More Thoughts on the Tour de France Route

Thursday, 31 October 2013

With the presentation of the 2014 Tour de France now a week behind us, what to make of the 2014 route? With some perspective we can see more.

The race might stick to the east but it will visit a lot of people and by accident it’s also a tour of Europe’s rust-belt cities from Sheffield to St Etienne. Plus some thoughts on where to visit and the darker side of Tour founder Henri Desgrange.

Tour des Français
Look at the map and it looks like a Tour of Eastern France. How can you have a race that misses out so much of the country? Well because the race can visit different regions in other years of course, things balance out. But note if the race doesn’t visit all of France, it will visit a lot of French people. Here’s a map of France with population density by départment:

Tour de Rust
One reason for the high population was rapid urban growth caused by industrial expansion. Coal and steel saw many of the red regions to the north and east boom. Only it’s all been on the slide. The people remain but sometimes the jobs do not. If there’s commemoration of the Great War, another unintended theme looks like the Tour of deindustrialisation. The race is set to visit a series of places where industry has collapsed leaving scars and sometimes still open wounds in the form of high unemployment and other social problems. Sheffield, Lille, Arenberg, Nancy, Mulhouse, Oyonnax, St Etienne and even the Pyrenean valleys have seen factories vanish.

Of course each town will boast of regeneration and a vibrant future and bringing the Tour to town is a way to shine a light on the improvements even if the race only rides in to town for a day.

Desgrange and the heart of France
If numerical analysis is not your thing what about patriotism? The race arguably passes through many areas associated with French nationalism. You might think of the country’s heart being in the middle of the map but in the mindmap of national identity France’s spiritual home lies somewhat to the east. Reims is famous for Jeanne d’Arc and where the Germans signed the act of capitulation in 1945.

This is a slippery slope but the race’s visit next summer to Nancy would please Tour founder Henri Desgrange. Prior to the Versailles Treaty of 1919, Nancy was on the border with Germany and Desgrange delighted in sending the race to “France’s eastern capital” to deliberately taunt Berlin. He loved France… but hated Germany and the Prussians and once called on Frenchmen to slam the butts of their guns down on Prussian chests, to spill their blood and show no forgiveness.

Henri Desgrange, newspaper promoter, Tour de France legend… and hardline French nationalist?

Whilst we celebrate Desgrange’s genius as a race organiser and newspaper salesman he had a more sinister streak. He sent the race to the Vosges out of provocation. Of course the race visits in 2014 in search of good roads but the race will need think carefully about commemorating the past whilst finding a way to skip past the event’s early nationalist streak. I’ll return sometime soon to Desgrange’s more sinister legacy.

To pavé or not pavé?
Back on more familiar ground and there are different views on whether the cobbles should be in the Tour de France. One side says these roads are part of France and part of cycling lore; the other says it’s too dangerous and a circus stunt for TV. Of course both can be true. Riders scared about the cobbles have two choices: get familiar and comfortable with them or spend next July riding the 100% tarmac Tour of Austria.

“L’enfer, c’est les autres”
Jean-Paul Sartre

Satre said “hell is other people” and the difficulty of riding over the cobbles is one problem but the peloton psychosis is another. Fear of the cobbles means riders fight for position and teams accelerate to place their riders near the front forcing other teams to respond, an infernal spiral that forces riders to take risks and where accidents are likely.

First week siesta-fest?
Stage 2 is hilly and could cause problems but all eyes are on the cobbled stage for a race: it’s difficult. The other stages will of course have their moments but it is possible to have an entire week of bunch sprints. TV viewers might be doing a rain dance… if they can rise up from their sofas. Then again I’d pencilled in the second week of this year’s Tour as dull and we got some crosswinds and breathtaking racing. Still, it should take something unusual or external to the race to split things up.

On paper Stage 13 looked like the most boring day of the race. On the road it proved to be one of the best

Full route
Some have been asking when the full route comes out. The answer is normally in May. You can plot it yourself for some of the mountain stages because there are few roads to link up the main mountain passes. But if, say, you’re planning a trip to France and want more precision, email me and I’ll try to help.

Where to visit?
Seeing a stage of the Tour de France is something everyone should do. Even Britons finding the race on home soil should consider seeing it in France although perhaps not this year. You’ll rarely catch the decisive moment of the race so a determining factor in where to visit is your preference for a particular region.

The cobbles are exciting but visit them in April to see Paris-Roubaix for real when there’s a chill in the air and mud in the fields. The Vosges mountains would be one tip, fine roads to explore and the race criss-crosses a few points meaning you can see three stages without having to travel much. This allows you to try different experiences, watching in a village bar one day and then seeing the finishline jumbotron the next.

The Alps look avoidable this year, the race doesn’t linger there. The Pyrenees look a better bet and are worth visiting for their scenic charms and the retro vibe where each kilometre south of Pau takes you back a year in time. You see signs like older cars, faded adverts and hotels with phones where you dial rather than punch a phone number.

For a more technical analysis of the race route with stage profiles and more, see 2014 Tour de France.

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{ 20 comments }

Peter October 31, 2013 at 6:07 pm

Love the context that this excellent article provides: I have never seen a day of the TdF in the flesh, but your advice re a few days in the Vosges is tempting! I’ll look out for group tours that do exactly that!
I am sure that a Sheffield resident will pop up soon to remind readers that the grim days are gone (well, if you ignore Meadowhall) but I did visit recently and was told that it now produces more steel than it ever did before.
Not sure if that is true but anyway the scars of Thatcher’s legacy are slowly being covered and Sheffield is a pleasant place nowadays.

Sheffielder October 31, 2013 at 10:23 pm

I’ll oblige as a Sheffield resident Peter! You are quite right, Sheffield is an exceedingly pleasant place nowadays, and with the Peak District on our doorstep it is a superb city for a cyclist. Yorkshire’s finest cycling club (Sheffrec CC) is based here, and we now have the excellent Sheffield Grand Prix city centre criterium each July. The Tour visiting is just the icing on the cake.

Can’t be upset by Inrng’s comments though, on account of his thoroughly excellent ‘blog. Come and visit us in Sheffield Inrng, you’d be made very welcome.

But yes, Meadowhall is hell on earth…

Zueco November 2, 2013 at 10:53 am

Excellent article. Both the population density and rust-belt perspectives are great insights I have not seen elsewhere. Looking forward to further digging in Desrange’s past.

What the rustbelt is concerned, yes Sheffield is one of those cities with lots of regeneration, and now a pleasant place to live, particularly the Western parts. But interestingly, the stage 2 route concentrates all on the rust-belt industrial zones of the city in the last 10 kms, with the finish in a somewhat desolate stretch with a mix of still thriving high-tech steelworks, run-down empty former factory buildings, and new developments such as shopping malls, sports stadiums, car dealers, and lots and lots of parking space.

On the cycling technical side, I give ASO much more credit on the first week. No chance that “it is possible to have an entire week of bunch sprints”. Stage 2 and stage 5 are as likely to end in a bunch sprint as Liege-Bastogne-Liege and Paris-Roubaix, and stages 1 and 7 are certainly no straight-forward flat sprinters stages.

Tim November 4, 2013 at 7:54 am

Why not self-tour? It’s very doable — check out Velonomad.com for loads of tips on how to do this!

Tim

Yoav October 31, 2013 at 6:38 pm

I thought Orleans was famous for Jeanne d’Arc, not Reims, but hey, she probably got around :-)

The Inner Ring October 31, 2013 at 6:44 pm

True. She helped the French win several battles and it let to Charles VII’s coronation in Reims. The cathedral is also a national symbol.

bikecellar October 31, 2013 at 6:51 pm

Kenavo! not this year :( for the Bretons.

Tom October 31, 2013 at 9:06 pm

I normally refrain from gushing comments, but this was a great piece. Not sure about others, but to me steeping the race in historical context starts to bring out the more interesting sides. Nice work, Inrng.

Redeye October 31, 2013 at 10:50 pm

I know Harrogate very well and it’s interesting that everyone is so sure the first stage is going to end in a sprint. I’ll make a prediction here – the peloton will finish together, but it won’t be a normal sprint. Don’t believe me? Sure, the profile looks flat, but have a look at that finishing straight a bit more carefully (try Google Earth). As someone who’s pushed a pushchair up Parliament Steet many times, I can assure you it’s not very flat. And it’s not very wide either. Sadly I fear another mass pile up on the first stage again – position is going to be critical before that final ramp. I’d have Sagan as the odds on favourite for the stage, possibly Gilbert if he can rediscover his old form. I’m afraid it’s just too steep for Cav though I’d love to be proved wrong. I think a few teams might be a bit surprised when they recce the Yorkshire stages. Lets just hope it leads to good racing and not crashes.

STB November 1, 2013 at 12:06 pm

The Cambridge to London Stage is designed for Cavo…. Her Majesty will be watching :-)

channel_zero November 1, 2013 at 10:41 pm

While I don’t ever look forward to crashes, my hope is they stick to narrower roads in the area. It could provide some interesting racing.

PeterC November 1, 2013 at 12:26 am

You have two big audiences/markets in the UK and Germany with 3 of the best sprinters in the world. Why wouldn’t you have a boring first week and get viewing numbers up in Cav/Kittel/Griepel’s home markets. Bad for cycling viewers, good for casual watchers in important territories.

Larry T. November 1, 2013 at 1:31 am

Nice bit, enjoyable reading as always. I’ll second your idea about seeing Le Grand Boucle live, in-person despite that fact we no longer offer any vacation packages after ASO got so, well….serious about asking everyone to pony up for the opportunity. But I’ll say the same for pretty much all of the big pro races, including one we DO plan to see live with paying clients…La Corsa Rosa. One can watch TV/video forever, but NOTHING compares to actually being there, though you’ll not likely have any idea of what is going on compared to someone sitting at home on their couch.

Chadders November 1, 2013 at 2:05 pm

I think it’s likely that we’ll get interesting Classics-style racing for a week, with a couple of bunch sprints and few breaks sticking. Narrow roads here and cobbles in France. What’s not to like.

The sub-text of Froome and Quintana et al trying to survive will be fascinating until they can flex their legs on the Belles Filles. The last thing you want to see is Froome getting in the yellow within a week and hanging on to it.

I would have loved to have seen a short and testy time trial though.

Brian-Sacramento, CA November 1, 2013 at 5:18 pm

Have an ITT over the cobbles. Reduces the dangers of a GC rider getting taken out by frenzied peloton fighting for position, but still incorporates the technical skill and endurance. It would certainly spice up what is normally a boring stage (TT) for a spectator.

Has there ever been an ITT over cobbles in the recent past?

Anonymous November 1, 2013 at 6:19 pm

I’m not a cyclist, so no idea if this idea has any obvious drawbacks, but this seems like a great compromise. Presumably the penalty for puncturing wouldn’t be as severe with your team car right behind you and no disadvantage of losing contact with the bunch.

Dave November 2, 2013 at 8:34 am

I’d love to see them do it one TT bike!

Little Tom November 1, 2013 at 10:46 pm

Maybe the ‘battle for team car position’ could add to the interest to the first weeks racing and battle for Yellow? Surely the GC teams would prefer to be car number one or two in convoy, so potenially can get to Team Leaders quicker there is a puncture or crach? This could be all important! Added to this Team Sky will surely have a desire to be in the Yellow Jersey on ‘home’ soil?

benDE November 5, 2013 at 9:51 am

Great piece with a bit of everything. One comment about the necessary tactfulness of racing in the border area: This danger of nationalistic tendencies between D and F are overblown. Full blown nationalists are hard pressed to whip up these feelings much less the TdF. The TdF is a nearly 100% unifying force without even trying. Or am I just missing something because I am in ‘ever richer’ Germany?

The Inner Ring November 5, 2013 at 9:57 am

You’re right, my point was more we celebrate the Tour’s past but Desgranges had another side that looks like a bigot and xenophobe. So whilst the Tour is used as a way to explore geography and commemorate the past, the race itself was instrumental in provocation and nationalism. Not on a vast scale but Desgrange seemed to have had a political agenda as as well as a sporting and event promotion angle.

I’ll write something more on this in due course.

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