Everybody who follows bike racing knows Tour de France director Christian Prudhomme. After all, he is the face of the Tour. But when it comes to the nuts and bolts of the world’s biggest bike race, Thierry Gouvenou is the mastermind.
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Gouvenou — a longtime professional — is the Tour’s race director. It is he who designs the race route every year. And it is he who calls the final shots in the race.
“I am really in direct contact with the teams and the jury. I have a radio tour in my car but I also have the president of the jury,” he said before the start of stage two in Nice. “In my car, I have all of the information about the race at our fingertips. I have a global vision of the race.”
For much of the year, it is Gouvenou who literally constructs the race route, linking the start town and finish town in the most original way possible—one that exploits the beauty of France as well as providing challenging racing.
“I am always thinking about the Tour route. If I am at a race I might go visit a route that interests me. If I am on vacation, I might go search out a road,” he says. “People are always proposing different roads to me and I am always trying to discover new places to take the Tour. It’s something that I am working on all of the time.”
“Each Tour stage takes me about three days to come up with from start to finish,” he adds. “But as a result, I know the route perfectly.”
And such inside knowledge helped make key decisions on Saturday’s opening stage, as heavy rains hit the race. “Whenever we go into a region that has been dry and it suddenly rains, the roads just get very slippery. And unfortunately for us, that is what happened yesterday. The weather really played with us. It has been dry for two months here. So in addition to the questions of COVID-19 and the general sanitary issues around the race this year, we had to suddenly deal with extreme weather conditions on the first day,” Gouvenou explained.
Gouvenou admitted that some teams asked him to neutralize the race, but he insisted that such decisions should come first from riders and team. “Obviously, when we had mudslides like last year in the Tour we have to stop the race. But we can’t neutralize the race every time it rains. In addition, that is part of the history of the Tour. It is stages like yesterday that give real value to all of the efforts that the cyclists make in the Tour. It’s hard to say that today, as there are a lot of riders that are banged up, but it is true.”
In addition, he feels that the increase in crashes that we have seen since cycling returned in August is due to many factors. “I have to say that, if you look at the final 25 kilometers into Nice yesterday, well, you couldn’t have a safer run-in. There was one railroad crossing and two roundabouts. I also think that you have to ask real questions about the [equipment] that is being proposed to riders today. It is simply not possible that they cannot stay on their bikes. They were descending at 25 kilometers an hour and falling all over the place. Where else are you going to find a run-in like that coming into a city like Nice? Honestly, I think that the wheels and the frames are so rigid that they simply have trouble descending. It’s not normal that the peloton is so tense.”
But while the success of the Tour start was spoiled by the weather, Gouvenou was nevertheless satisfied to finally see the Tour get underway. “This year’s Tour is very unique. And really we hope it will be the only one of its kind, because there are just so many constraints. We only have had constraints!”
For Gouvenou, the biggest constraint this year has been the health and safety of the riders. “The biggest challenge is how to get sufficient space between the riders and the public, especially on the climbs. That’s what been turning in our heads the most. We are trying to find the best way for the riders to race, without putting them in close contact with others. That is really the central question and we have spent months focusing on that. How are we going to protect the riders and the teams from potential contamination?”
“It is a question that is without a complete answer. But this year’s Tour is very much a work in progress. And Gouvenou knows that it is up to him to find the solutions. After all, he is the Tour’s mastermind.