Times now, ain't what they used to be. For seemingly decades, the opening stages of the Tour de France featured a formal welcoming stage, often in the form of a prologue, followed by a seemingly endless succession of appetizers before we got even a hint of the main course. Riders seemed in agreement on this traditional format, with its delayed action and a chance for the sprinters to do their thing, get paid, and get out of the way before the real action ensued. Under the guise of Tour de France Director Jean-Marie LeBlanc, from 1989 to 2005, this comfortable consistency mostly reigned.
Since LeBlanc gave way to Christian Prudhomme, the Tour has undergone a remarkable transformation, and this week's opening stages really drive the point home. First, the whole idea of starting in the southern regions -- an inconvenience for the Tour, which likes to meander around France a while before reaching first the Pyrenees, then the Alps, or vice versa. In 2009, Prudhomme demonstrated that the Tour could start down south, opening in Monaco, and still be a success. One taboo removed.
Next was the terrain. If it had been set in stone that a short prologue had to serve as the opening stage -- a sop to the local hosts, who pay quite dearly for the privilege of a Grand Depart and prefer not to have the race leave town after five minutes of racing -- Prudhomme got out his chisel and removed this edict. Sure, London got to host one, but the Grand Depart from the historic cycling town of Brest on the Brittany coast in 2008 was a mass-start with a tough climb to the finish. So too, in 2011, did the Tour again launch a full road stage from the Atlantic coast, this time over the spectacular Passage du Gois, a strip of road that seemingly floats across a muddy bay and is only dry at low tide. This was followed by a week of undulating, tricky roads. Almost every week since 2008 has had a few tricks up its sleeve. And the racing has been varied, breathtaking and fun.
This concept almost certainly didn't come to Prudhomme in a dream; rather, he stole it from the neighboring World's Second Best Race, the Giro d'Italia. Taking place over three weeks in May, the Giro tours around Italy, a country with almost no flat spaces to begin with, and in front of a fandom that has little use for predictable stages. Mountains were climbed early on. Roads turned up and down in both the south, the north and the center. Flat affairs, tossed in so as to not tucker out the field prematurely, would often still end on a five or ten kilometer ascent, to a monastery perhaps, with a sprint at the top. This is a formula that turned off a few traditional sprinters over the years but has kept fans on the edge of their seats during the supposedly dull first week. And now you can see it at the Tour.
The 2013 course was a masterwork of tricky stages. Yeah, stage 1 only got interesting because the Orica-GreenEdge bus wedged itself under the finish line scaffolding, stuck in place as late as five minutes before the field was due to arrive, while millions watched thinking they had no idea what was going to happen. [It got sorted, there were crashes, and German Marcel Kittel took the prize.] The next day the bizarre gave way instead to the grand, as some late climbing shattered the field en route to a gorgeous spit of land off the coast of Ajaccio, leaving little-known Jan Bakelants to steal the show from the stars. Day three, the last in Corsica, was another selective affair, with the Mark Cavendishes and Andre Greipels of the show eight minutes behind, and Simon Gerrans stunning Peter Sagan for a sneaky sprint win. Three days and exactly zero favorites arriving where and when you'd expect to find them.
Among the benefits of this change-up in recent years is the initial battle for the Yellow Jersey. When prologues were in play, the yellow would go to whichever prologue specialist could essentially sprint for ten minutes at a faster rate than the rest. And after five or six flat stages, the yellow would still be on the same shoulders. Cut out the prologue and you might see the leadership rotate among the sprinters, but it gets confusing when they're all actually tied for first on time. With enough short climbs you can get gaps, and see the yellow change hands, or at least wind up in the hands of a less obvious person than Fabian Cancellara, again.
So all this change means exciting racing without having to wait two weeks. Chapeau. But the big winner this time around was Corsica itself. The last remaining department of France to never have hosted a Tour stage, Corsica rolled out its finest wares to tantalize the riders and viewing audience all weekend. Gorgeous, peaceful scenery greeted the race wherever it went: along the coast, thru the towns, up and over the mountains. Absent was any hint of foul play (LeBlanc previously cited terrorism as an excuse not to go to Corsica), nor was there any sense that the race was too big for these towns to handle (another oft-cited excuse). After waiting 100 years and parking a massive ferry offshore to house the press, Corsica served up three stunning, unpredictable days of racing and barely a peep of complaint from the riders or Twitter or any other source.
Unconvention doesn't always pay off. Sometimes the big names can't handle it and are gone or dented before they were supposed to come out and play. The trip down from Rotterdam in 2010 went off the road, literally, when a moto crashed and covered the course with oil. Stuff happens. But the unconventional design of this year's route, in an unconventional location to begin with, reaching France's southermost terrain, brought out the best in cycling: intense efforts, tactical battles, surprise victories, and the memory of an opening week that was nothing like the old forgettable sprintfests of days gone by.