THE RACE'S COR­NER­STONE

Procycling - - Paris Tours -

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.

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