What makes a successful Grand Départ?

Saturday 27th June.

Today was the day that was due to welcome the start of the most famous bike race, a joyous occasion for cycling fans across the world. The streets of Nice would’ve been packed but sadly coronavirus has put the Tour de France on hold. At the foot of the Alps with Mediterranean sea air, Nice and indeed all of cycling is holding its breath, hoping and praying that the revised UCI calendar takes place this August.

With cycling on hold for the moment what better time could there be to write some features for The Chain Gang! The Tour’s prestige would be nothing without the cutting of the ribbon, the Grand Départ to start it all off. So, what makes a successful Grand Départ?

Fans cannot contain their excitement for much longer with all their favourite riders assembled on stage for the team presentation. Pomp and ceremony, it’s time for celebration, it’s time to get ready for a race that every rider wants to take part in, a race that defines the season. The crowd are hyped, the media spotlight shines, we’re all keen to get the race underway.

The mindsets for the riders are set, the ultimate prize being the famous maillot jaune. Who gets to wear the first yellow jersey? A career highlight for any sprinter, time trialist, all-round breakaway specialist or a puncheur – it depends on the stage in front of you. Whatever the start of the Tour is composed of it has to please some but disappoint others.

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Suspense. Nervousness. Two descriptions of a Grand Départ.

Flat stages with the sprinters teams all bustling for position on the road trying to deliver their lead sprinter the first yellow jersey. A free hit for the fast men but a free hit where the GC contenders need to stay safe.

Time trial specialists love a TT to begin, a brilliant opportunity to show off TT positions, some crazy-looking helmets and create some personal memories. Time trial or sprint stage – it can either be delight or a nightmare for individual GC contenders, shaking up the early pecking order. In many ways the contenders to win the yellow jersey overall are in a no-win situation with any mishaps, crashes or errors determining a Tour de France won or lost.

Composition of the stages and madness of the Tour are two ingredients put together.

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By determining the stage profiles, fans have a Tour de France Grand Départ to feast their eyes upon. Drama, triumph and good sport to watch, the opening of the Tour certainly provides exactly that. Unexpected moments at its unpredictable best.

Crashes and mechanicals (unfortunate as they are) create talking points. Just last year Jakob Fuglsang suffered from a fall, in 2018 Chris Froome going for the Giro-Tour double fell onto a grass bank with Nairo Quintana also having a problem before the 3km to go mark, Alejandro Valverde won’t want reminding of a rainy day in Düsseldorf and remember the dreadful scenes on Stage 3 in 2015? Antwerp to Huy after the Utrecht time trial and a shattered peloton in crosswinds along the Zeeland coast, the race was neutralised after an awful mass crash involving the yellow jersey Fabian Cancellara.

Chaotic scenes and unfortunate abandons for some riders including Daryl Impey with a fractured collarbone and Simon Gerrans suffering a fractured wrist.

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It’s not always bad though. Never discount the moments of glory.

Some serious Pennine climbs on Stage 2 in 2014 saw Vincenzo Nibali launch a heroic solo win on his way to yellow jersey dominance and a Grand Départ is also good for debuts as Fernando Gaviria will tell you in 2018.

It is the seizing of that first yellow jersey which always brings the moment every professional dreams of. Marcel Kittel announcing himself as a world-class sprinter in 2013, Phillipe Gilbert taking the opening day win in 2011 and for British fans the memories run deep. Who can forget the three times Chris Boardman won yellow in 94, 97 and 98 via three successful time trials, Geraint Thomas taking yellow in 2017 and the career-defining scenes when Mark Cavendish beat his rivals to the line in 2016.

Even if it’s only wearing yellow for one stage, the honour of taking the first leader’s jersey are memories both riders and fans will always cherish.

Captivating stages of celebration and despair are two more ingredients.

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Location is key for a Grand Départ.

Keeping the Tour de France purely French is always a priority as 2013 exemplified with the 100th edition beginning out in the Mediterranean on Corsica. French starts are important for the identity of the race but let’s not forget that out of the three Grand Tours, the Tour has gone abroad the most on 23 occasions since 1903. The first city that began the trend was Amsterdam in 1954, at a time when you’d be laughed at for suggesting the world’s biggest bike race could start outside France.

Nowadays a foreign start is the new norm.

Depending on the current coronavirus situation, the Grand Départ of the 2021 Tour de France will start in Copenhagen, Denmark. It is fair to say that when a city bids to host the Tour it does come down to money but moreover what is the legacy of a city once the Tour comes and goes?

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1987 starting in West Berlin to mark the 750th anniversary of the German capital, at a time when the Iron Curtain was still standing, gave us famous pictures of cyclists peering over the Berlin Wall.

Belgium is regularly awarded Tour stages over the years and just last year we saw the Grand Départ begin in Brussels to celebrate the 1969 victory of Eddy Merckx fifty years on and one hundred years of yellow – Merckx symbolising a legacy altogether. Rembember Liège in 2012? The 99th edition gave us Peter Sagan’s first-ever stage win and his first of a record seven green jersey’s plus Britain’s first Tour winner in Bradley Wiggins starting well in the opening day time trial.

There might be a slight bias here but there’s one Grand Départ that has had a long-lasting legacy. If the Tour hadn’t have landed in Yorkshire five years ago then would there even be a new race in the Tour de Yorkshire? 2014 was one amazing year after ten years of British Cycling success at the Olymics and two years after London 2012. The capital did host the Tour back in 2007 but the long miles of bunting, the painted sheep and crowds of 4.8 million people swarming climbs cross the Dales and villages along the route – that’ll live long in the memory.

With coronavirus cancelling this year’s Tour de Yorkshire and leading organisers Welcome to Yorkshire in financial trouble, the future of the race is in doubt. The legacy of Yorkshire 2014 is in grave peril and it would be a tragedy if the race had to fold.

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Cycling fans on the road make the sport a pleasure to watch and without them a Grand Départ would be nothing. The pre-race hype, the mindset of the riders, the complexion of the stages, the unexpected moments, the foreign starts and the crowd – these are all the ingredients you need to make a Grand Départ successful.

Coronavirus is unfortunate and it is sad that the Tour doesn’t start today. But here’s to the end of August and fingers crossed the city of Nice gets to see their own prestigious Grand Départ.

Featured image courtesy of Welcome to Yorkshire

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