In A Roundabout Way

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.

Tactical features
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.

“Passage des 2 côtes” = pass on both sides

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.

65 thoughts on “In A Roundabout Way”

  1. It’s not just the roundabouts it’s the often huge speed bumps chicanes and other street furniture. Driving my van round France I often think that it’s getting impossible to have a safe race here

  2. Over the past few years they have been installing roundabouts here in what is a pretty rural part of Minnesota, at potentially dangerous intersections that don’t have the traffic to justify a stoplight. Judging from the outcry, you’d think you were required to enter them at KPH.

    • That’s interesting. Years ago the mdofthecomoany I was working for was from Chicago and he was unused to roundabouts as there was only one in the entire state of illinois hasusroaddesignchanged then?

      • There are definitely more of them then there used to be. I think MN may be ahead of the curve on this for some reason. Where they are putting them is kind of odd, though. Perhaps the idea is to get people used to them on relatively lightly traveled roads, and then start putting more of them in crowded areas. The one part of the US that was always known for roundabouts was the road from Boston out to Cape Cod.

        • Clark Griswold (Chevy Chase) memorably could not exit a UK roundabout in the classic comedy National Lampoon’s European Vacation.

          More seriously, many UK roundabouts, particularly ones on main trunk roads (known as A-roads), are now becoming traffic-light controlled due to the increasing traffic volume making them impossible to join.

    • I have seen them added to dangerous junctions in Alberta, Canada. They were accompanied by similar anger, but they have made these previous deadly junctions much safer. They should add more.

      For urban roads, they improve traffic flow, but as a pedestrian, I often loathe them (in the UK now). To cross safely, you normally have to walk quite far from the roundabout centre to the crosswalks, if they even have them. So to cross diagonally, it might take an extra 5-50m of walking plus waiting at the crosswalks.

    • You North Americans call them roundabouts then ?

      Interesting, as Phil Liggett always kept referring to them as ‘traffic circles’ in the commentary we had here in the UK on Channel 4 – which jarred massively in UK English as we don’t use the term and we wondered ‘what is the old fool wittering-on about now ?’

      I’d assumed was because he and Sherwen were actually aiming their (Lance-dominated, even though he’d retired…) commentary at US and most of their money was from OLN not from C4

  3. Other sites: rest day round-up
    INRNG: a treatise on French roundabouts

    Excellent work! I trust you’ll be changing your name to the Inner Ring Road. 🙂

  4. I’m not clear on the road rules for French roundabouts.

    Vehicles coming into L’Etoile (in Paris) have right of way over vehicles already circling the roundabout, but INRNG suggests that at other roundabouts the circling vehicles have right of way over the incoming?

    At L’Etoile it feels quite dangerous on a bike, but also really exciting to ride full speed into the circling traffic knowing (hoping!) everyone will stop.

    What’s the general rule?

    • While the Place de l’Etoile is usually referred to as “the first roundabout”, it has different traffic rules to the rest of them (it isn’t strictly considered a roundabout). Regular roundabouts give priority to whoever is already on the circular path, whereas in the Place de l’Etoile crossing, as you pointed out, vehicles merging into the circular path have right of way.

      Go figure.

      And I can confirm that yelling against roundabouts is a bit of a national sport, since they force you to slow down, without the benefits to general traffic flow being immediately perceptible (though usually, they are there). Arguably, they’re not great for cycling races, but they often help with traffic.

      In my mind, nothing tops the Swindon “magic roundabout” though:

  5. So the Dutch word for roundabout, ‘rotonde’ is not a loan word from French? Weird, because it sound extremely French to me.

    • A “rotonde” in French would most often refer to a building with a rounded, dome-like roof (think of an Italian “Duomo”), or a room with a rounded wall (think of the Oval office), or a circular plaza/forum.
      I don’t speak Dutch but I assume that the latter would be the origin of the word.

  6. A number of the rond-points here in NE France and Luxembourg carry the full set of EU member country’s flags on separate poles, often with the EU flag too. Does the habit exist in other EU countries? UK…

  7. As I remember it EBH was generally praised for that attack but as an sworen Edvald-fan I remember wishing he could have made his attack “fair and square” (not indicating any unfairness but there would have been better ways to convince everyone that he was the strongest in the group – but the job is to win, I know). Nevertheless, I guess roundabouts are as much a part of the parcours as any bend, straight, bumb or turn and are there to be exploited by the riders.

  8. On the mildly off topic subject of EBH, what went wrong for him? At one point he seemed a fantastically complete rider who I would have expected to win a lot more than he has, particularly in recent years.
    Did he have a particular injury?
    Burnt out by Sky?
    Too fond of Krumkake? (he does look to be carrying some extra weight compared to much of the peleton)

    • I was thinking he looked to be carrying a bit of a belly! Not to be rude, but these guys are paid to be very skinny. He seems above his normal race weight right now.

      • I too think content is the right word to describe him. But there are several other factors to point at. A series of badly timed injuries and illness. Never seems to get in two years in a row of solid training and racing. A lasting preference for the two races he’s never quite figured out – RVV and Roubaix. Very “Norwegian” race program, meaning full focus on said races and the Tour and 10-15 race days a year is spent at lower level and very controlled events in Norway. Weak position in strong team (Sky) and strong position in weak team (DD).

  9. Re EBH, I think he was a victim of his own talent. There was so much he could potentially do that he never really seemed to pick a role. IIRC Sky tried to use him as a sprinter, which he wasn’t quite good enough for.
    Plenty of riders would sell their grannies for his palmares though.

  10. I’ll take a roundabout over a traffic signal (or worse, a two-way stop) intersection any day of the week though I can understand the pain-in-the-a__ they are for bike races. I do believe race organizers should be required to block off one side so everyone rides the same distance and there are no issues about jumping over medians to rejoin the peloton.
    As far as LeTour goes, seems plenty have decided things are pretty much over after less than half the race? I hope not and I hope someone 3 minutes behind Thomas doesn’t give up so soon – lot’s of things can change between now and Paris.

    • > I do believe race organizers should be required to block off one side so everyone rides the same distance and there are no issues about jumping over medians to rejoin the peloton.

      I reckon this needs to be tackled on the merits of each case. If you’ve got a race route going through roundabout which has been optimised for traffic calming with fairly tight entry/exit curves, forcing everyone onto one side is only going to exacerbate the concertina effect which will force far greater efforts on riders further back in the peloton – i.e. the lower budget teams who can’t afford the firepower needed to ride at the front all the time.

      Keep both sides open and riders further back will be able to take the ‘long’ side to keep up a smoother pace without a hard acceleration to get back on, i.e. going further but actually expending *less* energy and keeping more riders in the mix for the final.

      A good measured improvement to make (I know, not the strong point of this chaotically organised sport) would be for the road book and on-route signage to show when a roundabout with both sides open is more than a couple of metres longer on one side than the other. Those riders who are particularly concerned about roundabouts like that could mark them on their route notes.

      > As far as LeTour goes, seems plenty have decided things are pretty much over …
      Those plenty are idiots. This has already proven to be a very aggressive and tactical race, 10 stages with 10 different winners doesn’t happen that often in any of the three grand tours.

      The race route has been great too, lots of variety covered so far and more to come. After the boring first half of the Giro this year packed with boring sprint stages, I hope RCS are watching and taking notes.

  11. In defence of the maligned roundabout, they are the safer alternative to a T type junction and also slow down traffic speeds without necessarily bringing vehicles to a prolonged halt as lights would do.
    They are certainly an expensive option, though town planners will often require developers to bear the cost as part of a new planning application.
    So it may not be the public purse that pays for many of the new roundabouts.
    They were definitely not designed with bicycles in mind, they can be quite nerve-wracking to share with vehicles.

  12. I love roundabouts. They’re not that common in California, but more are being built. Having worked for the State road department, I can attest that many of the design engineers hated roundabouts, seemingly just because they were something new and different. The common refrain was “Roundabouts confuse people.” I would reply “They’ll learn. Or do you think European drivers are smarter than American drivers?” That usually shut them up.

    • Well, as someone who grew up in California and recently moved to Italy, I tend to believe European drivers are superior to those in the USA. In Italy they might pay more attention to the laws of physics than the actual traffic laws, but in the USA too many drivers pay attention to neither!

      • Yes. The grid system and automatic clutches have made Americans the laziest drivers in the world. It has also led to them having the worst cars too.

        A timely article by Mr Inrng given that some are blaming the roundabout for Pinot’s failure to make the lead group yesterday.

        Fuglsang probably wears the deepest scars. Though George Bennett has a 24hr nightmare what with the cricket and losing 6 minutes!

  13. Good points… but in France the drivers generally know how to indicate and safely make their way through a roundabout. In Switzerland the law hasn’t caught up with common sense and safety and it’s only required to indicate when exiting (and few do even that). Terrifying when you’re on a bicycle and irritating in a car. At least in France the rondpoint is often a matter of municipal pride. I ride thousands of k’s a year in both Fr and Ch and feel threatened in the latter and respected in the former. Racing them is a different matter, yes.

    • In Germany very few indicate at all and then only when exiting. There are not so many roundabouts although they are becoming more common. As a consequence “how to use a roundabout” never formed part of what folks in Germany learn as part of their driving lessons, thus most drivers have no clue what to do. Even more amusing is the “Recht vor Links” (right before left) rule in residential areas and village centres, basically you have to give way to traffic on your right even if it is a minor road joining a larger one. It is a cause of endless confusion especially for non German drivers who cant fathom it at all.

      • > In Germany very few indicate at all and then only when exiting.
        Well, yes that is the rule for entering and leaving a Kreisverkehr. Upon entering you must not use the indicator, however you have to use it before leaving.

        When it comes to the use of indicators: it’s a capability the majority of drivers has either never mastered or forgot over time.

        Great work INRNG, thanks!

          • No : you indicate and position yourself in the road to show which exit you are taking

            Here in the UK, Highway Code rule 186 applies (that’s the UK highway code, where we drive on the left side of the road and will go round the roundabout clockwise)

            186 (signals and position)

            When taking the first exit to the left, unless signs or markings indicate otherwise:

            signal left and approach in the left hand lane
            keep to the left on the roundabout and continue signalling left to leave

            When taking an exit to the right or going full circle, unless signs or markings indicate otherwise:

            signal right and approach in the right-hand lane
            keep to the right on the roundabout until you need to change lanes to exit the roundabout
            signal left after you have passed the exit before the one you want

            When taking any intermediate exit, unless signs or markings indicate otherwise:

            select the appropriate lane on approach to the roundabout
            you should not normally need to signal on approach
            stay in this lane until you need to alter course to exit the roundabout
            signal left after you have passed the exit before the one you want

            When there are more than three lanes at the entrance to a roundabout, use the most appropriate lane on approach and through it.

            Doing this is not fun on a bike though if it’s a high speed roundabout, getting in that right lane with faster traffic, then into the left lane when you want to turn off

            So rule 187 says

            In all cases watch out for and give plenty of room to:
            cyclists and horse riders who may stay in the left-hand lane and signal right if they intend to continue around the roundabout (allow them to do so)
            (plus long vehicles who may straddle lanes, pedestrians crossing the joining and exit lanes, etc)

            Many UK time trial courses use roundabouts as the far-end of out-and-back courses, so you’ll ride down the road, turn at the roundabout and come back the other way – looking over your shoulder, road positioning, etc is essential to ensure you get round safely without being hit by faster motor traffic going straight on…

  14. I once went round a roundabout in Southwest France that had two giant halves of a Kiwi Fruit as a road sculpture set in the middle of the roundabout. Very realistic it was too.

  15. I do hope that the rond-point that brought down pantomime villain Fiendish Lance Armstrong now has a commemorative plaque. Who wouldn’t want to take a selfie at the nexus of evil? And it’s not like there’s a big hill to go up

  16. “Guilluy’s work is imperfect to say the least…”
    What are Guilluy’s notable imperfections then? A brief web search suggests his ideas should have been taken more seriously in Europe and America. Or does he just mostly write clickbait and occasionally get lucky?

  17. We have them in Canberra (Australian Capital Territory) all over the place – confounding many an unsuspecting tourist as they can be quite large on the main roads. We even have one large roundabout that is patrolled by traffic lights, which to my mind defeats the purpose.

    • Signalised roundabouts have a higher capacity than non-signalised. They do cause delays when the roads aren’t busy but if you are in an area which has lots of rush hour congestion they are generally better. Also better for pedestrians and cyclists.

      In the UK we are increasingly seeing busy out of town roundabouts have signals added while in city centres roundabout are being removed in favour of traffic light controlled junctions as roundabouts are terrible for pedestrians and cyclists and often have subways which have major maintenance issues and not very desirable. Plus signalised junctions allow you to prioritise certain flows such as where there are lots of buses.

      • We’re usually having them where the traffic lights are only operational at rush hour, when traffic is light the roundabout operates as designed
        Which makes sense – roundabouts were brought in in place of old-fashioned plain traffic light crossroads so you weren’t held-up at a red light in the middle of the night when there was nobody going the other way.
        Now of course we get into the territory of ‘turn left/right (depending which side of road you drive) on red if it’s clear’, or even the traffic lights which are set to go to flashing on amber in all directions or even to be turned-off completely at quiet times, which some countries have and the Dept of Transport keeps looking at here in UK

  18. Talking of roundabout accidents, I remember Cavendish going a over t at MSR last year (or possibly 2017). I always give him a little thought and a little wince when I pass that roundabout between Arma di Taggia and the entrance to the Poggio.

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