The Tour's left-field turn: sampling stage nine of the Tour de France

Stage nine of the Tour de France, taking place on Sunday 7 July, features 32km on the white roads of the Champagne region. Steve Shrubsall grabs his gravel bike to sample what lies in wait for the peloton

Pinot gris as far as the eye can see in this section of Champagne country
Pinot gris as far as the eye can see in this section of Champagne country
(Image credit: Future)

Being the Tour de France race director must give Christian Prudhomme more than a few restless nights. In the small hours of a September morning – weeks before the following year’s route is announced to a clamouring crowd of riders, journalists and boulangerie proprietors – I imagine a panic-stricken Prudhomme coming to from a nightmare featuring the same old mountains and TT kilometres as the previous dozen editions. For a Tour de France route to be heralded a success, a more eclectic set of stages is needed – France needs to be well and truly toured. As many stones as possible need to be turned. And for this year’s route, the race director had a bona fide eureka moment. 

OK, I’m not suggesting that the race director woke up one day screaming ‘GRAVEL!’ at the top of his lungs – but for the purposes of this feature, let’s run with it – because as an explanation of one particular stage, it fits the parcours perfectly. Barely out of his pyjamas, then, and long before the boulangerie proprietors, half of the pro peloton and a cluster of journalists had the chance to enquire as to what on earth he was raving about, stage nine of this year’s Tour had been signed, sealed and delivered. Fast-forward to mid-May 2024 and our CW team – me, my brother James and photographer Richard – were en route to find out for ourselves just what wild vision entered Prudhomme’s mind that fateful night.

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Steve has been writing (mainly fitness features) for Cycling Weekly for 11 years. His current riding inclination is to go long on gravel bikes... which melds nicely with a love of carbs