Nobody knows how many roundabouts there are in France, only that their number has soared. The image of the peloton parting like a school of fish to navigate a roundabout has become a televisual staple and they sometimes form tactical features of the course, ask Jacob Fuglsang and Thibaut Pinot or see Edvald Boasson Hagen exploit one to get away for a stage win in 2017. They’ve become an unloved feature of France and even political. Let’s take a tour…
Frenchman Eugène Hénard was the original inventor of the carrefour giratoire or “giratory crossroads” at the turn of the century. As Kory Olson sets out in “Contemporary French and Francophone Studies”, Volume 14, 2010, the new Paris Métro was set out as “the true solution for movement and hygiene in Paris” but Hénard differed, he knew the railway was good for pedestrians but not for the rise of the motorcar and delivery trucks. Hénard proposed the carrefour giratoire and the Place de l’Etoile, the hub with the Arc de Triomphe at its centre was transformed to allow moving vehicles to flow better. Apart from a few examples on big city junctions, including New York, things went dormant until the British revived the scheme in the late 1960s and hit on the idea of the roundabout as a traffic measure. This is what we know today and differs from the old French version as traffic approaching the roundabout must to give way to vehicles already on the roundabout.
- Rondpoint or carrefour giratoire? there’s a corner of the internet where militant carrefour giratoire police pop up to point out that technically the rondpoints we know today, where approaching traffic is met by a “give way” sign and priority goes to traffic already on the roundabout are not rondpoints but carrefours à sens giratoire. But for 99% of people they’re rondpoints.
In the late 1970s Jean-Marc Ayrault was mayor of Saint-Herblain and the town had some traffic problems. Ayrault – who’d become France’s prime minister in 2012 – had visited the UK and invited a British traffic expert over. Soon the town experimented with makeshift roundabouts, complete with temporary signs and bales of hay placed in the middle of crossroads. They worked. Today nobody knows the exact number, only that they’ve grown enormously. Thorough work by a blogger says there are 65,000 which is roughly six times more than Germany, three times more than Britain and double that of Spain or Italy. If France has gone from almost zero to 65,000 in the space of 40 years that’s roughly 1,600 a year, every year. Or more than four per day, every day.
There are so many they’ve become banal, a constant feature yet hardly noticed. Many are decorated, perhaps not to be noticed but to at least catch the eye, municipal pride abrunds flowerbeds and even installation art to become local landmarks and eyesores. As journalist François Thomazeau ventured on The Cycling Podcast a while ago, they could be proxies for municipal corruption given the construction contracts and the maintenance deals but at the same time France’s regional press loves reporting just how much they cost, even a plain one can add up to a million Euros and the same papers regularly invite readers to pick the “ugliest roundabout” in annual contests.
Life on the edge
The roundabouts are also the story of the French economy and society. A lot of medium and large towns in France have become encircled by retail parks, warehouses and other zones. They’re ubiquitous, near-identical and part of what geographer and sociologist Christophe Guilluy calls La France périphérique, or “peripheral France”. From Lille to Marseille you can struggle to tell these places apart. They’re also a marginalised part of French society where hypermarkets draw shoppers and nearby town planners have allowed the widespread construction of pavillons or small one and two-storey houses where inhabitants need a car because there’s often little or no public transport. Guilluy’s work is imperfect to say the least but he’s given a label to a segment of French society that’s priced out of the bijou town centres with their squares, fountains and boutiques; yet urban enough to be separated from the rural charms and myths. To cut a long story short it’s no surprise that the gilets jaunes protest movement last autumn was most active on roundabouts, the movement was rooted in these areas among people who often need a car to get to work, to buy food and so are very sensitive to fuel price changes. Plus controlling the roundabouts makes strategic sense compared to waving a banner in a street as it actually blocks things. The movement still exists but many don’t want to block the Tour de France as they see it as a festive event to enjoy.
As for the racing, rondpoints matter. No other country has so many and with a typical Tour de France stage starting in town before riding out to the countryside before an urban finish it means rondpoints take on a tactical aspect, they’re a feature of the course. Sometimes they dictate the route even with the Tour threading its way through a town to avoid obvious pinch points and even sometimes a mayor will be asked if they’d mind adjusting or even demolishing the roundabout so that the race can finish in a desired location. It helps explain why there’s a neutral roll out to the stage so that the peloton can navigate its way out of town to get a wide, ordinary road before the action starts although Tejay van Garderen broke his hand the other day once the race had started, the peloton had navigated a roundabout and was reforming when he tumbled on a divider designed to separate traffic on the entrance and exit to the roundabout. Crucially they matter in the finale of a race and as we saw yesterday, they can shape the race at any point.
The Tour’s roadbook lists them for the final five kilometres but before that it’s normal for teams to send soigneurs up the road to drive course on their way to the feedzone and they can scout the course and report back any observations including asymmetric roundabouts where one side is quicker than the other, something Dimension Data did in 2017 when Edvald Boasson Hagen won. That only gets people so far.
In 2010 Lance Armstrong’s comeback was undone by a roundabout. As the bunch sped to the first Alpine climb of that year’s Tour on the stage to Avoriaz, the peloton parted like a school of sardines to pass a dull roundabout built to regulate traffic in and out of a supermarket. The road goes downhill and the passage of hundreds of thousands of vehicles braking before and on the rondpoint had rippled the bitumen while the traffic on the other side of the road coming uphill never had to brake so hard. So the right side, the downhill side, of the road was bumpy and Armstrong took this at speed and got bounced by the rippled tarmac, and crashed. He finished 58th that day, finished the Tour and only rode one more race before retirement. This small traffic feature was his undoing.
Nobody knows how many roundabouts there are in France, just that there are a lot and more than any comparable country. They’ve gone from almost zero to an estimated 65,000 today and are a feature of France, although one that is rarely celebrated and sometimes mocked. Visit France for a ride and you’ll probably encounter more rondpoints than cols even if they’re starting to flourish on mountain passes these days, take the Col d’Aubisque and Galibier for example. They matter to the race, TV producers like aerial shots of the peloton navigating them but they’re regular crash-points and some are tactical features because of their asymmetry.