Tour de France 2019Around 4,500 people work on the Tour, while 10-12 million fans are expected to line the route watching 176 riders from 22 teams, compete for the coveted yellow jersey, worn by the daily leader and overall winner of the general classification (GC). —Sports journalist, Steve Sutcliffe

Set to go from Brussels

by Roger Childs

It’s the most famous cycle race there is [and the world’s most physically demanding sports event —Eds]; and has often been mired in controversy – cheating, drugs, booby traps and criminal activity. However, it has never lost its irresistible attraction because of amazing landscapes it passes through; the intense  competition between individuals and teams; and the 70 km/h sprint finishes on many stages. 

Tour de France 2019 2The 2019 Tour de France starts in Brussels on Saturday, 6 July (Le Grand Départ), and concludes with the traditional finish on the cobble stones of Champs-Elysees in Paris on 28 July in front of hundreds of thousands of cheering fans.

Over the next three weeks it will cover 21 stages across the 3,480 km route, with the usual mix of flat sprinter-friendly days, time trials and climbs up some of the highest mountain passes in Europe.

This is the 106th edition of the race and the second time Le Grand Départ has been staged in Brussels, which welcomes Le Tour for the 11th time.

The Belgian capital was chosen to host the start for the first time since 1958 to celebrate the 50th anniversary of five-time joint-record champion Eddy Merckx’s first title. Belgian rider Merckx, now 74, holds the record for the most Tour de France stage wins with 34.

Humble beginnings and dubious tactics

Le Tour started as a publicity stunt for the Parisian sports magazine L’Auto in 1903. Commercial interests were involved from the start, and prize money and bonuses were on offer. There were six stages in this first tour which covered 2428 km. 

There were seven much needed rest days; the rest was an odyssey of suffocating dust, blinding sun, buffeting mistral winds, bone-breaking vibrations, not to mention punctures, falls and losing the way. Cycling writer, Serge Laget 

Out of 60 starters, the winner was chimneysweep Maurice Garin, also known as The White Bulldog because of his white coat and aggressive riding style. Over 30 riders were disqualified for cheating and two simply disappeared during the race!

Race rules evolved as time went on, especially after the 1904 tour when a bizarre range of tactics were used by riders and their supporters, anxious to win the prizes. The nefarious strategies included

  • catching trains on the longer stages
  • booby traps made of nails
  • abuse and debris thrown at rival cyclists
  • even a plot by the supporters of French rider Fauré, to knife his opponents!

In 1905 new rules and closer surveillance by race referees resulted in a cleaner and more peaceful tour, even though an estimated 125 kg of tacks and nails were strewn on the largely unsealed roads!  

Plenty of excitement and superb coverage

tour mountains (2)The television coverage is brilliant and the camera work from helicopters, drones and motorbikes give viewers amazing angles and perspectives not only of the race, but also the picturesque farmland, landscapes, historic buildings, villages, towns and cities along the way.

One of the big unknowns is survival, especially as crashes and punctures are common and top riders can be forced out because of injury. 

A key role in each of the 22 teams, is for the 7 other members to support the leader who is the man with the best chance of winning the Tour, or, at least ranking high in the general classification.

Contenders for this year’s yellow jersey

  • Welshman Geraint Thomas who won the 2018 event. He has had some recent injury and health issues, but is still likely to be very competitive.
  • Egan Bernal is a 22-year-old Colombian. He may lack experience, but comes to his second Tour in great form with recent victories at the Paris-Nice and the Tour de Suisse events. 
  • Colombian Nairo Quintana is a past winner of the Giro d’Italia and Vuelta Espana, and has been on the podium in Paris three times in the past six years. 
  • Danish rider, Jakob Fuglsang will be participating in his ninth Tour and is in impressive form after winning the Liege-Bastogne-Liege and the Criterium du Dauphine.
  • Thibaut Pinot is probably France’s best hope. It’s been an incredible 34 years since the host nation won Le Tour. 
  • 27 year old Julian Alaphilippe is another French contender and has the mix of abilities needed to be a winner – sprinting, mountain climbing and overall endurance.
  • Englishmen Adam Yates has proven mountain climbing talent and has had two second places in the Volta a Catalunya and the Tirreno-Adriatico events this year. 

However familiar English riders such as four times winner, Chris Froome, and sprinting ace, Mark Cavendish, will not be in the field.

George BennettThere are three Kiwis competing – Patrick Bevin, George Bennett and Tom Scully. No New Zealander has ever won a stage in the Tour, however Bevin or Bennett could break the drought sometime in the next three weeks.

Big business

As the quote at the top emphasizes, this is a huge event which is followed eagerly by millions across France and around the world.

Tour 2018 winnerThe stakes are very high for all concerned: teams, individual riders and sponsors. Having riders near the front during the event and actually winning stages means that teams with sponsors’ logos get world-wide exposure on television and in other media.

There are large amounts of cash involved. As seven time Tour Kiwi rider, Julian Dean states: Le Tour is big business with many of the … teams having annual budgets of upwards of $47,000,000. As it moves around France and neighbouring countries it has its own police force and bank as well as hundreds of media people and scores of commentators.

Sky Sport TV has all the action and you can see full stages live or pick up a 30 minutes highlights package on a daily basis.