Given the current political turmoil in Europe there is a certain irony in the fact that the route that year took in a record seven countries to celebrate the signing of the Maastricht Treaty, the birth of the European Union.
Whatever is going on across the continent, the Tour de France will always be a symbol of French national unity. The race’s route design plays an important social and cultural role in reminding us of the variety, history and beauty of French regions. From a sporting perspective, the organisers have tried to create a route that is a platform for unpredictable racing.
The great cols of the Alps and Pyrenees have, in recent years, given us formulaic stages. The tactic employed by Team Sky has been an uphill lead-out; the pace is kept so high no one else can attack and each rider peels off in turn, until the last couple of kilometres when Chris Froome launches an attack. Effective but boring.
A.S.O got what they wanted. Sunday’s stage was one of the most dramatic seen for years. Crashes, long-range attacks, mechanical issues that could have decided the Tour, brave solo efforts and a narrow win for a rider stuck in 53 x 11 – this stage had everything.
The Mont du Chat, brutally steep, with a very fast and technical descent has only appeared once before, in 1974, when Raymond Poulidor dropped Eddy Merckx. Poulidor had a minute’s lead at the top but lost it all on the descent into Aix-Les-Bains, where Merckx won the stage on his way to winning his fifth Tour.
If Poulidor was the French hero who never quite realized his fans’ dreams, in Lilian Calmejane perhaps the nation now has a genuine contender for the future. His stage win to Station des Rousses, after a searingly fast stage, marks him out as a star. And he’s in good company. This weekend adventure in the Jura mountains was a chance for the new generation of French cycling to shine; Bardet, Barguil, Latour and Vuillermoz all rode aggressively and intelligently. Their attacks ultimately didn’t succeed on the fiendishly hard stage to Chambery, but they’ll be fired up for the week ahead.