Watching the Giro this year you wanted to see Bernal go up against Pogačar in the Tour. Watching the Tour you wanted Primož Roglič healthy. In the Vuelta Roglič was healthy but had no rivals. 2022 is promising with these three riders and more likely to contest the Tour de France.
This year’s grand tours were enjoyable but not vintage editions and if they still made DVDs you probably wouldn’t buy the highlights discs. What makes a great grand tour?
The challenge typing this piece is to avoid excessive references to the 1989 Tour de France. That year does have so much going for it, it is exemplary for so many reasons. The eight second winning margin, settled on last stage in Paris, was the merely conclusion, the last sip of a grand cru edition.
There are some structural elements. The 1989 Tour had theme to coincide with the bicentenary of the French revolution. Now this theme didn’t make the racing any better but it gave the race an added identity, the route visited certain places and even the TV graphics at the time bought in it. So before even picking a route, the first suggestion is a theme. The Giro has done this in recent years, commemorating the 150 years of Italian unification in 2011. It ties the race into history and makes it a part of the year’s celebrations and hopefully a background air rather than in-your-face nationalism. Now a grand tour can’t have a theme every year but since we can cherry-pick, let’s start with a theme that goes beyond the race, a hook into something cultural beyond sport.
Next the route matters. First as an exercise in story-telling, you should be able to glance at the route map and the outline should say something. First you want to see a grand tour rather than too much in one region or any corner. Now a race can’t visit everywhere in three weeks, nor should it have big transfers to try but it try to cover plenty of ground. Foreign starts can bring big crowds and lucrative hosting fees but let’s leave them out for now so that our perfect edition has an obvious route in the country, and there’s no tortuous transfer either. Getting into more detail on the route it needs to have a balance between different kinds of stages. This is subjective, readers will have different views. Our views change over time too, as does the racing style. To reprise the 1989 Tour again, the run down the Atlantic coast for Stages 5-8 looks dull today but one day was a time trial and none of the others finished in a bunch sprint thanks to action. Today it’s hard to engineer these outcomes across flat terrain so you’d need to find a climb or something else to avoid too many consecutive flat stages.
The route can borrow freely from the past. Using the legendary climbs is a requirement because it links the race to past editions. To see a rider tested on the Galibier or Tourmalet today is to evoke the great battles of the past, it enriches the race and counters against any claims of not doing the real climbs. In addition, rather than contradiction new roads are great too. The Col de la Loze was a hit and climbs like the Mortirolo and Angliru have quickly been adopted. Novelty is interesting by itself but in a bike race it’s a step into the unknown, there’s no settled way to race it. Some pavé, strade bianche or even la gravilla is welcome too as it can add action.
What to do with the balance of time trials to mountain stages? This has changed in recent years to the point where adding more time trials just tended to reward a rider like Chris Froome, or Tadej Pogačar today, widening the gaps rather than narrowing them. So TT stages can be included but probably need to be short and on technical courses that ensure plenty of pace changes.
Staying with course design what about time bonuses? They don’t make a big difference but perhaps we could get rid of them, rather than incentivising stage-winning exploits they just tend to reward the strongest rider, an alchemy that turns winning by six centimetres into a six second gain. But this isn’t a hill to die on, things can work out differently.
Other elements include the points and mountains competitions. Here we could have whole separate articles about reforming them but for now let’s imagine trying to make them races within the race rather than things that are just collected along the way, the jerseys should be something that riders have to go and get rather than collect like some win-one-get-one-free offer when they’re winning stages. This year’s mountains competition in the Tour was actually quite good, until right at the end when Pogačar took the lead.
By now we’re straying into how a great grand tour should be raced. This obviously can’t be arranged in advance. You need the right riders to show up in the right form and then for events to unfold. Having mentioned 1989’s flat stages often didn’t deliver a bunch sprint this is part of what helped to make it so good. The day’s sport should beat expectations, that stage we thought was going to have a 4×4 breakaway turns out to be a humdinger of a day. We get some of this today, when some saw this year’s marathon Tour stage from Vierzon to Le Creusot it looked like a very long day. Only Wout van Aert and Mathieu van der Poel joined a big breakaway and we got hours of action, with even a late GC move by Richard Carapaz too.
During the Giro the Cycling Podcast’s Daniel Friebe said the day’s breakaway needs to be challenged by the GC contenders and he’s got a point. It’s nice having two races for the price of one where a breakaway eventually forms after an hour or more of action and then stays away to contest the stage win, and then the GC riders come in later and make their moves. But why not be greedy and hope for a third contest? We’d have breakaway fighting hard to stay away, of not knowing whether they can make it. This ennobles the stage winner because rather than being given a ticket to win the stage for the day, the breakaway still has to fight to stay away. It also puts a burden on the GC riders who must race hard to try and bring back the breakaway.
The race needs a local hero too. Essential? Perhaps not, but desirable. It’ll bring more locals out to the roads and gives the home media a boost although if it goes too jingoistic it can deflate too. But it’s not sufficient, an Italian, French or Spanish winner of their home tour doesn’t make it into a great edition if they’re not tested.
Since we’re choosing heroes, ideally an adored winner too. Not one from a team raided during the race or with baggage, or even an open case against them because it’s easy to put an asterisk next to their name pending resolution, or just because of suspicion. This can get subjective but to reprise 1989 again, Pedro Delgado’s self-inflicted loss by showing up late for the prologue was perfect – he’d caused a scandal on the way to winning the 1988 edition because after testing positive for a masking agent, only one which the UCI hadn’t got around to banning – because his past couldn’t cast too much of a shadow, the limelight fell on others. To step away from doping, think more of the “moral winner”, a popular winner finally having their day.
Popularity can come out of adversity, anecdotally in Slovenia Primož Roglič seems to win more hearts than Tadej Pogačar because he’s had setbacks. For years Philippe Brunel was L’Equipe’s lead cycling writer and he often asserted the definition of a champion is someone who can be in a losing situation but turn it around to their advantage. So our ideal grand tour probably needs to see the winner struggle at some point and then turn the tables in time to win. Raymond Poulidor crashed hard on Stage 14 of the 1964 Tour and lost time. The next day he won, reversing his losses. To use a modern example for definition, let’s take this year’s Tour de France when Tadej Pogačar won the Stage 5 time trial and then Stage 8, the first Alpine day and found himself with five minutes on his rivals. His early dominance took the suspense away. In our ideal scenario, imagine if Roglič had stayed in the race and began to recover from his crash injuries, and to claw his way back and rode into the Pyrenees on the same time as his compatriot. Now this doesn’t mean wishing for a crash, it could be a puncture, a crosswind or another setback. It needn’t be in the race itself, 1989 saw both LeMond and Fignon flourish after injuries that some thought had ruined their careers. The ancient Greeks called it peripeteia, the reversal of fortune in their tragic tales and it is the stuff of great stories.
One scenario we haven’t seen for a while is a Walkowiak one where a breakaway in the race takes a surprisingly big leads and some of its members are GC contenders late into the race. The 1990 Tour de France had this, with LeMond hunting down the Claudio Chiapucci, Steve Bauer, Frans Maasen and Ronan Pensec who took ten minutes on Stage 1.
Perhaps the sine qua non is a contest for the leader’s jersey. The more times it changes shoulders, within reason, the better and as the race develops the contenders are whittled down. Then the jersey keeps changing, a to-and-fro between the best. Maybe this doesn’t have to be a duel but reducing it to two riders does make it more exclusive and makes it simpler for the wider public and the mass media to follow. Certainly this duel a large reason why the 1964 Tour was so good, a reduction to Anquetil versus Poulidor. 1989 was LeMond vs Fignon but they couldn’t mark each other as Pedro Delgado was rising up the ranks.
A duel for the lead is fine but ideally it’s got more going on around it. Seeing riders trying to settle in for, say, seventh place is understandable given the achievement and the matching incentives and rewards but defending a top-10 position doesn’t wow the crowd so while it’d be good seeing the top two duking it out, watching others in the top-10 make moves too is good.
What makes a great grand tour? A battle, perhaps a duel for the leader’s jersey that lasts until the end is an obvious start. But that’s arguably the minimum, there can be a lot more. Holding up the 1989 and 1964 Tours works because they contain a lot of reference points and cycling is constantly making comparisons and relative judgements. But we can also judge a great grand tour by a set of objective measures. Is the course satisfying and does it tell a story? Are the best riders there, how much action is there every day and are their surprises? Do the three weeks provide suspense on a number of fronts? All this is hard to design but you know when to savour it.