Back to the Future: Searching for the Next Big Thing

I make no secret of the fact that I yearn for a truly epic Tour de France parcours. Every year I eagerly await that week in October when the route is announced and every year my hopes are dashed. Of course, any follower of @velowire will have had a fair idea of what the now iconic yellow map of the hexagon will bring but, even so, the Tour aint the Tour until Prudhomme sings – or announces it to the gathered press and riders in Paris.

So what to make of the Tour de France 2014 – the Tour de l’Est that Prudhomme unveiled to a waiting world on Wednesday? It’s certainly one of the hillier routes he and his course designer Thierry Gouvenou have constructed with its three (count ’em) mountain ranges. and features the hardest cobbled stage to grace the race in 30 years. There was much talk of it being ‘a balanced Tour’ with its 5 mountain top finishes and only 1 time trial – a 54km roll around the roads of Bergerac where Miguel Indurain showed his dominance in the 1994 Tour. It’s a mark of how differently professional cycling approaches the mountains that this route is felt to balance the competing advantages of the grimpeurs and the rouleurs. No longer do the mountain goats put minutes into their rivals when the climbs are so often ridden at tempo en bloc. It is only in the ‘race of truth’ that significant time is now gained over your rivals.

Prudhomme has made no secret of the fact that he would have loved to revisit the iconic conk of the Puy de Dome – an impossibility owing to the new rack and pinion railway that has narrowed the road to an impossible extent for a modern Tour complete with a flotilla of team cars and a 160 vehicle caravan. Strange though that Prudhomme has never really explored the other delights of the massif central and the puys of the Auvergne region – those volcanic domes that bump across the landscape in the centre of France. Cols like the Croix Morand that Stephen Roche crossed alone to seal his last Tour de France victory in 1992 or the Puy-Mary, the highest road in the massif where Eduardo Chozas engineered an epic win into Aurillac in 1985. Perhaps he wishes no repeat of the 1960 crash on the col de Perjuret when Roger Riviere broke his back and never rode again.

Instead, Prudhomme has turned his sights to the Vosges and the Chartreuse in his ongoing search for les cols inedites – those little known climbs that provide the race with its novelty and drama.

It’s a project he started back in 2011 with the introduction of newly scouted climbs like Mont des Alouettes and the Mur de Bretagne. 2012 bought the Planche des Belles Filles, known to riders of the Trois Ballons cyclosportive event but never used in the Tour. Fast forward to 2014 and Prudhomme’s latest crop of nouveautes – Croix des Monats and col de Grosse Pierre, the Petit Ballon and col des Chevreres in the Vosges and the col de Palaquit and the finish to Risoul in the Chartreuse.

The finish at Risoul has been used in other races – Froome has won there sealing his Criterium-Dauphine victory in 2013 and Quintana when he won the 2010 Tour de l’Avenir – and following the Lauteret and the Izoard it should prove a fine showdown between the two 5 star favourites for 2014 Tour honours. But if only the Izoard and the strange majesty of the casse deserte with its memorials to Coppi and Bobet had been allowed to crown an Alpine stage like it did when Pascal Richard won there in 1989. Bobet said that only a true champion of the race crosses the casse deserte in the Yellow Jersey – he did it, as did Thevenet when he conquered Merckx in the 1975 Tour. Its roll of honour is like a cycling who’s who – Merckx, Bahamontes, Bartali and Van Impe have all been the first man over the summit since Robic won the inaugural climb of the Izoard on the way to Digne in 1947.

The Chartreuse were flooded in 1934 when Bartali took his memorable second Tour de France win. Charly Gaul loved the Chartreuse – it was where he won his Tour in 1958 in the kind of appalling conditions and torrential rain he revelled in. Over 16 minutes down on GC, Gaul told Bobet he would attack on the Luttel and he did. That was Gaul’s style – to spin away in the worst weather on the toughest climbs. He made the Chartreuse his playground and in that one tumultuous stage he finally won the Tour de France. The 2014 Tour promises to be more attritional, with the big star name climbs backloaded at the end of the race in the Pyrenees, but there are plenty of undiscovered treasures in the Vosges.

The Vosges mountain range is tucked away in the north-eastern corner of the hexagone and carves its way through the disputed territory of Alsace-Lorraine, whose towns are often more German than French in architecture and attitude. It was in the Vosges that Merckx set up his extraordinary win in the 69 Tour when he soloed to victory on stage 6 across the Ballon d’Alsace with the Alps and Pyrenees to come. When a British team first competed in the Tour in 1955 the race crossed the Vosges as it would do again in 2012 where Wiggins grabbed Yellow and Froome his first Tour victory on the Belles Filles. In 1997 the Ballon d’Alsace was nearly the undoing of Ullrich when the Festina team had him on the ropes. Alas for their leader Virenque, he offered Pantani too little for his co-operation and though Didier Rous took the stage win it might have been Virenque who took the Yellow Jersey. Will a Maillot Jaune flounder there next year? Or, like Froome in the Pyrenees in 2013, become isolated from his teammates? The question, as ever, is whether the other candidates for overall victory can make their advantage stick – as Prudhomme himself says “races need exploits, and it’s up to the riders to provide them.”

Prudhomme is hamstrung by geography, by the domination of superteams and US Postal style tactics and by the heritage of the race he directs. It must always finish in Paris, on the Champs Elysees. It must conform to stringent UCI rules governing its length – as he told Bicycling “If we had just 500 kilometers more today we could go anywhere in France.” But the UCI says a three week race cannot exceed 3,500 kms in length and so it doesn’t. Climbs go in and out of favour – the Izoard was the climb of the 50s and 60s, today the superstars are the Alpe d’Huez, the Ventoux and the Tourmalet. The race is expected to visit the Alps and the Pyrenees but there are only so many roads, only so many ways to devise stages that take in the big names.

And there must be a ‘race of truth’ – though the time trial is a Johnny come lately in the race compared to the mountains. The perfect spectacle when watched at the roadside, the art of time trialling tends not to translate to TV. Ah, the contre le montre – it’s the point in the movie where you can go and pee and put the kettle on without missing much. Except that in the modern Tour the time trial is where all the action is, where the huge time gaps that used to belong to the mountain goats are gained and Tours are lost. The biggest time gap Froome achieved over second placed Quintana in 2013 was during the 33km Mont St Michel time trial when the Colombian finished a whopping 5′ 6” behind the Brit. Take that out of the GC equation and you see a much tighter, more competitive race. It’s a huge ‘what if’ of course – but a question that might be at least partially answered in the 2014 Tour.

The indurain years, to which Prudhomme’s route pays a passing homage, were characterised by the Spaniards ability to open a decisive gap in the time trials and defend successfully in the mountains. A similar tactic was employed by Sky to secure victory for Wiggins in 2012. Both riders have been accused of lacking that indefinable quality panache so beloved of armchair Dses everywhere. Yet l’Equipe in contrasting Indurain and Chiapucci in 1992 observed that, whilst one had brought a ‘wonderful craziness’ to the Tour with his escape to Sestriere, the other had shown his class by becoming, yet again, a ‘monumental’ champion and dominating the race. If that wasn’t panache, wondered the French sports daily, what was?

Confucius he say “Study the past if you would define the future.” There are 3 Tour de France routes in the planning stage at any one time, each attempting that tricky balancing feat. So 1926’s stage 10 ‘Ring of Fire’ – the climbs of the Aubisque, Tourmalet, Aspin and Peyresourde is replicated in Merckx’s grandest exploit in 1969 and reappears in 2010 as a ‘little tribute’ to the Belgian superchampion. Each is ridden quite differently, each reflects the changing face of the Tour – then won by the man who would go on to the final victory, now by Pierrick Fedrigo from a breakaway whilst the favourites are content to roll in together some 6 minutes down. Will we ever again see the likes of Merckx’s ride through the high mountains? Or will Prudhomme’s tricky, testing routes through the Vosges be the new proving grounds for Tour de France champions in an era of highly controlled racing? Only the 2014 race will tell.

There is one new climb that is unlikely to be seen in the Tour again in a hurry. At 521 m and an average gradient of 7% for its 4.7 km length Yorkshire’s  col de Holme Moss is unlikely to decide the victor of the 2014 race. But it’s a sign of Prudhomme’s strength as a race director that he is always looking for the next big thing. That might not be Holme Moss, but who’s to say that one of his undiscovered climbs won’t decide the winners of the future.

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2 thoughts on “Back to the Future: Searching for the Next Big Thing

  1. Prudhomme really does seem adverse to the true mountain TT. Seems strange to me as it is made for TV, offers the climbers a chance for big time gaps, and can be balanced by an ITT. It would be fantastic to revisit the past and have a TT up Ventoux again.

    • I think this parcours is a brave experiment – and an acknowledgement of the way TT miles can unbalance the result of a race. It’s the fewest TT miles in a Tour since 1934 when the TT was introduced. But I agree re: MTT and how attractive it is to a TV audience – would rather see one of those than a pan flat course that harks back to Indurain (having said which watching Indurain TT was amazing)

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