There’s always an interesting challenge for Tour de France officials every year — how do you spice up what’s a fairly tried-and-true blueprint of a three-week grand tour?
The answer? Toss in sectors gravel and cobblestones.
The 2022 routes for the inaugural Tour de France Femmes and the Tour de France see both courses tip-toeing into the non-paved surfaces.
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Of course, gravel and pavé were what the original Tour riders raced on more than a century ago. Flash-forward 100 years, and both the dusty and bumpy surfaces are back in vogue.
What’s old is new, right?
But the real question is — do they belong in races as important and demanding as the two versions of the Tour de France?
Opinion seems to be split. Some argue, why not? If you’re a complete bike racer, what harm will a little patch of dirt roads or cobblestones do? Other says the off-road surfaces present an unnecessary diversion that brings over-weighted negative consequences for anyone with bad luck, a crash or a puncture.
Here our VeloNews European editorial team dives into the question: do gravel and cobblestones belong in these races?
We see gravel in Tour de France Femmes, and Roubaix-style cobbles, do they ‘belong’ in a stage race?
Andrew Hood: I have mixed feelings about these mixed surfaces. On one side, yeah, it’s bike racing, and a top pro should be able to handle everything. And the past few years, these cobble stages have delivered some great racing.
On the other hand, 90 percent of the Tour de France-style riders have never raced Paris-Roubaix and only a few dabble in Strade Bianche, so one has to wonder if it’s fair or even a bit perverse to send them rattling over the cobbles.
It’s setting up the race for unnecessary and gratuitous crashes, punctures, and mechanicals, which the organizers seem to think adds to the drama and excitement of the race.
Also read: Did ASO get it right with TdF Femmes route?
Team managers hate these stages, and rightly so. Months and years of work, sacrifice, preparation and not to mention millions and millions of dollars of salaries go into prepping for the Tour.
What do these surfaces really bring? Cheap thrills, say I. We have Strade Bianche and Paris-Roubaix, and they’re both two of the best days of racing anywhere on the world.
Let’s keep the grand tour riders on paved roads, and let the strongest — not the luckiest — win.
Sadhbh O’Shea: Most GC riders actively try to avoid these terrains throughout the year and only dip their toes in when they have to.
The argument from the naysayers when it comes to these surfaces is that they add an element of lottery to the title contest and that any rider could lose out at any time.
For me, that’s what makes these little additions extra exciting. Grand tour winners should be the most rounded riders and be able to deal with any terrain laid in front of them. It’s not just about mountains and time trials.
Provided organizers don’t go overboard with these unorthodox stages, then I believe there is room for them in a grand tour setting.
Jim Cotton: Why not? It’s not like one of the top GC guys is a cobblestone classics rider and so has a clear advantage over the other.
A stage race is a test of all elements of a rider’s toolbox, from climbing and sprinting to things like bike-handling, positioning, and descending. And riding on rough terrain should be another element that gets tested to some degree.
Also read: Is the 2022 Tour route Pogačar-proof?
Sure, the risk of punctures mean cobbles and gravel can make a stage a game of luck, but you don’t see race organizers omitting descents in fear of a slightly slippy road surface or cancelling flat stages when the wind starts blowing.
The possibility of punctures and mechanicals on unpaved surfaces is just another thing teams have to plan for and learn to mitigate.