It was a masterstroke of rebranding – one not seen in the sport since your local cycle club started calling its age-old reliability trial a gran fondo.
Suddenly, what was once the Tour of Trentino, a quiet region in the northeast of Italy, had in 2017 taken on a nominal claim to all the Alps.
In truth, the race’s territorial footprint had only expanded to a slightly larger portion of the mountain range than it had previously occupied. But now, in straddling its base across the Austrian border, a name change was necessary – and the geopolitically correct Tour of the Tyrol-South Tyrol-Trentino Euroregion wasn’t really going to cut it.
Immediately, in renaming, the Tour of the Alps had found new grandeur. But, first run in 1962, it has long been an important race. You only need to look down its illustrious list of past winners to recognise this event for what it is: a GC contenders warm-up for the Giro d’Italia – what the Critérium du Dauphiné is to the Tour de France.
For the last three years it has also been a proving ground for riders hoping to eventually supersede Chris Froome as leader at Team Sky. Based on how that’s turned out for 2015 victor Richie Porte and 2016 winner Mikael Landa, 2017 champ Geraint Thomas must be odds-on for some new kit next season. Curiously, Froome himself -who very much has something to prove- is entered for the 2018 race.
The big draw for the big riders at the Tour of the Alps, is indeed that big mountain range that now gives name to it. There are significant climbs to be tackled on every day on this year’s route – including a final fifth stage excursion to Innsbruck that tests out the tough route of the 2018 World Championships. The stages are relatively short, but there’s no junk mile sprint days or time trials.
Yet for all the ‘bigs’ in the last paragraph, the Tour of the Alps remains a remarkably low-key race. If one common observation jumps out in David Powell’s photos from the 2017 edition, it’s the almost total lack of crowds lining the roadside. Oh, and how the Alps look so different here.
Temporally, spatially and culturally we’re in a different place to the mountains we know best from the Tour de France. It’s hundreds of miles away. It’s springtime. It’s green. Snow is still plentiful on the vertiginous Dolomite outcrops and the rivers are raging with melt.
Step into a photo’s meadow and you can almost taste the fresh mountain air. In prim Tyrolian villages, there’s an echo of distant cowbells. Racing in the Alps has never looked so uncluttered and fresh.
Powell’s Tour of the Alps images will feature in Rouleur 18.3