Months before the riders face their personal challenge of negotiating Le Tour the organizers have their own challenge to face, planning the route with the aim of creating an exciting and open race that will test the riders and entertain the fans. No-one wants a staid and predictable race or one that favours a certain type of rider, or even a particular individual. Though on occasions the organizers have created a course that if not designed to allow a specific general classification favourite to completely dominate, was certainly designed with them in mind.
Since its inception in 1903 Le Tour has constantly evolved, adopting new ideas, keeping the ones that worked and discarding those that didn’t. We’ve seen how in the early Tours each days racing was followed by one or more rest days; the first official mountain stages introduced in 1905; the first feed stations in Le Tour as a response to the rationing and shortages faced by post-war France in 1919; the first individual time-trial introduced in 1919; the first team time trial in 1934; and the first prologue in 1967.
Desgrange, and his successors, have always been adaptable, ready to make changes if they felt that the race would be improved as a result. Tinkering with the route and the composition of the stages, as well as with the rules, time bonuses, national, regional and trade teams, and the introduction of the Tour Caravan in 1930 have all left their mark on the race’s history.
One innovation that proved durable and unpopular in equal measures was the split stage introduced in 1934. It was the year that the individual time trial made its first appearance in Le Tour following the success of the Grand Prix des Nations, the long distance time trial created by L’Auto’s rival newspaper Paris-Soir in 1932. That year the time trial appeared as part of a split stage, 21A and 21B, on 27 July comprised of a road stage of 80 kilometres from La Rochelle to La Roche sur Yon, and a 90 kilometre time trial from La Roche sur Yon to Nantes. The time trial was won by yellow jersey holder Antonin Magne who beat Roger Lapebie by over a minute and sealed Le Tour which he had led since stage 2.
Desgrange was convinced that the experiment had worked and the time trial and the split stage was here to stay. The next year saw no less than six split stages, each consisting of a road stage followed by a time trial. They must have been punishing to ride. Stage 5A and 5B in 1935 were respectively 262 kilometres and 58 kilometres long, and the 25th to the 27th July saw riders race three consecutive days of split stages totalling 459 kilometres of road racing and 183 kilometres of time trialling.
In 1936 Desgrange changed Le Tour again. Individual time trials were out to be replaced with team time trials, four of them to be run as the second part of a split stage and the fifth to be sandwiched between two road stages on a day that included three split stages: 19A, an 81 kilometre road stage from La Rochelle to La Roche sur Yon; 19B, a 6 kilometre time trial from La Roche sur Yon to Cholet; and 19C, a 67 kilometre road stage from Cholet to Angers.
While as spectators we thrill to the drama of the racing, we should remember that Le Tour exists because its a successful commercial enterprise. It was created to sell newspapers and in 1936 that was still its raison d’être. Desgrange wanted L’Auto to sell as many copies as possible and the race was organized to do just that. Stage start times were timed so that rival evening newspapers would have gone to print before the days racing was over. They might be able to report on some race details, but it would be L’Auto that could inform France of the final results in the next day’s morning edition. Split stages also offered the organizers an additional source of income from the towns that paid to host the depart and the arrivée. By splitting stage 19 into three, Le Tour could cash in from four towns, rather than the normal two.
1936 was another Tour that was dominated by a single rider. That year it was the Belgian, Sylvère Maes, who led the race from stage 8 to the finish in Paris. Stages 19A, 19B, and 19C did nothing to disturb his lead. La Rochelle to La Roche sur Yon was won by Maes team mate on the Belgian national team, Marcel Kint. The Belgians then won the time trial, and Paul Maye of the French team won in Angers.
From thereon in split stages were a regular feature of Le Tour. From a fan’s point of view they were great, offering two or more races in a single day. From the organizers point of view they brought in more revenue and created more copy for the pages of L’Auto. And for the towns that hosted the depart and arrivée there was an opportunity for civic pride and to cash in on the commercial opportunities generated by Le Tour. The riders were less happy. Split stages broke the rhythm of the day, placed additional burdens on them to meet the demands of the host towns, and meant earlier starts and later finishes to the day than during a normal stage.
Understandably riders have resented what they felt to be unfair demands placed in them by the organizers of Le Tour over the years. On occasions this has led to vocal and public displays of dissent. One such occasion saw the emergence of a young French tyro during his first Tour de France. 1978 saw Bernard Hinault start Le Tour as the winner of that year’s Vuelta a España and as the reigning French national champion. He would go on to win Le Tour that year as a debutant aged just 23, and in the process he demonstrated the qualities that made him a leader and one of the toughest patron’s Le Tour has seen.
The twelfth day’s racing in 1978 was another split stage, this time two road stages from Tarbes to Valence d’Agen and from Valence d’Agen to Toulouse, 254 kilometres in total with two depart and two arrivee’s to deal with. The previous days racing had ended with a mountain finish at Pla d’Adet and had included the Tourmalet and Col d’Aspin. With the transfer to Tarbes to negotiate after the stage finish and the evening routine of meals and massages to undertake the riders were lucky to be in bed by midnight. The next day’s split stage meant a 5 a.m. rise and the peloton, disgruntled and tired, began to complain about the demands being placed upon them.
Rumours of a riders strike began to circulate and despite Goddet’s last minute offers of financial incentives the peloton rode stage 12A at an average pace of 20 kph, arriving in Valence d’Agen one and a half hours after the planned schedule. As they approached the finish line the riders dismounted and it was at this point that Hinault stepped forward as the leader of the peloton. The moment was captured on camera as Hinault, full of Gallic swagger, walked to the finished line and struck a pose worthy of Napoleon.
Riders sentiment notwithstanding split stages continued to appear in Le Tour for a few more years, the last to date taking place in 1985 when riders had to face a split mountain stage that ran from Luz-Saint-Sauveur to the Aubisque and from Laruns to Pau.
Le Tour is not just about the yellow jersey. There are the green and polka dot jersey competitions and the organizers also seek to create the potential for exciting racing in stages which are unlikely to be key in the race for yellow. The organizers have delivered for 2015. The seemingly innocuous stage 2, the flattest in Tour history, showed how a strong team (Etixx-Quickstep) could split the race apart by taking advantage of crosswinds to create gaps in the peloton. The finish on the Mur du Huy in stage 3 showed how a short but challenging climb can cause GC riders to lose time when the climb is placed at the right point in the race. The cobbles on stage 4 lent their own drama to Le Tour as Vincenzo Nibali showed the world that a Tour contender can ride like a Classics specialist.
Today the general classification is largely determined by contenders performance in the mountains and the individual time trial relative to each other: the question for the GC rivals is whether losses in one arena can be overturned by gains in the other. For 2015 the organizers changed the played field dramatically in a Tour that is weighted towards the climbers with only one short individual time trial on stage 1, a relatively short team time trial, and 5 mountain finishes. With the last of these appearing on the penultimate day of racing it’s clear that the planners hope was for a Tour that would go to the wire. At the time of writing Chris Froome’s form, his team’s strength in depth, and a 3 minute margin over second placed Nairo Quintana appear to give him the advantage. But it’s not a foregone conclusion. After nearly three weeks of racing all the riders are tired and as Bernard Thevenet showed in 1975, 2 kilometres on a mountain top finish are enough to topple the yellow jersey holder from his perch and take Le Tour. Whatever happens in the next two stages the planners have got their wish as we can expect to see exciting racing that will decide the final outcome of this year’s Tour.
by Mike Dash
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