PICTURE BY MARK GREEN/SWPIX.COM
The Tour de France’s 17th stage, extending to just 65km and featuring three tough climbs, the final one providing the highest ever summit finish in the French Pyrenees, looked extraordinary even before race organisers ASO announced a startling innovation in the shape of a Formula 1-style staggered grid start. The rider holding the yellow jersey will line up at the front, with his closest 19 rivals spread out behind him and the rest of the peloton gathered in groups behind them, again according to their overall position.
“We wanted to add a little bit more spice to it by changing the method of starting, but in a way that respects the fundamentals of the sport. It will be to an extent like the start of an individual time trial with the riders setting out in the order they’re placed in the general classification,” Tour director Thierry Gouvenou told me at the Critérium du Dauphiné.
“One of the reasons behind it is that it isolates the race leader and gives other teams an opportunity to attack him,” Gouvenou added. “There’ll be riders who will want to make a move 200 metres into the stage when they reach the first ramps of the Peyresourde.”
The innovation proved a major talking point during the Dauphiné, where many admitted to being mystified as to what might happen when the stage gets under way in Bagnères de Luchon. “It’s certainly something that I’ve never seen before, but I like the idea,” said Lotto-Soudal team manager Marc Sergeant.
“I think because it’s a very short stage that goes uphill right from start it’s not a bad idea. In Formula 1 the fastest guy in practice lines up at the front, so it makes sense in a way for the yellow jersey to be in the lead position, and then the second-placed rider behind him and so on. The difficulty for these riders will be the fact that their teammates will have to come up to the front from behind, although I don’t think the domestiques will be too far back.
“It does give the leaders the chance to be right at the front from the start if they want to be, perhaps encouraging some of them to attack. There may well be a big sprint onto the first ramps of the Peyresourde, which are quite steep.” In this event, the leaders could quickly find themselves racing against each other from the off. “Those riders will have to make a difficult decision, to go hard from the start or to wait for their teammates to come up to the front from behind. It’s going to be intriguing,” said Sergeant.
Trek boss Luca Guercilena confessed he is less excited about the innovation. “I still believe cycling is a team sport in which one rider wins, and I always think that the team should be involved. One fear is that they might have handed a big advantage to a team that invests a lot in certain riders and could probably have eight captains at the start of the Tour. It messes with equality and balance because the strong teams will probably have a few men at the front, so it offers them more assistance,” Guercilena explained. “I see pros and cons. It could be spectacular, but there might be other complications. We’ll just have to see.”
Mitchelton-Scott directeur sportif Julian Dean admitted to mixed feelings. “I’m a bit old school when it comes to this kind of thing, I like the way that a massed start race begins with the whole bunch rolling away at the same time. However, I can see that the sport has to innovate and try some new things if it wants to progress and attract new fans.
Dean believes, though, that he and his peers will face an unprecedented tactical conundrum. “Do you get your riders to sit up for a few seconds and wait for support or go all out?” he wondered. “It will be interesting to see how it plays out.”
When I put some of these reservations to Gouvenou, he acknowledged some of them were valid, but stressed: “I’m not utopic in my view, I realise it’s not the Olympic 100-metre final, that they’ve got to race for 65km, but it should add some spice, by changing things, adding a little bit of innovation, and I don’t think it’s a bad thing to try out new things.”
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