For the first one hundred and forty seven kilometres of Paris-Tours, I just sat behind the wheel of my team car counting down the kilometres. Up until this point the route had been fairly standard and the racing straightforward, the roads wide and open with no dangerous changes of direction, and a strong tailwind had pushed the riders along at a decent pace. The early break had gained and then lost time without anyone really considering the four riders in front a genuine threat for the win. Paris-Tours had long since been run off in this soporific fashion; this year though things were going to be different.
As we approached the final, I spoke into the radio.
“OK guys, in three kilometres we will turn right onto a short climb. At the top of the climb we have a cross wind from your right and an open section which leads to the descent, from here two kilometres very fast down and you will be on the gravel roads.” As is often the case in the harder parts of races, there was no response at all from the riders. Race radio did the talking for them.
“Team Education First now take up the pace making at the front of the bunch.”
I took a breath and released the tension in my fingers one by one, loosening my tight grip on the steering wheel, my attempt to help refocus attention. Paris-Tours had indeed changed, and we were about to see what it had become.
Paris-Tours’ dramatic facelift had been announced to modest fanfare in mid-April. A short press release let the world know that the hundred and two year-old classic would now include twelve kilometres of chemins du vin — a rather poetic way of describing the gravel tracks that criss-cross the numerous vineyards found along the hillsides of the Loire. When we did come and recon the final fifty kilometres the day before the race it was an eye-opening experience. The tracks weren’t just cobbled or packed dirt with a few loose stones. These were real gravel paths, with deep swathes of sharp stones, corners, hidden holes, soft verges blanketed in a dusty coating. What was more, once you started the sections came in such quick succession that no team cars would be anywhere near the front of the race. You would certainly need wider tyres than usual, and even then a tremendous amount of luck to get through without a flat.
Despite the fact that I knew it would be impossible to help riders to stay in the race from the support car, by the time the race was finally about to hit the gravel sections I — like everyone — was excited for what was about to happen. Sure enough a handful of kilometres later, as the riders came towards the first sections, the team cars were halted behind a crash in the bunch, caused by a touch of wheels as the speeding bunch approached the small roads. The TV in the car flicked in and out of service in time for us to see (our riders) Sep Vanmarcke and Sebastian Langeveld hit the first gravel section in the first five positions.
Seconds later the call came, “It’s Sebastian. I have a flat. Sebastian – flat.”
Still stuck behind crashed riders being picked out of a hedge way back down the road, my only choice was to bark rapid instructions down the radio.
“Sebastian just keep riding, keep moving, do not stop.”
“Dan when you come to Sebastian give him a wheel.”
“Guys remember we have people at the end of each section with wheels — keep rolling as best you can.”
By the time we finally got going and hit the gravel ourselves, flying past struggling individuals and pausing behind dropped groups, race radio was no longer reporting the action but instead running a ceaseless commentary of riders who had punctured. As we emerged out of the second section onto a longer stretch of tarmac, we came across Dan McLay and Sebastian fighting to get back onto a group. Filthy from dust and confused about the race situation, Dan yelled into the car, asking if the group just in front of him was the first or second group.
The answer was simply that we did not know; at that point no one did. While the television cameras focused on the seven or eight riders (including Sep) who had gone clear at the front, the rest of the race was in what seemed to be a million pieces. Each time the road widened we fought our way forward, passing riders all racing as hard as they could but with no real idea where they were in relation to the front of the race. When we reached the gravel sections we would again slow to a crawl as we were held up by riders slowly fighting their way along the dirt sections with flat tyres.
As we zigzagged back and forth through the vineyards there seemed to be destruction all around us; angry riders threw bidons and bikes and swore at team cars for being too far away. Other riders stood by the roadside bemused, waiting for a team car or team helper to give them a wheel.
The race had ignited and then been blown apart by the gravel roads. While a few of the favourites had suffered misfortune, by the time the race exited the ninth and final section with fourteen kilometres to go, almost all of the riders you would have hoped or expected to be in the front were in small groups within thirty seconds of one another, all chasing frantically along the riverside. It stayed like this as the race swept into Tours before turning into the city and onto the famous finish on the Avenue du Grammont, where Soren Kragh Adersen (Sunweb) was crowned a deserved winner.
I finally arrived at the back of the first peloton just as Sep finished the sprint in seventh place and immediately swung the car into the deviation. I could, after a white-knuckle final hour, finally breathe again. The last fifty kilometres had been frantic, nervous and exciting, and the winner was the strongest of the strong men — undoubtedly the best on the day.
And yet, by the time we reached the team bus in the car park, there were already words of complaint flying around social media (where else for a bit of negativity) and in the press. Some riders and managers found the new format of the race to be “too much”, or in one extreme case, “nothing at all to do with road cycling.” We’d all known there was a chance this would happen. Race organisers A.S.O. had been unusually nervous at the mangers meeting and had even flown Christian Prudhomme in to be ready with a swift riposte in case of any post-race complaints. And while Prudhomme duly gave eloquent quotes about the “madness of cycling” being preserved, the truth is that race organisers are simply reacting to modern racing.
In recent years the peloton has changed, advances in aerodynamics, equipment, clothing and the ability for coaches to really effectively measure and monitor training means that the average bike rider (in terms of physical talent) is now much faster than they ever were. The speed of the peloton as a whole has increased — not dramatically amongst the leaders, but in the number of riders who can now manage to push the best even deeper into a race.
How this translates to races is that the best riders have to wait much much later to make a difference, ergo when you watch cycling on TV it appears that nothing happens. As such, race organisers — hungry to differentiate their races and grow their audiences — now find themselves looking for new ways to make their races exciting. Short stages, ridiculously steep climbs or gravel sections to races are all an attempt at a response to the perceived demands of the audience. At times this can work well and at other times it can just feel like the organiser is trying too hard.
An established race like Paris-Tours was always going to be treading a thin line by adding such a modern twist. However, as much as it is a traditional race, it is also a race that has struggled in the past with its identity, being renamed and rerouted for periods in the Seventies and Eighties. After missing out on WorldTour status in 2009, there was no doubt that the former World Cup Classic had lost some of its lustre: it desperately needed something and I believe this year’s edition was a decent attempt at that.
Complaints perhaps came due to the added level of preparation that was needed to compete. It is very rare for riders to do a recon of a point-to-point one-day race in October, and it was at the team’s cost that we flew the riders a day earlier than usual to see the gravel sections (which many teams didn’t bother with). There were other considerations too; we had to bring special wheels with wider profile tyres, which are usually saved for the Tour of Flanders. We also flew in an extra staff member with a spare bike who’s job it was to ride through fields between four of the nine sections with wheels on his back to make sure each section was covered for spares.
We then strategically placed every other available staff member across the countryside, holding wheels for most of the afternoon (they were happier than the riders that it didn’t rain). In short: logistically and financially it was harder work than it has been in the past, but it was far from an impossible task. I – like most directors – put a lot more time and thought into this race than is usual, but the net result was that the teams were challenged, and the riders were excited. Yes, there were a lot of punctures (only one for us in the race) but there were no more crashes than usual (and none actually on the gravel). The race had a worthy winner and fans were excited to watch a race that usually you would only need to watch three-minute highlights clip of.
Cycling needs to continue to evolve, and this particular evolution is one that I, for one, am for. So, I say we toast, with some of that Loire valley wine, to the new Paris-Tours. Chapeau.
If you liked this story consider purchasing Soigneur Cycling Journal 20 where it was first printed.