IN THE BEGINNING
It would be easy to miss Brou, under normal circumstances. It’s anonymous and generic small town France – a quiet square with a covered market, lined by cafés, a small sprawl of residential streets and a grand town hall, directly behind which there’s the tall double cylinder of a grain silo. This is ‘La France profonde’ – deep, rural France. Brou sits well away from the autoroute in the triangle formed by the cities of Chartres, Le Mans and Orléans, in a highly cultivated farmscape which stretches lazily for many miles to the north, east and south. The Parc Naturel Régional du Perche, a bucolic and rolling area of ancient woodland, picturesque hamlets and hedgerows is on the northwestern horizon.
Brou is the start town of the 2017 edition of Paris-Tours. It’s been years since the peloton or public would countenance a race covering the 350 or so kilometres between Paris and Tours, so by necessity the start has shifted southwest over the years. The race currently has a long-standing arrangement with the département of Eure-et-Loir, whose towns host the start, while it sensibly stays on-brand with the original name. There was a period of rash experimentation during the 1970s and 1980s, during which the race’s name and the route changed – it was variously known as Blois-Chaville, Créteil-Chaville, the GP d’Automne and more during that time, with the direction of the race reversed, finishing in the Parisian suburbs. But now, having survived the tinkering, it’s fixed in its original format. In Brou, I tell Christian Prudhomme, ASO’s general director, that I’ve been looking for the soul of Paris-Tours and he laughs and asks if I’ve found it yet. “There’s a certain softness to this region of France,” he says. “You have the châteaux, the pleasant landscapes and the Loire river. But you also get the wind, and a fight. That creates the alchemy of this race.
“Paris-Tours is particular,” he continues. “You never know who it is made for. You’d think it was made for sprinters, but then it often goes to the escape. It’s what we dream of for the flat stages of the Tour. It’s also a race which discovers talent, a career accelerator. We already knew Fernando Gaviria was fast, but he won here last year and then won four stages at the Giro this season. Greg Van Avermaet won here [in 2011], and now he’s won the Olympic Games road race and Paris-Roubaix.
“It’s also one of the biggest French races and one of the oldest races,” he continues. “It dates back to 1896, so not last century, but even the one before that.”
The sun is warming the backs of the riders as they congregate on the start line in front of the town hall. There’s a strong field of nine WorldTour teams, all the usual suspects from the home country, plus an ambitious group of Belgian teams. It’s the last big race of the European season, but there’s no question of tailing off – Mark Cavendish, André Greipel, Gaviria and Nacer Bouhanni are all here. The event’s omission from the WorldTour continues to make cycling fans scratch their heads, but maybe that will change. “We have ideas and possibilities for next year,” Prudhomme says.