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Does gravel belong in the Tour de France? La Planche des Belles Filles to test riders on dirt

The final kilometer of Thursday's climb to La Planche des Belles Filles includes a mix of gravel road and chip seal. Does gravel cycling have a place at the Tour de France?

COLMAR (VN) – Tour de France organizers are treading carefully with the incorporation of gravel roads in this year’s route, with segments of the final kilometer of the La Planche des Belles Filles climb having been upgraded from loose gravel to chip seal.

The final kilometer still includes packed dirt, however the final 24 percent push to the line is now coated in chip seal. A photograph on Thursday evening showed that the stretch in question has now been coated in a harder surface.

Still, the incorporation of dirt and rough tarmac follows a growing trend among European road races to send riders racing over “unimproved” roads. It was sparked by increasing popularity among riders and fans for Strade Bianche, famed for its ‘white roads’; and reaffirmed last year by the inclusion of a 1.8km section of dirt on the Plateau des Glières during stage 10 of the 2018 Tour de France. Gent-Wevelgem now has its dirt Plugstreets, and mixed-surface races like France’s Tro-Bro Léon and Belgium’s Schaal Sels have gained mainstream following.

So, do gravel and dirt have a place in pro cycling’s biggest race? Across the starting village for Wednesday’s stage 5, riders and pundits told VeloNews that they do, indeed, support gravel at the Tour, so long as the incorporation of dirt is safe for the riders.

“You can’t have it on the downhill. It is too dangerous for the riders,” said Frenchman Thomas Voeckler, who retired from pro cycling in 2017. “But if it is on the climb, for me there is no problem. So long as the security is okay for the riders it is a good thing. Not too much, but why not?”

Voeckler was circumspect when asked whether gravel sections would actually provide Tour riders with a springboard to attack or create breaks in the GC, as the cobblestones often due when they are added to the course.

“On the Tour I think it is different from other races,” he said. “If we have this kind of stage, I think all the riders will try to stay safe and this will be the main goal. On the Tour you have to stay safe and not lose time.”

In 2018 the Tour included 1.8km of gravel on the Plateau des Glieres. Photo: Tim de Waele/Getty Images

The gravel trend reflects the growing global popularity for off-road riding, from Europe to Australia to the United States. Mass-participation gravel races offer a challenge for riders of all levels, shapes, and sizes, and they provide an exciting mix of adventure to go with the technical and physical effort. Add to that, the isolation of gravel biking in nature provides an escape from the hazards of road traffic.

There has also been a direct link between professional road and gravel riding beyond some road races including gravel sectors. WorldTour teams, Trek-Segafredo and EF Education, had riders in this year’s Dirty Kanza 200 in Kansas. EF Education First have also committed riders in other “alternative” events like the Leadville Trail 100 MTB race, Three Peaks cyclocross race in the United Kingdom, and Taiwan KOM.

Gravel riding’s popularity has soared in the U.S. with the number of events increasing, to the point that prize money is even starting to exceed what is on offer in some road raced. For example, the 2019 SBT GRVL that sold out its cap of 1,000 entrants in a matter of days last December, has $28,000 in prize money up for grabs. The Redlands Classic professional tour had a $20,000 prize pool for all daily and overall classifications.

How far ASO is now willing to commit to including gravel roads could well help complete the synergy between the disciplines, ironically one that existed when the Tour began in 1903; and especially after 1905 when the race route first ventured in the mountains — the Vosges — where riders had to race up off-road trails.

As excitement built for Thursday’s stage to La Planche des Belles Filles, VeloNews sought the views of several identities about the ‘place’ that gravel should have in the Tour. The appetite for it appears to be strong.

Voeckler believes the Tour de France riders can handle the off-road sections, and pointed at the 2018 Giro d’Italia and its brutal ascent of the Colle delle Finestre as an ideal use of gravel roads.

“We saw at the [2018] Giro it is possible. Maybe next year, the Tour will have some gravel,” Voeckler said. The Frenchman cautioned that gravel roads should only feature into one stage at the Tour, and not the entire route.

The Plugstreets have become a favorite section for fans at Gent-Wevelgem. Photo: Tim de Waele/Corbis via Getty Images

In his day, Voeckler was a rider who reveled in attacking, on taking on odds stacked against him and on entertaining with his aggressive style of racing. One could think that he would revel racing on gravel. Anything more than that and teams would need to stock specialty gear for the off-road sections.

“All the mechanics will have to put special tires on, different frames for one stage,” Voeckler said.

Apart from organizers not including a downhill gravel section, Voeckler said that it was also imperative that any gravel stretch be limited in its distance.

“Three kilometers, if it is flat, “he said. “If it is a finale, as in the Giro on the Colle delle Finestre [last year], you could make it five or six kilometers. But you would also have to check days before (for safe conditions).”

So how would a Tour contender feel about racing over gravel, as was the prospect when this year’s race route was announced last October?

Australian Richie Porte (Trek-Segafredo), who placed fifth overall in the 2016 Tour but crashed out on stage 9 in both 2017 and last year, said he “didn’t do a reconnaissance of the last kilometer” of Thursday’s stage prior to the Tour.

But asked if he felt gravel had a place in a Tour route, Porte said he thinks so.

“As long as it’s going uphill, it’s not such an issue I guess,” he said. “I think they have the puncture situation well and truly covered.”

Porte’s Dutch teammate, Koen De Koert, believes teams would need to take special measures for the increase in punctures.

“You don’t want that to be an influence on the GC,” De Koert said.

De Koert has no set view on the optimal length of a gravel stretch. But he can’t see riders changing from a road to gravel bike before a gravel sector. “It will be pretty much impossible,” he said. “They will be too nervous before that because you won’t get to the front again.”

De Koert still understands the interest in gravel’s inclusion, from organizers, sponsors, media, and fans, many of whom ride gravel and would love to see the world’s best road racers ride on it in the biggest race of all.

Generally, adding gravel to future Tour routes would see the race better reflect cycling industry trends.

“It’s the development in cycling in general, isn’t it? We want steeper, crazier, higher,” De Koert said. “Also, a lot of people like to ride gravel. People want to see it. I actually enjoy riding gravel as well.

“For me, it doesn’t necessarily have to be in there, but I can imagine it being in there.”