I like watching bike racing because I like not knowing what is going to happen. I like seeing riders fight for a breakaway, the anticipation of a feisty, unpredictable battle for victory, that feeling bubbling up in your chest when the roaring peloton is closing in on a group and you’re cheering for those tired, haggard riders who have fought so hard to stay ahead. I love the emotion of a solo victor, the excitement of the attacks in the final throes of the race, the scrappy panic to organise lead out trains if an unexpected bunch sprint is on the cards. The way those finishes take your breath away, bring tears to your eyes, fill you with adrenaline. What I’m trying to say is that I really, really don’t like boring bike races. And I think, every year, that’s exactly what the final stage of the Tour de France is.
The processional, predictable sprint stage on the Champs-Élysées is so dull that I rarely even switch on my TV until the riders are inside the final five kilometres – except maybe to see the yellow jersey winning team riding along in a risky and wobbly formation while drinking from champagne glasses (cycling really has some strange traditions). In the race’s 110 year history, aside from a couple of anomalies, we’ve all known how the final stage of the Tour de France is going to end: in one hectic, chaotic bunch sprint to the line.
Jasper Philipsen wins stage 21 of the 2022 Tour de France on the Champs-Élysées (Image: Getty/Michael Steele)
It’s for this very reason that the fast men of the peloton drag themselves through the mountains that come earlier in the race, all to get a shot at lunging their wheel ahead as they approach the line on those Parisian cobbles. Fair enough, the Champs is a big deal for the sprinters, but for everyone else, it doesn't really mean anything. The riveting, compelling battle for the yellow jersey that we’ve all been invested in for the last three weeks comes to a premature end. The competitive edge of the GC men is gone, race decided before it has really finished.
Imagine explaining this to someone who doesn’t follow cycling: we have this three-week race where everyone is trying to win the biggest prize in the sport, but we already know who has definitely won one day before the race ends. It doesn’t make much sense.
Maybe there’s an argument for the magic of Paris itself, for the allure of the Champs-Élysées and the history it holds in those big concrete stones. Paris is the city of lights and dreams, a backdrop to Hepburn and Astaire films, the original purveyor of café hopping, thought of by many as one of the world’s most romantic cities. These are all wonderful qualities for a holiday destination or a weekend getaway, but when it comes to a bike race, which is fundamentally what the Tour de France is, are we really bothered?The peloton ride past the Louvre Pyramid in Paris (Image: Alex Broadway/ASO/SWpix)
In both 1968 and 1989, the Tour de France finished in an individual time trial. The second occasion was the closest Tour finish in history: Greg LeMond beat Laurent Fignon to win the race by just eight seconds. He overhauled him in the individual time trial on the closing stage, shocking everyone. LeMond collapsed with exhaustion from his effort afterwards. You couldn’t have wished for a more riveting finish to a bike race. In fact, all that was left to wish for was that level of excitement to be matched in all Tours de France to come.
It seems that race organisers ASO have heard those very wishes (okay, maybe they were slightly pressured due to the start of the Paris Olympic Games in the same year) because in 2024, the Tour de France is going to finish in a time trial once more. The peloton will go to Nice and a race against the clock could well decide who wins yellow. It’s going to shake up the monotony of the Tour de France’s structure which is in need of a fresh lease of life. In a sport so heavy with tradition, it’s refreshing to see ASO do something different, keeping it exciting and keeping fans engaged.
No Champs-Élysées sprint is certainly the end of a Tour de France era, but it could also be the start of an exciting new one. Au revoir Paris.
(Cover image: Alex Broadway/ASO/SWpix)