Twelve years have passed since the Tour de France last visited Germany, a country that once adored La Grande Boucle. It is fitting, then, that the race has selected Düsseldorf, the city known as “the little Paris,” for its Grand Départ. The capital of the North Rhine-Westphalia region, the city of 630,000 is regarded as the German capital of fashion.
According to Tour director Christian Prudhomme, Düsseldorf first bid for the Grand Départ 10 years ago. After a decade of poor relations between Germany and pro cycling, the country welcomes the Tour this year.
“There was a period of mad love between Germany and the Tour, followed by another of utter indifference,” Prudhomme says. “But now we have returned to a more serene and peaceful relationship.”
At the start of the current decade, German cycling had lost everything. It had no teams: Deutsche Telekom left the sport in 2008, while Milram disbanded in 2010. It had lost all of its star names after Jan Ullrich and Erik Zabel quit the sport. And it had also lost most of its major races, most notably with the cancellation of the Tour of Germany in 2008. Perhaps most importantly, German TV channels had dropped the Tour de France and other races from their programming.
The exodus from the sport stemmed from the country’s high-profile doping controversies in the mid-2000s. On the eve of the 2006 Tour de France, Ullrich was banned after it was revealed he had worked with doping doctor Eufemiano Fuentes. The following year, retired rider Bart Dietz confessed to having doped while on Telekom and exposed a team-wide doping program. Zabel confessed to doping during his career in a 2007 interview.
With no professional teams and a dark history, German cycling appeared destined to fade into oblivion.
The sport did not die, however. Instead, a new generation of German stars pulled the sport into the light. Time trial ace Tony Martin claimed the world championships from 2011 through 2013, and again in 2016. Sprinters André Greipel and Marcel Kittel won multiple grand tour stages, and John Degenkolb claimed Milano-Sanremo and Paris-Roubaix in 2015. These men captured the imagination of German cycling fans, who saw their country again return to the sport’s pinnacle.
The five men also banded together to help grow the sport in Germany. They recently went as a delegation to see TV executives, to remind them of their recent achievements: 24 stage victories over the last five years. Their efforts paid off. ARD, the TV channel that broadcast the race during Ullrich’s glory years between 1996 and 2006, restarted its Tour de France broadcasts in 2016.
“We can’t imagine life in Europe without Germany, and that also applies in sport,” Prudhomme says. “We go where passion guides us, and passion for cycling has been reborn in Germany.”
Simultaneously, the Tour de France enjoyed successful starts outside of France. In 2014 the race started in Yorkshire, where nearly four million spectators lined the roads over three days. Fans massed by the roadside and turnout was beyond all expectations. The jubilant scene reminded Prudhomme of the Tour’s previous trips to Germany, particularly the nation’s last Grand Départ in 1987.
That year the race began in Berlin, which was still divided by the Berlin Wall. On the Kurfürstendamm, the “Champs-Élysées” of what was still then West Berlin, Lech Piasecki took second place in the prologue. The next day, Piasecki became the first rider from an Eastern European country, which were all still under Communist rule, to wear the yellow jersey. The Tour de France became intertwined with the history of a continent on the move.
Chronologically, Germany was the third foreign country to host a Tour de France Grand Départ behind Amsterdam (1954) and Brussels (1958). Cologne played host in 1965. That year, Germany offered the race polite interest, but nothing like the passionate atmosphere that was seen during Germany’s second Grand Départ in Frankfurt in 1980.
For 2017, the passion has returned to German cycling. Much of that enthusiasm has to do with the resurgence of homegrown talent.
This year, the race begins with a 13-kilometer time trial. It’s a test that seems tailor-made for Martin. First, riders will cross the bridges over the Rhine and head along the commercial highpoint on Königsallee. From there, a 3.3km straight will lead the riders back to their start point, the Messe Düsseldorf exhibition center.
Stage 2 runs from Düsseldorf to Liège. The finale comes at the end of a 3km straightaway. Look for the hulking forms of Kittel, Greipel, and Degenkolb to go head-to-head in the mass gallop.
Should one of Germany’s young stars win on home soil, it will make the Tour’s return feel that much sweeter. After all, these men are the reason why Germany is back.