Re-posted... for obvious reasons
The Tour de France may well always be the top dog in Cycling, thanks to its history and ability to attract pretty much everyone to the race. But there are things the other two grand tours, the Giro d'Italia and Vuelta a Espana, can do to make their mark on the Cycling calendar. The Giro, in particular, has done a magnificent job of designing a parcours that tickles the fancies of fans, and this year we spilled lots of bits singing the praises of the Giro's stages. Day after day, the race found some way to be interesting, usually in the form of winding, uphill finishes -- so many that the few flat stages ending in a bunch sprint were something of a relief. The Giro is also famous for adding color and culture to each route, making the race something of a celebration of Italia. The Buzzati book has a chapter on the Giro's emotional return to Trieste in 1949, where the race is seen as a step toward reconnecting the city to Italy, a further sign that the nightmare of WWII and Nazi occupation was over.
The Big, Glitzy Tour de France, by contrast, seems to visit places to grant them an audience. "Grand Departs" from England, Belgium, the Netherlands, Germany; brief passes through Italy or Switzerland or Spain... such events seem to suggest that the Tour belongs to the world, or maybe vice versa. Moreover, when traversing France, the Tour can seem very businesslike, choosing a route that is really just about the race itself.
But this year's start in Brittany is a suggestion that ASO are not incapable of subtle artfulness to rival the Giro. [One caveat: perhaps this is always the case, and this year's start only happens to coincide with my ignorance decreasing to the level where I can notice such things. Can't rule it out. Still...]
One of the books I'm planning to review discusses some of the Tour's history with Brittany, and with Brittany's place in the nation. Historically, Brittany is a bit isolated, thanks to its own culture and language, geographical distinction (jutting out into the Atlantic) and history as an independent state. Since being absorbed into modern France, it hasn't exactly enjoyed equal status (probably the subject of many books that I haven't read). So when the Tour avoided the area in the earlier pre- and post-war days, Bretons took it as a message that they weren't fully part of France.
Part of the problem was the tendency of L'Auto, the historical race organizers, to celebrate the Tour as a symbol of French unity. The flipside, then, is that when the Tour skips your region's biggest city for 30 straight years, you must not be part of France. When Breton leaders began agitating for more inclusions in the 30s, the race organizers claimed Brittany was too flat to sustain interesting racing. Eventually the Tour relented, and the region has hosted frequent stages in several cities, including 3 grand departs and 29 visits to this year's Grand Depart host, Brest.
Brittany has a long and proud connection to Cycling. Most of us know it as the springboard of Bernard Hinault, the last true Patron of French Cycling. Born in Yffiniac, the Badger's intense nature was often ascribed to his simple, hardscrabble past, though his greatness probably has more to do with individual traits, such as his Michael Jordan-level of insufferable competitiveness. This year marks the 100th anniversary of Brittany's first great champion (and part-time Argentinian) Lucien Mazan, a/k/a Petit-Breton. Brest itself was host to the world's first known long-distance bike race of any kind, Paris-Brest-Paris, begun in 1891. Jean Robic and Louison Bobet also added to the region's list of greats in the 40s and 50s.
To show how far we've all come, this year's start to the Tour de France embraces Brittany like (for all I know) never before, with three full road stages traversing the area. Le Tour has a special write-up of the region and the Cycling legacy celebrated in these stages. It also belies the earlier claims that racing in the area is flat and dull; there are fully 8 rated climbs in the first two days, including the Côte de Mûr-de-Bretagne, the "wall of Brittany," a 1.5 km climb of up to 8.7%. Both stages 1 and 2 finish with short climbs.
What this all means is that the Tour is no less interested in spicing up the early stages than the Giro was. This year's Tour will feature just as much history, culture, and smaller challenges in those early stages we usually dread as the Giro just did. What this means to the race... that's my next post. What it means to the fans is another beautiful three weeks of Cycling.