'It will be like the final of Paris-Roubaix': The making of the Tour de France's first gravel stage

Years in the making, the Tour heads into an unprecedented stage which contains 14 sections of gravel roads

One of the most anticipated stages in this year’s Tour de France is stage nine on Sunday, a newly anointed gravel stage, hailed as the stage of the chemins blancs, or the white roads. For the Tour de France, it’s a first. But really, this foray into gravel has been years in the making.

“For the past eight years or so, Christian Prudhomme has really wanted us to incorporate more gravel roads,” says Yannick Talabardon, a member of the ASO race direction, who personally oversaw the making of this unique stage. “We started a few years ago with Paris-Tours by adding certain roads in the vineyards and it really helped us reinvent the race. Then in the first Tour de France Femmes we had a big gravel stage, so we have been building towards this day.”

Talabardon proposed the area around Troyes after discovering their wealth of gravel roads while visiting family. “One day I did a ride around the area on my bike and understood just how many gravel roads there were here. That’s when I understood that there was a real potential for a great stage here in this region.”

ASO, Tour de France

Yannick Talabardon was instrumental in setting up the Tour's gravel stage (Photo: James Startt)

The chemin blancs were one of the real attractions to the Tour de France Femmes avec Zwift in its first edition back in 2022. But while the stage was a veritable success, the ASO team understood there was room for improvement. “We only did four sections, but some of them were simply too rough for a stage race like the Tour.”

Stage nine’s 199km stage on Sunday will include no less than 32.2km of white roads over 14 sections as it loops around the countryside just east of Troyes. “We’ve divided the stage into two different kinds of sections. The first half of the gravel sections are roads that go through vineyards and the second half are farm roads that go through wheat fields or sunflower fields. Basically, we loop around what is called the Côte de Bar. On one side are wine vineyards that produce champagne, with lots of climbs.”

When it came to designing the specific stage, Talabardon visited the region with Thierry Gouvenou, head race director for the Tour, and the two reconned as many roads as possible in an effort to stitch together what they considered an ideal stage.

“In the early sections there are 14 to 15 kilometres between each section, but in the end, there is much less distance. In the last 32 kilometres, one third will be on gravel. The last six sections will simply be one after the other. From section six until the end, it is going to be very intense. It will really be like the final of Paris-Roubaix.”

ASO, Tour de France

The Tour de France Femmes took on a gravel stage in 2022 (Photo: Thomas Maheux/ASO)

But while the stage will definitely have a hint of Paris-Roubaix and Strade Bianche, the fact that it is found in the midst of a three-week stage race and is not a stand alone one-day race, changes the dynamics.

“One of our priorities was to find roads that could handle not only the riders, but also all of the follow vehicles. In addition, we wanted to avoid gravel sections that were on a descent. For the Tour de France that would simply be too dangerous. But it is going to be really spectacular and plenty hard.”

While most Tour de France fans cannot wait for Sunday’s stage, Talabardon has a vested interest. “It’s going to be both beautiful and spectacular. There are sections with nearly 15% grade climbs. No one will win the Tour on this stage, but you can really gain time or lose time, that is for sure.”

Cover image by Zac Williams/SWPix

Shop now