The Tour de France continues its procession down the east of France. The race tries to visit as much of the country as possible and each year it’s inevitable that some regions get skipped but there’s a trend now with the race directors searching for the geography needed to make for lively racing and the result is some parts of France are being skipped for years in a row.
France is Europe’s largest country and has a geography to match, from flat plains and marshland to Mont Blanc, Europe’s highest mountain, only the choice bits for a bike race tend to be concentrated. The Alps form the border to the south-east, the Pyrenees to the south, they’re the extremities.
It’s simplistic but the terrain to the right/below the handmade red line on the map above offers the Tour de France varied geography; whereas everything to the left/above offers plain terrain, fields of wheat, cereal and woodland and the dreaded “sprint finish”. There’s nothing wrong with a sprint finish… but there is when we get three in a row. The Tour needs some variety to keep interest in the race going and TV producers weigh heavily on the race design these days, almost every stage needs to have something interesting in the finish to spice things up and if the race doesn’t always come to boil, anticipation of some action still helps.
There are exceptions to the terrain to the north and west and the Tour de France directors work like truffle hounds to sniff out the slightest geographical feature to try and enliven a stage. Think the climb at Mûr-de-Bretagne or the increasing regularity of the Paris-Roubaix cobbles in recent years. But otherwise the difficulty is finding terrain to keep the race varied, it’s not easy. Brittany is a big area for cycling with lots of racing licence holders and regional newspapers like Ouest-France and Le Télégramme that regularly have bike races on the front page which means big crowds but it’s difficult for a multi-day visit. They tried last year to have has many climbs as possible on the stage from Lorient to Quimper but it was a siesta stage that conclused in a sprint among 40 or so riders and Peter Sagan winning. There’s still talk of a Brittany stage with the ribinous, the gravel tracks that define the Tro Bro Leon race and maybe a visit to the Loire valley could also use some of the gravel tracks in the vineyards like they did in Paris-Tours last year; this year’s stage to Epernay did look at gravel tracks amid the vineyards, prompted by the local mayor who is a cycling fan, but race director Thierry Gouvenou found the tarmac climbs hard enough.
Instead this year’s route is new prototype. Long gone is the clockwise or anti-clockwise loop of France, instead it’s now diagonale with the race criss-crossing France in search of variety. Even the sprint stages have their features like yesterday’s climb from Maron out of the Moselle valley 15km from the finish which was a focal point of the stage and there are more to come like this, such as the unmarked climb into Toulouse, a dragstrip final 20km is rare. The Vosges offer hills today and mountains tomorrow and the weekend ahead crosses the Massif Central with hilly roads that should reward attacks and provide uncertainty and suspense.
What to do about the forgotten regions? The Tour de France can’t tour all of France, Christian Prudhomme and colleagues cite a rough policy of visiting each region of France at least once every three years but there are several départments (the 95 administrative areas of mainland France) that haven’t seen the Tour this decade – there’s a handy graphic over at Le Monde – and if you revert to the map with the red line on it most of the area directly above the line are barely visited, it’s sparsely populated and doesn’t have exciting terrain. So the Tour can skip some parts for a surprisingly long time.
The Tour de France can’t tour all of France. The old format of alternating clockwise and anticlockwise loops of France seems long gone and there are some parts of France that are being skipped regularly, even consistently. The Tour can’t stick to the same route every year but the race increasingly has a bias to the east thanks to its geography, the Vosges are an ideal mountain range to complement the Alps and Pyrenees as the race aims for variety. The Planche des Belles Filles has been used three times this decade already and it’s on the route tomorrow and if the races does to to the flatter regions it’s always on the hunt for something to spice things up such as a hill, cobbles and maybe a gravel track for the future. This focus on course design is making the race better. About time.