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Earlier this month, the organisers of La Course by Le Tour, ASO, announced that they were changing up the format of their much celebrated women’s criterium, turning the fast-paced spectacle in the heart of Paris on the final day of the men’s Tour de France into a mountain stage up the Izoard.
For three years La Course has been held on the iconic cobbled roads of the Champs-Élysées in Paris, just hours before the men ride the same roads on their last day of the Tour de France.
While the race itself is little more than a criterium, La Course has received plenty of fanfare since its inception. The ambiance, the TV coverage, the crowds and the sensation of being a part of the biggest cycling event in the world, made it one of the more exciting events on the calendar.
In its new format, the women will again race on the same day as the men, this time on the 18th stage of the men’s Tour, covering 67 kilometres between Briançon and the Izoard, with a 10-kilometre climb to a summit finish that former Tour de France director Jacques Goddet once described as “[a] harrowing trial which establishes the boundary between difficult and terrifying”.
The announcement received a mixed response from fans and riders alike. Some applauded the change in format for its opportunity to showcase the women’s peloton’s best climbers, others considered it a disappointment as they had hoped for more stages instead of a different one-day event. Crique was also directed at the short distance of the race, and the fact that a weekday mountain stage in the Alps is unlikely to receive the same kind of fanfare as a weekend spectacle on the Champs-Élysées in Paris.
ASO on their decision to change the format
In responding to Ella CyclingTips about the change in format, ASO’s Director of Cycling Thierry Gouvenou said that they weighed their options and chose a new challenge over a ‘repetitive’ criterium format.
“Either we stayed in Paris to maintain this Criterium format, with the privilege of being able to ride in front of the legendary landmarks of the capital, or we could look for a sporting challenge, with a race in the high mountains but in retaining a legendary aspect in taking the ladies to the roads of an exceptional climb,” said Gouvenou. “We felt that in Paris things began to be repetitious, we wanted to offer the ladies another décor, another way of riding and a different terrain for them to demonstrate what they are capable of.”
Continuing to run La Course on the same day and venue as a men’s Tour de France stage is crucial for exposure and logistics, said Gouvenou.
“It is better to have the same start and finish for the men and women. They can enjoy the same infrastructures, the Tour de France village, the big signature podium and benefit from the presence of the public and media that will have the chance to enjoy the two starts on the same day. It is the best way to shine the spotlight on female cycling,” he said. “It is also easier from a logistical standpoint, which is not something to be taken lightly when we know what the Tour de France represents in terms of a logistics challenge. It is a race like no other. More than 4,500 people follow the race for three weeks.”
Why Briançon to the Izoard?
— La Course by Le Tour (@LaCoursebyTDF) October 18, 2016
For its 2017 edition, ASO decided to hold La Course on the 18th stage of the men’s Tour de France, that takes the riders between Briançon and to the top of the Izoard. While the men will cover 178 kilometres that day, the women’s event is a mere 67 kilometres.
Gouvenou explained that this stage was chosen because of its legendary climb up Col de l’Izoard as well as logistics.
“The configuration of the stage between Briançon and the Izoard, with this loop, made it easy to have the female race on this day, because [it] will allow followers to follow the two races in the best way,” said Govenou. “We are lucky to be able to keep this legendary climb that along with the Champs-Elysées offers riders the most spectacular and historic places in the world of cycling.”
“Yes, 67 kilometres makes one think that the race will be short and thus easy. Clearly that will not be the case. The 67 kilometres to the Izoard will be a lot harder than the 100 kilometres on the Champs- Elysées circuit in Paris,” continued Gouvenou. “The ‘col de l’Izoard’ is a legend, in the same aspect as the Mont Ventoux, the Tourmalet, the Galibier and Alpe d’Huez. So, you cannot minimalize the race because of its “short” distance: it is going to be a big race!”
Gouvenou also pointed out that the race starts in Briancon, one of the highest altitude cities in France at 1,170 metres above sea level. From there, the race continues to climb until they reach Casse Déserte at 2,360 metres, and so the entire race is at altitude. Additionally, the Col de l’Izoard has a brutal average grade of 7.3% for 14.1km.
“Each effort will require a tenfold burst of energy and make the race terribly difficult for the women as for the men. So, certainly the distance is shorter than that of the men, but if we wanted to allow the women to have the start and finish as the men, it was the only option we had,” said Gouvenou. “We could have had them start from another place but then they would not have enjoyed the enthusiasm that is present at the start of the Tour de France stages. We don’t have the means to move the mountains, so to climb to the Izoard would have been a loop of 70kms or another 180kms.”
A future women’s Tour de France?
“For the moment, we know that logistically it would be very complicated [to have a multi-day women’s event alongside the men’s Tour de France]. But moving the race to the mountains is a logistic test to see if we can do this in the years to come,” said Gouvenou. “But it is true that the Tour de France gets bigger year after year and there are always more and more followers and it is complicated to manage the two events at the same time over the long term.”
The 2017 edition of La Course by le Tour will be the 12th round of the 2017 UCI Women’s WorldTour, to be held on Thursday, July 20.