nantes to Paris, was a gruelling 471km long and, with Maurice Garin already almost three hours ahead of his nearest rival, was hardly a cliffhanger.

But then, genuine suspense has always been rare in Paris.

 

1968

Dutchman Jan Janssen – who hadn’t even worn yellow – overhauled Belgian Herman Van Springel’s 16-second lead in the final day’s 55.2km time-trial to take a surprise win by 38 seconds.

Janssen had already hinted at his lone racing capabilities, winning a road stage of the 1963 Tour having somehow arrived at the start 15 minutes after the peloton left, and then engaging in an 80km pursuit.

 

1989

Greg LeMond’s eight-second win in Paris was hardly a shock given his time-trialling pedigree, but it poleaxed rival Laurent Fignon and sent French cycling into the doldrums – they haven’t won their own Grand Tour since, with Bernard Hinault’s win in 1985 their last.

‘Looking back, I can see it was a watershed moment,’ LeMond says. ‘Even so, I didn’t ever imagine the French would have to wait this long.’

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