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A brief history of recent short mountain stages

A brief history of recent short mountain stages

At 65km, the 17th stage in 2018 is the shortest mountain stage since an abbreviated race in 1996. We consider the history of route innovation…

 

In the last 25 years, there has been only one mountain stage of the Tour de France (that’s not a time trial) which was shorter than what will be raced in stage 17 of the 2018 race. The organisers didn’t plan it that way in 1996, the weather did. Snow falls leading up to the race from Le Monêtier-les-Bains to Sestrière meant that the 176km stage that had been scheduled – originally to be from Val-d’Isère to Sestrière – was cut to just 46km.

Of course, this was a time when riders were charged; the ‘winner’ of the abbreviated stage 22 years ago was also the rider in the yellow jersey and the eventual ‘champion’*, but everything about Bjarne Riis racing career is now essentially denoted with asterisks.

During the years of Jean-Marie Leblanc’s tenure as Tour de France director (1989-2006), long, brutal stages were par for for the course: epic days of over 200km in the mountains were common. To be frank, it’s no surprise that doping became so prevalent.

In modern terms, it wasn’t until 1999 – ie. the year after the infamous ‘Festina Affair’ that Leblanc and his cohort introduced more than one rest day during the entire three week ordeal and days with more than 250km on the menu were surprisingly common.

Were they more interesting? Not really, not unless you still want to believe that what the riders in the 1990s were doing was achieved on bread and water. Had that been the case, then the 13th stage of the 1992 edition could be remembered as one of the most amazing feats of the modern era.

At the time of Claudio Chiappucci’s epic escape from St-Gervais to Sestrère, over a course spanning 255km, the Italian who finished runner-up that to Miguel Indurain that year, set off early and, miraculously, kept on going, and going… and going. Epic? Yes. Real…? Ha!

In 1992 alone there were four stages of 250km or more (and 10 over 200km). The shortest stage of that typical, Leblanc-style route was 141km – and that came on the final day. It’s also worth noting that, the three time trials in 1992 (one TTT and two individual time trials), were all 63.5km, 65km and 64km, respectively. Indurain dominated both solo tests…

Those TTs of 1992 were the same distance as today’s road race, stage 17 from Bagnère-de-Luchon to the Col du Portet, the highest point of the 2018 Tour.

 

* * * * *

That stage in 1992: 254.5km from St-Gervais to Sestrière – won in dramatic style by Claudio Chiappucci (above).

Top: Warren Barguil wins the 101km stage in 2017.

Photos: Yuzuru Sunada

The changes to route design since the arrival of Christian Prudhomme have been significant. He has dared to include epic climbs for the final mountain challenge of many races and he has innovated in ways that Leblanc wasn’t willing to do.

Consider some of the highlights of Prudhomme’s Tours and you realise how hard he and the ASO team have had to work to overcome the logistical nightmare of positioning stages finishes in places which Leblanc would never have dreamed of going: the Aubisque in 2007, Mont Ventoux on the final Saturday in 2009, the finish atop the Col du Tourmalet in 2010… they are just a few examples.

Prudhomme has also cut out a lot of the chaff that served as a prelude to the climbing challenge(s). And this innovation truly began in 2011 with the 109.5km stage from Modane to Alpe d’Huez.

Alberto Contador takes an early gamble in the short stage to Alpe d’Huez in 2011 (above).

Photo: Yuzuru Sunada

Immediately the short mountain stage yielded a reward. Alberto Contador, with his back to the wall in his quest for GC honours, took a gamble and went on the attack. Try as he might, he wasn’t able to overcome his rivals in stage 19; the winner of the day before, Andy Schleck (officially the ‘defending champion’) took the yellow jersey when Pierre Rolland won the stage (to firm up his white jersey).

It was an animated day of racing and there was a sense of genuine panic because of Contador’s antics.

And lo, more short mountain stages then appeared on the itineraries of subsequent Tours:

  • 2012: Bagnères-de-Luchon to Peyragudes – 146.5km
  • 2013: Annecy to Semnoz – 125km
  • 2014: Saint-Gaudens to Saint-Lary Pla d’Adet – 124.5km
  • 2014: Pau to Hautacam – 145.5km
  • 2015: Saint-Jean-de-Maurienne to La Toussuire – 138km
  • 2015: Modane to Alpe d’Huez (again) – 110.5km
  • 2016: Albertville to Saint Gervais-les-Bains – 146km
  • 2016: Megève to Morzine – 146.5km
  • 2017: Saint-Girons to Foix – 101km…

 

And that brings us to Saint-Lary-Soulon, or rather: the road that leads away from that Pyrenean town and up the Col du Portet.

At 65km the distance is also an homage to the number of the department of France, Haute-Pyrénées (65). It is also a brutal menu of climbing: Col de Peyresourde (1,569m high 13.5km into the race), Col de Val Louron-Azet (1,580m at the 37km mark) and the finale up to 2,215m!

What a concept. And what anticipation surrounds this mountain ‘sprint’. Others are calling it a time trial and, as has been reported often, there’s another initiative from Prudhomme and co. for today: a grid start for the top-seeded riders.

There’ll be no neutral zone. There’ll be a considerable warm-up for the riders. There’ll be panic. There’ll be excitement. There’ll be winners and losers and some sore legs at the end of the day. And perhaps it will be a format that will be so successful that it’ll be repeated in years to come.

We wait to see what unfolds but this may well be part of the future of bike racing.

 

– By Rob Arnold

Nairo Quintana wins the Annecy to Semnoz stage in 2013 (above).

Photo: Yuzuru Sunada

*Some records show that Riis beat team-mate Jan Ullrich in 1996, others have show a blank space for the winner… and, of course, EPO is the reason.

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