And just like that, the wild and woolly 2020 racing season is over. It was a non-stop whirlwind from early August until mid-November. So what to do now? Get excited about next season and the 2021 Tour de France, of course! After all, June 26 and the Grand Départ in Brittany is only 223 days away.
In a series of installments, VeloNews editors will be deconstructing the 2021 Tour, picking out the highlights of the route, exploring the key stages, and peeling back the layers of what will be the decisive moments of cycling’s marquee stage race.
To start us off, VeloNews European editor Andrew Hood investigates what’s not there for 2021 — the opening prologue.
An opening prologue deserves a place in the Tour de France
Call me old school, but I dig a good prologue. Three weeks is a long time, and there’s plenty of room for everything in a grand tour, and that includes a prologue.
It seems prologues have fallen out of vogue in modern grand tour course designs. The last opening prologue in a Tour de France was back in 2012, when Fabian Cancellara won in Liège in what would be Bradley Wiggins‘ historical yellow jersey. The Vuelta a España has favored a team time trial of late, while the Giro d’Italia has kept the tradition alive, opening with longer, full-on individual time trials in its past few editions.
Why do I love an opening prologue? They provide a short, sharp and fan-friendly way to get the Tour party started. Short by definition, at 8km or less, opening prologues also provide a telling first glimpse of GC potential, without spoiling the fight. It not only awards the first yellow jersey, but a prologue also gives time trial specialists and even explosive sprinters a chance to grab the maillot jaune. Riders like Chris Boardman and Thierry Marie became experts at the short, sharp efforts.
And when time bonuses are waiting up the road is subsequent stages, opening prologues are a perfect way to set up engaging tug-of-wars between the sprinters to chase bonuses and spar for the elusive yellow jersey before the mountains.
The first prologue was introduced during the 1967 Tour, and grew to become a modern Tour staple. And some of the Tour’s greatest memories were built on the prologues. In 1970, Eddy Merckx won the opening prologue in Limoges, and likely would have held the yellow jersey start-to-finish if teammate Italo Zilioli hadn’t taken it during a breakaway in stage and wore it for four days before Merckx took it back for good.
The 1987 prologue was raced inside West Berlin in the waning days of the Cold War, while in 1989, defending champion Pedro Delgado missed his prologue start by minutes, resulting in time losses that might have cost him the overall title.
So what’s not to love?
Some fans simply do not like time trials, not matter the length. Commercially, the prologue might not be the ideal way to start a race, especially with ASO shopping its roadshow to the highest bidders across Europe. Host towns want to show off their compelling landscapes to an international audience with dramatic aerial shots of their region, and a traditional road stage is more appealing for TV audiences.
Tour officials also have a recent preference to jump right into “real” racing, with a full-on road stage to deliver the first yellow jersey.
For me, a prologue out-punches its weight. The event itself creates a fair bit of drama, and on a well-designed course, the prologue can immediately introduce some GC hierarchy and order into the race right from the start. Prologues also hand different types of riders an opportunity at claiming the prized yellow jersey.
So when the 2021 Tour opens in Brest with an 187km lumpy stage across the wind-swept hills of Brittany, sure, it’s going to deliver some drama, but how good would it be to have an opening prologue?
Imagine the likes of Rohan Dennis, Tadej Pogačar, Primož Roglič and João Almeida dueling for yellow, with Filippo Ganna nipping them all by fractions of a second. Ganna would be the appropriate heir to the Tour’s last prologue-winner, whom many are already calling the “next Cancellara.”
Bring back the opening prologue. The hills of Brittany can wait until stage 2.