The mapmakers: Creating the Tour de France route

The three-week-long, 3,500km, 198-rider, millions-of-roadside-spectators beast that is the Tour route? Just two people create the entire thing each year.

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The lights dim inside the 4,000-seat Palais des Congrès in Paris, and Tour de France director Christian Prudhomme takes center stage. It’s late October, and in one of cycling’s seasonal customs, Prudhomme is unveiling next year’s Tour de France route with the pomp that cycling’s greatest stage race demands.

As he takes the audience through each stage, Thierry Gouvenou sits a few rows back, hidden from the spotlight but glowing like a proud father. A former pro who ranks behind only Prudhomme in the Tour’s organizational hierarchy, Gouvenou is Prudhomme’s sole partner in the creation of the Tour de France route. The presentation marks the end of three years of hard work for the pair — which means that even as Prudhomme is on stage, he and Gouvenou are already deep into the planning of the 2017 and 2018 routes.

“It is curious to see the reactions to the route presentation,” says Gouvenou, who ascended to his current role in 2014. “Designing the route each year is a big challenge, and when we see the riders commenting that it looks hard, then we know we did a good job.”

The Tour de France is a sprawling beast, involving roughly 3,500 kilometers, 21 stages, three weeks, and, oftentimes, international border crossings. It is also by far cycling’s most important event. Given the scope and prestige, it seems odd that only two men should be responsible for planning each and every route. Yet that’s the reality. There is no official input from the UCI, the teams, or even ASO colleagues. What Prudhomme and Gouvenou decide is what the peloton gets.

Given the evolving intrigue and experimentation that have marked recent editions of the Tour, the pairing works just fine, in part because the two men have such different but complementary personalities.

Prudhomme, 55, is a former TV journalist and suave Parisian, comfortable in the spotlight and no stranger to controversy. He took over as Tour director in 2007, after serving for three years as assistant director under Jean-Marie Leblanc. He has the connections, experience, vision, and force of personality to help modernize the Tour.

He is the point man who secures the high-profile deals to bring the Tour to lucrative new mar- kets. He was instrumental to bringing the race to Yorkshire, England, in 2014, for what some view as the most successful Grand Départ ever.

“The fans and the broadcasters do not like predictability, and we strive to add to adventure,” Prudhomme says. “Something every day must be interesting. That is the challenge we face.” In contrast to his boss’s visionary style, the 46-year-old Gouvenou is a former journeyman pro who never won a race and is content to work in the trenches, helping to give life and texture to Prudhomme’s overarching vision. The director determines the major host cities along the route, then leaves it to Gouvenou to find the roads that connect those dots.

“We work in tandem,” Gouvenou explains. “Christian paints the big picture. He has the context and vision to be able to step back. Once the general vision is laid out, then he passes it to me with carte blanche.”

Keeping an historic sport relevant in a modern media landscape for an audience with an ever-shorter attention span is no easy feat. When Prudhomme came on board, the Tour was stuck in an increasingly predictable rut, punctuated more by doping scandals than surprising routes. He quickly moved to strengthen anti-doping efforts, then turned his attention to the route itself. He wanted to change what a stage race looked like.

“We always strive for innovation, to keep things interesting,” Prudhomme says. “Why should the Tour be predictable? I think it should be the opposite.”

The Tour’s traditional routes through the Alps and Pyrenees obviously had to stay. So where Prudhomme knew he could make the biggest difference was in the transition stages. For years the Tour would take brief forays into the mountains, connected by days and days of predictably flat sprinters’ stages. Prudhomme began adding spice to the transitions with punchy uphill finales, varied terrain, and even pavé. Sprinters were having a hard time winning stages. One trademark addition was the Mur de Bretagne, introduced in 2011. The finishing climb transformed that year’s stage 4 from a routine sprint stage to one that saw GC riders marking each other while classics specialists looked to grab a bit of Tour glory. There’s a reason the Mur was back for the 2015 Tour: It was thrilling stuff.

Once Prudhomme provides the general framework, it’s up to Gouvenou to decide on the roads, pick the climbs, designate where the sprints will be — basically, to take care of all the details that determine the race.

“I’ve always liked maps and geography, so to design the Tour is a fun endeavor,” Gouvenou says. “Many of the roads are from memory, from racing and training, but we use new technology as much as we can.” That includes not just predictable tools like GPS and Google Earth but even Strava, which Gouvenou has used to dis- cover new roads and climbs.

Of course, at some point he has to get out on the roads themselves. He spends numerous weeks traveling each year and, by September, has driven the following year’s finalized route in its entirety.

While Prudhomme and Gouvenou are the sole architects of the route itself, they do need approval from a third person, Stéphane Boury, to make the route a reality. As ASO’s coordinator of each day’s finish line, Boury has to make sure the routes are practical. With an entourage topping 5,000 people, plus hundreds of vehicles, millions of fans, and all the attendant infrastructure, the Tour is a logistical beast that is exponentially more difficult than, say, hosting a soccer match in a stadium.

“We start working one or two years ahead of time,” Boury explains. “I have to go to every candidate city or finish line for an inspection. The imprint of the Tour is very big, and every stage must meet certain criteria.” Among the requirements is that each finish needs about 10,000 square meters (2.5 acres) of space.

“There are 120 trucks that travel with the Tour,” Boury says. “We have 400 to 500 technicians on each stage, and we have to lay 10 to 20 kilometers of fiber optic cable each day for the TV, for the press rooms. It’s like a military operation.”

The space required to accommodate the finish-line apparatus rules out a lot of villages and mountain summits, though sometimes Boury can find creative solutions. In 2011, stage 18 finished atop the Col du Galibier, at 8,650 feet — the highest finish in Tour history. The podium area was squeezed onto a tiny patch of flat ground, while the remainder of the daily entourage was directed to a spot nearly 2,000 feet below.

“We had to lay 12 kilometers of fiber optic line by helicopter, but it was worth it,” Boury says. “It was spectacular!”

The first Tour de France consisted of six stages over three weeks, but each route averaged more than 400 kilometers. Tour founder Henri Desgrange made things up as he went along, adding the first mountains in 1910 and pushing further into the Pyrenees and Alps over the next few years. By the 1920s, the Tour was starting to look like what we now think of as a three-week grand tour — shorter stages, but more of them, held daily for three weeks.

In the 1970s, in an effort to make more money from cities — who pay to host starts and finishes — the Tour began running double stages, with racing in the morning and afternoon. This allowed the organization to double its fees. But it was also an obvious burden on the riders, who put a stop to the practice in 1978, when Bernard Hinault lead a now-famous strike in Valence.

By the 1990s, the UCI had codified the modern outline of grand tours. They had to run from 15 to 23 days, with two rest days, no half stages, no stages longer than 240 kilometers, and a maximum total distance of 3,500 kilometers.

But if the framework was helpful in protecting riders and providing some stability, it also became slightly suffocating. The Tour — as well as the Giro and Vuelta — became predictable and even boring, with five or six exciting days of racing surrounded by unimaginative flat stages ending in bunch sprints. The nadir came in 2003, when Alessandro Petacchi won 15 stages across all three grand tours — putting a quantity and a face to the lack of variety.

It was the Giro and Vuelta that started to rattle the cage. Looking to differentiate their races as the Tour began to overshadow everything else in cycling, the Giro added things like gravel roads and 25-percent gradients to summits like Monte Zoncolan — challenges unlike anything the Tour could offer. The Vuelta’s solution was to drastically reduce the length of its stages, to an average of just 120 kilometers each. The results were stunning. Riders attacked in the neutral starts, and the action was non-stop.

The Tour got the message. Over the past five years, the race has become decidedly more challenging and less predictable, especially in the first week. “We cannot follow a script, even if it’s a new script,” Gouvenou says. “There won’t be pavé every year, there won’t be hills every day, but there will be something new.”

Some say things have gone too far, highlighted, perhaps, by the brutally mountainous 2015 route. “The 2015 Tour was relentless,” Prudhomme told French TV at the finish line in Paris last year. “We must innovate, we must bring the sport close to the people. We must take to the roads, to the hidden corners, to the new discoveries.”

But ultimately, Prudhomme says, it’s the riders, not the course, that make the race hard: “Even if we have flat roads, they are going full-gas. They race 50kph when it’s flat, so they make it hard,” he argues. “We simply try to give the riders and the public an interesting backdrop.”

Still, for 2016, he and Gouvenou have eased off the gas, at least a bit. Sprinters will find more opportunities this year, and the reintroduction of time bonuses will enliven the fight for the yellow jersey, especially in the first week.

As always, the race will visit the mountains, but even there Gouvenou says he has some surprises. “We have 10 new climbs for 2016,” he says. “That will make the race interesting. What we aim to do is to keep spicing things up. We want to have the suspense in the race until the final moment. The rider who wins in 2016 will have to be strong for the entire three weeks.”

And only weeks after the announcement gala in Paris, Gouvenou was in Germany, the host country for the 2017 Grand Départ. “There are more than 200 cities who are wanting to be part of the Tour,” he says. “We are already looking at 2018 and 2019.”

The Tour waits for no one.

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