Tour de Romandie, History and Future

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A quick look at the Tour de Romandie in two parts. First the history of this race, it was meant as a one-off but was a success from the start and has become a fixture ever since, with some vintage UCI meddling not long ago. Then a look at one of the hidden functions of the race, where teams give leadership or protected roles to up-and-coming riders in the hope they can handle themselves and progress to more.

It’s a story of division and celebration and we have to go back to before the Tour de Romandie started and look at the story of a rival race. Switzerland is one country but 26 cantons and four official languages. The Tour de Suisse has been run since 1933 but, despite the French name, this race was founded in the German-speaking side of the country. Perhaps it should have a German name, think Schweizer Rundfahrt, but as French was for long the official language of cycling it was labelled the Tour de Suisse and that’s stuck ever since. It was organised by the Schweizerischer Radfahrer Bund, one of two cycling federations Switzerland at the time and as the name hints, from the German-speaking cantons. The other was the Union Cycliste Suisse and which oversaw cycling in the French-speaking part of Switzerland. To celebrate the 50th anniversary of the UCS in 1947, its secretary Max Girardet, a journalist, hit on the idea of promoting a stage race as a celebration and the Tour de Romandie was born, Romandie being the term for the western, French-speaking part of the country.

The first edition had just 40 riders, with ten teams of four riders which sounds poor but had several star riders. The GP de la Cinquantenaire (“50th anniversary GP”) was meant as a one-off for the UCS jubilee but became a fixture in part thanks to the popularity of Ferdinand Kübler and Hugo Koblet, two Swiss stars who’d win the Tour de France in 1950 and 1951 respectively. Host towns queued up for the race and the romande public adopted the race. This was the start of one of cycling’s golden ages as food rationing ended, borders opened and a post-war economic boom began.

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The race settled into its pre-Giro slot and thanks to the selective format of time trials and Alpine climbs and many of the big names won the race over the years, like Kübler, Koblet, Bartali, Merckx, Gimondi, Hinault and more.

In 1996 the two Swiss federations merged into one national body, Swiss Cycling, deliberately using an English name to unite under. But the Tour de Romandie didn’t tag along. Instead the UCI, cycling’s international governing body, waded in and tried to parcel the race out to sports rights company IMG. It’s an odd move in today’s light but shows how, once upon a time, the UCI could step in to tell race organisers what to do, even to the point of directing where the economic rights went. IMG became the organiser but dropped it a few years later as it wasn’t profitable enough. Today the race is promoted by ex-pro Richard Chassot who runs an events company and in a TV interview last year he said the race can make a small profit in some editions but can lose money in others.

These days the race has several functions. It’s a straight World Tour stage race with all the trimmings, time trials and Alpine climbs and all the accompanying UCI points. It’s long been a pre-Giro test for some, not many this year, but the last edition saw Primož Roglič conquer the race before starting the Giro so hot he seemed to fade later on. More likely this week we’ll see Damiano Caruso and Marc Soler test themselves at times rather than try to win but we’ll get insights into others going to the Giro, like Filippo Ganna who was beaten in a time trial and looking to set things straight as in 10 day’s time he’s starting the Giro with a lot of expectation. Away from the Giro we’ll see how Geraint Thomas is faring ahead of his Tour de France leadership in 60 days’ time and Miguel Angel Lopez does his first race for Movistar, he could be the signing they really need to deliver big wins again.

The Future
Perhaps the most interesting function is the way the race can be used as a test for younger riders. Put yourself in the shoes of a team manager and imagine you have an ambitious, talented rider on your books. They want leadership or protected status in a World Tour race, where do you send them first? Some races are almost off limits, perhaps you’ll use the Critérium du Dauphiné as a dress rehearsal for your Tour de France squad; ditto the Tour de Suisse where others will be in near Tour de France form. Other races don’t suit, Paris-Nice can be all about the crosswinds, the Basque Country is Boss Level racing, the end of season race in China’s not much to offer and other things like the BinckBank Tour or UAE Tour don’t really supply the obvious opportunities. The Tour of California used to work for younger riders. Romandie though has these openings and over the years many teams have tried out younger riders here.

This week it feels like half of those on the list of this blog’s neo-pros to watch are in action, look out for:

  • Olav Kooij (Jumbo-Visma) and Jordi Meeus (Bora-Hansgrohe) in the sprints
  • Antonio Tiberi (Trek-Segafredo) as a GC contender, not to win but see how he balances the two TT stages with the climbing
  • Mattias Skjelmose (Trek-Segafredo) who won another Swiss stage race, the Tour du Pays du Vaud which is sort of a junior Tour de Romandie crossed with the Tour de l’Avenir, its top-10s are a who’s-who of pro cycling and agents and team managers take notes
  • Marco Brenner (DSM) who’s turned pro straight out of the junior ranks and a Tour du Pays du Vaud winner too. He was 24th in the Flèche Wallonne, respectable anytime but impressive for an 18 year old
  • Thymen Arensman (DSM) who is a big project for the Dutch team, turning pro mid-season last year and getting a valuable start in the Vuelta with two top-10s along the way
  • Jake Stewart (Groupama-FDJ) has made a name for himself already, the hilly stages that offer reduced bunch sprints suit
  • Stefan Bissegger (EF Education-Nippo) has also made a name for himself but now there’s pressure to win “at home” although he comes off the back of a spring classics campaign
  • Diego Camargo (EF Education-Nippo) is a Colombian climber but the steady type rather than someone who makes yo-yo attacks so look how he fares on the long ski station summit finish to Thyon above 2,000m weather permitting
  • Javier Romo (Astana) has looked promising already this year, you might know him as the triathlete who won the U23 Spanish championships but he’s already had an 5th and an 11th overall on GC, how can he do in a World Tour race?
  • Clément Champoussin (Ag2r Citroën) was on fire for a brief period at the end of February and start of March but had a quiet Volta a Catalunya, what can the ex-MTB rider do here?

26 thoughts on “Tour de Romandie, History and Future”

  1. Nice article of the history and context of the race, and I especially appreciate the list of neo-pros to watch. The race also offers a chance to see how Sagan is shaping up in his COVID recovery and his chances of having a better Giro than he did last year.

    Slight correction: the last sentence in the paragraph after ‘The Future’ features ‘riders’ twice; I think the first one should be ‘teams.’

  2. One of the things I love about this sport is that an anonymous blogger has and shares so much in-depth knowledge about not only the current big-name riders, but those waaay down in the ranks, the behind the scenes machinations of both today’s races and those a half century ago. The content here is so much richer than any writing in big cycling publications, let alone color commentators. We are truly blessed.

  3. Thanks for the history lesson. I’d forgotten about “IMG became the organiser but dropped it a few years later as it wasn’t profitable enough.” another example of what happens if/when business starts to overtake sporting interests. I remember IMG sniffing around cycling in the USA around that time, putting some top track riders under some sort of contract with corny, staged, “blow-dry” photos to promote them. Yuck!
    Meanwhile, “Il Frullatore” 130th out of 140 at the prologue? Mamma mia! I guess his fans can still hope for a turnaround ala LeMond 1989? In any case I hope he’ll hang up the wheels before he becomes an object of pity. His palmares deserves better, even with the various doubts.

    • Completely agree on the business part. The people not passionate and coming in cycling just for money don’t usually stay very long anyway, so maybe we shouldn’t worry much about the football agents coming in.
      As for Froome, I never really liked him, but now I feel for him, it hurts to see him dropped every stage on every race he’s doing… He’s really impressive mentally anyway. I even hope he wins something like a Vuelta stage, it would be a big victory and everybody would be happy.

      • I suspect that Froome knows exactly what he’s doing – and knew exactly what he was doing when he signed that hefty contract with a relatively weak team.
        It seems very unlikely that he can ever recover to be anything like a contender again – it’s been nearly two years, and there has been no improvement over the last year.
        Nobody knows more about his health than himself, and I reckon he probably always knew that there was no coming back.
        He’s taking a huge amount of coin from a rich idiot – good luck to him – and I suspect he’ll carry on until the end of the contract, or he’ll be paid off.

  4. A refreshing article. There’s often as much interest in the new names well down the result sheet as the familiar names at the top. Romandie has a good selection while some other riders get dumped straight into the Giro. We’ll have to wait for IR’s insight and wisdom on those.

  5. I was surprised to see in the 1960 photo that both riders were apparently still using butterfly nuts (Robic single-sided?) to attach the wheels rather than QR (cam type) skewers. When did QR become widely used?

    • My guess is typical racers are slow to adopt new technology until it’s well proven by others, unless someone is paying them to gamble by using it? And big names are going to need big checks to make a switch.
      From Veloretro:
      “1948 Campagnolo’s first foreign plant (assembling and finishing) is built in Cognin, France; the quick release lever is stamped “Brevet France.”. F.B. and Campagnolo shared a small production facility in Cognin, France in 1948 to service the French market given restrictive import tariffs of the time. Gino Bartali wins the 1948 Tour de France in July using a Cambio Corsa derailleur.”

    • That photo is mis-captioned by Getty – late 1940s or early 1950s more like. Fachleitner won the Tour of Romandie in 1950, and retired in 1952.

      • Isn’t Fachleitner the rider Robic paid in the last stage in 1947 to win the Tour ? Maybe the Romandie 1950 was payback time for Robic…

      • Handlebar bottle cages must have progressively disappeared through the fifties too in favour of down tube and, later, seat tube mounts. Fachleitner seems to be carrying a downtube pump while Robic appears to do without. Maybe Robic the star had better support.

        Great detail in the image and lots of stuff in Fachleitner’s pocket. Another detail: chest pockets had been replaced by rear by that time. I’m a little surprised.

        • He’s also sporting an impressive pair of Simon Yates-esque sunglasses, quite a trend-setter for the era? I presume they’d be skiing attire?

          PS, after Pogacar’s win on the weekend, I was admiring his glasses and came across a Team UAE sponsor, Scicon, who produce amongst other things a range of ‘blue blocking glasses’ designed to cut glare from device screens. Anyone have experience of these or is this another Yuppie must have like Bora’s reverse flow kitchen extraction? 😃

          • re: blue blocking
            From my total subjective experience, my oculist suggested to use such glasses at my daily hours in front of a computer monitor, cause I felt more and more eye pain in the evening. And that pain is gone after I got such glasses.

          • The scientific evidence is clear – they do nothing for eye strain, and they do not prevent eye disease. If your eyes bother you from staring at screens, it’s possibly due to (1) a naturally decreased blink rate when viewing screens, and (2) holding a relatively monotonous gaze fixation point. If you remind yourself to blink often, and take frequent “look out the window” breaks, your eyes might feel a bit better. But the wavelengths of the light coming from our screens doesn’t harm us or cause eye strain.

            Blue-blocking glasses might help if you have trouble falling asleep after looking at a screens close to bedtime, as the blue wavelength light can suppress the secretion of melatonin. If you’re someone who has trouble falling asleep readily, it might be worth a try (or just avoid screens and LED lighting in the hours close to bedtime).

            If you are going to try these glasses, know that it’s extremely cheap to produce quality lenses that will block blue-spectrum light. Most of the glasses with purported health benefits are insanely overpriced and do nothing more than glasses that cost a few dollars/pounds/euros. And most of the claimed health benefits are somewhere between snake oil and placebo.

          • Come now, surely you can’t object to any brand -no matter how useless or unethical – putting money into our sport..?
            There’s an inverse ratio between peoples’ needs and the amount of marketing needed to make any product sustainable.

            You’re meant to watch the riders, not read them 🙂

          • @plurien – not sure if your comment was directed at me, but if so, I was commenting on the utility of blue blocking glasses in general, in response to Ecky’s question. How does that have anything to do with money coming into the sport?

          • It’s irony.
            Yours isnt lost on me – whichever Gulf state you choose to take your team’s money from, there isn’t a democratic or even humanitarian one among them, so it is a matter of holding one’s nose and admiring the athletes.
            But the point about inverse ratio marketing:need is a serious one

  6. @DJW, agree— that photo looks like an earlier vintage than 1960. Great shot anyway… equipment and riding styles change over the decades, but suffering race-face grimaces are timeless : )

    • Has any rich organisation ever put on a retro invitational where present day pros have a proper race in the kit of a certain year? I know it’s a typical cycle sport magazine kind of thing to do with a single rider, but it would be interesting to see if current riders would adapt by using the same low cadence, almost wrestling style, and what they’d make of it in a race.
      You’d have to pay them a lot…

  7. Only the comments page from this blog would descend (ascend?!) into discussions on blue screen glasses and cycling equipment from the 50s/60s, which then segues into cycling funding/revenue, rather than discussing the subject of the article in question. 😀
    I just asked my wife how to spell segue. She looked at me like I was a moron and then phonetically spelt it ‘S-E-G-W-A-Y’. Looks like she has her big girl pants on today.

  8. Great piece Inrng – as always you give context to a race that otherwise I’d be (and many others who didn’t grow up following cycling) apt to ignore purely because I don’t understand its’ purpose.

    Good win for Thomas, solid riding for Mike Woods (another Canadian boy!), and good of Froomesy to soldier on. All he can do is keep riding.

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