FINAL WORD LAST TANGO IN PARIS
Ned needs your help on a delicate TDF concern
“Without fail, during stage 21 my timeline fills up with viewers who are frustrated that there is no GC race”
This is a column in search of an answer. Often when I start to write, I’m doing so from a position that I’ve already established and I try to develop it by means of making a few lame gags and reaching a rather wobbly conclusion. This time it’s different. The issue at hand is this: should we scrap the Champs Elysées sprint stage at the end of the Tour de France in favour of something more meaningful? I don’t know what I feel about this. Actually, that’s not true: I do know what I feel. But those feelings are a bit contradictory.
This revolutionary proposal has become an issue once more because of the news that the city of Paris, led by the mayor Anne Hidalgo (who continues to transform the French capital away from the domination of the motor car), has decided to turn the Champs Elysées, the Place de la Concorde and the Étoile into a largely pedestrianised green zone, cutting car traffic by half. It’s unclear, from a brief look at the design, whether or not the changes would still allow for the Tour de France to stage its annual showpiece sprint on the same roads it’s used since 1975. But, if they were forced to hold stage 21 elsewhere, perhaps it would be time to experiment with either an individual time trial (as in the famous 1989 race in which Laurent Fignon and Greg LeMond took it to the wire), a hilly time trial or a mountain stage outside of Paris.
It’s worth noting that the ASO (Amaury Sport Organisation) adore the Champs Elysées stage. It’s a significant part of the way the race brands itself for a global audience. One of the reasons they moved it to later in the evening in 2013 was so that the TV cameras would capture the sun setting in the west, the Arc de Triomphe dripping golden light over the race. Besides, it’s a massive corporate shindig for the clients of its sponsors, too.
So, the sporting considerations are secondary in the eyes of the organisation, I suspect, though it’s also worth noting that the race does have merit. The final sprint is the reward for those fast men who’ve turned themselves inside out through the mountains to earn the right to compete in Paris. And it’s often a thriller. Sam Bennett’s victory last year was brilliant. Then there’s Cavendish’s four-year domination in Paris, culminating in his victory there in 2012 in the rainbow jersey, led out by Bradley Wiggins in yellow.
But, without fail, every year during stage 21 my timeline fills up with viewers who are frustrated that there’s no GC race. There’s widespread bafflement at the odd ritual that involves the winner of the Tour de France being anointed 600 kilometres away on some distant mountain, the day before the race actually ends. And even when the sprint reaches its conclusion, the camera has a few seconds to adjust, re-frame and move its focus from the winner of the stage to the actual winner of the Tour, rolling in behind in 74th place. It’s a handbrake turn that asks a lot of the commentator, too, let me tell you!
Many people will advocate finishing with a final time trial, as the Giro often does; 1989 was proof of that and Tao Geoghegan Hart’s Giro win last year meant that you had to watch to the very end to see him finally in pink. But there’s a massive risk with this: I know we’ve been treated to dramatic time trials of late but they, I suggest, are the exception rather than the rule. Nothing would say ‘anticlimax’ more than the yellow jersey, already perhaps in the lead by a minute, doubling his advantage on the final stage. Give me a sprint over that, any time.
I say it has to stay. For the Giro, and especially the Vuelta, mix it up. But the Champs Elysées is special. It’s idiosyncratic, sure. But cycling is an odd sport, with a quirkiness and a grandeur of its own. And besides, in 2021, I think we’ve all heard enough about the ‘new normal’. The ‘old normal’ suited me just fine.
I’ve made my mind up. Thanks for accompanying me on this journey towards a conclusion.