The empty diagonal: From Issue 115 - Design

The Tour de France has always tended to skirt the centre of France and its route designers have long based the race on the mountain ranges of the east and south. But what about the bit in the middle?

This article was originally published in Rouleur 115. Support our journalism by subscribing here.

Between all the interesting bits of France, sits the la Diagonale du Vide or the empty diagonal – a vast swathe of countryside and farmland. Richard Abraham took his own bike across the empty diagonal and reflected that perhaps we’ve been getting this part of France all wrong when it comes to the Tour de France. 

Instead of its predictable, crowd-pleasing cliché of the Tour in the mountains, he believes that the more exciting stages happen here in the empty diagonal, offering up intrigue, unpredictability and endless possibilities.

May 31, 2022: Loiret. I am cycling through France and I’m thinking about my favourite stages of the Tour de France. I like L’Alpe d’Huez and I like the Pyrenees, Mont Ventoux, the Galibier, the Tourmalet and so on. Christian Prudhomme and Thierry Gouvenou evidently like them too, because they have placed the modern-day Tour firmly in the orbit of those high mountains. 

Some people go through life eating the same thing for lunch every day, and the Tour now happily chomps its way through Alps then Pyrenees, or Pyrenees then Alps, in order to work itself out. Baked beans for lunch or dinner; good old reliable baked beans. Yet I think the Tour has become too reliant on a predictable, canned form of bike racing. 

Imagine France as a large Renaissance landscape tapestry. The département of Indre is somewhere off centre, a patch of field with perhaps a cow standing in the middle of it, nonchalantly watching on as knights do battle somewhere else, only really present because if it weren’t, there would just be a gap. The Indre is flat, featureless and a long way from the action. But on one hot day in July in 2013, in the middle of the centenary Tour, it was right in the thick of it.

July 12, 2013: Indre. The stage was from Tours to Saint-Amand-Montrond, the latter known principally for being close to the cartographical centre of France but about as far away as a French person can get from anything else. 

In the mountains the Tour knows where it is and it knows the script, but on this day the peloton was edgy, soaked with collective uncertainty, half of it spoiling for a fight and half of it cowering in the corner. Then the wind started to blow. What occurred was four hours of improv theatre. 

Marcel Kittel and Alejandro Valverde soon found themselves killed off after Act One, in that desperate situation where the minute between their gruppetto and the front of the race might as well be an hour, so impossible is it to bridge in the breeze.

With 30 kilometres to go, Alberto Contador manoeuvred his cast of heavies – Matteo Tosatto, Daniele Bennati, Michael Rogers, Nico Roche – to the front of the race and yelled ‘GO!’ Off they went. The line was strung out, heart rates went skyward, and Mark Cavendish was the last rider to catch the train, jumping on board just as it pulled away. He said afterwards: “When echelons form it’s similar to falling through ice: you've got five seconds to save yourself or it’s all over. I sprinted across the gap, then we were gone.”

The Indre department is the least visited part of mainland France in the history of the Tour. According to analysis by Le Monde, the race has been there just nine times, including stages where the route has merely traversed the Indre en route to somewhere else more exciting. Remarkably the Tour went a whole 89 years before it even got there at all, visiting for the first time in 1992. Compare that to the Alpine departmental holy trinity of Savoie (96 times), Haute-Savoie (87 times) and Isère (84 times). The Tour is a deeply unbalanced affair. The Creuse has seen the Tour just 11 times, as has the Haute-Marne. Nièvre has seen 12 Tour stages, so too Haute-Loire. 

This crazy day was one of only two stages in that Tour where eventual winner Chris Froome conceded any real time in the GC; the other was at L’Alpe d’Huez. 

Cavendish won the stage, beautifully it must be said. There’s no doubting he likes the Indre; he has won 75 percent of the stages to ever have finished in Châteauroux, the main town of the Indre. But then Cavendish is a connoisseur of cycling. This wasn’t a game of watts-per-kilo Top Trumps, this was poker and chess combined. These days, that is quite a rare occurrence. I think the Tour de France is missing out.

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