When is a Tour de France champion not a champion?

by Sadhbh O'Shea

UCI president David Lappartient may, in the immortal words of Hot Chocolate’s Errol Brown and Tony Wilson, “believe in miracles”, or so he told Reuters, when it comes to the Tour de France reaching Paris, but the reality may prove different.

With coronavirus still looming large around the world and cases rising again in France, there is a real chance the Tour de France could end early. Lappartient has been coy on what would cause the race to be brought to a premature conclusion but, if the last few days have shown us anything, the future of the Tour de France does not lie with the governing body or the organiser ASO. Rather, how far the Grand Boucle makes it is likely to be down to the will of the French health authorities.

If the does conclude early, it could come with little warning as it did at the UAE Tour or it could be predetermined as it was in Paris-Nice. This poses an interesting conundrum for teams and riders. Do you show your cards early, take the yellow jersey as soon as possible and risk burning out before the end? Or do you hold off and try to take it late while running the risk that the race is cancelled before you get your shot?

How much of the race should be completed before an overall winner is given? If the race ended after just 50% of it was ridden, would the yellow jersey wearer be considered a true Tour de France champion?

The uncertainly also raises some philosophical questions for fans. When is a Tour de France champion not a champion? How much of the race should be completed before an overall winner is given? If the race ended after just 50% of it was ridden, would the yellow jersey wearer be considered a true Tour de France champion?

According to the rulebook, Grand Tours should last between 15 and 23 days but there is nothing to say what should be done in the eventuality that it cannot be completed or, indeed, what portion of a race must be done to allow for a winner to be awarded. Indeed, there is nothing preventing the organisers crowning a champion at any point, should they need to. 

I posed these questions on my social media before the race set out from Nice on Saturday and the results were intriguing. My rudimentary survey was a small sample size but it, nevertheless, demonstrated the differing opinions on the matter. Most people believed that the race should at least reach the end of the second week before a winner is given and a large portion said the final mountain stage (stage 18) had to be completed. Meanwhile, almost two quarters said they wouldn’t consider the winner a true champion if the race only made it to the halfway point.

Cancelled stages are nothing new in Grand Tours but there is no real precedent for the race being brought to a premature conclusion. The closest comparison is the 1978 Vuelta a Espana, which was won by Bernard Hinault by more than three minutes. On this occasion, the final time trial – the second of a split stage on the last day – was annulled due to the behaviour of the roadside fans. Hinault had won the stage before the annulment and nobody, certainly not to his face, would deny his claims to the overall title. 

More recently, there is last year’s Tour de France where the penultimate stage was cut short in the midst of the action due to a landslide caused by bad weather. Egan Bernal found himself in a fortunate position after attacking about five kilometres from the top of the Col de l’Iseran, where the organisers would move the virtual finish line upon the cancellation of the stage after the Colombian had already crossed the summit. It is hard to know what the result would have been had the stage gone to the end but Bernal had worked hard over the preceding three weeks to put himself in the right place to benefit from such a decision. He still had one mountain stage to defend his position in the yellow jersey and, despite losing some time, he would hold on to take the overall title. I remember feeling a little cheated of a proper GC battle at the time but, a year on, I would not question Bernal’s position as a true Tour de France champion, and I do not think that many would.

It is too early to say how I or others might feel if the yellow jersey is awarded before the race reaches Paris. It is an emotional instinct, not a scientific formula. You cannot quantify what justifies a true champion and whether a person has earned a victory. If they have put in the work to be in the right place at the right time, who are we to deny them?

Photo: © Alex Broadway / A.S.O.

Discover more of Sadhbh’s work >

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