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Could shorter Tour de France sprint stages make for more exciting racing?

Joseph Delves
21 Jul 2017

The case for cutting kilometres from the Tour de France’s flat stages

Besides giving the commentators an opportunity to witter on about the French countryside can anyone think of a reason why the Tour de France’s sprint stages are so long? Sure I like to switch from Radio 4 to the early stage commentary when the race hits the mountains, but with the average flat stage being over 200 kilometres even the most obsessive of fans struggle to sit through hours of nothing happening, which is what always happens during the first two-thirds of any given sprint stage.

When it does happen the little action that occurs before the last ten kilometres always feels a bit like a setup anyway.

Each day a few riders are let up the road for the peloton to ‘chase’. Except everyone knows the break isn’t going to stay away, which is partly why there are never any good riders involved.

The poor sods left to hang themselves out in the wind all day are only there to get a bit of exposure for their sponsors before being brought back in.

So why do the organisers still plan these long stages? The length of the sprint stages, and the way they’re ridden, comes down to tradition. Back when riders got their time gaps from a chalk board dangled off the back of a motorbike, rather than through an earpiece connected to their directeur sportif, there was still a small chance the break might survive.

In those conditions longer stages made more sense, as at least there was some degree of uncertainty to sustain the viewer's interest.

Everyone loves willing on the break to succeed. But it almost never happens. The ability of the peloton to catch them with seemingly no time to spare is similar to a wrestler’s ability to get smacked in the face with a chair and not actually get hurt. It’s a trick.

With team directors now calculating exactly the speed at which the bunch must ride to catch the breakaway, the result is never as close as it looks.

In fact chasing a break almost to the line is easier for the bigger teams because it keeps the rest of the peloton in line. With everyone working together to catch the escapees, the riders are kept going too fast for anyone but the best sprinters to launch off the front.

But with the riders already assembled why not get them out in front of the cameras and fans for as long as possible? One reason is that the riders already have a hugely hard task before them in completing a Grand Tour.

When Cyclist spoke to Sean Kelly ahead of the Giro d'Italia he expressed surprise that the modern peloton doesn’t go on strike over the mileage they're expected to tackle each summer.

There has even been talk of cutting the length of the three Grand Tours to a fortnight from their current three week duration.

Knocking 40km off of the standard 200 kilometre-plus flat stage would make life easier for the riders. The cumulative effect would be to save them a couple of hundred kilometres over the course of the race.

It might also create more exciting racing. It certainly couldn’t make it any duller. In the mountains shorter distances have encouraged attacking riding and made the entirety of each stage worth watching.

This year's 101 kilometre Stage 13 in the Pyrenees being a case in point.

With less distance in the legs there’s also a carryover to the following days. Fresher riders make for more spontaneous racing. Could the same apply to flatter stages?

The Tour already features one short sprint stage. At 103km the final stage to the Champs-Élysées is about half the length of the other flat days.

And while the winner of the General Classification will have time to drink champagne and mug for the cameras before the racing begins, the sprint for the line will be no less exciting.

Although it might be a bit late for next year’s Tour de France, should following editions experiment with shorter sprint stages? The pace of change at the race tends to be gradual.

'While changing nothing is madness, changing everything is equally mad,' said the race’s organiser Christian Prudhomme when Cyclist spoke to him recently.

Yet with the Tour now sometimes opening with a sprint stage, rather than the traditional prologue time trial, it’s not impossible that the organisers might play around with the race’s format further.

It’s gotta be worth a try.

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