Rouleur Classic

The Tour de France route: cycling’s best kept secret

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Photographs: Offside/l'Equipe

There’s a good reason why someone would want to get hold of the 2017 Tour de France route, and not only for curious riders hoping to spy what challenges lie in wait next July.


One of the most hotly anticipated announcements in the cycling calendar, the map of 21 stages and 23 days is the fulcrum for hundreds of product launches and sponsorship opportunities; not least for the cycle industry but for anyone with a commercial interest in France’s gigantic mobile summer billboard.


The Tour de France – the world’s biggest annual sporting event, unveiled annually in the cavernous auditorium of the Palais des Congrès in the heart of Paris with an evocative display of son et lumière to an audience of former winners, key dignitaries and VIPs – is also the skeleton for a multi-million Euro industry of holidays and hotel bookings.


We hardly need to explain that there is a finite number of hotel beds in France, and anyone who has ever followed the Tour will be able to vouch for the fact that in the mountains or deep countryside of la France profonde, that number isn’t always very big.


Be you a holiday-maker, a superfan, a cycle tour operator or a reporter, stealing even a day’s march on your fellow bookers confers a considerable advantage. Hotels in Yorkshire reported selling out within days of the 2014 Grand Départ announcement in January 2013. Most had never seen anything like it.

Gino Bartali pores over a map of France during a Tour rest day in the 1940s

Given the interest and anticipation – and that we’re in an era of leaks from the deliberate handing over of the Panama Papers to the accidental launch of the Google Pixel smartphone via the Carphone Warehouse last week – it’s quite an achievement for Tour de France organisers ASO to keep the route under wraps.


In 2012 the media pack was handed out to the press before the launch and several entrepreneurial hacks tweeted its contents. In late 2011 the map for the following year’s Tour made a momentary appearance on the official site thanks to the wayward clicking of one employee.


“Someone made one false click, the map was online for a matter of a few seconds, and in that one second there was someone who happened to be on the website and voila, hop, it had gone out,” says Fabrice Tiano, who works for the press service at ASO.


However these two instances are exceptions rather than the norm. The Tour de France supertanker is remarkably watertight, and not by accident.


“We do the absolute maximum to protect that map,” Tiano adds. “In ASO very few people actually see the map until a few days ahead of the presentation. Even people who are very close to the top of the organisation.”


Covering tracks


If any riders or team staff are reading this and are still wondering why that memorable hotel of that memorable Tour a few years ago was two hours from the stage start, there’s likely a good reason for the long transfer.


As a result of ASO’s mild paranoia, not even the staff responsible for booking race hotels in advance know the full route until they watch it being unveiled on the big screen in the auditorium. All they know is a date, an approximate area and the number of rooms required.


Even local politicians – the men and women responsible for bringing the Tour to town (and in most cases paying for it) – are often kept in the dark.


“Christian [Prudhomme] might tell them that they have been selected to receive the Tour but only a lot closer to the announcement will he say on what day and whether it will be a start or a finish,” says Tiano.


The policy is about leaving as few footprints as possible. The odd page of council minutes, a record of hotel bookings, or even a rogue Tweet by a town mayor, can help amateur sleuths piece together the bones of the route. This is exactly how Thomas Vergouwen, a former ASO employee turned blogger, works out his estimated Tour route every year (most of the time he gets pretty close).


No media receive the route under embargo (as is sometimes the case with ASO’s other races like the Critérium du Dauphiné or Paris-Nice) and only France Télévisions see the route on the morning of the launch ahead of anyone else to allow them to prepare their TV broadcasts.


Power play


The Tour is cycling’s greatest show; anticipation and excitement is an essential part of the product. Generating interest and reinforcing the ‘big reveal’ helps cement the Tour as cycling’s foremost event and, by extension, ASO as cycling’s foremost players.


So of course ASO likes to protect a sense of theatre around it.

Cavendish, Riblon, Contador, Froome and Costa wait backstage with ASO president Jean-Étienne Amaury (centre) and former Tour speaker Daniel Mangeas

At this moment it is worth pointing out that this year’s official Tour presentation takes place on exactly the same day as the UCI’s annual gala – October 18. The two most powerful organisations in cycling have not enjoyed the best of relationships in recent times.


Any riders, team staff or movers and shakers will have to choose to attend one or the other. The Tour is unveiled a few hundred metres from the Arc de Triomphe; the UCI congregates in Abu Dhabi.


“We could not have found a better moment to celebrate the very best of men and women’s road cycling in 2016,” said UCI president Brian Cookson in a press release earlier this year. Quite.


Ultimately, knowing the Tour route ahead of time is like a child wanting to open Christmas presents early. Yes, there’s the yearning to know what’s inside and yes, there’s the temptation to find out prematurely. Yet we know that the satisfaction and surprise of tearing open the wrapping paper on the big day is worth the wait. Deep down, we all want to play the game too.


Tour de France boss Christian Prudhomme will be presenting the route of the 2017 Tour de France at the opening night of the Rouleur Classic on 3rd November.