by Lionel Birnie in Ypres


The Grand Départ broke new ground and created logistical challenges. Photograph by Simon Gill.

The Tour de France has always been a commercial exercise, taking its riders off in pursuit of the money, particularly when it comes to hosting the increasingly lavish Grand Départ, which cost around £10 million to stage in Yorkshire.

Towns and cities pay handsomely for the privilege of hosting a stage start or finish with the promise that the economic benefits will repay those costs as much as ten times over. In the coming weeks officials in Yorkshire will no doubt issue a press release detailing the financial rewards the county and its businesses have reaped as a result of the Tour’s visit.

But the Tour’s most northerly Grand Départ presented certain logistical challenges. On Monday night, the riders made a quick dash to London City airport to take flights to France so they could get a good night’s rest before the race’s resumption in Le Touquet on Tuesday morning. Their transfer went without a hitch, the only calamity befell stage winner Marcel Kittel, who Tweeted: “Big disaster at the airport in London: my hair gel did not make it through the security check.”

Many in the Tour convoy had more to worry about than having their hair products confiscated. A broken down train in the Channel Tunnel caused six-hour delays, with traffic backing up on the approach to Folkestone. As a result, the ferries were jam-packed too. Some team staff didn’t arrive at their hotels until the early hours and journalists and TV crews were still waiting to board the Eurotunnel trains as lunchtime approached on Tuesday.

The timing of the broken down train turned out to be one marketing man’s dream, at least. Jaguar always planned to release this video of Chris Froome riding his bike through the Channel Tunnel to coincide with the Tour’s return to France. How we wished we could have hopped on a bike and pedalled the 31 miles to Calais on Monday night, but that’s a different story.

Long transfers have always been the bane of a Tour rider’s life but it is only relatively recently that the athlete’s comfort has been prioritised over commercial concerns.

In the late 1970s, the riders got so fed up with Félix Levitan’s habit of holding two stages in a day – and therefore increasing the amount of money that could be earned from the hosting towns – that they famously went on strike, with Bernard Hinault striking a Napoleonic pose at the head of the peloton as they dismounted within sight of the finish line and walked the last couple of hundred metres. As the former Irish rider Sean Kelly says of Lévitan’s regime: “You wouldn’t treat cattle that way.”

The Tour has always pushed boundaries. When the race first left mainland Europe, to visit Britain in 1974, it did so to promote trade links between Brittany and Britain and publicise a new ferry link between Roscoff and Plymouth. The Brittany Economic Committee, a collection of businesses, footed much of the bill for the day trip, with a stage being held on the Plympton bypass.

Keith Bingham writes about the Tour’s first overseas expedition in the most recent volume of The Cycling Anthology. Although the purpose of the trip was to promote the ferry crossing, the riders actually flew over on a chartered flight to Exeter airport.

All went swimmingly until after the stage. Tempers were frayed at the airport when the riders returned ready for the short hop back to France. As Keith writes: “The customs officers at Exeter had the last word, insisting on going through every rider’s bag individually, laboriously, delaying them two hours longer than was really necessary.”

It took 20 years for the Tour to return to Britain and, in the meantime, there was a start in West Berlin in 1987, when it took five days to return to French territory. Lévitan’s dream was to see the Tour start in the United States in his lifetime and over dinner on Saturday night Greg LeMond told me that Lévitan’s plan was not a gimmick, he genuinely wanted to take the Tour transatlantic. “One day it might happen,” said LeMond. “If they can be flexible… maybe have four days in the US, a transfer day back and a rest day, it could happen. But they’d have to do it so the riders can recover from the travel, so they might have to be flexible with the rules.”

Twenty years after the first trip to Britain, the Tour returned to England to mark the opening of the Channel Tunnel and this time the riders travelled by the mode of transport their visit was promoting, taking the train from Calais to Folkestone and back without a hitch.

Usually, when the route-plotters require the race to transfer from one end of France to the other – as happened last year with the epic rest day transfer from the Pyrenees to the Breton coast – the organisers charter a flight to ease the strain on the riders.

There have been a couple of notable exceptions to that rule. In 1989, two Dutch riders, Steven Rooks and Gert-Jan Theunisse, travelled much of the way from Wasquehal, near the Belgian border, to Dinard in Normandy in the PDM team car, getting out to ride the last 200 kilometres. They did that because they felt the rest day, which came only five days into the race, was too early.

In 1992, Urs Zimmermann, the Swiss rider who finished third in the 1986 Tour, decided to travel in one of his team’s cars with the mechanics rather than take the flight. He arrived at his destination to hear he’d been expelled from the race for failing to take the official transport. The riders had planned a protest about being forced to wear helmets but they included Zimmermann’s cause and the organisers reversed their decision. A myth spread that Zimmermann had taken the car because he was scared of flying but Richard Moore debunks that in his book, Étape. In fact, Zimmermann was at the airport getting ready to fly home when he heard he was back in the race. The reason he’d taken the car was because he was fed up with the company of bike riders and wanted to travel in the company of ‘normal’ people.

The bottom line is that the riders have to go where the race organisers tell them. It is no coincidence that the remainder of this Tour’s route is tightly joined up, with only a short gap on the south coast and the final transfer from the Perigord region up to Paris for the final day. The Tour’s organisers have recognised that the stresses and strains of the race are so great that the spectacle is not enhanced by pushing riders beyond the limit.