THE RACE'S CORNERSTONE
The Avenue de Grammont runs on a tilted axis, just a few degrees off north-south, right through the heart of Tours. The part of it on which ParisTours finishes is about 900m long, though the finishing straight used to be 2,600m, before the instalment of a tram system split the southern end of the Avenue into alleys too narrow to carry a bike race, let alone one of the biggest sprints of the cycling season. (The Avenue is part of a longer series of dead straight roads, known locally as the ‘axe majeur’. To the north, it continues past the end of the avenue on to the Rue Nationale, then over the Pont Wilson, whose 15 arches traverse the Loire, and on to the kilometre-long Avenue de Tranchée. The axe majeur is six kilometres long in total, running like a backbone through the centre of Tours.)
Avenue de Grammont is a grand-looking road, lined by plane trees, shops and tall residential buildings which give it a canyonlike atmosphere. It’s also the heart and soul of Paris-Tours, as essential a part of the event’s terroir as the windblown plains of Eure-et-Loir. The tactical crux may be the pair of short, steep climbs through the southern suburbs of the city – the Côte de Beau Soleil at 10km to go and Côte de l’Épan at 7km to go – but to understand Paris-Tours and to experience its atmosphere, you have to go to the Avenue de Grammont. The race has survived moving its start from Paris, and even last year, managed quite happily without the two climbs, ASO having gifted the 2016 World Championships contenders with a flat run-in to rehearse their lines for Qatar. But without the Avenue de Grammont, it would be just another race. The long, long finishing straight, and the inevitable pursuit by the sprinters’ teams of the puncheurs who have attacked on the climbs, is the European cycling season’s final gift to its fans, a finely-balanced, emotionally engaging and visually attractive last hurrah.
The Avenue represents a paradox at the heart of Paris-Tours. On one hand, you could not design a finishing straight more perfectly suited to a bunch sprint. It’s long, straight, flat and wide. On the other, the length of the race, its exposure to crosswinds and those final climbs mean that it more often doubles as the backdrop for an infernal pursuit between attackers and the sprinters’ teams. The race is occasionally known as the ‘Sprinters’ Classic’, but that is a misnomer – of the last 14 editions, seven have been won in bunch sprints and seven in escapes, either solo or small groups.
From our position at the northern end of the Avenue de Grammont, past the finishing line, photographers’ lines, gathering soigneurs and just in front of the boom-operated television camera whose long lens will track the progress of the leading riders up the final kilometre, it’s possible to look back through the finishing line all the way to the end of the Avenue, whose vanishing point is the roundabout by which the riders will enter. The big screen indicates that the survivors of the escape, including Lawrence Naesen, have been chased down by the Ag2r team, working for Lawrence’s brother Oliver. The race is poised, and the Avenue waits to make its final judgement.