The Moment The Race Was Won: Paris-Tours

When was the race won? In the final sprint for the literal explanation but Thomas Voeckler was easily beaten. He went into the finish with no theatrics, stunts or even facial expressions. The image above shows the Europcar rider and Jelle Wallays of Topsport Vlaanderen-Baloise racing with less than 10km to go. Voeckler is hunched low and straining to produce the power and the the closer the finish got, the more a win would become elusive.

Paris Tours

Wallays and Voecker went early in a group with Cesare Benedetti (NetApp-Endura), Julien Duval (Roubaix–Lille Métropole), Pierre Gouault (BigMat–Auber 93), Yoann Paillot (La Pomme Marseille) and Kevin Van Melsen (Wanty). Hardly a break of heavy hitters to make the bunch nervous but the peloton never gave them much room as the race sped ahead of the fastest schedule in the roadbook. They barely got more than five minutes and with 50km to go they only had 2.30.

Paris Tours 2014

It was on the hairpin bends of the Côte de Crochu that the lead group split with Wallays, Voeckler and Van Melsen left. With 20km to go it seemed the bunch was in control. But the rain and a series of crashes damaged the bunches chances. The damp roads suited a duo of riders while the chase was taking out some of those who might chase.

On to the Côte de Beausoleil and Voeckler put in an attack. It finished off Van Melsen but probably Voeckler’s hopes too as Wallays was able to follow with relative ease. Van Melsen looked cooked but had the trio arrived to the finish perhaps the wily Frenchman could have won. Sure the nominal odds are 33% to win among a trio but Voeckler could have riffed off the Belgian rivalry. Otherwise Voeckler was always going to struggle in a contest of power with the big Wallays.

Sep Vanmarcke

Sep Vanmarcke took a flyer on the Beausoleil too. It was an incisive move that saw a group of 11 riders go clear with John Degenkolb among the first to respond. Should he have followed? It’s easy to debate afterwards and at the time he looked strong. If it split the field, the chase group had its splits in the tactical sense as nobody wanted to take Degenkolb to the finish while there are other riders strong in the sprint like Greg Van Avermaet. But it meant Giant-Shimano ran out of helpers, they only had Ramon Sinkeldam up front. The more modest Cyril Lemoine of Cofidis was a local and made more of an effort but the group ran out of steam. Meanwhile Arnaud Démare had been caught out, his positioning problematic, and then going rogue to later ride across the the Vanmarke-Degenkolb group.

With three kilometres the lead two had 29 seconds and the gap was stable. Wallays looked strong but Voeckler wasn’t himself, there was no fidgeting on the bike, his tongue wasn’t flicking like a snake. Instead he was just riding. Voeckler later told the radio he launched the sprint too early, cracking mentally. But he’d cracked long before. Certainly the pair’s slender advantage didn’t allow for many theatrics. Voeckler couldn’t afford to lose this, for himself and also for Europcar because the French team didn’t have a back-up plan in Bryan Coquard. Onto the Avenue de Grammont and Voeckler launched his sprint. Wallays sat on his wheel like a bored team mate getting a lead out and only when it was necessary did he jump, easily passing the Frenchman.

Jelle Wallays

For the anecdote Wallays is the first rider to win the U23 and the main version of this race. But it’s the future that concerns Wallays. Topsport Vlaanderen is a development team and many of its riders are going to the World Tour for 2015, bigger races and bigger salaries. But not Wallays who told French television he felt left out and hoped this win would change things.

As for Voeckler, the man who loves the French crowds, he vanished for the podium ceremony leaving an empty step and forfeiting his prize money and getting fined. He did show up later but it was too late, just like his form this season. His broken collarbone in August’s Tour du Limousin meant he lacked the endurance today. It’s been a season to forget with two broken collarbones and not a single win, his first blank season since 2002. He’s 35 and not getting any faster.

Case Study
The end of the season is packed with often underrated races and this weekend had the Giro dell’Emilia with its stunning finish up to the San Luca Sanctuary above Bologna. Tours doesn’t have the geography or history to rival Bologna but its tight finish is a case study in how you take an old race and make it exciting. Why do we watch bike races?

  • The sport used to celebrate distance, connecting Paris and Tours in an era when there was no direct railway line
  • Later crowds would flock to see the spectacle before television appeared
  • Today the race has to compete against other channels, shows and activities so suspense and drama are needed.

The irony is a 240km race where only the action’s reserved for the final tenth of the course. But the distance is essential rather than the enduring legacy of tradition. The late hills are so tiny they make Milan-Sanremo’s Poggio seem Alpine but after 230km these climbs and their narrowness are just enough to prevent a bunch sprint. It’s now 16 breakaways versus 11 bunch sprints since the race moved to the Avenue de Grammont. While the World Tour gets a taste of Beijing’s pollution this old-fashioned race from 1896 can still match the best.

33 thoughts on “The Moment The Race Was Won: Paris-Tours”

  1. Paris-Tours has long been my favourite one day race. Something about that autumnal melancholic weather; that end of season feeling, clocks changing, leaves falling. Fabulous. I’m afraid “new world” cycling – Aus, Oman, China etc. – has nothing on this French classic.

    • Completely in agreement with Richard re Paris-Tours, a lovely race and one not to be missed. No doubt the placing in the calendar gives it appeal as does the parcours in the later stages. However, I love to see an underdog bask in the limelight and Topsport Vlaanderen have long been gutsy participants when pitched in amongst World Tour teams. Credit also to Wanty Group Gobert , La Pomme Marseille, Roubaix Lille Metropole, Bretagen Seche, Big Mat Auber for coming out and giving it a go against the bigger budgeted and stronger teams.

      The smaller races in Belgium and France are always a good watch on TV and they do indeed deserve more recognition. However, it would seem that they struggle to engage even the tifosi as witnessed by a luke warm response in the comments section to an excellent summary of the race from INRNG

      • Yeah, I’m surprised no one is speculating on whether the bunch’s failure was due to crashes or errors of judgement, or Van Melsen apparently having gear troubles, or even Voeckler skipping the podium! Or Wallays’ gleeful Muppet-esque victory salute, my personal fave of the season. 😀 Maybe this summary was TOO good? haha

        I’ve only managed to watch a few single-day races so far, this and Giro di Lombardia, but I really enjoyed them. There’s also something to be said for not feeling obligated to watch the television several nights in a row as with stage races. It seems like there IS potential somewhere in there for more television/simulcast audiences….

  2. Wallay is since 2010 at Topsport, so it may well have been one of his last chances. The race itself was simply beautiful, not many words needed. Just beautiful. Felt sorry for those who crashed, no nice way to end the season. Hope it was nothing serious. Totally agree with Richard’s comment. With every new racing calender I fear we see one more race vanish. The racing calender shaped itself over the years, because the races have either a purpose (getting ready for other races) or they have a character of their own or there is serious interest in the race or because of tradition/former winners. Every new race must have a purpose, the situation has to be sensible and the locals there must be at least interested, so that the race has a chance to run for a few years and maybe 15 years down the road the race will then have it’s own tales and a character of it’s own. The riders are no circushorses to be shown around to whoever pays the best or is interested this year. And the riders shouldn’t be forced to race in an unhealthy environment or a country where the infastructure isn’t there or where the weather would normally forbid to race a bike. If somewhere is a serious interest in professionell cycling, the start could be exhibition races of some World Tour teams with local clubs for a few years and maybe then, when the interest is solid or growing, a race could be considered. Cycling isn’t the only sport with (failed) grand ideas about going global and conquering new markets, but you can’t tell people what to love, one of the more charming aspects of us human beings.

    • With every new racing calender I fear we see one more race vanish.

      Yes, exactly. That’s intentional on the UCI’s part to ‘globalize’ the sport. They have been pushing old races out of high ranks for over a decade now and the sport’s growth is still arguable.

      Why a race like Paris-Tours cannot have the highest rank and be broadcast along with another high ranking race from a different time zone is more strange behaviour from the UCI.

        • + 1. Channel_Zero. It is about time the UCI listened and eschewed some common sense, before we lose many more of these little gems in the pursuit of what ?

          • Exactly. There’s plenty of room for growth in the huge markets that are the USA and Germany. Colombia and Russia also seem like much more logical places to grow the sport than China. And if you expand in those countries, do it slowly and organically, so that not everything depends on one or two sponsors.

          • Perhaps you meant, “showed” some common sense?
            ESCHEW: verb (used with object)
            to abstain or keep away from; shun; avoid:
            “to eschew evil.”
            This is the problem, the UCI HAS been eschewing entirely too much common sense!
            THANK YOU, Inrng, for the best pro bicycle racing website.

  3. ^^^
    Same could be said for Giro d’Emilia and several other races with some of the most picturesque and photogenic courses. Thankfully the Tour of Boring (beige-ing) will be put out to pasture. I only hope some of cycling’s neglected ‘classics’ will be shown more respect in the future.

    • And yet stage 4 of Tour of Beijing – just finished – was a cracker. Why can’t we have both? Take the heritage from the old races and also explore the new. The reduction in sizes of squads is a bit of a concern, as this limits the ability of squads to field teams in the “new” and the “old” simultaneously, and I could understand it if there were more teams (and willing sponsors) vying to get into the top tier. I don’t want go choose either / or.

      • UCI did a big consultation exercise with teams, race organisers etc

        Out of that came a number of things driving change, including 1) smaller team sizes, 2) a more cohesive race calendar, and 3) less race days in the season

  4. I had lots of fun yesterday watching Tours. And for Emilia too. Too bad we don’t have Piamonte this year. Hope it returns soon. “The old bicycle race preservation society”. 😀

  5. The comment above makes me think of F1 for some reason. Admittedly there are other factors at play in that sport but the abandonment of “classic” grands prix in favour of races in the desert/Sochi/etc hasn’t done that sport any favours to my mind.

    I can appreciate that sponsors seek wider exposure and the UCI wants to fill its coffers. I also enjoy AToC and TDU among the other fine races held around the world. But for me the true global appeal of pro cycling lies in the classic (or established, mainly European) races where riders from all over the world compete against not only each other on the day but also against the great riders whose names are etched onto the trophies. It’s about balance I guess.

  6. It is. But what cant be over looked is some economic home truths. So many of the races in the traditional countries of Spain, France, Italy and Portugal have disappeared altogether, or been shrunk to a shadow of their former selves (stage races being cut from 4 days to 2, or even a 1 day), as so many of them were propped up by regional and local govt funds that are just no longer there.

    Believe me, Qatar and Dubai leave me stone cold as a race fan (tho I’ve grown to like Oman more). But its why I’m pleased to see races such as Tour of Yorkshire getting up and running.

    • Sam, many of those races have been put out of business by the UCI in the name of ‘globalizing the sport.’ They did it by dramatically raising costs to promoters and in some cases just denying a date and ranking.

      This is mostly old news as the UCI has done this to themselves for over a decade.

      • sorry, channel zero, we’ll have to disagree.

        In many instances, the economies of the regional and local govts in Spain, Portugal etc are on their knees. Many are totally bankrupt. It really wouldn’t have mattered if the costs had been halved. The money just isn’t there to be spent on propping up bike races with public funds.

        The UCI may have done and been many things under Verbruggen and McQuaid, but even they didnt cause the economic meltdown.

        • Sad but more or less true, especially in Spain (as I said elsewhere, the situation is more nuanced in Italy, where many local govt. have money but are prevented to spend it because of the “Patto di stabilità”).
          The reasons, however, are far more complex than “the crisis” (which plays an important part, quite obviously), not only in Italy: at least in Spain, it can’t be ignored a perverse trend towards an ill-conceived (re)centralization, and a shift of public funding away from public-related events or institutions and in favour of very big private actors of the economic scene – corporations and the likes.
          A nation always has got, by definition, quite a lot of money (not in contrast with what Sam says)… and Spain had a very low debt, too, before starting to follow some “good advices” which have benefitted soooo much the economy in the last three years (even the present “recovery” is manipulation of data, or, putting it simple, a lie).
          That said, I’m totally with Sam: the UCI even financially helped to save a couple of Spanish races, and didn’t oppose to changing of dates which helped some Italian races. Bejing didn’t help, it’s true, and the money could be used otherwise to support little European races, but it makes no sense to support a race without a middle-term project of independent survival. Be it in China or in Spain. The hard part of the matter is understanding where your help *can help* and where not, but it’s not easy to guess, and there is no general rule for it. The old AA quote…

          • Well, thinking it better, I remembered a couple of examples when what happened was just what channel zero says. I suppose that there was a lot of schizophrenia, kinda splitting of personality, in the UCI’s policies, right what you could expect in a very personalistic management that decides its line of action depending mostly on friends or contacts (and relatives). Anyway, this is something that is apparently changing with Cookson, no? Stress on *apparently*, yeah, but I liked the way he moved around, showing himself and telling things in favour of classic European races. PR, obviously, but it’s meant to show a direction, at least.

          • Have to say, Gabriele, always enjoy your comments as your aim is not just to be right, but more important to get it right (it also helps that I can read very fast!). This was the only reply-button left, so don’t know exactly where this comment turns up.

          • Thanks anonymous, and… I don’t know where my reply will end up, either. As you point out, sorry to you and to everyone – but esp. inrng – for the length of my posts (and for my English, too). The truth is I’m trying to practice as much as possible! 😉

  7. There are many other ways to promote pro cycling in new areas that would also create income. But for the UCI to let the riders race is the easiest and cheapest way. If the UCI and the teams would see each other as partners instead of the UCI giving the orders and the teams following the orders, this would be a totally different situation! But this is a problem of both sides and the looser in this is the sport. Teams could really GO to local clubs, show off their bikes, tell kids how to sit at a TT or team mechanics could show some of their work, with 17 or 18 teams per 20 riders this wouldn’t weigh much on the teams in terms of time. And if the teams and the UCI as partners for example would agree on a longer term racing calender and actively and longterm support these races they agreed on, the whole landscape of races and racing would change and become more solid and could be taken serious. “The money isn’t there” is a convenient answer and one part of the picture, but not the whole.

  8. There’s a gem of a quote I once read about Paris-Tours – although I don’t remember where I saw it or who said it – but which basically said “Between Eddy Merckx and myself we won all the major one day races, I won Paris-Tours and he won everything else!” I’ve never been able to find it since unfortunately, any ideas?

  9. Can’t help you on that BigSigh.

    You Europeans have a fine and illustrious one day classics history , all other continents are jealous of that distinction. I would think that we maybe able to help by supporting our lesser Pro-conti races with our attendance and sponsorship $$s And maybe they will grow to a major “classic” regional or national race.

    Don’t we owe that to our kids?

  10. Mixed feelings. In the days of old anyone who could stay away with Tommy V all day deserves a contract next season. Did Voeckler feel that the Voeckler of old would have won this and so stayed away from the podium?

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