Breaking the Paris Hegemony: Alternative Tour de France Finales

The Champs-Elysees, feted as the most beautiful avenue in the world, has hosted the finale of the Tour de France every year since 1975, where the mass finish was won by Belgian Walter Godefroot. Thanks to the dogged work of Felix Levitan and Yves Mourousi, the co-director of the Tour and popular Parisian TV anchor respectively, the Tour has finished looking up to the Arc de Triumphe for 38 of its 100 editions. This is still small fry compared to the most popular finishing destination of the Tour, the Parc des Princes from 1904 until 1967 for 55 appearances, and the 7 finishes at the Velodrome de Vicncennes from 1967 until 1974. With the first Tour finishing  in Ville-d’Avray (interestingly the official history also says the 1904 Tour finished here), the common denominator of the Tour, unlike its neighboring Giro , which has shopped around with its finale, has always been a finish in the capital: Paris.

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Yet Paris has become somewhat of a ceremonial occasion. Of the 100 times the race has entered the French capital, 92 of those occasions have been a road stage, with just seven Time trials that were all concentrated into the late 60’s and early 70’s (making the famous 1989 TT an exception), although there was also a 6km Paris TT in 1976 before the ceremonial finish. Indeed, there has been little in the way of innovation since the 1975 move to the Champs-Elysees, with the only deviations from type being the 1989 Time trial, which had symbolic value setting off from Versaille in the bicentennial year of the storming of the Bastille, and 2013’s ‘dusk’ (read: late afternoon) finish and the subsequent presentations in the dark. It has been eight years since anyone other than a sprinter won (A certain Olympic champion called Alexandre Vinokourov), and in 100 years, the Tour’s general classification top spot has only changed three times on its final day. The finale has arguably become a little stale, a non-event, making the race realistically only 20 days long with a criterium at the end. So the question is: Should the Tour change it’s finish?

The starting locations of the Tour's final stage to Paris have been wildly different in their location.
The starting locations of the Tour’s final stage to Paris have been wildly different in their location.

First, we need a case why the race should change. As previously mentioned, only three races have seen changes in the malliot jaune on the final day into Paris. These were, in order, the 1947 Tour, where Jean Robic rode away from Italy’s malliot jaune Pierre Brambilla, putting the yellow jersey into third place and grasping the Tour for himself without ever having worn yellow, the 1968 Tour, where in a similar scenario Jan Janssen became the first Dutchman to win the Tour by poaching the race on a final day Time Trial to beat Herman Van Springel by a mere 38 seconds. Of course, that didn’t really compare with the 1989 race where Greg Lemond famously won the final Time Trial to pip a forlorn Laurent Fignon by 8 seconds after the 4,021km race. Interestingly, the yellow jersey has ridden to the win in Paris sixteen times, although this is somewhat inflated by the penchant for Time trials in the Anquetil/Merckx era.

laurent-fignon-1989-tour-de-france-eight-seconds

But really the problem is is that it’s arguably not that photogenic. I’ll give you a second to mop up the coffee you’ve probably just spat all over your monitor and moan in incredulity ‘Wh-what?! Paris!? Unphotogenic?!’ Well, let me elaborate.  The stage itself is lovely – the Seine, the  Eiffel Tower, the Arc de Trimophe, but the finish line photo is often pretty dull, not least because the riders race up to the Arc de Triomphe rather than with it in the background. Now, there is a reason for that – the road is slightly downhill from the monument, and of course since 2000, the winners podium has featured the Arc in the background, but wouldn’t it be a bit nicer to see riders celebrate with the Arc behind them? Plus, it’s all a bit samey now. The race starts from some suburb of Paris. The riders roll along and get way behind the schedule whilst getting photos taken with champagne etc. The race is led onto the Champs by the team of the yellow jersey. A token break goes. It’s caught. The sprinters have their fun.

The distance of the final stage of the race has dropped dramatically as it becomes more and more of a processional stage.
The distance of the final stage of the race has dropped dramatically as it becomes more and more of a processional stage.

Of course, there are plenty problems with moving or tinkering with the finish. Most of all, the finale, with its lap format of the Champs-Elysees, must be a huge money spinner for ASO. Whilst cycling is traditionally free, the Paris finale has grandstand seats lining the finishing straight and charges crazy money for the opportunity to be in them. I must say, this is incredibly tempting given the time I’ve spent standing by barriers waiting for the race to come by (especially last year, where I spent 18 hours at the barriers), and the amount of merchandise and money it must bring to the race is probably irreplaceable if they moved the race or changed the format. Money is probably the key to the success and longevity of the current format, but we can perhaps indulge in a little romanticism.

So anyway, here’s some ideas as to what the Tour could do to improve the final stage.

Bring Back the Time Trial

A 15mile TT from the gardens of Versailles to the Champs Elysees
A 15mile TT from the gardens of Versailles to the Champs Elysees

The most obvious idea is simply to revive the Time trial format that was so popular in the late 1960’s, most usually from Versailles. This wouldn’t be too much of  a problem if it was short, as it usually was, between, 25 and 40km, and would help ASO with their seeming desire to have a summit finish on the penultimate day of the race (See Ventoux 2009, Semnoz 2013 etc) given it would allow plenty time to get the riders to Paris and start the TT in the afternoon. It would also allow them to finish in the opposite direction, and to get the money shot of the yellow jersey alone with the Arc de Triomphe in the background. Spectators would get a longer viewing period with every rider coming past individually, and more importantly, could actually get to see the yellow jersey change – after all, two of the seven final day time trials have seen the yellow jersey change hands.

Making it a proper criterium

Tour de France 2013 - Stage 21 - 133.5KM - Versailles to Paris Champs Elysees

One of the most annoying things about spectating in Paris (aside from the police putting the barriers behind the trees, and the lack of big screens to see the race on…cough cough ASO) is that the schedule is pretty much always made irrelevant by the riders messing about, which is fine, but makes it  a pretty laborious experience for their fans. So  instead of starting the race in some suburb of Paris and making the stage short to try and quell the inevitable delay, why not just make the race self contained on the Champs-Elysees? That way, the riders can still have their nonchalant fun quaffing champers, wearing funny sunglasses and clinking glasses, but the viewing public can see it as well, given there’s hardly ever any spectators by the road in the suburbs. Make them do 25 laps or so, and then everyone will get to see them plenty without stressing about the schedule, the riders can mess around as they please, and everyone will be happy.

Finish on top of a mountain

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A sensible place to finish the Tour?

This isn’t quite as daft as it sounds – the idea of finishing atop Alpe d’Huez was supposedly briefly mooted as a possible finale to the 2013 Centenary Tour. This would obviously pretty much destroy the merchandise/grandstand money model that exists in Paris, and the Alpe is already bad enough with fans essentially blocking any racing going on anyway, let alone if it was possible the entire race could be decided in finality there. It would however open up using Paris for another stage in the race, perhaps midway through for a sprint or TT stage, and of course the possibility of the race actually going down to the final day is something ASO has clearly been trying to get closer to. The sporting and logistic problem would obviously be where to put it: Climbs like the Tourmalet and the Galibier aren’t possible due basically to the fact that the presentations would be too tricky and too cold most probably, as well as the logistics of parking the Tour’s travelling circus on the side of a mountain. Ski Resort climbs like Alpe d’Huez and Hautcam might work better, as might Ventoux, but it would still be a tricky proposition to sell, let alone organise.

An alternative City

The Giro d’Italia has managed to finish in three different locations in the last decade – Milan, the traditional home of the Giro, Rome, which used to be the finale for some time but returned for the 100th anniversary of the race in 2009, and Brescia, which appeared last year and will again in 2014 after Milan apparently decided it needed the money for the Milan 2015 world expo. The question then is why not do the same in France? There are arguably slightler fewer candidates, but three spring to mind:

Marseille

marseille
France’s second largest city is located on the South coast on the Mediterranean, and thus would solve on of the Tour’s big problems – the need to transfer the race North for the Paris finale. Unfortunately, Marseille aint all that pretty, to the extent that I’m struggling to find a nice circuit around the place to show it off properly. The harbour and the Cathedral are nice, but the tram system would cause problems, not that that stopped the Giro in Milan.

Nice

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Ah, lovely Nice. Nice is again on the Southern coast, and is frankly a simply delightful, if expensive city. Ah, but just like Marseille, it has Trams, you might cry. True, but the route I’d propose features the best road in the city and one of those that doesn’t require risking the riders safety on the treachurous lines – The Promenade des Anglais. And what a setting it would be. The Palm tree lined shores of Nice looking out onto the sun-kissed Mediterranean. I have to admit I’ve always had a soft spot for Nice since it appeared beautifully created in videogame Driv3r, but having visited in the 2009 Tour, it really is a lovely place in summer. Laps of the Prommenade would provide the sort of beautiful backdrop to the end of the Tour the race desired.

Annecy

annecyfinale

I admit this is a bit left-field, and again is influenced by my love of the city after being there during the 2013 Etape. It’s such a beautiful city, and the lake provides a beautiful backdrop, as well as being close to many key mountain battle grounds for the route plotters to exploit. There is a lot of road furniture to remove, and the race would probably be unable to use the gorgeous old town due to the narrowness of the road, but it could still take in the city and have a wonderful backdrop for the presentations/

You’ve had a ‘Grand Depart’…why not a ‘Grand Finale’?

Barcelona-Ville1
Why not finish in Barcelona after the 2009 stage there?

The Tour has long had a thing for starting the race in style, whether it be from Monaco, Rotterdam, Strasbourg, London, Liege, or, er, Leeds. But why not move that flashy, usually international approach to the end of the race? Whilst the Tour has become increasingly global in recent years, this probably wouldn’t sit well with purists – after all, the Tour preserves its Frenchness by finishing in the capital – but a grand finale in a foreign capital or city could be a way to go. Places such as Geneva, Zurich, Milan, Barcelona, Turin, Stuttgart, Basel and Bruges seem like good candidates due to their relatively close locations and statures, and finishing in such a place would allow a more playful route as well as greatly increased media coverage. It’s probably never going to happen due to the fact foreign Grand departs are often bemoaned as denigrating the event to a Tour of Europe’, but it would make some interesting Tours if ASO decided to become more adventurous in their idea of what the Tour de France was.

Frankly, none of this will probably happen, with the exception of the possible return to the TT format at some point. But as always with cycling, we can dream.

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