Last year, Tour de France boss Christian Prudhomme liked what he saw in the short, but wildly exciting 109.5km 19th stage finishing atop Alpe d’Huez. With fierce debate over race radios grounding the UCI’s plan to ban them, is the real route to more exciting racing simply cutting distance out of big stages?
With three major climbs on tap for the 2011 Tour’s final day in the Alps, riders jumped right from the gun as the course turned onto the Col du Madeleine. Alberto Contador opened up a blistering attack, drawing out all the GC captains, who, instead of staying tucked inside the bunch, were quickly isolated in a desperate chase up the Galibier.
“That was a spectacular day in the Tour last year,” Prudhomme said. “The riders were not afraid to attack.”
Although Contador’s late-race bid later fizzled — Pierre Rolland won the stage up the 21 lacets and Andy Schleck defended yellow that day — the shorter distance helped provoke some unpredictable racing that opened more than a few eyes to the notion that longer is not always better.
Of all the grand tours, the Tour has been the most traditional and the most hesitant to shrug off the shackles of history. The Tour likes to consider itself the standard-bearer of grand tours. It is, after all, the oldest and the most prestigious, and Tour officials do not take lightly their charge to protect that historic pedigree.
To many within race owner Amaury Sport Organisation, the Tour is a national treasure worth protecting and has done an enviable job at resisting gimmicks. An ever-increasing media landscape and pressures to keep the Tour an interesting TV commodity, however, has prompted some behind-the-scenes discussions within the Parisian offices of ASO.
UCI regulations offer broad guidelines of what classifies as a grand tour. According to UCI rules, the race must be 15 to 23 days, with an “average” stage distance of 180km, and a maximum distance of 240km for a road stage and 60km for a time trial.
There is plenty of room to maneuver within those broad parameters. And other races have not been afraid to try put a facelift on what a grand tour could be.
The Vuelta a España started to shorten race distances a decade ago, offering up short, spicy stages of 110km to 130km. Stages wouldn’t start until 2:30 p.m. (something hung-over journalists didn’t complain about) and featured barely three hours in the saddle.
Those short, explosive stages meant that riders could race more intensely, faster and more unpredictably than during long, six-hour stages where the distances, time and expenditure of watts needed to be carefully regulated.
Things were so wild in the Vuelta a few years back that riders would attack in the neutral rollout. Since ASO bought a controlling interest of the Vuelta four years ago, stage distances there have slowly lengthened back to around the 180km mark.
The Giro d’Italia, under the guidance of ex-director Angelo Zomegnan, quickly raised the bar in reinventing the grand tour model. Zomegnan wasn’t afraid to take riders over gravel roads, up dirt road climbs, down cobblestones, past Roman ruins and hurl them back down toboggan-like roadways into historic city centers.
Zomegnan didn’t meet a hilltop town in Italy he didn’t like, and over the past seven years, the Giro’s prestige, profile and importance have grown enormously thanks to the Italian innovations. Several of Zomegnan’s “discoveries” – Monte Zoncolan, Plan de Corones, strade bianche and Colle delle Fenestre – have become synonymous with the modern Giro.
Not to be left behind, Prudhomme is quietly making paces to spice things up but moving cautiously within the traditional bounds of what a Tour de France should look like.
One of the first things the Tour has done is remove time bonuses, still a contentious issue, especially among the sprinters who realize they may now never come within range for a shot at the yellow jersey.
This year’s Tour has shown that that innovation has injected little energy into the first week — with Fabian Cancellara holding the maillot jaune for eight days — but it has done its job of keeping the GC untainted by mountaintop bonuses that can skew the overall standings.
Yet there are other signs the Tour is starting to loosen up. New finales, such as the Mur de Bretagne last year and the Belles Filles summit this year, reveal that the Tour is not immune to innovation.
Thursday’s short stage — packed with four rated climbs over a distance of 148km — guaranteed a wild ride in the opening hour of racing. And that’s what it delivered, with attacks, an unwieldy and fluid breakaway of 25 to 30 riders, and a selection that quickly whittled the front GC group down to 20 riders in the first hour.
With shorter distances, riders have the legs to punch the accelerator to liven up the dynamics of the race. The Tour’s third and final summit finish, atop the Peyragudes climb in the Pyrénées, comes at the end of an equally short 143.5km stage.
Friday’s stage — the longest of this year’s Tour at 226km — is a throwback to the traditional model that the Tour is an endurance event that is all about suffering, sacrifice and pain.
Prudhomme and his staff are hemmed in to a large degree when it comes to what the Tour can look like. Everyone expects passages through both the Alps and the Pyrénées. Anything else would be heresy. Add two time trials, a prologue, maybe a team time trial and a half-dozen sprint stages, and there is not much room for innovation.
But with its routes over the past few years, the Tour is showing signs of modernizing its product without losing sight of its past.