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’.