Turn on your TV in July and you’re likely to hear about “the parcours” at the Tour de France a fair amount.
Parlez-vous francais? If not, some of the phrases baked into the culture and mythology of Le Tour may go over your head.
But fear not! In this article, we’ll be starting with the basics and talking about the parcours. We’ll be covering:
- What Is The Parcours?
- How Is A Parcours Chosen?
- How Have Parcours Changed Recently?
- What Can We Expect To See From Parcours In The Future?
Let’s dive in!
What Is The Parcours?
Parcours is the French word for “course” – as in, the route of a race.
At the Tour de France, the parcours is the full route of the Tour, across all stages. The parcours changes each year.
The Tour de France parcours covers up to 3500 kilometers, or roughly 2200 miles over 21 stage days, spans multiple countries, and often crosses borders.
The parcours weaves between towns and cities. Hosting the Tour makes these places become a buzz of activity.
This has a festive, “traveling show” effect, where the stops along the parcours become packed with excited crowds.
The parcours always leads the Tour to several of France’s mountain ranges, and up a selection of legendary climbs.
The single most iconic is the infamous Col Du Tourmalet, which has been part of 90 Tour parcours to date. Alpe d’Huez is another such famous climb, and has been in 31 tour parcours.
The Grand Départ (the Tour’s start point) and the finale which laps the Champs-Élysées are particularly high-profile international sporting events, drawing far larger crowds than any of the other stages.
Since the 1970s, the Grand Départ, which changes every year, is commonly held in a host city outside of France.
For host cities, the Grand Départ is a much sought-after event as a major economic tourist attraction, bringing international attention and money, and driving local excitement for cycling.
The final stage always finishes on Paris’ iconic Champs-Élysées. The Air Force celebrates the peloton’s arrival with a tricolor flyover in blue, white, and red.
Tradition dictates that the overall race leader is not attacked on the final day, so the rider in the yellow jersey rides into Paris holding a glass of champagne as the de facto winner.
How Is A Parcours Chosen?
Towns and cities are always very keen to host the Tour and pay high fees to its organizers, the Amaury Sports Organisation (A.S.O.).
Stage finishes are considered more exciting, and cost more than starts.
And the fees can get pretty crazy: for the 2022 Tour’s Danish stages, including the high-profile Grand Départ in Copenhagen, local authorities paid the A.S.O over €10 million.
As with other international sports, there’s a certain amount of politics involved in who gets to host, and the Tour almost always spans multiple countries.
Host countries outside of France often field many riders of their own in the Tour and see a surge in popularity for cycling afterward.
2023’s Tour begins in Spain, and we’ve also seen Grand Départs in Denmark, Belgium, Germany, the Netherlands, and the UK.
But that’s just how glamorous hosts are selected. How does the rest of the parcours get mapped out?
The A.S.O. employs 70 full-time organizers year-round, and the team grows to over 200 during the race itself. This doesn’t include the legion of contractors working on the ground day to day.
However, the Tour’s parcours is mostly decided by just two men: the Tour’s General Director Christian Prudhomme, and lead course designer Thierry Gouvenou.
Gouvenou is a former professional cyclist, who competed in the Tour six times. Since 2014 he has worked for Prudhomme in designing the Tour’s parcours year to year.
According to them, Prudhomme thinks “bigger picture” (more on that later.)
Gouvenou is his “man on the ground” who spends weeks on the road to map it out, mile by mile, in the car and on his bike, using GPS, Strava, and word of mouth to find good routes.
The pair do not, however, have complete freedom.
The UCI regulates international cycling and sets certain guidelines for all Grand Tours, which the Tour organizers must heed when mapping out the parcours. These include:
- A maximum total distance of 3500 km (2175 miles).
- No single stage longer than 240 km (149 miles).
- 15 to 23 stages in total, with two rest days.
- No half days, (which used to be popular as a race in the morning and a race in the afternoon meant the tour could double its fees to host cities.)
Within these confines, the Tour organizers have free reign – although there are certain conventions that have become solidified down the years:
- The Tour always passes through the Alps and Pyrenees.
- The Tour always finishes on the Champs-Élysées.
- The Tour almost always has at least one or two time trial stages.
Working within these confines, Prudhomme and Gouvenou map out each year’s Tour, before handing it over to the A.S.O. to make it happen.
How Have Parcours Changed Recently?
While the Tour historically followed a fairly familiar script, now efforts are made to innovate and make the parcours more unique and exciting year to year.
Time-trials have been slowly de-emphasized under Prudhomme’s tenure.
Where the parcours of the ’90s and 2000s would have a minimum of 50 km against the clock, 2023’s parcours has just 22 km.
And time-trials are not the only change in recent years, mapping the parcours is more complicated than it used to be:
More subtle though are the changes to the ethos of designing the parcours, and how Prudhomme and Gouvenou map the Tour to create excitement.
Moving away from the traditional system of separating flat sprinters’ stages and intense mountain stages, these days the parcours increasingly feature stages with varied terrain.
We see more flat stages which end in sharp climbs, such as fan favorite Mur de Bretagne, and stages spent in the mountains see more short and explosive climbing challenges, like 2023’s Puy de Dome.
2023’s Tour parcours is the most mountainous to date, with a record number of categorized climbs, covering all five of France’s mountain ranges.
However, the parcours is a little light on the iconic “mega” climbs we’re used to seeing.
This way riders spend less time steadily chugging up mountain set pieces. When revealing the 2023 Tour, Prudhomme told the media: “We want to blow up the peloton.”
And with the reduced time-trialing which limits the opportunities to build unassailable leads, the time differences between riders should be tighter throughout.
The A.S.O. appears to be mapping out parcours that create tenser Tours, more “alive” moment to moment, with a General Classification which can change at any time.
It’s also been suggested by some that this is to create more dramatic Tours now Netflix is involved.
What Can We Expect To See From Parcours In The Future?
In 2024 we may see a major change: a finale outside of Paris!
With the 2024 Olympic Games taking place in Paris, it’s rumored the Tour will instead conclude in Nice.
We’re also looking forward to Italy hosting the 2024 Tour’s Grand Départ in Florence.
Beyond 2024, we know we’ll be getting a Grand Départ in Rotterdam, and both the UK and Ireland seem to be bidding to host in 2026.
Whatever cities do end up hosting, change is underway at the Tour de France, there’s no doubt about it.
The greatest of the Grand Tours is becoming increasingly popular, and new audiences are looking for new racing.
Traditional ideas about how the parcours should look, and what format the racing should take, are being reimagined to create racing that is tighter and more dramatic.
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