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How to design a perfect Tour de France route

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What makes a successful Tour de France route? Let’s take a ride.

Cycling: 105th Tour de France 2018 / Stage 19 Photo by Tim de Waele/Getty Images

What are the ingredients in a good Tour de France route? Some say high-altitude finishes in majestic alpine scenes, or a balance of decisive stages that keep the suspense tight through the final week. Others want to see relatively unexplored areas of the France in addition to the classic locales. Foreign fans want to feel like they are experiencing all of the delights that France has to offer.

Ask a rider and you might get the same answers, along with some new ones — safe routes, reasonable stage distances, decent hotels, and as few bus transfers between stages as possible. Team managers, media members, race officials, and everyone else among the roughly 4,500 people who show up to work at the Tour each day will chime in with requests for space to maneuver before, during, and after stages, as they shepherd people and equipment across a country.

Cycling: 78th La Fleche Wallone 2014
Tour de France directors Christian Prudhomme, left, and Thierry Gouvenou
Photo by Tim de Waele/Corbis via Getty Images

For the chefs who try to mix these ingredients into a delicious Tour de France every year — Christian Prudhomme, director of the Tour de France, and Thierry Gouvenou, race director — creating the route is a year-long effort to achieve their own soaring objectives while satisfying the minute details of financial security and physical space. At stake are well-beings, careers, vacation plans, and cultural pride, to say nothing of millions and millions of euros. To make the best course they can, Prudhomme and Gouvenou travel the roads of France and visit potential host towns along the way, scouting out the details of each stage to package them coherently. Every highway and scenic route, stage finish and geographic feature, strange place and well-worn spot was chosen with deliberate care.

Prudhomme and Gouvenou are famous in cycling circles for having breathed fresh air into a race that had been treading water for a decade or so. The Tour has (nearly) always been, and will surely continue to be, cycling’s Super Bowl, but fans get bored of long, endless stages with predictable conclusions. Lately, the Tour hasn’t been afraid to spice things up.

Let’s take a look at the basic elements of a Tour course, how they’re evolving, and what happens when things go wrong.

The roads ... I mean, really, the roads!

The practical reality of putting a Tour together starts with linking more than 2,000 miles of road.

On one level, it might seem like a simple task. France is full of roads! But roads can go wrong. They can be loaded with obstacles (see: the Netherlands’ notorious “road furniture,” such as concrete islands and grooves for moving traffic) that will send unsuspecting riders over their bars in an instant. Sharp turns right before a sprint finish are an old favorite, if you’re into unnecessary pileups with hundreds of livelihoods at stake.

But tame the roads too much and you have the worst of the Vuelta a España, whose straightforward highway slogs look boring even in Spain. Gouvenou and Prudhomme have heeded the riders’ calls for safety in route planning, but not without putting the occasional cobblestone section in the mix, or using cool, narrow roads when the peloton can handle them. Unique riding terrain works well when it is used judiciously — the peloton can handle all sorts of quirky roads, just not every day for three weeks, and not without some warning.

First and second impressions

The Tour always tries to start the race in front of a dramatic canvas for its Grand Départ, sometimes going to foreign soil to find it. For decades, though, once the opening euphoria died down, the Tour would settle into a week or more of doldrums, grinding its way around France with a succession of lackluster sprint stages.

As 21st century media started bringing video of more races to more places, fans began to notice that the Giro d’Italia, cycling’s No. 2 event, seemed to find ways to enliven these early stages. For every plain sprint or two, you would get a funky finish that brought out different riders, or a picturesque climb to a famous hilltop monastery.

Prudhomme and Gouvenou took notice, and they now speak openly about making the race more fun and less predictable from start to finish. Tours starting up north have incorporated roads from the Belgian classics, like the first-week finish atop the Mur de Huy in 2015, or the Mur de Bretagne in 2011 and 2018. In 2019, the finish on the Planche des Belles Filles was reprised from 2012, 2014, and 2017.

The recent flourishes to the course have been a test of the directors’ vision. How much excitement can they bake in right away? Will livening up a few early stages put the overall favorites under too much pressure? The answer so far is no, and now it’s almost heresy not to have a little fun in Week 1.

Starts and finishes

The selection of host towns, where stages will start and end, are where Prudhomme and Gouvenou leave their biggest marks on a Tour. Barring a major climb in the middle of the stage, host towns get the lion’s share of media attention and give each stage its character. Roughly 35 to 40 French cities and towns will start and/or finish a stage of the Tour de France. Some 250 candidates apply each year for the available slots, each with a story it’d like to tell.

That story can be banal. Plenty of places are willing to pay the Tour’s parent company — Amaury Sport Organisation, or ASO — between $60,000 and $120,000 to advertise themselves to the world and potentially bring in millions, places like the Futuroscope theme park south of Paris, or any number of ski resorts in the Alps and Pyrenees. Most towns, however, just want to show off some part of themselves, whether it’s their culture, history, wine, food, or deep connection to cycling.

Some of the towns are chosen because they’ll be first-time hosts — places like Binche and Saint-Dié-des-Vosges, both on the 2019 route. They are old towns with singular traits. Binche annually hosts a UNESCO-recognized carnival ripped straight out of the 14th century, while Saint-Dié was built around an old monastery named for a quirky monk.

Others towns are chosen simply because they’ve almost always been on the Tour. Pau, in the shadow of the Pyrenees, is practically a required stop on every good Tour course, sometimes for multiple days. In 2019, it will make its 71st appearance, for no other good reason than it’s a large town in an area that doesn’t have many. Parking 200 riders and all their support staff in Bagnères-de-Bigorre or Saint-Lary-Soulain would be a stretch. And Pau, the capital of the Pyrenees, is close to the Tour’s favorite major climbs.

Stage start in Pau, 1934
AFP/Getty Images

Another of the Tour’s favorite stops, also on the 2019 route, is Saint-Étienne. It’s not just another of France’s nearly 9,000 places named for a saint: Saint-Étienne breathes cycling. Situated in the middle of several categorized climbs, it is also the home to several prominent bike and component makers — like Mavic, Motobécane, and Vitus. A local club, Espoire Cyclisme Saint-Étienne Loire, develops French and international youths who are on track for professional careers, particularly eastern Europeans looking for a footing. Roger Rivière, best known for disappearing off the road and into a deep ravine during the 1960 Tour, was a local product.

For the town’s 26th appearance in the Tour, Saint-Étienne will get two stages — one finish, and one start. Both are “medium-mountain stages,” littered with moderate, punchy climbs. Saint-Étienne is often an hors-d’oeuvre on the eve of the Tour entering the Alps, but it also works well as a stopover in the other direction, heading away from the Alps toward the Pyrenees.

The Tour is easier to manage for riders and organizers when it comes back to the same host towns over and over, but for fans, yet another stop in Saint-Étienne or Pau can get old. As always, the challenge for Prudhomme and Gouvenou is to strike a balance.

And Yeah, the mountains

The competitive side of the Tour, the thing we all ostensibly come to see, is defined by how Prudhomme and Gouvenou choose the mountain stages. The names of the climbs — Alpe d’Huez, Col du Tourmalet, Mont Ventoux, etc. — grab the biggest headlines when the route is announced every October. The details of those climbs shape the outcome of the race in critical ways. The directors know this, and when they emphasize high-mountain finishes over time trials, or vice versa, they are in effect calling out the Tour’s early favorites and throwing obstacles in their way to create suspense around the yellow jersey.

With that, every Tour inspires a new set of probably-unprovable conspiracy theories. Lately, the Tour has been dominated by Team Sky (now Ineos) and its time-trialling aces. In 2019? The Tour features just 27 kilometers of time trialling. Even before Chris Froome was injured, the message was loud and clear that the Tour would like the pure climbers to shine.

The fact that a couple of French riders are among the top climbers in the world, and among the most forgettable time trialists, is worth pointing out. But fact is, this supposed scheming rarely works. More often than not, the strongest guy ends up winning no matter what the design. It’s fun to imagine Prudhomme trying to pick a winner nine months ahead of the Grand Départ, but he probably knows better by now.

The details of the climbs do a lot to distinguish a Tour route. Every year includes phases in the Alps and Pyrenees, and which comes first in the course alternates, giving a bit more drama to the finishing phase. Then it’s time to design the stages. Fans insist on mountain-top finishes, for the drama and beauty, but too many of them can lead to someone dominating the standings ... or worse, riders avoiding going on the attack, saving their energy for the last, decisive day. The occasional downhill finish can be a thrill, or feel like a lot of climbing for a group to ultimately finish all together. And packing too much into a single day is less likely to launch new heroes as it is to simply wear out everyone. Nowadays, you’ll find the most dramatic climbs coming after 140 kilometers instead of 200.

The Tour has had its share of dud mountain stages, even with Prudhomme and Gouvenou at the helm. The 2015 and 2016 final Alps phases seemed a bit too cute and didn’t give Froome’s rivals all that much to work with, either because the gradients were so slack that Team Sky was able to grind everyone to dust, or because downhill finishes blunted the impact of the climbs. Froome deserves his due as the champion of the era, but the Tour has been at its best when he can be challenged mano-a-mano without his team doing so much work for him.

Tour de France - Stage Nine
Col de l’Iseran
Photo by Bryn Lennon/Getty Images

The 2019 Tour added a special dimension to the mountain stages: high altitude. The last three stages before Paris spend more time than anyone can remember above 2,000 meters, including a crossing of the Col de l’Iseran that, at 2,770 meters, is the highest paved mountain pass in the Alps. The climbs are not tricky or dangerous — just long, high, hard brutes that will punish anyone who doesn’t deliver oxygen as efficiently as your average Nepalese sherpa.

Adding it up...

There is nothing not to like about a route like the 2019 Tour. Starting with its tribute in Brussels to the great Eddy Merckx, it is a Tour of Soaring Ambition, ending with a challenge to the modern riders to rise higher than they have ever dared. It has a charming start in Belgium, some entertaining terrain early on, and a welcomed (for now) emphasis on major mountain climbs over time trialling that seems like the best bet to create an explosive race. The uphill finishes are severe, but with the three most imposing stages all under 130 kilometers, there’s not much fat on the bone.

I wouldn’t call the 2019 route classically balanced — not with the time trials practically removed — but in a more subtle way, it is an outstanding mix of all of the other elements a solid Tour route requires. From the first course to the main dish, Prudhomme and Gouvenou may have cooked up their best Tour yet.