Wednesday 8 November 2023

Freewheeling: Alpe d'Huez finale for the 2024 Tour de France Femmes could be spectacular

A spontaneous applause rippled through the audience at the Palais des Congres, Paris as Marion Rousse revealed Alpe d'Huez as the concluding stage of the 2024 Tour de France Femmes.

The auditorium, packed, with a couple of thousand people - a mixture of professional cycle racers, cycling industry executives, sponsors, sports associations, local government representatives, governing body chiefs, and sports media - had come to watch the grand presentation of the 2024 Tour de France and Tour de France Femmes routes. 

Discovering that Alpe d'Huez would feature proved popular. This iconic climb which has been a crowd puller since it was included in the men's Tour de France in 1952 has now been included in what will be the third edition of the women's Grande Boucle event, sponsored by Zwift and organised by ASO.

An iconic stage was also included in the previous Tour de France Femmes when the 2023 event included a stage through the Pyrenees with a finish on the Tourmalet, and the 2022 inaugural renaissance event concluded in the Vosges atop La Superplanche des Belles Filles. 

Having these iconic mountain stages in the women's races is great for the sport as it is bound to increase audience engagement in terms of television viewing and social media interactions. It is also a great endorsement from the organisers and sponsors that they would include such stages in the women's race. When it comes to the Tour de France, racing up Alpe d'Huez doesn't get better. Given the abundance of strong riders from the Netherlands in the women's peloton, Dutch corner will be a massive party for the women too! 

Other interesting points about the Tour de France Femmes are the Grand Départ taking place in Rotterdam - the first time the race is happening outside of French territory. With the initial stages being in the Netherlands and Belgium, the riders won't reach France until Stage 5. Considering that the race only has eight stages it's not so much a Tour de France but a Tour de BeneFrance!

On a positive note the areas covered the Hexagon will be well known roads to the cycling fan. Stages 2 and 3 are done on the same day, in Rotterdam, with Stage 3 being a 6.3km time trial. This is practically the same route as the prologue of the 2010 Tour de France, though slightly shorter. As in 2010 the riders will have mini climbs to do up Erasmus Bridge and Willems Bridge.

Stage 4, from Valkenberg to Liège will feature parts of the Amstel Gold race (the Cauberg), as well parts of Liège-Bastogne-Liege (La Redoute, Côte des Forges, and others).

The 167km Stage 7, from Champagnole to Le Grand Bornand, the longest stage will be an extended version of La Course by the Le Tour de France 2018 and will pass by Lac d'Annecy,  though with a preamble over climbs through the Jura. This stage will be a tasty appetiser before the grand finale, from Le Grand Bornand to Alpe d'Huez, passing via col de la Tamié, Col de Glandon, Barrage de Grand' Maison and then from Le Bourg d'Oisans up the 21 hairpins to the most famous ski resorts in cycling history. 

So the stage is set for some royal battles. We just need the actors to play their part. Without wanting to put a fine point on it I think that there is an onus on the athletes to give the fans a spectacle. It is these stories of rivalry and show-downs on the streets of the Tour de France (and the Netherlands and Belgium) that garner more public interest and capture the imagination of the fans. 

While it's great to see Annemiek Van Vleuten type athlete showing up and demonstrating pure dominance at a few races, doing it at every race or all the way through a stage race is not necessarily what engages spectators. Having one other rival is better, but still not that interesting if the rest of the field is so far behind. We remember how Van Vleuten audaciously snatched victory from Anna van der Breggen in the final metres of the race. But who remembers what the other riders did? Third placed Ashleigh Moolman-Pasio crossed the finish line well over a minute behind the two Dutch women.

What is needed is more depth. It is great to see races where it's not a given that such and such a rider will win, or that the winner will come from this really dominant team. (I'm looking at SD Worx here!)

Of course you can't reproach a rider or a team for being so much stronger than the others. We just need to see more challengers coming through. We got a flavour of that in 2023 Tour de France Femmes when Kasia Nieuwiadoma of Canyon SRAM went for it on the Tourmalet climb, and subsequently won the Queen of the Mountains jersey. We also saw that when some younger riders like Yara Kastelijn (Fenix-Deceuninck) won a stage, and also when a couple of riders (other than Annemiek Van Vleuten) from Team Movistar won stages.

Also, with this year's event starting and passing through countries that harbour an avid cycling fan base there is likely to be greater interest than in previous years especially as there will be many Dutch riders contesting the top spots.

Furthermore, the variety in the profile of races means that there is something for everyone - for the Classics rider, the mountain goat, or the sprinter. Considering that this is only a seven-day race, the organisers have cleverly packed in stages that should leave no shortage of drama for we fans over that week in mid-August. I look forward to seeing who will be wearing the yellow jersey at the summit of Alpe d'Huez after seven days and 946km of racing. 

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