'It has a real weight on the Tour': Behind the making of the Tour de France's foreign Grand Départ

Rouleur looks back some of the most memorable Grand Départ in the Tour de France and explores how cities are chosen

While the Tour de France route presentation is always one of the highlights of cycling’s off season, news of upcoming Grand Départs is increasingly celebrated. After all, in recent years, Tour de France the organiser ASO has attracted a steady string of alluring locations to host the start of the world’s biggest bike race. And just last week, as many are preparing for the highly-anticipated Grand Départ in Florence, the Tour announced that the 2026 race would start in the sumptuous city of Barcelona.

But while foreign capitals and cultural centres have been at the forefront of the Grand Départs in recent years, the tradition started long ago.

From its beginnings in 1903, the Tour always started in France.  But in 1954 the Tour ventured abroad and started in Amsterdam. On paper, the move celebrated the recent successes of Dutch riders, but it was also a great way to celebrate the race’s 51st birthday. Regardless of the actual motivation, however, the Amsterdam start proved to be a huge success, not to mention serving as a watershed for years to come.

Just four years later, the Tour started in Brussels and foreign destinations soon became a frequent host for the launch of the great French race.

In the shadow of the Wall

Perhaps no foreign Tour start was as ambitious or symbolic as the 1987 Tour which started in what was still known as West Berlin. In some ways it proved to be a moment of provenance, as the infamous Berlin Wall would fall just two years later. But for those on hand at the time, there was little sense that the Tour de France was knocking on the door of one of Europe’s most defining moments in recent history, and the city, like the country, still remained distinctly divided.

“Starting in Berlin was so dramatic,” remembers Samual Abt, the pioneering American journalist who covered more than 30 Tours for the International Herald Tribune. “We had to drive through what was then East Germany. The logistics were so impressive, just getting us all there was impressive. I remember driving across East Germany. It was so bleak. They didn’t have any advertising along the roads or anything, and you certainly did not feel like getting off the main road because, well, you were in enemy territory. And then there was still the Wall. It was all just so dramatic.”

French riders Robert Forest, Francois Lemarchand, Eric Caritoux and Guy Gallopin stand next to the Berlin Wall before the start of the 1987 Tour. (Getty Images)

In some ways the Tour united the two Berlins as those in East Berlin could follow it on television. “I’ll never forget watching the start of the race from my little television in my dorm room, with my little antenna pointed towards West Berlin,” remembers legendary German cyclist Jens Voigt in his book Shut up Legs. Voigt of course would go on to race 17 Tours himself, but in 1987 he was a student at the German sports school in East Berlin. “All those colorful jerseys, with all sorts of sponsors, were just beautiful compared to my solid grey East German jersey. In addition to that, the prologue was won by a Polish rider Lech Piasecki. I remember thinking, wow, if a guy like that can come from a Communist country and ride the Tour de France, maybe I can too someday! And from that day on, the Tour de France was my dream.”

But while the Grand Départ in West Berlin held great symbolic significance, other Tour starts required equally demanding logistic challenges, like the 1998 start in Dublin—which required the entire Tour entourage to cross the English Channel and Irish Sea by ferry—or more recently the Grand Départ in Yorkshire in 2014.

Despite the many challenges, however, foreign starts to the Tour have become commonplace. And today, the Tour starts abroad almost as frequently as the Alps and Pyrénees change order in the Tour de France route each year.

High demand

Today in fact, the Tour boasts a long list of foreign cities that would like to host the Grand Départ. “We probably have about 10 foreign cities that have shown interest in hosting the Tour,” says Cyrille Tricart, Responsable des Relations Exterieur for the Tour de France. Among his many responsibilities, Tricart oversees the Tour’s Grand Départs. “The choice of Grand Départ is important because it has a real weight on the Tour. This year for example, with the Grand Départ in Florence, well, it becomes impossible to make it to the north of France because we have to figure in the rest days, the Pyrenees, the Alps etc.”

Great crowds are a given whenever the Grand Depart starts abroad, as illustrated here when the 2019 Tour started in Brussels. (Photo: James Startt)

Tricart says that historically the Tour held more Grand Départs in neighboring countries in the north because of their proximity to the flat stages that often dominated the first half of the race. But since Christian Prudhomme became Tour de France director in 2006, he has deliberately broken the traditional mold of the Tour in an effort to better mix the flatter stages with the hillier ones. As a result, it is easier for the Tour de start in hillier regions, like it did last year in the Spanish Basque Country.

UCI rules also play a factor as well, because once every four years, Grand Tours are allowed to have their the first rest day after only three days of racing, something that allows them to schedule a long transfer directly after a Grand Départ, as the race did when it started in Copenhagen in 2022.

“This year’s start in Florence is really exceptional because we have three full stages plus the start of stage four in Italy ” says Tricart. Clearly however, the Tour is going in big with this year’s start, as it is the first one ever in Italy. Even before the riders hit the first kilometre they will roll through the heart of Florence and its many monuments, in what promises to be a magical moment in the race’s history. And in the stages that follow, the race will pay homage to several of the country’s most adored champions.

Tricart says that local riders and champions often inspire foreign locations to host the Tour. “With the exploits of Peter Sagan there were several towns that showed interest in hosting the Tour in Slovakia,” he says. And logically, few would be surprised to see the Tour visit Slovenia with it currently boasting some of the most talented riders in the peloton.

But while the Tour has a long list of towns that would like to host the race, he insists that they can be in no hurry. “Towns cannot focus on one year in particular,” he says. “There are too many parameters for us. Where the Tour starts is one of them, but also the overall composition of the Tour route on any given year.”

In addition, if the majority of Grand Départs are in major cities, it is at least partly due to the financial weight of hosting what is sometimes referred to as the world's largest annual sporting event. According to the race orgainiser, ordinary towns pay €90,000 for a stage start and €120,000 or a stage finish. But hosting the Grand Départ is in another league altogether. The Tour itself does not officially communicate the fees for the Grand Départ, but just this past week, the mayor of Barcelona said that the city was paying between seven and eight million Euros to host the Grand Départ of the Tour in 2026.

“There are a lot of reasons for this,” Tricart says. “First there is just a lot more preparation for everyone. A Grand Départ doesn’t just last part of a day, but almost a week, when you consider that the entire Tour entourage is on the ground for several days before and often for the first days of the race. There are a lot more hotel rooms needed and often the prices are much higher than in France. But the towns that host the Grand Départ get a lot more in return. We announce the location two years ahead, so they can communicate about it for a long time. They can really promote it for tourism and local businesses benefit from a Grand Départ much more than an average stage.”

Despite the financial considerations, however, Tricart insists that the choice of a Grand Départ must also make sense for the Tour. “When going to a Tour de France start it is also to promote the Tour as well as the place. There needs to be a connection. The first foreign start of the Tour was in Amsterdam, for example. So this year, when we decided to do the first foreign start for the Tour de France Femmes, it made perfect sense to start in The Netherlands. That was a real factor for starting in Rotterdam. It’s just made perfect sense.”

Tour de France Grand Départs in foreign countries

1954: Amsterdam, The Netherlands
1958: Brussels, Belgium
1965: Cologne, Germany
1973: Scheveningen, The Netherlands
1975: Charleroi, Belgium
1978: Leiden, The Netherlands
1980: Frankfort, Germany
1982: Basel, Switzerland
1987: West Berlin, Germany
1989: Luxembourg City, Luxembourg
1992: San Sebastián, Spain
1996: s’Hertogenbosch, The Netherlands
1998: Dublin, Ireland
2002: Luxembourg City, Luxembourg
2004: Liège, Belgium
2007: London, England
2009: Monaco, Monaco
2010: Rotterdam, The Netherlands
2012: Liége, Belgium
2014, Leeds, England
2015: Utrecht, The Netherlands
2017: Düsseldorf, Germany
2019: Brussels, Belgium
2022: Copenhagen, Denmark
2023: Bilbao, Spain
2024: Florence, Italy

Tour de France Femmes

2024: Rotterdam, The Netherlands

James Startt

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