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Seven Ways to Improve the Tour de France

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Cycling fans watch the opening time trial of Paris-Nice in Saint-Rémy-lès-Chevreuse, 3 March 2012. Photo © 2012 Alan Miller.
Cycling fans watch the opening time trial of Paris-Nice in Saint-Rémy-lès-Chevreuse, 3 March 2012. Photo © 2012 Alan Miller.

I wouldn’t go so far as the three-time world-champion Óscar Friere, who reckons that the Tour de France is “the most boring race of the year” — has he ever watched the Tour of Qatar? — but this year’s race did make me wonder how many more like it the old institution can take. Institutionalization is the Tour’s great burden, or at least its double-edged sword. For the casual fan it is the ‘race of record,’ cycling itself. Those who follow the sport more closely understand that while the Tour is undeniably the most competitive, and therefore the most prestigious, among the three Grand Tours of Italy, France and Spain, it often not the most interesting.

If the route of each year’s Tour is a designed object, it is a parametric design with much uncertainty built in. Uncertainty makes the task of designing the route both fascinating and, given the threat of a race like this year’s, dangerous. The Tour’s organizers have only France to play with, and while there are few better places to ride or race a bike, there are not mountains every time you turn around, as there are in Italy or much of Spain (I also have a theory that the engineering of French roads is superior, resulting in generally shallower gradients). As a result of France’s limitations and opportunities, the generic version of a modern Tour might start in the north, stay on the flats for most of the first week with bunch sprints (and crashes) deciding each day’s stage, perhaps a rolling stage, a few cobblestones or a mild uphill finish to break things up, a time trial of 30-40km at the end of the first week, three days in Alps, then the Pyrenees (or vice versa depending on whether it is a clockwise or counterclockwise year) separated by a transition across the south and a rest day, then another flat stage or two, another time trial and the final, largely ceremonial stage onto the Champs-Elysées. The winner tends to be someone, like Cadel Evans last year, who is the best climber among the good time trialists and the best time trialist among the best climbers and who, most critically of all, avoids jours sans[1].

In this formula the final yellow jersey is always decided in the mountains and in the time trials. The race organization deserves praise this year for at least trying to upset the formula described above. While the over 100km of flattish time trials proved fatal by playing excessively to the strengths of the winner, Bradley Wiggins, the idea of de-emphasizing the Pyrenees and especially the Alps to include steep and unfamiliar climbs in ranges like the Vosges and Jura was a potentially interesting innovation. I think many fans would relish a Tour which could be won by a puncheur [2], rather than the usual willowy suspects.

The Tour is hard enough without the burden of amateur theatrics thrown in; it is the job of a Tour de France champion to win, not to entertain fans like me (am I still a ‘fan’ of pro cycling? I’m not sure…). The drama of the race comes from the way the unstable circumstances of the day play out on the road. That this year’s race almost completely lacked such improvisatory delight is not the fault of Wiggins, who simply won as efficiently as possible in a year he has dominated, whose Olympics are in his home town, against a weakish field on a course uncannily suited to his strengths.

Nevertheless, do let’s not let it happen again. Here are a few suggestions which might improve La Grande Boucle:

1. Less Teamwork, Please

One of the first things a ‘fan’ learns as they begin to follow professional road cycling is that it is a team sport. Teamwork is sometimes obvious, as when a domestique fetches water bottles or gives up his bike for his leader, and sometimes more subtle, as when in the mountains a strong team sets a pace just hard enough that no one can attack, but not so hard as to challenge their leader, who shelters in the draft of his teammates.

It is more accurate to say that cycling is an individual sport with teams. I think the team element has become over-emphasized in recent years (even as the team time trial has declined) and particularly this year when the fact that Wiggins’ Team Sky took out the top two places does not begin to describe their stifling dominance of the race (most galling perhaps is that second placed Christian Froome was possibly the strongest rider in the Tour, but was held back by working for team leader Wiggins). The best exploits and rivalries in the history of the Tour have been individual — Coppi versus Bartali, Anquetil versus Poulidor, Merckx versus Ocaña, Hinault versus LeMond. Teams have become so organized and single minded in their planning that it is hard to imagine a great rider on a weak team winning the Tour these days, as Greg LeMond did in 1989 when none of the top teams wanted him after his long recovery from a hunting accident.

Perhaps not much can be done to curtail the wealth and resources of a team like Sky, but the Tour organizers could make one very simple change which could open up the race. The Tour is currently contested by 22 teams of 9 riders each (all 18 ProTour teams plus four wild cards), expanding the number of teams and reducing the number of riders per team would I think be the single best improvement which could be made to the race. Smaller teams would have a harder time controlling the race while adding more wild card teams would potentially enliven proceedings by giving hungry, lower-budget teams in the second rank a chance at the big show, where new stars might emerge.

The only disadvantage would be the additional team cars clogging up the Tour’s already immense motorcade…

2. No More Radioheads

As far as I can remember, two way radio communication between riders and their team directors began like many technical innovations, good, bad and forgotten, with Greg LeMond, who at some point in the early 1990s sprouted a kind of telemarketer-style ear/mouthpiece on the side of his head. Lance Armstrong’s Motorola team perpetuated the trend and now every team relies on the cursed radios.

Why cursed? Pat McQuaid, the president of the Union Cycliste Internationale (UCI) summed it up well in an open letter to the riders and teams, who have opposed all attempts to ban radios:

As for the reasons that pushed the UCI towards the progressive banning of earpieces, they are fairly obvious and above all well-known, so I will simply summarize them: return the rider to the centre of action, make him fully responsible for his strategy and evaluation of the situation during each phase of the race in order to avoid all outside control, which considerably reduces the unpredictable character of an event and therefore the thrill that our sport can offer to its millions of fans. Our sport is one of intelligence and physical ability with elements of chance thrown in.

In constant communication with their team directors, riders have become omniscient pawns. They know everything and control not much at all because their tactics are now dictated to them rather than unfolding spontaneously on the road. One of the most spectacular exploits I can remember in the Tour, Thierry Marie’s solo breakaway of 234km in stage 6 of the 1991 Tour (I remember him singing to himself to pass the lonely hours), would be unlikely in the radio era because every racer in the pack, knowing at all times exactly how far ahead he was, could perfectly time their chase to catch the escapee before the finish. One of the thrills of the pre-radio era was that riders, left to themselves to devise their own tactics, sometimes made mistakes.

3. Mountains Should not be Molehills but Molehills Can be Mountains

A good parcours is not necessarily the hardest parcours. Under director Angelo Zomegnan, the Giro d’Italia became spectacular but also challenging to the point where the numerous mountain stages were so ridiculously hard that a weird paralysis came over the peloton, with riders either too exhausted or too afraid to commit themselves to attacks (if you’re going to schlepp all the way down to Mount Etna, why not climb it twice, as did the 2011 Giro?). Designing a good mountain stage is a subtle business. Though the 2012 Tour de France tried to liven things up by including new climbs, such as the Planche des Belles Filles near Belfort which contained some of the steepest gradients in the history of the race, too often perfectly good mountains had no impact on the race. For example, stage 14 might have been thrilling if it had finished on top of the steep Mur de Péguère, instead of being neutralized by the 40km of downhill and flat which followed the climb (and the idiot who threw tacks on the road, but that’s another story…).

4. Time Trials are Like Asafoetida: Add Too Much and it Stinks

With top climbers like Andy Schleck and Alberto Contador missing, Wiggins was able to win this year’s race in the two long time trials, much in the manner of five time winners Miguel Indurain and Jacques Anquetil. All Wiggins had to do in the mountains, and I acknowledge that this is not nothing, was to hang with his main rivals, a task made much easier by the fact that the race’s best climber, Froome, was a teammate. If the first time trial had been severely uphill instead of flat and if the final one to Chartres has been ten kilometers shorter, there might at least have been a genuine rivalry between the two Brits (“Froome and Wiggins — sounds like solicitor’s doesn’t it?” said the commentator Phil Liggett during the final time trial). As it played out, but for the seven seconds by which he lost the opening prologue to Fabian Cancellara, Wiggins would have led this years race from start to finish.

5. Everyone Loves a Gimmick

By including climbs of ridiculous steepness, occasionally on dirt roads, recent editions of the Giro d’Italia and Vuelta a España have sometimes felt like stunts. In spite of the occasional stage on the cobblestones of the north, the Tour de France has tended to eschew such divertissements, but that doesn’t mean the race wouldn’t be improved by a few gimmicks, especially where they might enliven those ‘traditions’ which, like a dry Thanksgiving turkey, have grown a little stodgy. A good candidate is the final stage into Paris, which has become an awkward mixture of a ceremonial procession followed by a torrid bunch sprint up the Champs-Elysées. It is not a big enough deal to ruin the race, but this is a tradition which only dates back to 1975. Surely the French capital deserves to be more than a ceremonial backdrop to the most important bike race in the world.

When the 1989 Tour broke tradition by finishing with a 25km time trial, the result was the most exiting finish in the race’s history. It seems time, especially with the 100th Tour taking place next year, to revisit the idea. I suggest a time trial of about this length, but entirely within Paris, taking in as many hills as possible (including the city’s steepest street — 17.4% — the rue Gasnier-Guy in the 20th arrondissement, as well as of course Montmartre). Such a race would have the possibility of creating big time gaps but, because of all the hills, cobblestones and sharp corners, a specialist like Wiggins might be at a disadvantage against the puncheurs. Closing so many streets would cause a bit of traffic, but surely the Tour has the clout to make this happen for one Sunday once in a century. It could even happen at night, under the lights…

Rue Gasnier-Guy, the steepest street in Paris. Photo © 2012 Alan Miller.
Rue Gasnier-Guy, the steepest street in Paris. Photo © 2012 Alan Miller.

6. Le Dopage

It is one of the paradoxes of cycling that such a healthy sport managed to become so dirty. For many of the countless young people inspired to take to their bikes by the Tour de France, the bike becomes a way of life, a vector of freedom, a way of staying fit and a convenient, ecological means of transport. Some will train, discover their talent and rise though the ranks as racers. There are many opinions on doping in cycling and what to do about it. At one extreme are certain nihilists, mostly anonymous internet types, arguing that the fight against doping is too hard and why not just allow riders to juice themselves to their heart’s content (or discontent). They seem to forget that the future of the sport lies with the young racer who simply loves their bike, who should not be obliged to make a choice between continuing in the sport as a cheater and quitting because they can’t keep up with a peloton turned into a rolling version of the World’s Strongest Man competition. The alternative of actually trying to stop doping is messier than this laissez-faire approach, but it is the only way to ensure that there will be a 199th Tour de France in 2112.

The vast uncertainty which is the consequence of trying to clean up the sport is more of a threat to the health of the Tour than any number of boring radio controlled stages. The sport risks the disappearance of its history in a fog of doubt. The charges laid against Lance Armstrong by the US Anti-Doping Authority could result in his being stripped of some or all of his seven victories. Awarding a winner retrospectively would be complicated by the morass of confirmed, accused and suspected dopers who haunted the top ranks in those years. Consider the top ten finishers in the 2003 Tour:

1. Lance Armstrong (charged with doping by the USADA)

2. Jan Ulrich (implicated in Operación Puerto scandal and finally suspended in 2011, after his retirement)

3. Alexandre Vinokourov (suspended for two years for blood doping at 2007 Tour)

4. Tyler Hamilton (suspended for two years for blood doping at 2004 Vuelta and Olympics, served with eight year ban in 2009 after another positive test)

5. Haimar Zubeldia

6. Iban Mayo (two year suspension after testing positive for EPO during 2007 Tour)

7. Ivan Basso (suspended for two years in 2007 for involvement in Operación Puerto)

8. Christophe Moreau (tested positive for steroids in 1998, admitted to taking EPO)

9. Carlos Sastre

10. Francisco Mancebo (not allowed to start 2006 Tour after being implicated in Operación Puerto)

It is comforting to tell oneself that cycling is cleaning itself up, but this year’s Tour was marred by at least three doping controversies [3]. There is no evidence that Wiggins or Team Sky are doped, but it is understandable that those who follow the sport have grown skeptical of any dominant performance. Given that history has made it hard to, as Lance Armstrong urged us, “believe in miracles,” Wiggins’ infamous condemnation of his anonymous internet accusers could perhaps have been better put:

I say they’re just f*****g w*****s. I cannot be doing with people like that.

“It justifies their own bone-idleness because they can’t ever imagine applying themselves to do anything in their lives.

“It’s easy for them to sit under a pseudonym on Twitter and write that sort of s**t, rather than get off their a***s in their own lives and apply themselves and work hard at something and achieve something.

And that’s ultimately it. C***s.

But such profanity might at least be reduced by one final suggestion:

7. Establish a Swear Jar

One thousand Swiss francs per ordinary swear, double for particularly nasty ones, proceeds to charity.

[1] “Days without” or bad days, which come eventually to all men…

[2] A puncheur is not a specialist climber, sprinter or time trialist but an aggressive rider who thrives on tough, hilly courses, a rouleur with climbing legs, a real all around roadman, the kind of rider who wins races like Milan-San Remo, Liège-Bastogne-Liège or even the Tour of Flanders. Examples past and present include Sean Kelly, Laurent Jalabert, Philippe Gilbert, Joaquim Rodriguez, Sylvain Chavanel and even on some days Cadel Evans.

[3] Before the start of this year’s race a French prosecutor announced an investigation into alleged doping by Team Europcar during last year’s Tour, Team Cofidis rider Remy Di Gregorio was arrested at the team’s hotel on the first rest day and Fränk Schleck’s positive test for a banned diuretic was announced on the second rest day.

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