2010: Reconquering the Tourmalet (10/10)
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 comes full circle with an ending on the Tourmalet. 100 years after the peloton launched its first assault on the Giant of the Pyrenees, a stage finish at the top of the mountain thrust the technical aspects of the Tour into the spotlight. Overcoming that logistical challenge a decade ago opened the door to summit finishes on peaks such as the Galibier and the Izoard.
The Tour de France sure knows how to celebrate its anniversaries. 2010 marked the centennial of the first appearance of high mountains on the route of the race. A hundred years after Alphonse Steinès‘ odyssey (retold in episode 1 of this series), the Tourmalet again took centre stage. This time, the plan was to draw the finish line at the top of the mountain, a whopping 2,115 metres above sea level. While it was not the first time that someone had come up with the idea —Jean-Pierre Danguillaume had won a stage here in the 1974 Tour—, much had changed in the intervening 36 years. At a time when media coverage of the Tour had boomed around the globe, the resources needed to broadcast the race worldwide were at least five times as big. „I wanted to take the Tour where sport wants us to go, gambling that we would be able to adapt our resources to the terrain“, points out Christian Prudhomme. Jean-Louis Pagès was tasked with finding a solution to the logistical conundrum. In essence, the stage finish designer was asked to fit a dozen elephants into a matchbox. „I was a bit reluctant at the time because I was an old-school man“, explains the former history and geography teacher, who joined the Tour in 1984. „Having time, place and action on the same wavelength was my core tenet. This time round, we had to enter the era of resource fragmentation.“
The team had to think outside the box to make a stage finish on the Tourmalet possible. Only a handful of structures would be set up on the mountain for radio and TV crews, who would have to get there by ski lift. Guest coaches would have to park in Barèges, while the press room was to be set up in La Mongie, on the other side of the massif. On paper, at least, it seemed possible to crowbar everything into the limited space available, „although we only had half as much room as we usually had“, says Pagès. However, the weather threw a curveball on 22 July 2010. „To top it all, it started raining, so we had to improvise from the morning to save the lorries from getting bogged down. We made room for them on the road and it worked because we overhauled the layout. Cramming everything into that space was a technical wonder, but I stayed calm. I used to send Christian a picture of the finish around 11 am to let him know the finish line was ready. This time, we were still rushing to set up the timing control room at 2:30 pm, so I didn’t send him anything.“
In the end, everything was in place for Andy Schleck to outsprint Alberto Contador for the stage win on the fog-shrouded and rain-soaked Tourmalet. „Those moments were packed with strong emotions because I knew it was a test run, that it would allow us to envisage other finishes in spectacular places“, explains Pagès, who comes from the Lozère department but is now enjoying life in Nîmes. Indeed, it only took one year for the Tour to organise a stage finish on the Col de Galibier, 2,645 metres above sea level and with the technical area spread out across three levels. Sometime later, in 2017, the concept produced a spectacular finish on the Izoard, where Warren Barguil came out on top clad in the polka-dot jersey. After this string of successes, the format will be used again in the 2020 Tour, in which a similar concept was used to design the finishes on Puy Mary and the Grand Colombier.