Tour Guide – Prudhomme Welcome (2011)

RIDE Media has produced the official Tour de France Guide (Australian edition) since 2003. The 2012 edition will be on sale mid-June. During the production period, we will be looking back at certain features from over the years. In this flashback we present a Q&A with the race director Christian Prudhomme from the 2011 Official Tour Guide.

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Flashback: 2011 – the centenary of the Alps in the Tour de France

The director of the Tour de France adheres to the principle that the route must innovate as well as remain faithful to the race’s history and legendary status. Christian Prudhomme explains his aim is “to mix things up” each day in order to encourage the riders to take risks.

Do you believe the Tour de France reflects a certain nostalgia or is it the spearhead of a modern sport?

Christian Prudhomme: “It’s a modern sport that has its roots in the past. A society that has no memories is a society without a future, and of course cycling has its memories. It’s certainly a sport of the future because the bicycle is regaining its place at the heart of many cities. There is a growing desire for people to let off steam for the good of their health, for their wellbeing. That could be through walking, swimming or the bike.

“Cycling will undoubtedly have a glowing future if the link can once again be made between the bike Mr Everyman uses and that of the sport’s champion. That used to be the situation when it was the means of transport for kids going to school or out on little jaunts. I believe that we will go back to those times. It’s clear that it’s already happened in Belgium and Holland.”

When you draw up the route of the Tour do you do so with your memories very much in mind, with a degree of nostalgia?

Christian Prudhomme: “Without any doubt. It’s also in the hope of bringing legends back to life, of reconnecting with the great champions of the past. Cycling’s legends, the exploits of its champions, nurtured my love of the sport when I was young and followed the Tour with my father. Back then I organised things so that I finished reading the paper I was determined to buy every day just before the televised coverage of the race began. Nowadays, I’m just as keen to discover new places as I am to finish in places that are very well known such as on the Aubisque in 2007 or on the Galibier in 2011. It’s a way of moving the race forwards while still respecting the Tour’s great history.”

Thirty years ago the stages were long. They used to string together numerous cols and keep the riders in the saddle for eight hours. That is no longer possible today. So how can cycling regain the epic edge that it needs?

Christian Prudhomme: “I am determined, and it’s almost an obsession, that each day’s finish is of a different nature to the rest. I wanted the first stage to finish on Mont des Alouettes after a climb of two kilometres. At Lisieux, there’s a sharp climb a kilometre and a half from the finish. That tallies with the Tour’s necessary aesthetics.

“You always have to mistrust your first impression, and that’s a good thing. The first image of the 2011 race will be of the Passage du Gois, which is symbolic. That fascinating road which disappears under the tides terrified me when, as a kid, I went along it when I was on a holiday with my parents. Going to the place that allowed the Royalists to take refuge on the Île de Noirmoutier and also to Mont des Alouettes – where the windmills were used to indicate the movement of enemy troops by changing the position of the sails – also enables us to revisit the history of the Vendée.

“In the same way, in 2009, when the race headed from Monaco to Barcelona following the Mediterranean coast, Perpignan had not presented its candidacy as a stage town, but I clearly remembered that 50 years earlier, Salvador Dali had drawn one of the official postcards of the Tour. Consequently I wanted the race to finish as close as possible to the station which, in the eyes of the artist, was ‘le centre cosmogonique de l’univers’ – the cosmogonic centre of the universe.

“This year, when Italy is celebrating the 150th anniversary of its unification, it was clear that the Tour ought to stop over in Piedmont. It will do so in Pinerolo, where Nicolas Fouquet and ‘the man in the iron mask’ were imprisoned in the fortress during the reign of Louis XIV.”

Do the aesthetics of the Tour de France depend very much on the images that are transmitted on television?

Christian Prudhomme: “The race is broadcast in more than 180 countries. A cycling fan who wanted to watch all of the images that were transmitted each year would need to devote six months of non-stop viewing to do so. The millions of people who watch it on their televisions are the people we must think about above all. The race needs to be attractive for them.”

Cycling is an epic sport people used to experience through the written word and it was the written word that sometimes allowed the more mundane aspects of the race to be forgotten. Now it is a sport that is experienced in the moment. Does that mean there is pressure to deliver some spectacle every day?

Christian Prudhomme: “Yes, but it depends more than anything on the riders. As the event organisers we are able to plan out the route so that there is the chance of something spectacular taking place. It’s an opportunity, but whether this happens or not is up to the riders and the managers. That’s why I position the final mountain stages as close as possible to Paris every year so that we can maintain the spectacle for as long as possible.”

At the end of the first week you have included three medium mountain stages of the type that have not proved conclusive in previous years. Why is that?

Christian Prudhomme: “At the finish in Les Rousses last year I heard Andy Schleck state his regret for not having done a reconnaissance of that stage. It is a bit of a novel idea to think that the Tour could be decided somewhere else besides in the Alps or the Pyrenees. I don’t want the riders to have to stick to a repetitive format because I want to avoid the kind of copy-and-paste action that affects so much of cycling nowadays.”

So does that mean a stage could finish anywhere?

Christian Prudhomme: “Exactly, the only rule is that there are no rules!”

But this year, the race will spend three days in the Auvergne without the climb of the Puy de Dôme featuring on the route…

Christian Prudhomme: “The first thing I typed on my computer when I arrived at ASO in 2004 was ‘Objective Puy de Dôme’. But I don’t know if it will be possible to go back there in the future. (The road is currently blocked during the construction of a rack railway on the mountain.) But I do think about it a lot. In a similar way, we finished on the summit of the Tourmalet last year, which had not been done since 1974. This line of thinking also pushed us towards this year’s summit finish on the Galibier.”

The Tourmalet was the giant of the 2010 Tour. A lot of people weren’t happy to see the race’s two champions embrace at the finish when they should have been at the height of their battle…

Christian Prudhomme: “I regretted the outcome of the Spa stage more than the one on the Tourmalet where the match effectively ended up in a draw. That’s not because I’m not in favour of the favourites observing a kind of truce in the wake of the crashes that occurred on the descent of the Côte de Stockeu [en-route to Spa] during the second stage, but because that day should have been a great day of racing with a result reflecting that.

“All the old champions that I mix with told me: ‘Of course, you need to take fair play into account, but it is also important that there is competition between the riders.’ The embrace the two leaders shared doesn’t bother me, on the contrary in fact. However, I would have preferred it to have taken place after each had made five attacks. Alas, there was only one.”

Cycling is a sport packed with landmark moments. The Tour has provided fans with plenty of them but we crave duels like those between Poulidor and Anquetil, or Merckx and Ocaña. Last year’s top two riders didn’t put on that kind of show…

Christian Prudhomme: “The contest [between Alberto Contador and Andy Schleck] was a top-notch draw. But the challenger didn’t try everything he could have. Cycling has changed, the overall standard has risen considerably and that means the gap between riders is very narrow. I would like to see riders rediscover the taste for risk-taking, to see a rider prepared to lose in a big way in order to win the ultimate prize. For that reason we need to stick with courses that are likely to produce battles, for example by heading through a windy section of countryside before going up a climb. Will we ever see a champion launch a long-range attack with a view to winning the race? I hope so. Unfortunately, in cycling there is always a tendency towards eliminating risk by trying to predict everything that is going to happen.”

After the Pyrenean centenary in 2010, this year the race is celebrating 100 years in the Alps with two successive summit finishes: one on the Galibier and then at l’Alpe d’Huez…

Christian Prudhomme: “You have to look at the two stages together. The first is almost 200km long, starts in Pinerolo and takes in the three giants: the Col d’Agnel, which has never been tackled in the Tour from this direction; The Col d’Izoard, which is renowned for its beauty and its place in the history of the Tour and, of course, the Galibier. The next day is a short stage (110km), which starts in Modane, crosses the Col du Télégraphe, the Galibier via Plan Lachat and then finishes at l’Alpe d’Huez.

“The two stages don’t necessarily suit the same kind of rider. As always, my goal is to mix things up.”

You have invited four French teams. What do you expect from them in return for these invitations?

Christian Prudhomme: “We have done that to show solidarity with French cycling, but also because we didn’t want to deprive ourselves of some emblematic riders. We couldn’t pass over Thomas Voeckler’s team, nor David Moncoutié’s. We could not pass over a team that contains proven breakaway specialists Pierrick Fédrigo and Sandy Casar, nor that of French cycling’s great hope, Jérôme Coppel. We are just as aware of that need for a national bias in the Belgian Classics that ASO also organises.

“I always expect French riders to be looking for stage wins, but also expect one at least to be aiming to finish in the leading overall positions. In 2010 French riders won six stages, but the leading Frenchman, John Gadret, finished too far back on GC in 19th place. The French riders have shaken off the inferiority complex they had, but they’ve still got another hurdle to leap.”

What would be your definition of a successful Tour de France?

“One packed with enthusiasm, passion and suspense. Of desire as well. I’ve still got a lot of desire no matter what difficulties I’m facing. And, as Bernard Hinault says, ‘The riders must also rediscover the taste for competition.’ That’s what has always excited me.”

Interview by Gilles Le Roc’h

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