2000: The Tour on the archi-pedal-o (9/10)
At the turn of each decade, the Tour de France has gone through organisational changes and backstage struggles that have variously turned out to be decisive or utterly inconsequential. The journey back in time proposed by letour.fr continues with the run-up to the 2000 Tour de France, when a spectacular start on Guadeloupe, almost 7,000 km from Paris, had been planned and preparations put into motion. A transatlantic Tour was almost within the realm of possibility.
Seen from the mid-1990s, the year 2000 was an equally thrilling and daunting prospect. For the Tour de France, it was an exciting opportunity to craft a route like no other. A lot of good ideas were thrown around, but one in particular stood out from the rest, especially because it came directly from the French president. Jacques Chirac told Jean-Claude Killy, the president of ASO at the time, that he would do everything in his power to support a Tour start from the French overseas territories and, especially, Guadeloupe, then governed by his ally Lucette Michaux-Chevry. No other part of overseas France was as passionate about cycling, with a generation of track cyclists bursting onto the stage and a bicycle race that had been an integral part of the archipelago’s sporting scene ever since its launch in 1948.
For Jean-Marie Leblanc, the boss of the Tour, this left-field idea hit all the right buttons: „I liked the idea because we needed something compelling for 2000. It was a powerful symbol and a great way of showing that the French overseas territories are an integral part of the Republic.“ Meetings were soon held and reconnaissance trips organised to study the feasibility of the project. Jean-François Pescheux, who at the time served as director of competitions, took on the leading role in meticulously analysing the plan: „The key issue was taking as little material to the other side of the Atlantic as possible. We had decided to get rid of the prologue to preclude the need for time-trialling bikes, to allow each team a single car and to significantly cut down the size of the publicity caravan. The route itself was interesting and featured a flat stage in Grande-Terre and a hillier one in Basse-Terre, both of which would have finished in the same place near Pointe-à-Pitre Airport“ Indeed, the second big problem with taking the Tour to the Antilles was „shortening the distance“ and mitigating the impact of the time difference with mainland France.
The „Guadeloupe plan“ hinged on a significant logistical assumption: the Concorde was the only aircraft that could be used to transfer the riders without putting them through the wringer of jet lag.
In order to avoid throwing the riders‘ circadian rhythm out of whack, the idea was to travel to the island as late as possible and get out as quickly as possible. Furthermore, Brest was chosen to host the first European stage to gain an extra 20-odd minutes. Pescheux’s timetable covered all the bases: „If we scheduled stage 2 to finish at noon, when it was 4 pm in metropolitan France, riders could be in bed in Brest by midnight and ready to tackle a short 120 km stage to Quimper the next morning. This overcame all the problems.“ Guadeloupe had more than enough hotels to host the Grande Boucle, while ASO communications manager Philippe Sudres, at the time in charge of relations with broadcasters, had already designed the outline of the TV production set-up: „The idea was to source the helicopters used to cover the race, along with other heavy equipment, from Florida.“
However, the „Guadeloupe plan“ hinged on a significant logistical assumption: the Concorde was the only aircraft that could be used to transfer the riders without putting them through the wringer of jet lag. Pescheux recalls that the talks with Air France were what finally buried the dream: „We met with the Minister of Transport and we came to the conclusion that our plan required six Concorde aircraft. However, their fleet was not big enough and, at any rate, they could not stop all their other operations just for us. It was a real pity because it would have been amazing to use the Tour to show just how close the Antilles are.“ At the time, the waivers that have since allowed the 2009 Vuelta a España to start in the Netherlands and the 2018 Giro d’Italia to start in Israel by starting the race on Friday and/or adding an extra rest day did not exist yet. In the end, the Tour gave up on its dreams of coconut palms and got the show on the road in Futuroscope near Poitiers, where the prologue saw a promising young power rider, David Millar, seize the last yellow jersey of the 20th century in his race debut.