Brief Encounters: the short stages of the Tour de France

When the Italian-born Frenchman Maurice Garin rolled into the Parc des Princes in Paris to claim victory at the end of the inaugural Tour in 1903, he and his fellow 20 finishers had started that final stage 471km away in Nantes, on the banks of the Loire, way over in Brittany. 

Tour founder Henri Desgrange’s raison d’être for his race was that it should test man and bicycle to their very limits. If that involved riding 400-plus kilometres in one day and into the night, then so be it. The riders would have to deal with it as best they could – which they did using the age-old sporting tradition of cheating. Cars, trains, drugs and sabotaging competitors were the flavour of the age. From the Tour’s earliest years, riders were being expelled for skullduggery. ’Twas ever thus. 

Gradually, common sense prevailed until, by 1927, we reached what is a recognisable version of the modern Tour de France. In the 1980s, with Félix Lévitan now co-directing alongside Jacques Goddet, the drive to commercialise the race led to tweaks to the formula, with Lévitan driving the dash for cash.

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Split stage days became regular occurrences during the decade. Why collect start and finish fees from just two towns, Lévitan reasoned, when you can hit three or four different locations on the same day and increase your revenue? The fact that the riders detested racing twice in one day was neither here nor there. Besides, it was infinitely preferable to the 400km-plus days (and nights) of the previous century. 

Here are four short and sweet examples from history, including 1991 – the final year a split stage day featured in the Tour itinerary.

1985 Stage 18a (Luz-Saint-Sauveur – Col d’Aubisque) 52.5km


The imperious Bernard Hinault, in search of his fifth Tour victory, looked like he might be in trouble for once. His eyes blackened and nose broken from a finish line crash in Saint-Étienne, the Badger entered the Pyrenees in yellow with a hungry Stephen Roche snapping at his heels in third, while his ambitious La Vie Claire wingman Greg LeMond lay in second place, eager to pounce should the four-time winner falter.

Try as Roche might, his attacks in the mountains could not shake the young American, until a split stage finally saw the Irishman gain some ground. His solo assault of the Aubisque during the morning’s brief 52.5km netted over a minute and a half over his rivals, but it was too little, too late. Hinault landed another Tour trophy, LeMond would have to wait another year for his, and Roche, two. 

1987 Stage 4 (Stuttgart – Pforzheim) 79km 


Following the opening three stages in the streets of pre-reunification West Berlin, the peloton flew south to Karlsruhe for three more days racing in the stifling German heat before finally entering French territory for stage 5. 

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In the morning of that Sunday, Herman Frison took his one and only career Tour stage win in Pforzheim, while his Belgian compatriot Marc Sargeant took the spoils in the afternoon’s racing to Strasbourg. Frison also has top spot at the 1990 Gent-Wevelgem on his palmarès and is now a directeur sportif at Lotto-Soudal. 

1988 Stage 16 (Luz Ardiden – Pau) 38km 


 As if covering 210km from Pau to Bordeaux after lunch was not sufficient, the Tour directors threw in a tasty little hors d’oeuvres in the morning to whet the appetite. Starting at the ski resort that will forever be associated with Lance Armstrong’s musette entanglement and crash in 2003, the dash to Pau was won by Adri van der Poel – the man whose excuse for returning a positive test for strychnine in 1983 involved a pigeon pie made by his father-in-law. The Dutchman’s stunningly imaginative alibi remains one of the greatest ever cooked up. Literally.

1991 Stage 1 (Lyon – Lyon) 114.5km


With a team time trial to come later in the day, the peloton might have been excused for taking things easy in the morning loop around Lyon. No such luck, as Djamolidine Abdoujaparov opened his Tour stage win account in his typically wayward fashion. 

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The weaving, head-down Uzbek’s sprinting style caused chaos in the finales, none more so than that year’s Champs-Élysées finish. The green jersey-wearer veered to the right, collided with the foot of a barrier and catapulted down the road within spitting distance of the line to produce one of the most spectacular and dramatic crash photos in Tour history.


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