Rapha Mondial: The French Hexagon

From the cobbles of Roubaix to sprints through the Pyrenees, the 2018 Tour was designed to include the most varied route to date. But innovation at the Grand Tours is never without its history, writes Graeme Fife

19 July 2018
Rapha Mondial: The French Hexagon

Tracing innovation at the Tour

The evolution of the Tour’s route since its inception in 1903 is a story of quest for alternative, exploration of places yet unvisited, opening of climbs unscaled before, where the road peters out into forest track, innovation designed to emphasise how various and rich the terrain of the French hexagon is and thereby to test the riders to the limit. Is the Tour de France too hard? Of course it is. That’s the point. The father of the Tour, Henri Desgrange, said that the ideal race would be a Tour which only one rider was strong enough to finish.

What, then, can be said of the inclusion of a stage only 65 kilometres long, even if it is in the mountains? Stage 17, in the Pyrenees, has its precursor in last year’s race, when the riders faced a mere 100 kilometres in the same mountains of southern France. The race director, Christian Prudhomme, explains: “This 65km stage will be what I call a dynamite stage.” Two first category climbs and a new finish atop a 16km-long ascent with an average gradient of 8.7%. Prudhomme believes that the Col du Portet may become ‘a new Tourmalet’. It’s followed, the next day, by an ascent of that very mountain, together with three other big climbs in what’s known, in Tour legend, as ‘the Circle of Death’.

Prudhomme says that interspersing short mountain stages with longer “offers the equivalent of middle distance races to the climbers”. I haven’t seen the original French but, even if this is a bad translation, it’s near meaningless. What he does mean is that, knowing how violent switches of rhythm are deadly for climbers, this mix of short and long has the purpose of, in the slang, ripping their legs off.

Choice of a route always reveal the thinking – generally what may be classified as sadistic – of the organisers. From Desgrange to Prudhomme, the aim is to produce a resounding, all-round winner, just as the all-round geography of France itself offers such diversity of landscape. The backdrop of the first Tours, truncated in length as they were, remains, by and large, unchanged: the cities and towns of the populous locales, and remote villages and hamlets, still remote and hidden, but suddenly visited by the great cavalcade that is the race for the Golden Fleece. Industrial zones, urban grids, rustic backwaters, the roads which trace the lines of ancient ways and footpaths, cart tracks and mountain trails. Look at a map of France: the red roads generally follow the course of the first made but unmetalled roads and the lattice of yellow roads between mark the older ways. But, whether mule or cart, waggon or coach, pedlar or pilgrim, the earth holds the thump of their passing and above that thump, the drumming of carbon rims. Many of the mountain passes remained unmetalled until the late 1960s and this year’s transit of the Glières plateau evokes that time – 2km of grit surface. The usual practice is for the Tour to order tarmac for dodgy surfaces.

The Tour de France is imbued with history: not just its own but that of France in the century and more that it has been criss-crossing the country, occasionally, flipping over the border. It was no accident that the Tour’s first incursion was into Alsace, confiscated by the Prussians in the war of 1870. The Tour was making a pretty defiant statement about true ownership, ahead of the Great War which brought Alsace home again.

In what was called The Tour of Renewal, 1919, the riders faced the challenge of traversing a north-eastern region shattered by conflict, as if the roads weren’t already bad enough. Desgrange seemed to be saying: ‘France may be part in ruins but France is open for business again, let my riders of the Tour make it so.’

That Tour established a route which remained unchanged for a number of years. It included two massive stages which took the race down the entire west coast of France, the second leg, Sables-d’Olonne to Bayonne, was the longest ever at 490km, and then they covered the entire length of the Pyrenees in two stages. Yet, even if today’s races do not go close to such madness, they do cover effectively the same ground, always. As, this year, on the ninth stage from Arras, through the heart of the battlefields of the First World War, to Roubaix, over 21.7km of the infamous pavé, 15 sectors of cobbles. Those broken cart tracks, once laid by the Romans, exert a powerful lure, although damned by many as a perverse idiocy. Many riders actually relish the bone-shaking and flirting with disaster. The thought...those frail machines pounding over the irregular, broken stones, often in swirling plumes of dust, the caverns of the old mines way beneath them, the infernal caverns, Hell of the North. That’s a corner of history the organisers probably feel obliged to honour, now and then.

They have other tests to draw on: the inevitable crosswinds as the roads thread their way across the northern coast, as this year, the relentless punishment of the rollercoaster roads that they call vallonnés, into the Massif Central and the Causses of the Cévennes taking the race from Alps towards Pyrenees. Brutal punishment of the ups and downs, a merciless toll on the legs. And, spicing the stage, the long haul of the Ardèche Gorge and a tough finish on the height of Mende.

The race first finished in Paris in 1975, rather than outside, but every year, whether clockwise or counter-clockwise – the pattern used to be alternate years – the roads of the route act like a thread in the dark labyrinth of suffering and competition, of hurt and despair, of triumph and missed opportunity, of lesser races within the main race, bringing the riders into the City of Light. Joy and deliverance.

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