What Happened to The Prologue?

Pinot chrono
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.

29 thoughts on “What Happened to The Prologue?”

  1. As the birthplace of my wife and my youngest son, I’m duty bound to defend Angers’ honour. It is most definitely a city and a stunningly beautiful one at that.

  2. In my opinion Prologues are really fun and TV friendly… Riders with futuristic bikes and aerospace helmets who flight over 50 kph through the winding streets, while showing also their driving skills.. I really don’t understand how this could not be enjoyable.

    • Because you’re a cycling fan and like all of this. The more casual viewers outnumber us fans and don’t like it as much, presumably unable to assess the tech or appreciate the cornering skills.

      • Maybe if they improve TV direction with better camera positioning on the course (that it’s possible on a less than 8 km course) virtual graphic and other stuff they could make the prologue enjoyable also for the casual viewer… I think in this situation TV direction could learn a lot from other events like Downhill world cup or cross country and many more sports outside cycling, which are able to make their events more watchable as possible

  3. I love the Prologues too, and I liked them when I first started watching pro cycling, and I didn’t know who anyone was, but I totally understand why there are fewer.

  4. I like that sprinters might get a chance to wear the yellow jersey, too. I guess I like it being different at times.

    And go Jens! 🙂

  5. Having looking forward to watching the race on channel itv3 and really enjoying it, to then having to change over to Itv24 to continue to follow the race, I cannot believe the difference in the channels, Itv24 have spoilt this coverage as all that I have Sean is more adverts than the coverage of this fantastic once in a lifetime race in Yorkshire, so much hype and build up of this special occasion to be so very disappointed, shame on you on ITV.

  6. The coverage has been on both channels throughout the day. There has been no difference in commercial breaks.

    Regardless, breaks are going to be a feature of any cycling race shown on a commercial channel. Watch Eurosport and you’ll have the same complaint.

    • That is simply not true. ITV have far longer and more frequent advert breaks. This is a fact. Europost will usually have the last 45-60 mins uninterrupted by adverts – ITV must have them like clockwork, even if it’s at the climax of the stage. I know this because I am occasionally forced to watch it on ITV and the adverts are unbearable. They also have a mandatory amount of adverts. On Eurosport all you usually get is Niballi with his shoe-antipasti and an adverts from the Albanian tourist board.

  7. Another commercial consideration that changes how we race: the logistics of needing two sets of bikes for a remote Grand Départ. If anybody can do long transfers well, it’s the Tour, but who needs the bother?

  8. Well, as an American with no TV, and Eurosport streaming live video only to the UK (usually there are free feeds to the US from Eurosport), I was left reading the LIVE ticker from cyclingnews and C. Pelkey. They do a good job, but it’s not the same as SEEING the race. Our network TV (NBC) is a pay service and not worth it anyway, even if I had TV.

    I love Prologues and the excitement all compacted into a shorter stage. Yes, we get to see incredible skill in Prologues that we don’t usually see in other stages. I do miss the opening Prologue, too.

    Change is one thing we can always count on, though, good, bad or indifferent.
    I try to roll with these changes and just enjoy that I get to see this fantastic race at all. Stage 1 is in the books now, and the bunch sprint was certainly a hair-raising debacle for some.

    On paper, we choose who we think might win, and it usually turns out another way. That Cav would get boxed in and crash and likely be done with the 2014 TDF almost before it got started is a huge loss.

    I’d like to hear from viewers who actually saw the final Kms…about the narrowing of the road and other factors that were not “safe” or even prudent for today’s stage. I can’t even watch post-stage videos as my bandwidth is governed by a tight landlord. Still-photos only. Uggh.

    • The run-in was fine today – nothing unsafe, only a couple of roundabouts and very little road furniture, something which is unusual these days.

    • VeloDeMontagne,

      I also don’t subscribe to pay TV, but NBC Sports offers an online Tour-only package that is pretty well executed. You must simply have/sign up for a free MapMyRide account. I have purchased the online Tour package 4 years running…$29.99 for all stages. A tremendous value – with no commercial interruptions. They have offered full on-demand video replays in the past. In 2014, they are using the “Tour Tracker” platform that you might recognize from Tour of California, so not certain if on-demand is still an option. But for live coverage, they showed stage 1 entirely from neutral through ALL podiums. (The Yorkshire helicopter panoramas seemed particularly elegant before Phil & Paul chimed in.)

      As for the stage finish, I think any sprint finish with highly competitive athletes offers the risk for danger. I watched in my local criterium last weekend as the eventual winner hopped up the curb to take a position 4 turns from the finish (with no contact or crashes). This was on a 90-degree corner with reasonably wide roads. I race amateur races, and rarely contest a sprint for that reason. The value I place on my health and a functional bicycle exceeds my desire to cross the line first. These values are reversed among many highly paid professional athletes, not to mention the medical coverage or new bike they are provided in the event of an incident.

      I think the borderline-dangerous nature of city-center finishes is an inevitability in most European cities. Aside from the roundabout at 2 KM to go in Harrogate, the run-in was about as straightforward and safe as could be expected.

      • Thanks, Mark. I’ve paid for the NBC package in the past…nothing beats LIVE coverage, though.
        And yes, I have used the “Tour Tracker” for ATOC and USA Pro Cycling Challenge and even the Tour of Utah; it’s decent, but it’s still not seeing actual footage, just text updates. That’s what I had this morning on the cyclingnews ticker and Charles Pelkey’s “Live Update Guy.” I’m confused, though, because you also said that they showed entire Stage 1 LIVE w/o commercial interruptions. Will every stage be LIVE on NBC online with this package? NBC has always wanted viewers to get the coverage through actual TV viewing. Europe typically has had several free LIVE options, but this year is different.

        Does anyone (Inner Ring) know why Eurosport isn’t streaming their coverage to the US anymore?
        For years it has been free to the US, but now it’s UK only. I’m sure money has something to do with it. Even Belgium and/or France streamed coverage to the US in the past, and though I couldn’t understand the languages, it didn’t matter, because I know the riders.

  9. “Look back in angers”. Best yet IR. and this whole time I thought you were French. But now I’m thinking British living in France. Well done as always.

  10. Went out to watch the tour come through Addingham today. Thought we would have to trek for miles to get a good spot but got lucky.
    Huge cheers when Voigt came through and a really good atmosphere. So many cyclists there, hundreds upon hundreds of them. Really gave you a glimpse of what the world would be like without cars.
    Anyway, regarding the live pictures, when we got home the kids really wanted to see the bit where we (and hundreds of others) were standing.
    Unfortunately both ITV and Eurosprout (I’d taped both) cut to adverts at the start of the climb and of course three minutes later (ads a bit longer on ITV) they were at the top, missing the section we were at. Bah!
    Is there any way of finding the uninterrupted footage of the stage or are the adverts ‘hardwired’ into it, so there will always be a cut?

  11. Cavendish didn’t get boxed in near the finish but caused the crash himself but trying to make a hole where there was none. We could see clearly that he threw his left shoulder into the other bicyclist and as they went down he took all the impact on his right shoulder. This is the third time I’ve watched the Tour and I remember a couple of incidents with Cavendish pulling that kind of thing near sprint finishes. I would say the guy has earned his reputation for playing dirty. Last I saw on reports about the crash he actually admitted this time of causing it (that’s a change). He may still be competing. Nothing broken but torn ligaments and I believe a slight separation occurred where the clavicle joint connects. I do hope he can recover and compete but my biggest hope is that he starts to think twice about pulling those kinds of stunts in future.

  12. I’m glad the prologue has been dropped temporarily, instead of a ‘spotters’ event we now have an interesting stage with racing. I accept that a prologue often goes to a predicted favorite/specialist as do many sprint stages, at least with the sprint stage its a more interesting race to get to the pre-race favorite – eventual winner

  13. The 2014 Giro showed an interesting approach with a Friday night stage 1. I think there is merit in the tour (and Giro/Vuelta) looking at opening on a Friday night under lights or at dusk with a TTT or ITT/Prologue and then adding a 3rd rest day during the 3 weeks. Friday night prime-time is better for advertisers and exposure than a weekday in week 2 or 3.

  14. technology is the key to the prologue.

    imagine a tt with speed, hr, gps position, wind speed, gradient, est power, bike camera totally transforms a dull (for non cyclists) event into F1 qualifying.

  15. I can’t stand Prudhomme’s style. We’ve seen a huge increase in 1st week crashes under his design, which have seen too many GC riders taken out of the race; many times through no fault of their own.

    He’s also seems to want to “demythologize” the Alpe and some of their other climbs that became a bit iconic in the late 70s-1980s. They’ve turned Luz Ardiden into a forgotten peak, while returning to some of the more boring summit finishes in France. Last year’s Alpe stage was fantastic, but it’s a traditional stage (since the mid 80s) that Prudhomme has discarded (though last year was great). From 1983-2005, how many times did the Tour skip the Alpe? Now under Prudhomme, we may see it every 2-3 years.

  16. I’m in Qatar for ten days – was looking for live pictures – non on TV and not much luck on the web – anyone help steer me in the right direction for tommorows stage. On prologues debate – I’ve always preferred bike against bike on the road – so happy to see an open stage that anyone ( within limits )can win.
    Finally – anyone recommend any good cycling docs on U -tube – still here for one more week
    Big thanks

  17. The SBS coverage here in Australia has been excellent. Again they are using the Tour Trackere platform as well, but it has been excellent. Mike “Tomo” Tomolaris always does a great job.

    Also for all the extra coverage anyone not visiting CyclingTips should, they have some great stuff on there including photos.

  18. Relative new-comer to watching the entire Tour but as a competitive athlete I feel I can relate to certain aspects of the sport and therefore will risk comment. I can’t help but think having the tt on the penultimate day is anti-climactic…the possibility of having the 2nd, 3rd, and 4th places – who are so close – decided when not duking it out head to head is disappointing. As per the fate of Cavendish, I don’t know how the riders feel, but I’ve found him to be arrogant and overly aggressive and has reaped the rewards of that behaviour. Billionaire Russian team owners who renege on promises should be so lucky to be shown up by novice Polish upstarts. (How delicious is that!) Over all, I enjoy the spectacle of these
    fine athletes challenge the limits of endurance day after day. (The scenery’s not bad either).

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