When I look back at the Tours de France of my youth, I am struck by a number of things. For instance, I can remember distinctly sitting on the floor in front of the family TV watching things like Robert Millar being first over the summit of the Col de la Bonette in 1993.
My recollection doesn’t actually include sculpting his heroic-if-grumpy likeness with Lego while I watched, but I was about that age. Except I wasn’t. I was actually almost 20. Equally, when Stephen Roche won in 1987 I remember reading about it on a holiday that didn’t happen till 1992. It bothers me that all the races from that era seem to blur in my memory. It makes me feel old.
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But it’s not my fault. We’ve got used to the race changing every year. It never used to. It used to be exactly the damn same, year after year. It used to start off with an individual time trial prologue, traditionally won by Chris Boardman. Then a very dreary week of pan-flat sprint stages, traditionally won by Mario Cipollini, who was rather prone to turning up to the race start dressed as Caesar. I checked, by the way. He did actually do that.
To make it more interesting, Cipollini got a time bonus each stage he won, so he could inch his way closer to Boardman, and see if he could get the jersey from the British rider before the British rider crashed out of the race.
Then there was a time trial, so Miguel Indurain could take the lead. Then the race did some mountains, where lots of people with physiology that was more borrowed than home-grown would provide a sort of pharmaceutical trade show. There’d be another TT before the finish so Indurain could win even more easily than he was doing already.
I always assumed this format was inviolable. The race alternated clockwise round France with anticlockwise, but that was hardly a shake-up since it was as regular as, well, clockwork. Otherwise it was the same, year after year.
The first time I saw a Tour start with a road stage I thought the world had come off its axis and floated off into space. It was 2008, since you ask, after at least 40 years of time trial starts. (I got back as far as the 1960s, and got bored checking.)
Long, long ago
If you go back further, of course, it was different again. The whole race used to just be a straight lap of the edges of France — 400km stages of riding through the night, stealing food from cafes like locusts and swapping cures for egg-sized saddle sores. I sometimes think we should go back to that. To watch, of course. Not to ride. I’m a sadist, not an idiot. But again, it was the same every year.
Now you never know what you’re going to get:
“How about uphill time trials?” “Why not?”
“What about the whole GC race finishing by careering down a mountain?” “Of course, how could it finish otherwise?”
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“How about we get all the sprinters out of the race by climbing the Ventoux on stage one?” “Hurrah! Who on earth would want to watch sprinting anyway?”
I made the last one up. But it’s probably only a matter of time. The route announcement used to pass completely unnoticed. Now it’s a primetime TV event.
There’s a whole generation now that thinks the annual tombola is as normal as I thought the 1960s-2000s format was. They should be grateful for the unpredictable racing. And if it does nothing else, it improves your chances of being able to differentiate one race from the next in 25 years’ time.