By more or less happy coincidence today’s historical stage, the 69 kilometre team time trial from Lorient to Plumelec, reflects what is happening in Le Tour in 2015 as the teams take part in a team time trial that also ends in the Breton town of Plumelec.
The team time trial goes back to the 1927 Tour when the organizers introduced a radical overhaul of the rules. Desgrange objected to the way in which teams combined to fix the outcome of the race and also to the way that the teams rode the flat stages, sticking together and contesting the stage win in a bunch sprint while conserving energy for the mountains ahead. Such shoddy tactics were against the spirit of his race which he intended as a test of individual strength and ability.
So in 1927 Desgrange changed the playing field once again. Now each team had to set off alone at 15 minute intervals on the flat stages in what was effectively a team time trial, the idea being that they would have no option but to ride hard as they could not mark their rivals on the stage. The winner of each stage was the individual with the fastest time that day, which must have been a nightmare for the timekeepers with 38 riders on 8 professional teams and 104 independent touristes-routiers to keep track of as they rolled away in their separate cohorts. The touristes-routiers who started last on each day would depart 1 hour and 45 minutes after the first team had left.
In all their were 16 such stages out of a total of 24 in the 1927 Tour. Individuals could ride ahead of their team if they sought a better time, but no team could afford to take it easy for fear that the teams behind them on the road would eat into the 15 minute gap, thus gaining time overall. The new system also gave an advantage to riders on strong teams. It’s remarkable that the overall third, fourth, and fifth placed riders, Maurice De Waele (Labor–Dunlop), Julien Vervaecke (Armor–Dunlop), and André Leducq (Thomann–Dunlop) came from teams that existed of just two men, while the J B Louvet team boasted eleven riders.
For all the tinkering with a team time trial format the race was really won in the mountains when the riders were let loose again to ride as they wished. Stage 11 which included the climbs of the Aubisque, Tourmalet, Aspin, and Peyresourde was won by Nicolas Frantz, putting him in Yellow by 38 minutes. In second place overall was De Waele, with Vervaecke in third. Other than Frantz extending his lead to over an hour the top three didn’t change for the rest of Le Tour.
The experiment was tried again in 1928, but by 1929 there was only one team time trial stage and from 1930 to 1936 there were none until their reappearance in 1937. There were three that year, each run as part of a split stage that included a team time trial and a normal road stage. Another long hiatus saw no team time trials from 1938 to 1956, one in 1957, and then their inclusion as a regular feature of Le Tour from 1962 to 1996. Since then they have been in and out of Le Tour several times depending on the whims of the organizers.
In 1982 the team time trial specialists were TI-Raleigh, winners of seven out of the previous eight team time trials at Le Tour between 1977 and 1981, and hot favourites to repeat their success in 1982. They nearly didn’t get the chance. The team time trial was scheduled for stage 5, with 73 kilometres to be ridden between Orchies and Fontaine-au-Pire. On the day French steelworkers blocked the road, protesting over the news that 1,000 of their colleagues were about to laid off. The organizers decided to cancel the day’s racing, opting to replace it with a team time trial to be run as stage 9A on the morning of 12 July, followed by stage 9B, a flat road stage from Plumelec to Nantes. True to form TI-Raleigh won the team time trial by 1 minute 10 seconds over second placed Renault-Elf, covering the 69 kilometre course at an average speed of 46.1881 kph. It was their eighth consecutive victory in the discipline.
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