While an overseas opening to a Grand Tour isn’t a novel concept – there have been 20 starts abroad in the last decade alone – you’d be forgiven for thinking that this year, it’s been a constant.
And you’d be correct – each of the three Grand Tours has started outside its home country this year, and despite the prevalence of the phenomenon in the past, 2022 is actually the first time all three have started overseas in the same year.
While the concurrence in itself is partly down to Covid-19, it’s also partly because of coronavirus that the explosion of colour, noise and positive energy across the streets of Hungary, Denmark and the Netherlands has felt particularly joyous. By contrast with the protocols and restrictions of the two years prior – both on the peloton and the fans – the return of fans to the roadsides has felt like a real celebration – one that has been shared in double the number of nations.
However, amid the happy clapping, and the proclamations over the increased profile of the sport, and the legacy of the overseas departures, legitimate questions must be asked: are the benefits – perceived or actual – enough to mitigate the added stress and significant impact on the environment that these foreign starts represent?
Let’s remind ourselves of the three excursions of 2022.
From Budapest to Breda
The glorious shower of pink ushered in by the first Grand Tour of the year, the Giro d'Italia, struck a poignant contrast with the right-wing views of the dominant political force in Hungary, the first Eastern European country ever to host stages of La Corsa Rosa. Political unrest notwithstanding, fans both local to the race and from further afield congregated on the streets of Budapest for the opening stages of the Giro, and the result was a joyous array of colour and enthusiasm.
The parcours offered enough variety to deliver an entertaining three days, featuring a punchy finish up to the castle in Visegrád, an intriguing time trial around the streets of Budapest, and a sprint finish on the shores of Lake Balaton. It showcased the stunning highlights of a country unfamiliar to many, and as a non-traditional cycling nation, raised the profile of the sport in the country.
Yet it wasn’t popular with everyone, with some of the riders grumbling over the distance they had to travel – over 1100km to Sicily, the longest journey faced by any of the three pelotons.
Mathieu van der Poel rides to victory on the first stage of the Giro d'Italia in Hungary (Zak Williams/SWPix)
In hindsight, the selection of Denmark for this year’s Tour de France Grand Départ was inspired. In a country where cycling as a sport is booming, and with four stages won by Danes and a Danish overall winner, the jaw-dropping spectacle of the throngs of Danish fans who turned out for the race was the cherry on top of what is fast becoming a glorious chapter in the country’s cycling history.
As for the parcours, the technical time trial course around Copenhagen was spiced up with the arrival of torrential rain, resulting in a day as memorable for the spills as the thrills. The pretty Danish countryside was resplendent in the sunshine for the next two days but was pan flat and caused little in the way of drama, and despite the admittedly impressive sight of the Great Belt Bridge, the much-hyped crosswinds failed to show up.
It fell on the shoulders of Magnus Cort to deliver the entertainment, a role which he accepted with gusto, as he waved to the home fans and sprinted against himself to grab mountains points.
The Dutch are no strangers to a Grand Tour – of all the countries to host, they are the most familiar with the process, with ten starts to their name over the years (Belgium is the next most visited country, with seven).
The roads were packed in Denmark for the Tour de France's three-day stay (James Startt)
This did not deter the Holland faithful from turning out in their numbers as the Vuelta a España visited the Dutch region for the first time, yet the vibrant atmosphere in Utrecht definitely had an air of ‘been there, done that,’ as to a city already alive with students, tourists and nightlife, the arrival and departure of the third Grand Tour caused merely a few ripples in an already bustling pond.
Hungary had the castle and Denmark had the bridge, but although there was nothing overly unique about the parcours in the Netherlands, the Gran Salida’s USP was the return of the team time trial. A discipline absent from Grand Tours since the 2019 Vuelta, its inclusion added a certain something to the opening day’s proceedings. The stages finishing in Utrecht and Breda that followed though, aside from the dominant return of Sam Bennett and the Jumbo-Visma homecoming tour, were flat in more ways than just the parcours.
Should we stay or should we go?
On balance, are these foreign jollies a positive for the sport, or do they represent a logistical nightmare, and an exacerbation of the carbon footprint of an event that is already overwhelmingly vast in terms of its energy consumption? To transport 176 riders, along with their retinue of staff and the vast swathes of physical resources required, around one country is tricky enough. Throw in another nation, and the complications increase significantly.
The reactions from the fans to the overseas jaunts have been mixed. They bring exposure to bike racing on a grand scale, enabling many more people – from seasoned aficionados to those with merely a passing interest – to catch a glimpse of the unique three-week form of the sport.
Bora-Hansgrohe take on the Vuelta's opening team time trial in Utrecht (Unipublic/Charly Lopez)
There is a sense though, that the performative elements perhaps outweigh the competitive. With none of the three excursions containing any major challenges – normal for the first three days of a Grand Tour, it should be noted – the notion that it’s just an exhibition before the real business of the GC can begin is exacerbated when proceedings are interrupted by an additional rest day. Even fans who were present at the Gran Salida last weekend admitted that they didn’t feel the race would really begin until it reached Spain.
Crucially, they represent a break in continuity in terms of the flow of the race, from a viewing perspective but also a physical one, for the peloton. This disruption has caused frustrations to boil over at times. Bauke Mollema branded the trip to Hungary “a pain in the ass”. Many among the cycling media have echoed his sentiments.
In light of the feedback, the UCI may be wise to consider restricting overseas departures – either by frequency, or location – in future years. If for no other reason than the hefty addition to the carbon footprint of an event which is already responsible for an eye-watering amount of pollution. After all, cycling fans are a loyal bunch, and wherever the race goes, they will follow. With two different organisers and three home nations trying to protect their interests it may prove to be a sticking point but hopefully, good sense will prevail.
Cover image by Pauline Ballet/ASO