Some artists paint on canvas. Others sketch on paper. But Thierry Gouvenou creates on the roads of the Tour de France. Gouvenou, is the race director of the world’s biggest big race, and while his role is less visible than that of Tour director Christian Prudhomme, it is just as important. It's Prudhomme who provides the general outline for the Tour, but it is Gouvenou who makes it a reality.
“I am the one that really plans out each Tour de France, kilometre for kilometre. I am the one who decides where to place each difficulty in the stage so that there is a balance for the riders and for the public,” Gouvenou told Rouleur in the start village before stage three in Amorebieta-Etxano, the final stage of this year’s Grand Départ in the Basque Country.
“My first concern is the riders and the racing, but then there is the aesthetic aspect of the race and the historic aspect. That is something that we really think about when we are coming up with a Tour route. We are constantly thinking about the history of the Tour, but also the history of France. After all, the Tour de France is also a tour of France. That is super important for us because 50% of the people who watch the Tour de France don’t know anything about cycling, they are watching it because it is beautiful.”
Back in the day, Jean-Marie Leblanc and race director Jean-François Pescheux—the predecessors to Prudhomme and Gouvenou—were known to sometimes sketch out the Tour de France route on a napkin over lunch. But today the Tour has evolved to the point where literally every kilometre must be considered for its sporting, safety, or historic value.
Gone are the days when the Tour would loop around northern France for the first week before moving into the mountains. Today it is essential that the racing is a constant mix, both for the riders and the spectators.
“You know the Sky years really forced us to leave our comfort zone, because in terms of the show, it was really null. So we had to rethink everything and think about each stage differently,” Gouvenou explains.
“You see, Sky was so strong, they were capable of blocking nearly the entire Tour to just focus on a couple of key stages. And then there are the sprint teams which ride much differently today. There was a sort of mafia that was created between the sprint teams that would always let a breakaway get away, but simply close it down before the finish. Sure there were big sprint trains before, but even back in the days of Mario Cipollini, a breakaway would occasionally stay away. As a result of these different factors, we were forced to re-think the first week of racing, because if we didn’t, we could have a sprint every day for the first week. And today that is just not possible. We had to adapt to the way that teams ride today to mix things up as much as possible to make the racing as unpredictable as possible. And one of my jobs is I really try to find difficulties in every corner of France.”
One look at this year’s Tour provides an example of the exciting balance for which Gouvenou and Prudhomme have strived. First, of course, there were the opening stages in the Basque Country that paid tribute to the rich cycling tradition in this northern region of Spain. But stage one also paid homage to the town of Guernica, looping around this town that was nearly entirely destroyed in the Spanish Civil War, a destruction so brutal that it inspired the masterpiece by Pablo Picasso of the same name.
Then of course there is the return to the mythic Puy de Dôme midway through the race for the first time in 35 years. The climb to the summit of this now-dormant volcano provided the stage to some of the greatest chapters in the Tour’s history, but many feared it would no longer be possible for the race to return here as the road was simply too narrow for the modern-day Tour.
Finally, the race makes its way into the Alps, where it will once again showcase the Col de la Loze (stage 17). The Tour only tackled this climb for the first time in 2020, but witnessed one of the great battles of the race between Tadej Pogačar and Primož Roglič.
“It is essential for me to make people dream when they watch the Tour de France, and to defend the mythic places of the Tour,” Prudhomme added. “But it is also important to search out new myths. So I want the return of Puy de Dôme to be seen in the mirror of the Col de la Loze, because the kids today who watch the Tour will soon identify Col de la Loze like I did watching the Tour go up the Puy de Dôme growing up.”
In between such spectacular stages, Gouvenou managed to concoct a well-balanced race, with plenty of stages for sprinters as well as breakaway specialists and punchy riders.
“One of the things that is really important to me is where I place the difficulties of each day,” Gouvenou explains. “I really try to focus on the final kilometre of each stage to make them as exciting as possible. I came up with the idea, for example, to put a time bonus on the final climb of each stage to encourage the riders to attack. And we saw it work yesterday on the Jaizkibel (ed. stage two). We put an eight-second, five-second and two-second bonus at the summit and that really helped to create some fireworks. It is something that can really ignite the race and destabilise it. It is something that can really make the racing more dynamic.”
Gouvenou himself was a respected professional in the 1990s, and he insists the experience is crucial when designing each year’s race. “My experience as a pro serves me every day. As soon as I come up with a route, I get in my car, and it is like I am behind my handlebars again. I am thinking about how to approach every turn, where would be good moments to attack, you name it.”
While the Tour’s start is announced nearly three years in advance, Gouvenou says that most of his work is done in August and September, before the Tour presentation in October. “What decides the race route the most is where we have the Grand Départ. When it is in Nice, or here in the Basque Country, it is easy to find climbs right away. But when we started in Copenhagen last year we had to search out challenges in the first week.”
Such challenges, however, force Gouvenou to be really creative. Such challenges force Gouvenou to rely on his own inner artist, as he paints his next masterpiece.