Further Thoughts on the Tour Route

Some more thoughts on the Tour de France route and the presentation earlier in the week. Once the presentation’s been digested and the profiles poured over there’s more to think about.

First up this is a route to look forward to and the closer your inspect it, the better it gets.

What’s better? The variety of climbs, to caricature the route has several mountain stages that each have with four or five climbs rather than, say, one or two high passes and a summit finish. This makes the race a touch harder to control.

Novelty: it’s been easy to bemoan the way the race returns to the same old sites, like a diner going to preferred restaurant and ordering their usual meal without even looking at the menu. The 2016 route has some old haunts like the Tourmalet and Mont Ventoux but there are several new dishes, or at least some new climbs which look very tasty. The race visits 16 new start or finish towns but the most interesting part is the use of new or underused climbs like the Grand Colombier (pictured), the Forclaz de Quiege or the Hourquette d’Ancizan with its very difficult descent. This matters not for the sake of novelty but because it means riders and team managers lose their bearings, it gets a touch hard to predict what will happen.

Old habits: there are three ways up Mont Ventoux but the Tour de France usually climbs up from Bédoin. It’s a good climb with an irregular profile – soft past the orchards; very steep through the forest; exposed on the lunar section – but known to many. The climb up from Malaucène would make a good alternative one day as it’s hard all the way up. But the current configuration allows the race to occupy the top of the mountain with the essential logistics and then place more equipment further down below at the Mont Serein ski domain, a large area for parking, trucks and more.

No Queen Stage? There’s no obvious monarch of the mountain stages. There doesn’t have to be. Stage 9 at 184km is a candidate with the Collada de Beixalis before the Arcalis summit finish. This is one of those set-piece stages where the likes of Team Sky and Chris Froome will look to control things.

Zapping: Speaking in interviews after the presentation Christian Prudhomme mention le zapping to mean the tendency of television viewers to channel hop. He and his colleagues are acutely aware that the race has to provide plenty of thrills for viewers. It seems the days of several sprint stages in a row are over for good, in fact the number of sprint stages per Tour could well be limited. Five this year, six next year instead of seven to nine stages in the past. Will sprinters become less valuable?

Zapping II: time trials don’t make for great TV so with le zapping in mind one way to make them enjoyable is to ensure stunning scenery. As long as the weather plays along we’ll get this with stunning shots of the Rhône and Ardèche rivers for the first TT and then the Alps for the second one. TV production is still an issue, the solution has to be a real time comparison between riders so that the drama is live on TV rather than limited to the checkpoints along the way and the finish line.

Beep: Christian Prudhomme has said he wants the sound of the peloton included. It is missing at the moment as the TV cameras record sound from the motos meaning you here the engine and the endless roar of “allez” from the crowd but not the changing of gears, the squeal of brake pads and more. Be careful what you wish for though because riders often exchange choice words when the action is on.

Good show: the route may leak but it’s only the start and finish points. The music is a bit pompous and Jean-Etienne’s speech isn’t too stirring but the route release proves the race is much more than a list of start and finish towns. The Vuelta’s launch never gets much interest and the Giro presentation started off stylish but got stuck with long segments of men-in-suits talking.

History repeating? The last time a race went over the Joux Plane to arrive in Morzine wasn’t Floyd Landis’s roid rage rampage but in the 2012 Dauphiné. It was the first sighting of the Team Sky mountain train in full effect as it paced Bradley Wiggins to perfection. Only one rider managed to get clear of this train. It was Nairo Quintana.

French press: 273 towns wanted to bid for the race said L’Equipe on Wednesday. The Radiovelo show revealed that ASO approached the town of Montauban to host the finish of Stage 6. It turns out the race has many towns across the north of France queuing up to host the race but fewer in the south so ASO has to call up some towns to offer them the race.

Smallville: glance at the list of stage starts and finishes and a lot of small towns are on the list, apart from Paris only Montpellier has more than 250,000 inhabitants. It means the race chooses lots of scenic roads which make for good racing. But it isn’t going towards the urban population, even for the sprint finishes. While riders and journalists have celebrated the apparently small transfers between the finish and the next day’s start there maybe some longer journeys to find a bed for the night… or a bad bed and perhaps last summer’s mini polemic over hotels and motorhomes will be back?

Spectator Friendly: the small transfers underline the way the race is grouped into a small area. If you’re planning to see the Tour de France and can devote two weeks to it then there will be a lot to see if you pick a base in the Pyrenees, one in the Rhone valley and another in the Alps. Even for a few days, one base in the Alps could allow you to see several stages allowing you to catch a stage start, some viewing on a mountainside, the time trial and perhaps even standing above Morzine to see the riders drop into town, a route where apparently Sean Kelly clocked 124km/h in the 1984 Tour de France.

Vuillermoz effect? one place you might not reach is Moirans-en-Montagne, a tiny place in the remote Jura départment, just over 2,000 people live there and it will host the start of Stage 16, quite possibly the biggest event ever to happen there. How come it got picked? Well it’s in the right area between the finish of Stage 15 and the destination for the finish in Bern but it’s not famous for much… except Ag2r’s Alexis Vuillermoz is from the area and he’s given his name to a local time trial race in Moirans. One extra is that the head of the Jura is now also chief of an ASO committee that reunites all of the French departments so he’ll have had a say.

Loop the loop: Paris-Nice and the Dauphiné have deployed a finish loop several times where the race crosses the finish line and heads out to climb a hill before returning to arrive in town. Now the Tour gets this in Culoz.

Maps FAQ: some have been asking when the full route comes out with maps and more. Normally this is online at letour.fr from May onwards. Until then you can try to guess for yourself, normally it’s obvious for the mountain stages.

Renaming France: ASO also has a way of renaming places, aided by tourist offices. Stage 19 finishes in St Gervais Mont Blanc. St Gervais is a long way from Mont Blanc, it’s the equivalent of a Canadian stage race having a Toronto-Niagara Falls finish. Although if you climb up you do get good views, the podium pic from the Dauphiné probably has Mont Blanc behind the clouds. In fact if you climb up for the summit finish of the stage you are in Le Bettex and not St Gervais. Similarly take the finish at “Finhaut-Emosson”. There’s no such place, Finhaut is the village down in the valley below, Emosson is the name of the dam. The actual name of the climb is the Col de la Gueulaz. In the Pyrenees a stage starts in Vielha Val d’Aran which is a combine of the town’s name and the valley name, for locals the town is Vielha, or Vielha e Mijaran on the map.

It’s only a map: finally if this was an art exhibition it’s as if we’re getting excited over the canvas and the supply of paint and brushes before a single artist attempts a brush stroke. Still it’s all we’ve got to go on for now ahead a grey winter. Plus it’s a reminder that much of the season, from Oman onwards, is spent analysing who is up and down ahead of July. Remember the Big Four?

56 thoughts on “Further Thoughts on the Tour Route”

    • Top tip is to try and watch on/up a mountain. Otherwise the peloton flies by in an instant. Near the top of a mountain, especially later in a stage and a split peloton can provide lots of fun. Suffering riders getting dropped, a cheerful grupetto, etc. Bring a picnic, it can be a long but fun day.

      Start or finish towns can be fun for seeing riders up close warming up/down but it’s a better idea for smaller races as less crowded/crazy.

    • The Alps are a good bet, you can see several stages in a few days and the TT gives you a whole afternoon of action if you pick a good vantage point. If you ride you can even try the course in the morning where you’ll find the pros checking out the course too.

      • Anton – take your bike, park up somewhere off the route from where you want to spectate and have a good ride up and down the route in the hours before the caravan comes through, soaking up the atmosphere. Ignore any policemen who say you can’t , because the next one will wave you through with a smile. If you have a couple of days try and take in a Stage start when you can usually get up and close to the pros as they warm up and marvel at all the shiny kit, enormous battle bus’s etc etc – at the finishes they tend to do a quick warm down and be in a hurry to get off to next hotel or whatever, altho it’s quite nice wandering around having a beer and watching the media do it’s post-stage stuff… definitely find a hill tho, as you should get a broken field that doesn’t pass in about 3 seconds. Finishes tend to be very crowded, and difficult to see much (sprints look better on the telly unless you’ve spent 6 hrs waiting on the barriers in a good spot).
        For 2016, Inrng’s idea of staying somewhere in the Megeve area, and catching 2 or 3 stages while riding the odd Col yourself looks very tempting.

      • In 2013 we were in the Pyrenees in a camper van and saw (mountain) stage 8 from Andorra to Peyragudes in France. It wasn’t nearly as busy as during the Tour in France or the Vuelta in Spain, supposedly because this was a Vuelta stage finishing outside of Spain. But it gave us the opportunity to put our van in possibly the best viewing spot that day, a couple of kms below the summit finish with a view all the way down the mountain. We saw them coming around the mountain 2-3 kms below us and slowly making their way up to where we were standing. So my message is to try something like what we did to have an awesome Grand Tour experience without some of the incredible crowds in ‘le Tour’.

  1. I am puzzled by the number of (bunch) sprint stages. Officially nine, Prudhomme says six, Cav five? Let us hope at least one of stages 1 or 11 is windy, full of action.
    Automatized GPS status of main contenders and jersey holders should be in a small window all the time. Or would it promote zapping?

    • I like the intrigue of guesswork. Even in the TT, I find it more exciting to find out how close it is at the line and at the checkpoints along the stage than to have a running clock on the screen. I’m probably in a small minority here.

      • You may still be in a small minority, but i agree – i like the suspense of seeing what the rider’s time will be at the next checkpoint. Live times sort of ruin this.

  2. Great stuff, as usual, inrng, and thanks especially for “roid rage rampage”. I keep coming back to your blog also to get gems like that.

    I really like the novelties and the finishes after sharp descents. Makes for great TV, which W/kg climbing with a powermeter almost never does, for me at least.

  3. Many thanks INRNG for your superb efforts in trawling through the minutia and presenting many interesting facts.

    It is just one of the many things that makes this site a must visit.

    It is good to notice that the question of improved TV/technological issues are at long last being seriously considered.

  4. Interesting piece.
    Most thoughts are on the mountain stages but any clues at the presentation of the northern routes Inner Ring ?
    For instance, Stage 1 is listed at 188km though the direct distance is about 130km. Are they hugging the coast to add the extra km, or even a diversion along the other Normandy WWII beaches ?

    Stage 2 is given as 182km, though the direct distance between Saint-Lo and Cherburg-Octeville is only 80km, so a lot of country to play with here.

    Stage 3 is 222 km, so it could take a westerly diversion via Rennes or an eastern curve to encompass Le Mans, which has the 24 Hour Classic Motor Race a few days later between 8-10 July ?

    I’m interested how Prudhomme uses the opening stages to both light up the race and keep viewer interest in a manner that the 2014 and 15 opening stages achieved so successfully.

  5. Thanks for the above.
    Plenty to think about which you neatly encapsulate as always.
    Personally I would like the media to show more of the descending and Hourquette d’Ancizan would be compulsive viewing, they tend to go to the commercial break as soon as the hill is crested.

    • INRNG probably has example costs – and certainly a grand depart is €€€€ – but if what I’ve been told is correct, ASO are flexible with their fees depending on the place.

      For example, I dont think Alpe D’Huez pays a cent – in fact, do they charge the ASO? – because its such an iconic climb. INRNG…?

      Then a place like Seraing, a very economically-depressed town – I have heard the ASO charges them relatively little.

  6. Thanks, more good stuff.

    I agree, the Malaucène side of Ventoux would make for a challenging change. Chalet Reynard could play the same role as Mont Serein – plenty of parking? For me the worst “renaming” in recent years was Galibier Serre-Chevalier. Wishful thinking to link those two. St-Gervais at least – away from cycling – markets themselves with Mont Blanc and it is “visible” from the St Gervais ski slopes 🙂

    Interesting about the small towns. Do you know what % of ASO revenues include appearance fees paid by start/finish villages? Is it significant? Tough to imagine Finhaut had much of a budget. It’s very pretty, but not much anywhere near there that would profit from more tourism.

    • The hosting fee varies, Alpe d’Huez is said to pay €300,000 but gets all its hotels booked at the same time too. Otherwise it’s €80,000-100,000 normally. What’s becoming new is that the costs are being shared between the different layers of local government in France so the region chips in some money, then the department does and finally the start/finish town with the idea being that if the town gets on the map, the region benefits from all the aerial TV shots and that holidaymakers with visit the region etc.

  7. I’m actually starting to miss the drama of big nailed on bunch sprints. They hardly happen anymore. Every ‘flat’ stage at the tour this year had some sort of fiddly finish, be it a small ramp or having to ride into the sea. The Giro had barely any flat stages and nobody seemed able to control the ones that were. And the Vuelta, well nobody even bothered to send a sprinter and hardly do. You end up with classics specialists fighting B list sprinters. Everything is weighted in the favour of climbers. They’re always wanting to bung an extra climb in Milan Sanremo, L-B-L finishes up a hill, Lombardy was hard this year. I personally find full speed sprints more entertaining than 3 or 4 waifs churning their spindly legs. Give me a big wide boulevard after a nice run across some nice fields and a valley! Just once!

  8. I believe one should be more tolerant of ASO’s toponymic creativity. I have some personal experience with this, having scouted emergency landing fields for soaring competitions. Most of us live in cities and we forget that places in the countryside may lack proper names. The local population gets by with a descriptive approach (“the hillock by Johnny’s farm”) and with common names that are used time and again, both of which are meaningless for outsiders. Furthermore, if your public is international you will want names that appear in maps of, say, scale 1:150.000 upwards. Names that can only be found in 1:5.000 ordinance survey maps are out. With luck, a place in the middle of nowhere may have a memorable name. Most often you will have to name them after the nearest town or village, which may be dozens of kilometers away. If halfway between towns, it may be clearer to name it after both. ASO’s policy is similar and seems both natural and sensible to me.

  9. So now ASO too is getting “infected” with catering to folks with attention spans of seconds rather than minutes or hours? This “Le Zapping” stuff sounds like the social-media mavens at RCS.
    It’s certainly hyperbolic to say “to save the sport, we had to destroy the sport” but that’s what I think about every time I read this kind of stuff.
    They want exciting, action-packed, constant two-wheeled entertainment spectacle? Try MOTOGP, all done in less than one hour. But note that audiences are dwindling both in-person and on TV while costs to participate continue to escalate. Is that where they want to go?

    • This is what so many sports have done – they’ve sold themselves out and ostracised their real fans.
      And this is what many want to do with cycling – due to this desperation to attract new fans who just aren’t there and probably never will be.
      Hence, the grand tours favouring parcours that they think will provide exciting stage finales – for a TV-friendly half hour – and we end up with all the action packed into the last few km and a lack of tactical stages with more climbs where the racing might happen earlier.
      The Vuelta has been the prime example of this over the last few years – how many more uphill sprints do people want to see after hours of nothing happening? I like the odd stage like this, but you need variety.
      The endless fascination with technological gimmickry and needless stats will also detract from the actual sport.

      • This comes back to the TdF coverage being as much, if not more, about the scenery.

        TV companies selling ad space are left with the dilemma of telling prospective ad buyers that there’s no ad breaks in the last k’s when many tune in but lots when not much is happening. ASO therefore need people to tune in for most of the coverage so scenery shots and more information are an obvious way to help that.

        Personally I just want to watch the racing (but I’m happy with more info too).

        • There are plenty of people who watch the TdF for the scenery alone. I myself started watching it because of it. And many French towns have benefitted from the coverage. These people are the ones who end up paying for the once yearly cycling jamboree so maybe some commenters should be a little less snooty about them.

      • What are “real fans” J Evans? Most people egotistically use this phrase to mean people like them. But all sports PR people know that there are way more mainstream viewers then “real fans” and if “real fans” could pay for the sport to keep competing in a global sports market then the PR people wouldn’t need to keep appealing to others.

        You may have noticed over the last few years that many in cycling are complaining of disappearing funding. Someone has to pay for the sport and it seems “real fans” aren’t providing enough wonga for all their love of wool jerseys, cycling anecdotes and camper vans on mountainsides.

        PS “Real fans” really is a very small number of people in the grand scheme of things. Even the very small TV audiences the TdF gets (which I guess you would describe as the people the sport has sold itself out to) vastly outnumber them. And are the people on the roadside fans – or just mostly people who happen to live by the route? (In the famous Yorkshire Grand Depart I saw lots of school kids by the roadside. But they aren’t REAL fans now are they?) I imagine bike manufacturers are happy if non-fans buy their bikes too just as much as the boring guy who can’t stop talking about gear ratios and his preferred cycling shoe.

        PPS I detect snobbery. Maybe I should have just said that!

        • This same post is snob enough, to start with. Like: “you guys should get the right grasp on reality we, those who know best, do indeed have”.
          That said, your second sentence can be easily agreed with, but, from then on, the debate is maybe opener than you’d think. I’ll try to offer a different POV on a thing or two (or ten 😛 ), knowing that I myself will be showing just a limited perspective on the matter.

          “Disappearing funding” very often means nothing else but a shift in the usually trodden path, that is, old school guys can’t find the money from the phone numbers they had scribbled down years ago in their agenda. But it’s not like money isn’t coming at all towards cycling. Cycling *as it is*, I mean. The total number of teams has started again to go up. Several new promising races have sprung forth.
          Also rememeber that complaining is the official favourite sport in cycling (by DSs, pro racers, less-pro Sunday morning cyclists and blog commenters, you may have noticed).

          In most cases, we’ve got specific problems in specific situations which are determined by factors external to cycling as such. You see races and teams shut down in Italy and Spain but, know what?, it’s not because “what cycling is like”. And cycling’s health is really a secondary problems in this two countries. In the *grand scheme of things*, you know. Compared with the rest, cycling is doing great in both places – yeah the bonanza years were a different thing, but that’s over… and it’s not because cycling is sticking to old habits.

          About “what all sports PR people know”, maybe it should be revised when speaking of cycling (and, in most countries, when golf is concerned, too).
          Global sports market? How many global sports do we have? “Global” usually means just “a few countries scattered around the World”. What about baseball? Or cricket? Basketball may have a prevalence of mainstream viewers in the USA, but in most European countries the more relevant percentage of spectators comes from specific fans of the sport. Same could be said for rugby, changing the countries’ names. F1? Its crisis made headlines. Neither is it so global, when you look closer.

          Generally speaking, in several countries, the number of more specific fans of the sport is a significant percentage of the total TV viewers. While this isn’t probably true for cycling in France, it’s like that in Italy – and probably UK, too (for opposite reasons).

          Viewers figures are going steadily up in most major cycling countries. Bike manufacture is enjoying sort of a very very nice moment. The business is growing.
          Still, we’re worried, we perceive a sense of economic menace – and, in part, rightly so.
          I believe that the tension we feel is due to a couple of reasons (among thousands of other equally interesting): firstly, the perception of the growth prompts a misperception of the actual dimension of the sport, and a subsequent desire to see it placed on a different, bigger scale, which it hasn’t probably reached yet nor is it ready to (see below); second, and partly as a consequence of that, there’s a dilemma between optimisation and expansion – the second is way easier to achieve and most managers hastily throw themselves (and the business they’re in charge of) that way, in search of fast figures to show off. But expansion usually comes at an high price and ultimately weakens the core. That’s what I suspect J Evans was maybe hinting at.
          IMHO, what should be revised is the economic structure and the power relations within the sport. Too many conflicting relations which generates internal competition between different social actors within the sport instead of sinergy and distribution (which I don’t think must translate in “organisers give out their money to teams”).

          I won’t bore you further, but the debate about preserving the core of the sport – without renouncing to evolution, obviously enough – can’t be dismissed as snobbery, I’m afraid.

        • Me, I want to watch good racing; I’ll leave it to others to concern themselves with the ‘global sports market’ – which other sports already have sewn up.

  10. As a matter of interest, how close does the actual route come to reflecting Thomas Vergouwen or Sporza’s pre-announcement suggestions?

  11. @MartyMc – Out of 44 possibilities (21 starts, 21 finishes & 2 rest days), velowire (Thomas Vergouwen) got 42 correct.

    He called Andorra la Vella whereas it’s Escaldes-Engordany for stage 10 and he thought St Gervais les bains instead of Megeve for stage 20. Also he didn’t call out stage 18 as a ITT, but aside from that, he’s pretty accurate!!

  12. Just wondering what’s the origin of the term ‘Queen Stage’? I read that it is to do with chess and the queen being the most influential/decisive piece, is that right?

  13. You can catch a sprint stage’s last 10-5 mins to get a real/only buzz of the day, and I for one actually lament the passing of the long-range attack in the mountains due to a (more) level playing field and the favourites watt-watching – was the last one really Shleck vs Evans? In 2010?

    Nothing beats sitting down at 2.30 London time expecting the traditional (yawn) 6min break of minnows to be caught just before 4, but then I listen to Phil and Paul go nuts as a strong side wind rips the bunch to bits, domestiques flailing, leaders panicking. One can only imagine the DS’s screaming instructions as their race plans get real. I have no idea how ASO can arrange this, but if they have any way of doing it, (big electric fans, huge forest fire?) please make it so.

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