Faced with a map of France and armed with a box of drawing pins, Christian Prudhomme and his staff plan the route of Le Tour de France that the future champions will have to follow… two or three years later. The choosing of a new town for the Grand Départ is a subject that gives rise to lively debate for several years before being settled on. Just like the final finish in Paris, this tradition has been respected ever since the first edition of Le Tour.
With Brittany having been chosen as the starting point for 2008 and over 200 candidate towns on the table, there are almost countless permutations possible for linking the British capital with the Champs-Élysées. Certain limits are imposed by the international regulations, which stipulate that the total mileage of Le Tour must not exceed 3,500 km, spread over 21 days’ racing (2 days of rest compulsory), during which the distance of 225 km cannot be exceeded more than twice. The Le Tour supremo then endeavours to respect the tremendous balance that has made the event the success it is today: several flat stages during the first week, high mountain stages contested in the Alps and Pyrenees, two days reserved for time trials (one of which can be contested by teams) and, insofar as possible, regular passage through all the regions of France. So far, the only two departments never to have played host to Le Tour are those making up the island of Corsica.
Welcoming Le Tour de France represents a chance for a community to find itself in the headlines for 24 hours as it accommodates the stopover of a small mobile town of approximately 4,500 persons (plus the spectators who travel there) and organises a day of festivities for its residents. There are two hundred towns that are permanent candidates. The scrutinisation of their bids is subject to the correspondence between their geographical position and the main themes dictated by the sporting objectives. Certain towns which are strategically positioned on the Alpine or Pyrenean routes are visited more frequently than the others.
Once a town passes the preliminary stage of the selection process for inclusion on the route of Le Tour, it is necessary to ensure that the arrival (or the departure) of the peloton will be able to take place under optimum conditions in terms of sporting entertainment, rider and public safety, and the work of all the groups called upon to follow the race. The width of the roads, the possibility of setting up parking areas, the configuration of the final bends: all aspects are noted by Le Tour de France general commissioners on their first visit. Getting the green light from them is indispensable.
The good news arrives by mail, just under a year before the actual visit of Le Tour. From then on, the municipal authorities can start to prepare for the big occasion, on the basis of a set of specifications developed by the organisers. For example, the towns have to provide barriers for the final two kilometres of the race, supply premises sufficiently spacious for the setting-up of a press room that can host 450 journalists from the written press, etc…
The route of Le Tour is kept under wraps until the last Thursday in October. With over eight months to go before the race itself, the towns are now free to make announcements on the issues involved in this very special visit. This event is generally attended by the local media.
The preparations for Le Tour’s passing are often entrusted by the Mayor to a committee made up of members of the services concerned (sport, technical, communication, etc.…). Regular meetings are held with Le Tour’s representatives, who give their recommendations and advice in multiple fields. The meetings are even more frequent in cases where the visit of Le Tour requires special arrangements (modification of roundabouts, humpback bridges, etc…).
In the days leading up to Le Tour’s passage, the town is given over to the final preparations and little by little, the party spirit descends. There are exhibitions, concerts and various shows dedicated to La Grande Boucle, and the route plans and special diversions are distributed. Le Tour, its caravan and its champions will be the heroes for a day.