The Tour de France always used to start with a prologue, a short time trial. Last year’s grand départ in Corsica was seen a rare opportunity for a sprinter to wear the yellow jersey only it’s the same story today. The opening prologue’s not the certainty it once was.
A reminder that a prologue is an opening time trial of no more than eight kilometres. The Tour de France has sometimes opened with a longer time trial, for example 15km in Monaco in 2009 or 19km for 2005.
The prologue was first used in 1967. If we include the longer opening time trials it started an unbroken run from 1967 to 2007 of prologues and short opening time time trials. It’s been used in 2009, 2010 and 2012.
Look back in Angers
The first prologue of the Tour de France was held in the town of Angers in 1967. The idea was simple, a means to attribute the yellow jersey from the start and a way to show the riders one by one to the public. It’s also said it was a means by which the Tour could create an extra stage and thereby charge more money to the host town. In 1967 it was called a prologue but labelled Stage 1a. It saw the race start on a Thursday before finishing three and half weeks later with several split stages, ie two stages a day and only one rest day. As for the prologue Raymond Poulidor, the eternal second, was the top pick on the day but inevitably finished second.
Why no prologue?
Christian Prudhomme took over as directeur du Tour de France in 2007 and one of his first acts was to shake up the route. The race was founded by a journalist and Prudhomme’s predecessor Jean-Marie Leblanc was one too, albeit after a pro career. But Leblanc’s style was that of a reporter and when he ran the Tour de France there was a corresponding style, a matter of fact procession from prologue to sprint stages to time trial and the mountain stages. Prudomme’s journalistic style is the same as his vision for the Tour, a more lyrical and romantic storytelling. One way to change the script was to scrap the prologue… and out it went. Why?
- It means there’s no hierarchy to the GC during the first week, adding the the doubt and suspense over the state of the GC candidates, we have to wait a week to discover who’s in shape and who’s not.
- If a GC contender wins the it means an extra team on duty to defend the yellow jersey on top of the sprinters, more legs to stamp down on breakaways
- Without a prologue the opening days can allow new faces to wear the yellow jersey, often the sprinters
- TV audiences aren’t so good. Presumably the casual viewer doesn’t get to see a direct contest the spectacle is reduced further with riders hidden under visors, riding bikes nobody can imagine riding in a position few would like to try
- There’s another business consideration here with tourist agency “Welcome to Yorkshire” paying millions for the start and short time trial around the city of Leeds is not the promotional wonder that helicopter shots of the landscape are
The prologue does have its advantages especially for rider safety because it sees time gaps from the start. This imposes a hierarchy on the race and means a large portion of the peloton knows it’s ruled out of wearing the yellow jersey. Consequently the number of riders having (or willing) to take risks drops. Put simply someone already 40 seconds down on GC won’t fight for position so hard. By contrast on an opening stage where everyone’s within reach of the yellow jersey the risks go from high to wild.
Once a certainty, now the prologue is a mere option as Christian Prudhomme and ASO are trying to vary the route and with it the type of race. But there are business, television ratings and safety considerations at stake. The prologue’s not dead. It’ll be back in 2015 for the Grand Départ in Utrecht, or at least a 13.7km time trial in Utrecht. Which makes business sense because the Dutch city has paid for the start and it won’t want the race to leave in a hurry.